Snakes and Ladders

“He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

             —Genesis 28:12

When the game of Snakes and Ladders was first introduced, there were more than twice as many snakes as there were ladders. Which is to say, players were far more likely to incur disaster and regression: a random dice roll causing more damage than benefit. This becomes more interesting when you discover that the game was not merely a child’s entertainment, but a way of teaching religion and morality. Snakes and Ladders originates from 2nd-Century B.C. India, and was used to teach about karma and Moksha, about death and reincarnation, about our place in the world changing based upon our good and bad deeds. With this in mind, each roll of the die can be considered its own small death: each result a rebirth, each movement of our piece as reincarnation and judgment, victory the equivalent of transcendence. Each turn translates into a step in the journey of a soul—the board its own map of morality. With this in mind, it is far more interesting to consider why there were twice as many snakes. It says there were far more vices than virtues, that sins will to hold us back, that perhaps, by definition, humanity is designed for failure.

One of the core tenets of the world’s belief in God is the idea of humanity as a collective spirit. Sacred texts refer to the church as The Body of God: member’s spiritual gifts as representation of the eyes, or the mouth, or the hands. The afterlife seen as a collection of spirits into one celestial mass. The Rig Veda tells us “The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms became the rajanya, his thighs are what the vaisya are, and from his feet the shudra were made.” Believers are called to be intellectual and spiritual leaders. Or, they are called to be protectors of society. Or, they are called merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. Or, perhaps they are outside of the system entirely, uncalled, untouchable: not part of the body, but the ground the feet tread upon. What this system argues for is that you’re only way to improve your situation is to best embody your role—to be the greatest arm, the greatest foot—and to be rewarded in the next life: reborn in a higher class. To go against the system is to move to a lower caste. With all of this in mind, Snakes and Ladders can be considered a study in fatalism. It’s the same reason the players movement is decided by a dice roll, why strategy has no influence on the game itself. Pieces simply go where they are meant to be. Whether a player is the mouth of the world or is crushed under foot, Snakes and Ladders says that you deserve it.

As the map ascends toward a higher-being, players begin to find their vices, the snakes that drag them down. In Judeo-Christianity, the devil takes the form of a Snake when he first tempts Eve into taking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is the Snake that speaks in half-truths and deception, precipitating the exile from Paradise. It is the Snake that God curses above all other, condemning him to crawl on his belly and eat dust all the days of his life. Other religions take a kinder view: snakes as guardians of the underworld, sources of wisdom and healing. The Ouroboros eats itself: the body both its food and its waste. It is its own form of regeneration, both a beginning and an end. Combining these stories, it is the snake that corrupts, that teaches disobedience; it is the snake that returns souls to the cycle of reincarnation; it is the snake that pulls players down the board, prevents them from reaching their most perfect selves.

“Tea time” becomes popularized when imported tea becomes even cheaper than UK-produced beer; textile industries shift due to Indian cotton as well as their design; bungalows change the look of British architecture the same way the “Imperial Moustache” changes men’s fashion. Thirty years later, Snakes and Ladders finds its way to Victorian England. Although the concept of teaching children morality was still intact, the game had skewed toward a more British version of morality, the concept of reincarnation replaced with the idea of attaining strong moral character. This version is not decorated as the body of Brahma, but with images of angels flying through a landscape filled with flowers. Although the snakes and ladders of this game still mention virtues and vices, this new version leads us toward consequences. Squares of Fulfillment, Grace and Success were accessible by climbing the ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry. Snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. Snakes no longer outnumbered ladders: they now existed in equal measure. The game no longer implied that the road to righteousness was difficult, but rather, that every mistake has a coinciding solution: that every sin offers its own chance at redemption.

Victorian Snakes and Ladders focuses less on the sin itself than the end result. Indulgence becomes Illness, Disobedience becomes Disgrace, Indolence becomes Poverty. Before the East India Trade Company came to power in the 1700s, India had the economic output of every European nation combined. But soon all of India’s industries would erode when all energy turned toward the growing of spices and cotton and crops that Britain wanted but could not make themselves. Focusing on these crops led to extreme poverty, which led to illiteracy, starvation, the spread of disease, and the deaths of 35 million Indians. In the Hindu version of Snakes and Ladders, “Greed” appears as a vice high on the board because it is among the most difficult to overcome, it is one that allows the greatest chance to fall. That the altered vices of the Victorian Snakes and Ladders—illness, disgrace, and poverty—emphasized the problems England brought to India should not be lost on anyone.

