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Tim Philips

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Vice or Virtue?
By Tim Philips   
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Last edited: Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, April 05, 2006

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The origins of an old children's favourite - and not a computer game in sight...

Title - Vice or Virtue?

The ever increasing sophistication in childrenís toys was witnessed once again last Christmas in my home as it would have been in many others the length and breadth of the country.

Despite this though, the simple magic and pleasure that some classic board games can still engender continues to surprise me; and at the same time delight my children.

A personal favourite of mine as a boy, something that appears to have been inherited by my son, not least for the glee he takes in beating his Dad, is the board game Snakes and Ladders.

I know, having bought them and ultimately been disappointed in the product, that many new games are simple variations on a long running theme. It was this thought that inspired me to investigate the origins of my childhood favourite, which has often kept my son and I happy at the dining room table for several hours on dark and cold winter afternoons.

On initial research I discovered that the game of Snakes and Ladders has been in existence for centuries and that itís origins lay in Hinduism. Legend has it that the game was created in the thirteenth century by an Indian poet called saint Gyandev and was called Mokshapat or Moksha-Patamu.

In fact, it wasnít until the nineteenth century that the game was introduced in England. Originally, the game was played with cowrie shells and dice. It was a game of morality with
the bases of the ladders being located on squares representing various types of good and the more numerous snakes coming from squares representing forms of evil. The squares of virtue on the original game were faith, reliability, generosity, knowledge and asceticism. The squares of evil were disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, debt, rage, greed, pride, murder and lust.

The game was used to teach children about religion; in that the good squares allowed a player to ascend higher in the league of life whereas evil reduced a player back through
reincarnation to lower tiers of life. The last square, one hundred, was thought to represent Nirvana.

The morality of the game appealed to the Victorians, who readily took to it when it was first published in England in 1892. Then called Snakes and Ladders, the game play was very similar, but some of the vices and virtues were renamed according to Victorian values.

In came penitence, thrift and industry, which elevated a player up a ladder to squares labelled grace, fulfilment and success, while indolence, indulgence and disobedience slid a player down to poverty, illness and disgrace.

In modern times, the moral overtones have disappeared and many versions of the game are simpler; generally because the ladders outnumber the snakes. Whilst the game is readily
available, what is not is a version of the game that includes the original morality words.

Especially at a time when many question the ethics and principles of our ever more complex and cynical society, maybe such a simple game, mirroring the intentions of its creator, could provide a powerful message beyond its ability to entertain.

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Reviewed by Cynthia Borris 4/24/2006
Hi Tim

Point well made. Perhaps the simplicity of the message is lost in the technical madness of our complex society. Very interesting article.


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