“So like if you’re driving in a car for like a long period of time, and you’re like with a friend or something, you’re not gonna do it by yourself, and you’re not the driver, you look out the window and you have to, in order of the alphabet, find a sign on the side of the road that starts with the, um, the first letter is in the alphabet, so like, say I was looking for an ‘A,’ if I found an Applebee’s I’d yell out ‘Applebee’s’ and then, like, the next sign you saw that started with a ‘B,’ like um, Ben and Jerry’s, or something, somebody would yell it out. So it wasn’t necessarily like a competitive game, it was just like the whole car was trying to get the alphabet, or the signs in order of the alphabet before they arrived at their destination. It was just a way to stay busy . . . It’s more challenging if it’s a shorter distance, obviously. But instead of sleeping in the car, that’s what we would do.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies communication and minors in dance and is a part of a prominent sorority on campus. She grew up in a relatively small town in southern California and was the captain of a prominent sports organization. She has danced for her entire life and, when she was growing up, would often drive for long stretches of time with her family to dance competitions. This interview took place late one night in my apartment’s living room when I began asking her about different games she knew. When I asked the informant where she learned this game, she said, “I think from like traveling to dance competitions a lot and, um, I mean I know we didn’t just make it up, but I think it kind of derived from the license plate game, where it’s like you look at a license place and you try to find the alphabet in each license plate almost. But we made it signs, probably a little easier.” She said it was her mother who would take her to dance competitions and would sometimes participate in the game.
When I asked her what she thought this meant, she said, “It was a good way to bond with my other teammates and my brothers and avoid fighting because it’s not competitive.”
This game was interesting because it was one that the informant assumed everyone knew about. It was so entrenched in her childhood experience that she could not imagine anyone else growing up and not playing it. While this game most likely did not originate with the informant’s family, it is probably prevalent in families and groups of people that spend a lot of time on the road. I agree with the informant that the primary purpose behind this game is to distract children (or anyone bored on a drive) and keep them from fighting with one another. It also helps them familiarize themselves with their surroundings, take an interest in the world for a specific purpose, and practice their reading skills. It is also interesting that this game is not competitive in the usual sense, i.e. the participants are not playing against each other. This helps teach the participants to complete a task quickly and work together.
“So the Buns Up Game is a game that I played in middle school and they’re still playing it at my school. And so the object of the game is to never get your buns hit with the tennis ball, and so the game is played against a wall and someone throws the tennis ball at the wall and the other person has to catch it with one hand. And it can bounce once or not at all. If you miss it with one hand, then the person who threw it can then grab the ball and you have to run to the wall and touch the wall with your hands before the person grabs the ball and chucks it at your butt. And that’s why it’s called Buns Up.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “in . . . Lubbock, Texas. I learned to play it outside because we had a lot of cement and a blank wall. Mostly the boys played it, but some of the girls that were more courageous would play it also. At my school right now there’s a blacktop and it’s mostly the first graders that are playing it, instead of like the middle schoolers that used to play it.”
When I asked her why thinks people play this game, she said, “Well, because it’s a skill to be able to catch, eye-hand coordination with one hand, the ball that’s about the size of a baseball or a tennis ball. Plus it’s fun to throw the ball at people if they, and it, well it makes people feel bad if they, I mean it makes people feel good if they have more skill than the other player. Plus it’s reflexes and yeah, you get to actually take mean action on people, I guess.” When I asked her what she thinks this game means, it became clear that the informant did not think much of this game. She said, “I think it means that it’s an easy game to play with a ball and a wall. Like, you don’t have . . . I mean, it takes very little equipment and only two people and, with a city, if you don’t have a field or grass it’s a game you can play in the street.”
I tend to agree with the informant that the main reason this game is played is that it requires little explanation and little equipment to play. It is easy to start and stop, can be played in many different locations, and is challenging enough to be entertaining. I there’s a little more to the meaning behind the game though, based solely on its name. Because this game is generally played by middle school kids, it seems like there is something to the fact that part of the game is throwing a ball at another person’s butt. At this age, this action might seem particularly taboo. It is also interesting, then, that Buns Up is somewhat gendered, with only a few girls taking part, and that my mother was one of these girls. This game provides an outlet for children to be silly and active, while subtly crossing established social boundaries.
“So another game is called Gossip, and you sit in a circle and one person, or I think it has been called Telephone, but it’s also called Gossip, and so one person has a secret to tell the person next to them, so they whisper it into their ear, and then it goes around the circle, the next person has to whisper it and the next and the next and the next, and then when you get to the end, the last person says what they heard from that person and compare it to what the person originally said. And that’s the game.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up that she has observed taking place among her students now. She learned this game, “probably in elementary school . . . in Houston, Texas. We played it in like a second grade class, in a circle.”
