Microspeak: Walls and ladders

Reader laonianren wanted to know more about this game Walls and Ladders.

"Walls and Ladders" is not a game. It's just a metaphor for a conflict in which one side wants to perform some action and the other side wants to prevent it. The defending side builds a wall, and the attacking side builds a taller ladder. In response, the defending side builds a taller wall, and the attacking side builds an even taller ladder. The result of this conflict is that the defending side constructs an ever-more-elaborate wall and the attacking side constructs a more-and-more complex ladder [link possible NSFW], both sides expending ridiculous amounts of resources and ultimately ending up back where they started.

There is a closely-related metaphor known as an arms race. In an arms race, each participant wants to be the most X, for some property X. An arms race tends to be all-attack, whereas wall-and-ladders tends to have one side attacking and the other defending.

Since many conflicts can be phrased either as an attack-attack scenario or an attack-defend scenario (some defenses may include counter-attacks), I tend to get the two confused. Notice, for example, that my arms race article contains mostly walls-and-ladders scenarios; for example, a case where one side wants to terminate a process and another wants to prevent it from being terminated. On the other hand, my wall and ladders example was really more of an arms race, with both sides wanting to take control of the screen.

Depending on which group you work with at Microsoft, you may find a preference for walls and ladders over arms race, probably due to the same sensitivity to military terms that led to the War Room being renamed Ship Room. (I seem to recall that there was a lawsuit that among other things alleged that the fact that a Microsoft project called its daily meeting room the War Room was proof of Microsoft's evil essence.)

Comments (10)
  1. Karellen says:

    FWIW, in evolutionary biology, the "Red Queen's Race" competition between predator and prey (e.g. bigger legs on both sides for chasing vs. escaping, or bigger teeth/claws/horns vs. thicker armour) is referred to as an "arms race", even though they're mostly attack-defend scenarios.

  2. voo says:

    Seems to me that in German, there doesn't exist any equivalent to "walls and ladders" (at least I can't think of any). For arms race there's "Wettrüsten" which is basically the same, although imho doesn't have the same annotations as described in the article (i.e. it basically doubles for both arms race and walls and ladders).

  3. Joshua says:

    I call these games "last move wins". Usually they're played iteratively, but sometimes I find a big company playing the game when they're in a position where they can never get the last move. It would be funny if it weren't so obnoxious.

  4. Deanna says:

    Thank you Raymond, I then spent 20 minutes reading about animal sex… :p

  5. jmthomas says:

    Mad magazine's "Spy vs Spy" — years and years of Rube Goldberg plots that leave both suffering extensive damage and back at square one.

  6. gogolkj says:

    This seems to be the English version of the old Chinese saying: "你有張良計,我有過牆梯"

  7. A. Skrobov says:

    Google translates that as "Zhang dollars you have, I have a ladder off the wall".

    Not very helpful.

  8. No One says:

    @A. Skrobov:  The Bing translator more helpfully translates it to "You have good, and I had the wall ladder" (if you omit the quotes when translating.)

    As a result I believe a more accurate translation would be along the lines of "You have a good wall and I had the ladder."

    (The difference is that Bing will do Chinese (traditional) whereas I believe Google only does Chinese (simplified.))

  9. @Karellen: I suspect the same will be true of almost any "arms race" scenario – it doesn't matter if my gun is bigger than yours if we each have a gun that can kill the other. In the Cold War, both sides had nuclear weapons which would have really, really ruined the other side's day if fired: the real competition was *countermeasures* to those weapons: fighter-planes to intercept incoming long-range bombers, so the bombers get replaced with missiles that can't be intercepted by the fighters, so the fighters get replaced with anti-missile-missiles that can intercept them… Without the defensive aspect, bragging about whether you have the firepower to kill the other guy 1,000 times over rather than just 100 would be rather futile.

    Given the military context, the name "Ship Room" brought to mind Raymond's coworkers all gathered to play a game of Battleships – ironic, since that's almost what the real-life War Room was…

  10. Another One says:

    I can't see the duck sex competition because boingboing is doing a blackout to protest against Soup, I mean SOPA.

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