India’s independence became the country’s own version of reincarnation: the chance to lead itself, to pursue its own well-being rather than that of the United Kingdom. But like reincarnation, the country held the weight of its prior lives within it: a lack of industrialization after spending decades focused almost entirely on spices; English as a shared language forced upon them; the problematic classism and corruption reinforced by the caste system for millennia. Snakes and Ladders had its own reincarnation: an American version, Chutes and Ladders, which replaced Victorian morality with playground imagery. Instead of the snake striking at the heel of man, there are children on slides with their hands in the air. Instead of exploring the good and bad traits that help kids navigate the world, the stakes are lowered considerably—more interested in immediate cause and effect. Instead of “drunkenness” or “gluttony,” there is a child eating too much candy at the top of the slide, the same child holding his stomach at the bottom. There is a child who is sweeping a floor at the bottom of a ladder, and at the top she is holding a ticket labeled “Movies!” Planting seeds and admiring flowers. Skating on thin ice and sitting with his feet in the water. Taking out the trash and winning the game. In addition to changing from a morality tale to a system of rewards and punishments, the balance is yet again shifted: there are more ladders than chutes, more rewards than penalties, more positive enforcement than fear of judgment or consequence.

Snakes and Ladders considers debt one of its highest vices, yet debt can be inherited, can be incurred through tragedy or happenstance. Reincarnation holds its own debts, a soul bearing marks that can’t be seen upon a new body. It is in the 1943 Chutes and Ladders version where the game is reborn. It is this version that removes the original meaning completely. Not a new life exactly, but more of an undoing—an erasure where its soul once rested. More additions of the game have come and gone since 1943, further proving the point: these include Marvel Comics, My Little Pony, Disney Planes, Angry Birds, Disney Junior, Disney Princesses, Peppa Pig, Dora the Explorer, Diego, Slips and Ladders, Giddy Up (with marker activity set), The “Shooters and Ladders” Drinking Game Set, Octonauts Sea Eels and Ladders, Noah’s Ark Rainbow Race, Sexy Chutes and Ladders (Adults Only!), Salamanders and Ladders: Conservation Edition, Elefun and Friends, Thomas the Tank Engine, Shootin’ Ladders Frag Fest, Major League Baseball, Neon, Toy Story 3, Sesame Street, Peanuts, 3-dimensional, Life-size play mats where players stand on the board, make themselves a game piece, make meaningless journeys from start to finish.

As long as there’s been an idea of gods, humans have been trying to reach them. Sometimes this pursuit manifests in pilgrimages to Mecca, to meetings at crossroads or encounters in the desert. We erect monuments, craft amulets, sacrifice crops, build Wicker Men. And she’s buying a stairway to heaven. And Jacob dreams of a ladder in which the angels ascend and descend. Hinduism argues God is everywhere, that Man’s soul is a small part of Brahman trying to become whole again. Compare this with Babel, where man reaches toward heaven in an act of pride, where God punishes man’s hubris by removing their common language: not scattering the people, but letting them scatter themselves in frustration, confusion, and fear. It is this confusion and misunderstanding that leaves the tower unbuilt, keeps humanity separate from the God they were building toward. It is this disconnection that justifies the destruction of a culture, the death of one god in the name of another. Ladders go up and down, but they also connect two points. They serve as bridged as much as they are tools. In later versions of Chutes and Ladders, it is actually possible to take a ladder to the finish. In the Snakes, to win the game is to be virtue embodied rejoining the Brahman in cosmic unity. Centuries later, players will climb a ladder as two children enter their pet in a dog show. This dog will win a blue ribbon with the word WINNER written in bold lettering, and the player will reach the finish line, will win the game.

It was the apple from the Tree of Knowledge that corrupted Adam and Eve, but Snakes and Ladders values Knowledge: lists it as the greatest virtue, the ladder that goes highest. Because it means something to have facts, to understand a world a little bit better through context. Because it means something that 20,000 people die of snake bites annually, but also that over 200,000 children are severely injured on playground equipment. Because Snakes are not charmed by the sound of the pungi, but rather, they see the charmer and his stick as a threat: not dancing but defending itself from a predator as people watch, cheer, pay money for the joy this confrontation brings. Because it means something when a Christian nation imposes itself upon several millennia of languages, religions, cultures: when those values become intertwined and the only way to make sense of it is to look at all of it, learn all of it, hope some meaning floats to the surface. And it does float; it is good that it floats. I play this game and am acutely aware of my own ignorance and appropriations—feel the weight of what I don’t know weighing down upon me. A children’s game is for entertainment, but it also connects two points. Like a ladder, it carries skyward.  

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