The informant thinks “two reasons [the game is] attractive to people is because it’s interesting to see what comes out at the end, if you compare what originally was said with what was it, so you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so weird that you never hear the same thing at the end that it started out to be, so it’s interesting to see what it warps into.’ And I guess the other reason it’s called Gossip it what you originally say isn’t what you hear at the end. So, the message is diluted when other people say it.” The informant implied this is also what she thinks it means.
This game was interesting to me when the informant explained it because I know it is “Telephone.” This game is an easy game to play with a lot of people who do not necessarily know each other, and it is variable in the amount of time it takes to play. The fact that the informant knows it as “Gossip” and learned to play it when she was in elementary school is somewhat revealing about what this game actually means. While it is fun to see how the original message gets changed as people hear and interpret it, it also seems like there is a deeper message behind its simple actions. This game functions as a way to teach children about the way gossip works in our society, and how what you say can be changed into something unrecognizable by the end. The way the information is transmitted may be boiled down and expedited, but it is still a helpful demonstration of a larger social phenomenon.
“Here are the directions: Start by building a honeycomb of cups at the center of the table and filling each with about a 1/3 of a cup of beer. 20 should be enough. In the center of the honeycomb, add some extra beer and a few shots of hard liquor to the cup because that’s the ‘bitch cup.’ Gameplay starts with as many people as you want, with two cups with two players at opposite ends of the table starting the game. Players try to bounce pong balls into the cups after one bounce on the table. If they get a ball in their first try, they quickly pass it to the left of the person who’s trying to get the ball in the other cup. If the person it’s passed to is able to get the ball in while the other person is still struggling, he stacks his cup in the strugglers and the person who couldn’t get it in has to grab a cup from the honeycomb and drink it. If a player doesn’t manage to get the ball on his first try but manages to on another try, he or she can only pass the cup one person to their left. Gameplay continues until all the cups are left but the bitch cup. The last person who is unable to get their ball into their cup is then forced to drink it upon getting their cup stacked.”
This game represents a typical university drinking game that is meant to get students drunk, and fast due to the quick and tense play of the game. I had heard of the game before through students in class talking about it. My friend, the informant, plays it frequently, so I had him teach me it when I went to a party with him last weekend. He had learned it from older members of his fraternity, who too learned it from older members when they were younger. From what I’ve surmised, such games are part of fraternity/college identity and tradition, as its almost expected that such games are meant to be played on weekends and during parties.
Drinking games are an interesting part of folklore, and like folklore, they often possess variations that lead to arguing and disagreement. In playing the game that one time, I heard people debate the “after one miss rule” of having to pass it to your left and also how much hard liquor should be added to the “bitch cup.” Though drinking games are similar in many parts of the world, there are always rules in the games that greatly differ. People often argue the rules because they learned from others a specific method of play and are unwilling to bend based off what others feel is correct. I always find debates regarding the rules humorous, as it is impossible to distinguish who is correct in the argument. Just as in folklore, there is no correct version of a story.
“After hearing our friends at our Girl Scout Troop talk about the Ouija Board, your Aunt Mary and I decided to ask grandma to get us one at Christmas. Nothing happened the first time we played with it and we thought it was full of shit. It was supposed to float and guide our hands to answer questions that we asked the board. The second time we played it, it seemed to move a bit faster but I always assumed Mary was screwing with it. However, the movement perked out interest and the more time we spent with the game, the more responsive the guide became. Mary and I swore to each other that we hadn’t moved it and it went from answering yes or no questions to spelling out vulgar words and messages. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it because we were young and didn’t know much of what this stuff meant until we asked grandma what it meant. We got freaked out and never touched it again.”
My mom grew up with two sisters, all of whom are normal and sane people. I remember my mom and aunt talking about their memories with the Ouija Board when I was little and was always freaked out about it but wanted to know more when I was presented with this folklore collection project. I could tell my mom was uneasy talking about it and didn’t want to delve into too many details. She was only around 8 when she played with it after hearing about it from friends at her Girl Scout Troop and its obvious the game scared her greatly. Talking to her further about the game, she admitted that she feels it is somehow possessed and something that could, simply put, connect you with spirits you want nothing to do with.
I’m conflicted when hearing my mom’s story. My education in high school and even more so at USC has taught me to be rather cynical when hearing unexplainable stories or entirely dismiss them, but my mom and aunt have always been believable people. They would not after all these years lie to each other about intentionally guiding the piece toward certain parts of the board which prompts me to believe that something else could have been doing so. Though I don’t consider myself highly spiritual, its a game I have never messed with based off my mom’s experiences and I have no desire to play it in the near future.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“Me: So what game did you play again?
