The Puzzling Ethics of Chutes and Ladders

February 21, 2012

Here’s how Chutes and Ladders works (just in case you’ve been living your entire life hidden away in some place where you have not had an opportunity to play the board game Chutes and Ladders): The objective is to make it to the last space on the board, and along the way, you’re hindered by slides (“chutes”) and aided by ladders (“ladders”).

But the real point of the game is to teach you lessons.

The “lessons” part makes a lot more sense if you play Snakes and Ladders (which I used to think was a third-party knock-off of Chutes and Ladders, but — according to leading scientists and Wikipedia — Snakes and Ladders was played in ancient India, a period that, in my opinion, predates 1943 America).

Snakes makes more sense than chutes because climbing a ladder will always be kind of a drag, but it’s a whole lot better than being gobbled up and pooped out by a giant, neon-blue python.

Chutes and Ladders, on the other hand, sends mixed messages. This is evident while playing with The Princess, who, like most four-year-olds, is a world-class cheater. She moves to whatever space she desires, regardless of what the spinner says.

This, I can handle. But the problem is, she “cheats” by landing on as many chutes as possible because going down slides is fun.

THE PRINCESS (spinning the spinner): Three!

She zig-zags her pawn two rows down and four spaces over so she can land on top of the longest slide on the board.

ME: No, no, you have to go up. Don’t you want to go up so you can win the game?

THE PRINCESS: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The problem is further complicated by the final space, which, in Chutes and Ladders, isn’t all that enticing. In the original, Indian version of Snakes and Ladders, the final space (“100”) represents Moksha — eternal union with God or the highest perfection of existence.

In Chutes and Ladders, the final space is a blue ribbon that says “winner.”

The next best thing to the highest perfection of existence

But, more than anything, it is the lessons themselves that makes the ethics of Chutes and Ladders so confusing.

In Snakes and Ladders, each ladder represents a different virtue (Faith, Generosity, Knowledge, etc.), and each snake represents a different vice (Theft, Lying, Murder, etc.). This leaves little room for ambiguity. (Murder is bad. Go back 30 spaces.)

There are no such labels, however, in Chutes and Ladders. Rather, the lessons are graphically depicted — each chute or ladder a two-act morality play. For instance, one chute begins with a boy who is reading a comic book instead of doing his homework. At the bottom of the slide is his punishment — he is forced to sit through a mind-numbingly boring birthday party.

Only a dunce would go to such a lame party

Not every chute or ladder, though, is this clear-cut. Indeed, in most cases, there seems to be no rhyme or reason regarding the degree of consequnces or even whether or act should be considered a virtue or a vice.

For instance, one chute shows a girl eating a box of chocolates and becoming sick. So sweets are bad for you. It goes against everything this blog stands for, but fair enough — I can see where they’re coming from. But then, what’s the reward at the top of two separate ladders? A heaping vanilla/chocolate/strawberry ice cream sundae and an entire freaking cake. WTF, 1979 Milton Bradley Co. Version of Chutes and Ladders?

All for ME!

What follows is a breakdown of all the chutes in Chutes in Ladders (1979 ed.) from shortest to longest. One would think that the longer the chute, the more dastardly the deed, but as you’ll see, that’s far from the case.


Act Consequence Spaces Lost
Stomping barefoot in a puddle A cold 3
Screwing around on a bike A broken arm 4
Reading comics instead of studying Wear an awesome, pointy hat 10
Coloring on a wall Wash the wall 20
Breaking a window while playing baseball Pay for the window 20
Grabbing a cat by the tail Get clawed on the arms and face 20
Skating on thin ice Death 21
Eating a box of chocolates A tummy ache 38
Putting away too many dishes at once Broken dishes 43
Sneaking into a cookie jar on a shelf Falling down and breaking the jar 63

So, according to Chutes and Ladders, breaking a cookie jar is three times worse than (literally) skating on thin ice and crashing through to a watery grave.

(What’s that — we don’t know for sure the kid drowned? Yeah, great point — you win. Okay, kids, next thaw, find the nearest lake and skate away! Strawman says it’s all right!)

I also find it curious that the two longest slides both revolve around broken dishes. Apparently, broken kitchenware is worse than a broken arm, pneumonia, and death.

I would analyze all the ladders next, but I already discussed a couple of the dubious rewards, and the rest are pretty boring (things like, if you plant flowers, then you will get flowers and if you eat food, then you will become at least as tall as a yard-stick).

It is worth commenting, though, on the longest ladder in the game (56 spaces). Those familiar with the game know that, in just about every version, the longest chute and longest ladder are positioned close together on the same rows, so that it’s possible to enter into an endless loop of climbing and falling, sometimes even in consecutive turns.

And in the 1979 version, they are linked thematically as well — namely, by when it is and isn’t okay to climb something. Compare.

Longest Chute

Spaces Lost: 63

Act: Climbing up on a four-foot shelf to sneak a cookie from a cookie jar

Consequence: Falling down and breaking the jar

Longest Ladder

Spaces Gained: 56

Act: Climbing up a thirty-foot tree to “rescue” a feral cat

Reward: Rabies

* * *

Okay, that’s all. Next up in Ranting About Specific Versions of Board Games: The castration of Gloopy and the occasionally ambiguous connection between Middle East and East Africa.

— Reinman



  1. “THE PRINCESS: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” This made me laugh! That’s our girl!

    • : )

  2. Great post! Next could you explain why I always lose if I go to college in the game Life?

    Also, did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity?

    Think about it!

    • I will.

      • No you won’t!

    • I am trying to think really hard how a spirograph is related to gang activity but I can’t find a correlation.

  3. Exquisite! Many knowing chuckles and a few LOLs.

  4. I love that someone brought to pen and paper discussions our family has had about this game. Great post!
    You’re kids might enjoy Blockus. It’s a simple game of squares!

    • Blockus sounds like a good transitional game until my kids are ready for Risk: The Game of Global Domination.

  5. This is absolutely hilarious, and I never would have seen this game in this light. Great, hilarious analysis. I love it!

    Michelle Ferris
    Low Amine Recipes

  6. “myspork”

    Haha — I like your style!

  7. Woa I will never play this game again without seriously considering every snake and ladder! Great rant!

  8. TOO! Funny!! I laughed all the way through.

  9. This was awesome!!! Thank you for looking at it in a way I never had!! 🙂

  10. Meanwhile, I have never played chutes and ladders. I’ll need to give it a whirl. 🙂

  11. I’m so happy to have found this post. I was also puzzled by it. I didn’t know some of the history of Snakes and Ladders – but it was so fun to see how you charted out the ‘lessons.’ haha! I had a little rant of my own over here – and I linked to your post: https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-make-a-Snake-and-Ladders-game-using-HTML-CSS-JavaScript/answer/Derek-Thomas-Wood

  12. The hat in the picture showing the punishment the boy faced for reading comics instead of doing his homework is not a party hat but a dunce hat-he was placed in the corner of the room and the dunce hat is what they used to use in schools to punish students who did terribly in school. Look up dunce hat on Google and you’ll see what I mean.

  13. What? A 63 space penalty for climbing up a 4 foot shelf to sneak a cookie from a cookie jar? That’s way worse than skating on thin ice and the remaining acts/consequences listed. Yes, I looked up the dunce cap on google and that academic game show. It’s something used by students who are dumb or stupid. This is the same thing as the Make The Grade category host Lew Schneider explained.

  14. The shortest ladder in the game is 8 spaces gained / Act:eating food / Reward:growing tall. The shortest chute in the game is 3 spaces lost / Act:stomping barefoot in a puddle / Consequence: A cold.

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