Additional informant data: My informant is a 2nd-grader in South Los Angeles. He has lived in LA his entire life. He is Latino and speaks both Spanish and English. My informant attends a public, coeducational elementary school, which has students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Several times during the day, the children at his school have a recess period, when they’re given access to balls, jump ropes, etc., and are allowed to play outside.
Contextual data: My informant and I sat down outside his classroom after two months of my teaching his class the fundamentals of folklore through USC’s Joint Educational Program. After I began asking him about games he knows and plays often, he came up with freeze tag–a popular children’s game–and began explaining it to me. The following is an exact record of our conversation:
Jackson (me): Can you tell me about freeze tag?
I (my informant): Freeze tag is a game where you have to tag a person and they . . . they stay there for . . . uhh . . . as long as they . . . uhh . . . forever, or if somebody stays, or if somebody tags them, somebody else, they . . . they . . . they’re unfroze, umm . . . if they’re all froze at the same time, the person who . . . the person who tagged them wins freeze tag and . . . if they don’t get all tagged . . . if they don’t get all tagged, then the person loses and the other people win, and that’s it.
J: And it ends when recess ends? Do you just keep playing until the bell?
J: Who do you usually play it with?
I: My bro— uhh . . . my friends, and my sister, and my brother, and my other sister, and my other brother.
J: Ok. How many people play, usually?
I: Five or six.
J: Ok. Do you remember who taught it to you, or did you kind of just learn it from people at school?
I: Umm . . . my . . . my . . . the one who taught it to me was my grandpa.
J: All right. Do you have anything else you want to say about freeze tag?
I suppose few students in the United States–and probably in many other parts of the world–haven’t played tag at some point in their lives, and freeze tag is one of the most common versions. Whoever is “it” has the goal of “tagging” all the other players by chasing them down and touching them. When someone is tagged, they must freeze in place, and they can’t move until another player touches them.
While my informant didn’t have any ideas about the underlying significance of freeze tag, I have a few. The notion of one person being “it” and tagging others–rendering them physically immobile–seems to me like a sick person infecting others. If this is the case, it makes sense that someone else must “un-tag” them; that’s like being healed by somebody else. I discussed this with my roommate and he told me at his school they used to play this same exact game, but there they called it “germ tag,” and whoever was “it” had the germ. This reinforced my idea of freeze tag being modeled after some kind of fear of viruses or infection, as everyone is trying to run away from someone who has suddenly become dangerous, in a sense. In addition, this person is (or was) one of their close friends, which makes the chasing and tagging process a lot more disturbing. The person who is “it” is singled out and has the task of subduing all their friends, and the intentional quality of their behavior might reflect on the pervasive feelings against people who infect others with diseases.
Beyond this, freeze tag (or any kind of tag) could just be another schoolyard attempt at labeling “the Other,” or maybe it’s just a simple, fun game. It’s extremely common, but rather than discard it as commonplace because of it, I think we ought to pay special attention to the game precisely because it’s so widespread.
Annotation: Seen in the title and plot of Caroline B. Cooney’s 2004 novel Freeze Tag. Here is the Amazon.com synopsis of the book:
From best-selling author Caroline Cooney comes this suspenseful story of Meghan, whose relationship with her perfect boyfriend is destroyed by a girl who can freeze people with a touch of her finger.
When Meghan and West first played Freeze Tag with Lannie, it was no ordinary game. Because when Lannie tagged someone, they really froze. Icy blue and cold. Like death.
Now Meghan, West, and Lannie are in high school, and Meghan and West are in love. They’re the perfect couple. But Lannie is determined to have West for her very own… and if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll freeze Meghan… to death.