M: Oh! Cops n’ Robbers!
Me: When did you play that game?
M: Elementary school!
Me: How do you play that game?
M: Well you’re basically you got some cops, and you got some robbers, so there’s like people on teams and stuff. So you’ve got the cops chasing the robbers, they could get feisty with it and the robbers could beat up the cops. There were bases too, if the robbers got to the bases they were okay, it was a hideout.
Me: Were you usually a cop or a robber?
M: Man, I don’t remember, that was a long time ago. I don’t think there was one that I was more of, we all sorta did both all the time. It was like, hey! Let’s play Cops n’ Robbers, I’ll be on this team you be on that.
Me: Did the cops always win?
M: No. It’s not like real life, it’s more realistic than that.
The game seems to be “M”s version of the popular schoolyard game, Cops n’ Robbers, a fairly well known game in North America. In the April 1973 publication of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, in an article titled Children’s Folklore in the Archive of Folk Song, the article suggests the splitting of children’s Folklore in their very large Folklore collection (at the time, the collection was near 150,000 entries) into categories. One of these categories, battle games uses Cops and Robbers as a classic example as to what sorts of entries would fit this sort, assuming knowledge in the reader about the popularity of the game (Emrich, 1973).
The game itself, as a school yard game, likely allowed “M” and his friends to try out ‘adult roles’ while also reinforcing basic moral ideas like ‘good guys’, ‘bad guys’ and ‘the good guys have to stop the bad guys’, while also allowing them to simulate more adult situations (apprehending a criminal). The lack of preference could indicate that the players had no moral or occupational preference and preferred the role playing aspect instead, this could be contrasted to a child who wants to play as the cop because his father is a police officer (or any other reason he/she may admire the profession). ”M”s version of the game also included a base that the criminals could get to to defeat the cops and get away. As the cops did not always win (or the robbers didn’t) the aspect of good triumphing over evil or any other sort of overarching narrative did not appear to be part of “M”s approach to the game.
Emrich, D. (1973, April). Children’s Folklore in the Archive of Folk Song. In The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (pp. 140-151). Library of Congress.
Informant S is 21 years old from Boise Idaho. He is a Philosophy major who also plans on attending Medical School. He is half Columbian and half American.
So when I was like in 2nd grade, we would have a group of students, we had like 2 playgrounds, and they would congregate on opposite sides of the playground which would be separated by a big field. So we had a king of each playground, which was usually the most popular kid, and they would be like warring kingdoms. So one of the most important roles of these kingdoms was the messenger. Since I liked running a lot when I was little, I’d always volunteer to be messenger for the kingdom. So I’d run from 1 kingdom all the way to the other and I would transmit a message. They were usually about the king having a crush on a girl in another kingdom or a guy having a crush on a girl in another kingdom and stuff like that. And they were never really wars, but the kings and the knights would meet in the middle of the field, and they would like trade princesses depending on if the princess liked the king in the other kingdom or one of the knights or something like that. So my running back in forth usually resulted in a meeting in the middle, which would result in them trading a princess. So I was sort of like the matchmaker in elementary school.
Informant S remembers fondly in elementary school when he played the “matchmaker” and brought the 2 different groups on the playground together. Like a lot of children’s folklore, we can see them imitating things that they may have seen in movies or read in books such as kings, wars, trading princesses etc. We also see that a lot of the messages revolve around people having crushes on each other, which can also been seen as imitating grown up relationships. We can also see the hierarchy on the playground as the most popular kids usually got to be king.
The informant was raised in Chicago Illinois. She attended school in Chicago until she was able to go to USC on a track scholarship. She remembered a song that had been taught to her in elementary school that went through her and was continually passed on.
“Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For 50 cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And they didn’t come back, back, back
‘Til the 4th of July, ly, ly!”
Miss Mary Mack is a very popular song amongst the American children population. The informant said that she learned in first or second grade. She said that there is a hand game that goes along with it. You have a partner and you clap hands back and forth while chanting the song lyrics. She said that she was taught the song by other girls in her school and she taught others this same thing. It sort of gets passed down through the grades and never really stops getting sung. She wasn’t sure where it came from but no one really knows. Its not about the author she said, its about the song and the hand game with it.
Miss Mary Mack is popular in our society. It is common for most people to recognize this and be able to sing it and clap hands with someone. Me personally, I was taught this song in elementary school as well and passed it on. The difference is that my mother showed it to me. It is interesting to me that this song is so common amongst the youngsters.
