Context: Going into this folklore project, I knew that I wanted to collect somebody’s personal account of the Punch Buggy game. This is a game that my sisters and I used to play whenever we rode in the car as children and it involves the pointing out of Volkswagen Beetle cars. Many of my friends who went to my elementary school also played the game whenever they were in the car, and I distinctly remember riding in with them and thinking, ‘that’s not how you play the game.” Looking back now, I realize that they were not playing the game wrong and were actually demonstrating the multiplicity and variation that is intrinsic to folklore. I was interviewing an informant, an art major at USC and avid skateboarder, when I was reminded about my interest in the game. I asked the 19-year-old informant from Saratoga, California, if he had ever played the punch buggy game and, if so, how he had played it.
Piece: “Yeah, so, me and my older sister used to always play the punch buggy game. It was a favorite of ours and we were pretty competitive about it, as siblings usually are. So, on long road trips, my family and I used to drive up to Bear Valley from San Jose, which is like a three-hour car ride. And I’d usually be stuffed in the back seat with my sister who would like to mess with me all the time. So, um, whenever you saw a Volkswagen bug driving down the road, in a parking lot, in someone’s driveway, or I guess anywhere, you would immediately punch the person who you are playing with and say, ‘no punch backs!’ No, you would say, ‘Punch buggy no punch backs!’ It wouldn’t be that hard of punch, just a hit in the arm. But we also had some variations on those rules, like I knew a lot of people who would just see a VW Bug, punch the other person, and that was it. But our version was more complicated. So, if you saw an out-of-state license plate, you would get two punches. And I forgot to mention that one punch equals one point. So if you saw a punch buggy with a Washington license plate, you’d be able to punch your sibling. And I think we had some other rule involving the colors of the cars too, but I can’t remember that exactly. I think maybe if you saw the same color twice then your points would multiply, or some shit. I don’t know, there were a bunch of different factors in it, but I can’t remember all of them.”
Analysis: I find it fascinating that without me ever mentioning it, the informant spoke about how the Punch Buggy game’s rules have multiple variations. I remember about ten years ago, in attempt to capitalize on the popular children’s game, the Volkswagen motor company released a series of commercials which proposed a new game that could be played with Volkswagen Beetles. In the commercial, a person would see one of the cars and say the color of the car followed by the word “one.” For example, if you saw a red car, you would say “red one.” I remember a few of my friends playing this game in the months following the commercials’ release; however, after a while, people lost interest and the game died out. I believe that this reflects the human desire to hold on to folkloric and organically developed traditions in an increasingly artificial world. The entire category of road trip games came out of the boredom of riding in a car for long periods of time. For children especially, games like these are necessary outlets for fun since sitting in the back seat of a car can often feel uncomfortable and constraining and it can be difficult to talk to the person who is driving or sitting in the passenger seat.
Annotation: For variations of the rules of Punch Buggy, see:
Polk, Janet. Rules for Playing Slug Bug and Punch Buggy. AuthorHouse, 2006.