I asked my informant LP for these games in an in-person interview. She grew up in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century. These games are played with kids on long car rides. She learned these games from her parents when she was on road trips with her family as a kid. “They’re timeless, they last forever, they never get old,” She said that “they’re for alleviating boredom, but they’re word games so they’re focused on vocabulary and learning words as opposed to math and numbers games.” She always liked these word games more than number games.
LS: We would play the license plate game, where you try to get a license plate from every state. The alphabet game, we would spell out the alphabet on passing signs, whoever saw it first would just call it out.
Our favorite one was “I’m going to such-and-such and I’m bringing my such and such.” You keep building with words that start with the same letter as the place you’re going to and go around the car repeating the cycle and adding on one each time. Whoever can’t remember or does it wrong loses.
I spy with my little-eye, where we would say “I spy with my little eye, something…” and then you would say the name of a color. Everyone else would try to guess what the object was. You would have to do it with something that was really far away. (laughs)
These games are techniques for parents to help their kids alleviate boredom in long road trips, where a group of people is sitting in the enclosed space of a car together for hours on end. As the informant said, “they’re timeless… but they never get old.” These games have unlimited replay value and can keep kids entertained, or sedated, for the long hours of fidgeting and restlessness. As my informant mentioned, these games have a pedagogical function, of teaching kids new words, the names of the states, the names of the colors. But these games keep car riders focused on fairly rote tasks to pass the time easier. This piece of car lore likely arose from the need to keep a family socially and mentally stimulated during the long road trips common in the vast American Midwest