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Snakes and ladders.

I found an old Snakes and Ladders game board behind the wall of our house when I was renovating. From the children's writing and name signing on the back, it was a Christmas present from sometime in the early 1940 s. The game is simple, two opponents role a die, and try and move their man from 1 to 100. Along the way they come to squares with ladders and snakes, if a player lands on a ladder they can climb this to skip spaces, and if they have the misfortune to land on a squares with a snake it sends them back to a lower number square on the board. The ladders, evocative of Jacobs ladder) have the names of virtues such as Patience to Attainment (up 18 steps) and the snakes (from Eden perhaps?) have names of vices on them, such as Temper to Regret (down 39 steps).

There are 9 ladders and 9 snakes. Table 1 lists the virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes) and how they affect the game, either up or down. I divided these into economic and moral (Christian) virtues and vices. There are 179 ladder steps up, 109 steps are economic virtues and 70 steps are moral virtues. There are almost twice as many steps down, 262, 114 of the steps are economic vices and 148 steps are for moral failings. On average a ladder has 19.9 steps up and snakes have 29.1 steps down.

A curious feature is that the fastest route to the top requires that the player must be lucky enough to miss the ladder of Generosity (3 steps up, from 39 to 44 Gratitude), because if you do end up on Generosity you are forced to bypass the square with the biggest ladder of the game, Thrift: to Fulfillment (from 44 to 83, 41 steps). The message for the children playing is that one cannot be both generous and thrifty, and while generosity is certainly a virtue, it is only 12% as virtuous as thrift.

The lowest grade virtue is from Confession to Forgiveness, 2 steps up. In contrast, Penitence to Grace is 19 steps. I am not sure I understand the difference between confession and penitence.

This game teaches the players in that heavy handed way that is characteristic of puritan educational propaganda the lesson that there are more roads to vice than virtue, that vice is somehow stronger than virtue, that losing the game is easier than winning (almost twice as easy). While Christian moral virtues are nice in their way, they are not nearly as effective for winning as the economic virtues are. Indeed, the ladder of Thrift allows one to skip the lesser virtues of Confession, Penitence, and Industry, and be free of the downward pull of the vices Indulgence, Temper, Conceit, Mischief, Pugnacity, and Disobedience.

Having lots of money allows one to buy a lot of goodwill, and can compensate for any lack of virtue--at least in this world.


David Beresford, Ph.D.

David Beresford, Ph.D, teaches at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom.

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Author:Beresford, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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