The song Miss Mary Mack can be found in the childrens’ book Miss Mary Mack, adapted by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Nadine Westcott.
About the Interviewed: Julian is a senior at Calabasas High School. He’s passionate about Oboe Performance and Theatre. At 18 years of age, Julian is also my younger brother. He generally identifies as Caucasian American, but like myself, he has a close ethnic lineage tracing back to Germany and Ireland.
Julian, my younger brother, was showing me a game he used to play when he was little.
Julian: “This game is called, ‘Kitty Wants a Corner’. To play you have to get a bunch of people, it has to be like, ten, in order to be fun.”
“First you have to get in a circle, and one person gets to be in the middle. That person is The Kitty. What The Kitty wants, is to get back into the circle. In order to do that, The Kitty has to replace somebody. But they can’t just walk back in. As The Kitty, they have to go around the circle and tell people they want a space. They do it like this.”
Julian gets up and begins to mime a conversation.
“Kitty wants a corner!”, says The Kitty.
“Not here. Try my neighbor!”, says the Corner (anyone in the circle).
Julian: “The Kitty just has to keep doing this.”
“How does the Kitty get back into the circle?”, I ask.
Julian: “This is the fun part. The people in the circle, the people around the Kitty, they have to switch places with each other. That’s their job. If nobody moves for 10 seconds, then the Kitty wins. The Kitty also has to do his job too, if he stops asking for a space for more than three seconds, then the circle wins. It’s sort of like a balance.”
“Anyway, when the people in the circle switch places, they have to walk across the circle. When they do that, if the Kitty is fast enough, he can take one of their places. The person in the middle becomes the new Kitty.”
I ask Julian where he learned how to play this game.
Julian: “I played it in elementary school. It was really popular then.”
My younger brother played a game called “Kitty Wants A Corner” when he was little. The game’s objective is to not get caught in the circle. If you do, you become “The Kitty”, and then you have to get out of the circle.
I remember playing a lot of games like this when I was younger. I’m not sure where “Kitty” originates from, but if Julian can still remember how to play it after so long, then it must be impacting.
About the Interviewed: Max is a twenty year old college student at Pasadena City College studying Architecture and Fashion Design. His ethnic background is remotely Swedish, though his family has been in America for a couple generations.
My subject, Max, plays tabletop Role-Playing Games (RPGs) . He discussed a joke tradition with me among RPG gamers that I found quite humorous.
Max: “When you play D&D [Dungeons and Dragons, popular tabletop RPG] you get into a lot of situations where you get stuck and have to make a “Skill Check”. In a “Skill Check” you roll a die and check your result to see if you overcome the challenge. It’s a twenty sided die, a d20 for short. You roll your die, and the number you get determines the outcome. 20 is the best. If you roll a twenty, that’s called a critical success, a critical hit. That’s really good. But if you get a 1, if you get the lowest number, that’s bad. Really, bad. That’s called a Critical Failure. When you land one of those, something really bad has to happen.”
I ask what that is.
Max: “Critical Failure means that not only does the opposite of your goal happen, it happens so badly it screws you over. Players like to think of creative ways for the screwing to happen, but most times people just get silly.”
“For example”, he goes on:
“Let’s say your character is fighting a wizard. Like, an evil wizard. And he summons a rain of knives to fall upon you. You’d have to make a Dexterity Check [type of skill check] to see if you dodge. You roll the dice and OOP. You got a 1. So what happens?”
“You swallow a knife and it explodes. You die forever. Game over. (laughs) Your character may not actually die, he’d probably just get stabbed a little. But the joke is the same. You miss. Bad thing happens.”
“There’s a ton of examples of these. They just sort of come-up during games.”
A short time after this meeting, I met with my D&D group and asked them to come up with/ remember their best crit. fail stories. Here’s what I got:
1. You try to unlock a door
- You miss and the door unlocks you instead.
2. You try to slay a vicious goblin.
- You miss and stab yourself. Multiple times.
3. You scan the darkness to search for traps.
- The darkness sees you and gets very angry.
4. You try to climb a rope.
-The rope is now 500 snakes.
Players of the game “Dungeons and Dragons”, as well as similar RPGs have a tradition of jokes surrounding the concept of the “Critical Fail”, the worst outcome of a single dice-roll.
I find that a lot of these jokes take a form of dark comedy, which can reflect the overall mood of failing a crucial roll. Taking something serious and making it silly may seem trivial, but they’re a way that players enrich in the fun of the game. This is a trend that has been observable since the dawn of pen and paper RPG’s in the mid 1970’s.
You can find more of them here and here: