This is one of the first game boards I remember from when I was a kid:
It’s not that it’s the first game I remember, it’s just that it’s one of the first game boards I remember in vivid detail. Chutes and Ladders: a ten-by-ten grid with alternating white and gray squares, numbered in an upward snaking order, with distinctly 1950’s era illustrations. I remember that my younger sister and I would play multiple times through just to see who could hit the biggest ladders along the way, and that we dreaded going past space number 80 into that minefield of all-chutes-no-ladders squares. And I particularly remember wondering why the kid on space number 16 was trying to cut his fingertips off with scissors. Serves you right, space number 6, you’re a dummy.
Now, any child who’s played a version of the game with illustrations like the copy above can tell you that Chutes and Ladders is about making good or bad choices. Land on a space that shows someone doing something good, and you get to go up the ladder. Wind up on a space with a picture of somebody doing something bad, and you get sent back down the chute. Ladders good, chutes bad.
Apparently this game goes all the way back to India some time prior to the 16th century, where it was known as Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam (the ladder to salvation). The board was similar to the version we know today in that ladders connected virtuous deeds to rewards, while snakes, corollary to our chutes, connected vices to punishments. Snakes outnumbered ladders to help illustrate the difficulty of leading a truly virtuous life. The overall effect was a lesson in morality — or karma — that appealed to young children. The message and format were important and enduring enough that the colonial Brits eventually usurped it and handed it down to board game publishing capitalists of all other nations and creeds.
In my own experience though, I realized fairly early on that the game was ultimately random. In life, if the cat messes up my face because I yanked its tail, I learn pretty quickly to not yank the cat’s tail. In the game though, by going backwards down a chute, it creates the possibility that with a couple of bad rolls of the die I’ll be stuck riding the same chute over and over again. Effectively, the game says I’m an idiot that needs to get messed up by the cat a few times before I figure out to just leave him the hell alone. There’s no decision making involved, for better or worse; I can’t choose to say, “Hey, I’ve landed here four times already, this time I’ll opt to walk around the cat and ignore it”. The sad irony of this game is that while I may be learning the value of making good choices and the perils of bad ones, I’m never actually in control of my own destiny — at least not in the game.
And maybe that’s fine when you’re three or four. Little kids don’t have the maturity to handle all-out free will. So we learn what we need to, and fail to figure out that a die roll has more to say about who’s going to win than we do, regardless of whether we learn morals or not.
Now, if we look at a more complicated game like, say, Monopoly, there’s a definite element of decision making, and it has a measurable impact on the outcome of the game. It’s still a game largely determined by luck (as will be attested to by anyone stuck in jail for rolling three sets of doubles), but the options presented to the players along the way — buy the property or hold your cash? — go far to add some strategic depth to the game.
Chutes and Ladders offers the players a grand total of zero choices, and yet the game is about making wise choices.
In his book, The Art of Game Design, author and game designer Jesse Schell describes what he calls the “elemental tetrad”, or the four basic elements that make up every game. These elements are, in no specific order, Mechanics, Story, Technology and Aesthetics. Mechanics are the rules and devices of the game. Story is what happens through the course of the game from start to finish. Technology is basically what your game is physically made of and how the story is told, be it through cardboard or circuit boards. Aesthetics is the sensory component of a game — the sights, sounds, smells, etcetera that the players experience along the way.
In this case, the Mechanics are basically limited to a die roll and a set of fast-forward and rewind spaces. The Technology is just cardboard and a die. As far as the morality lesson goes, the Mechanics and Technology serve the Story and Aesthetics — the journey to that blue ribbon on space number 100, the “before and after” illustrations, the chutes and the ladders. The meaning of the game comes from these latter elements. If the illustrations were taken away, the symbols of virtue and vice removed, then the point of the game would be completely lost. With the artwork, the fast-forwards and rewinds are an illustrative demonstration of causality. Without, they are simply aberrations in a sequence of die rolls.
Schell’s model of the elemental tetrad is generally sound. Chutes and Ladders does indeed use all four elements. His premise is based on the idea that all four elements exist in balance though; that no element outweighs the others. I suspect that there is a slight miscalculation here. When the intended audience is too young to properly comprehend the concepts of materials or mechanics, then aesthetics and story must make up for and often overshadow the other two elements. Kids need to learn the simple things first, and story and aesthetics are the most palatable of the elements in the early stages of development. It’s been that way since, well, at least since Paramapada Sopanam.