Snakes and Ladders: The Game of Life

I’ve been laboring away on a 36″x36″ adult version of the ancient game, “Snakes and Ladders.”

Many people might be familiar with a mass-produced 1950’s version called “Chutes and Ladders” (presumably re-named to avoid pietistic sensibilities regarding snakes), but there are many other, older versions kicking around.


Snakes and Ladders: 1950’s version

The basic idea of the game is to progress through the board by shooting up a ladder or down a chute depending on a roll of the dice.  Images at the bottom and top of a ladder tend to demonstrate reward for good behavior.  Images at the bottom and top of a snake generally teach the results of being bad.


Snakes and Ladders: Turn of the Century Moralistic Version

Cultural assumptions abound in all versions.  Obedience takes one very far indeed in this Victorian effort, while slander literally takes the player back to square one.  This particular board doesn’t indicate direct cause and effect, only a line of travel.  A ladder may take one up from a named good quality, but doesn’t land on a specific good one.  Ditto for the snakes:  we know exactly what takes us down, but not exactly to what.

Typically, the Hindu version is visually busy and over-the-top.  I adore the way the snakes are now all cobras twisting and twining over one another in one big creepy mass.  I can’t read the script and don’t know how moralistic this one is, but the gist seems to be a methodical elevation of consciousness (the top row consists of divine beings).  I have heard that some Hindu temples use the game to teach karma to children and have read that there are Buddhist and Jain versions as well.

Hindu Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders: Traditional Hindu Version

The impulse to do a version of my own remains mysterious but  I’m well into the project.  Here is the progress so far.


There are 100 3″x3″ squares in all, making this one of the most labor-intensive projects I’ve ever undertaken.  I’ve retained the moralistic element of the Victorian effort, but have taken care to sprinkle the board with generous helpings of humor, irony, anger and grief.  Although the piece is meant to be hung on a wall, my hope is to get a number of card-table-sized ones printed up so people can actually play.  It pleases me to think of viewers enticed and tricked into making their way through each image in turn at a slow pace (art usually gets up to eight seconds or less of viewing time).   The whole project is an invitation to meditation on the larger questions we all wrestle with.  What qualities elevate the human condition and which send us tumbling down again?  What is the tension between the vagaries of chance and the more quasi-predictable results of positive and negative effort?  Is there a knowable, noble end-game, or is human existence nothing more than a mirage of logic overlaying a more fundamentally true and terrifyingly ferocious chaotic state?  I like art which thinks big.