Better Summer

What Is the Best Game of Tag?

A Slate debate.

Photo by Mypurgatoryyears/Thinkstock
Is forcing someone else to be “it” (or suffering being “it”) the existential purpose of tag?

Photo by Mypurgatoryyears/Thinkstock

Tag: Is there any better game? Probably. But when it comes to tag, which form is best? Two writers attempt to figure it out by dredging up childhood memories and insulting each other’s upbringings in Slate’s Battle of the Tags.

Dan Kois: Seth, as the summer winds down, I find my mood taking an elegiac turn. The end of summer 2014 sends my memory to all those past summers, including the long hot summers in the 1980s when I frolicked through the backyards of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, chasing my friends and being chased by them in turn.

The games we played varied—stickball, street soccer, freeze tag, monkey in the middle—but the superior game, of course, the game that defined the day-to-day joy of a summer’s evening, was Kick the Can. Resolved: Kick the Can is the best kind of tag there is.

Seth Stevenson: Resolved: Your childhood was sheltered and awful and likely stank of sauerbrat. Also resolved: Capture the Flag is the apex iteration of tag. I played CTF at summer camp, in a structured environment that facilitated complex, tactical games. Meanwhile, you were scurrying willy-nilly through cul-de-sacs and playing a game with no depth or richness.

Kois: Before I demolish your foolish argument, let’s define our terms. Tag games are any games that involve a kid (or kids) trying to escape another kid (or kids) who want to freeze, imprison, or otherwise punish him. Sometimes this is done by physically tagging that kid. Sometimes it’s done by other means. Sometimes there are teams, sometimes every woman is for herself.

Stevenson: Sometimes there is a “jail.”

Kois: Sometimes there is a base, or “goal.”

Stevenson: Sometimes, if you grew up in a podunk boringberg, there is a can.

Kois: Let’s dispense with some other pretenders to the throne first. Freeze tag: Unbelievably boring.

Stevenson: Flashlight tag: Wastes batteries. Light pollution.

Kois: Also, ENDLESS arguments about whether the light really caught you or not. Like playing tag in a rave.

Stevenson: Have you played tag on molly? You just want to hug “it” and tell “it” everything is okay.

Kois: SPUD: Just dodgeball under a different name. So, fun, but not truly tag.

Stevenson: I have never heard of that game. Sounds noncanonical. I disapprove on principle.

Kois: Wikipedia claims Duck Duck Goose is a tag game, and even has a GIF to explain how it works:

Animated image by Jedudedek via Wikimedia Commons

Stevenson: I can’t stop watching the duck-duck-goose GIF.

Kois: Ghost in the Graveyard is a really great game. It is almost as good as Kick the Can, but not quite, because in Ghost in the Graveyard lots of people are “it,” but in Kick the Can one poor jerk is “it,” and forcing someone else to be “it” (or suffering being “it”) is the existential purpose of tag.

Stevenson: See now we are getting to the grist of the matter. I am anti-“it.”

Kois: WHAT

Stevenson: You heard me.

Kois: Sacrilege.

Stevenson: No one wants to be “it.” Capture the Flag eliminates the “it” problem. Kick the Can not only designates an “it”—it establishes a pattern in which the “it” is repeatedly ridiculed, as all the hiding children giggle each time the can gets kicked right under nose of the poor, beleaguered “it.”

Why don’t you explain to the people how your horrible game works, Dan?

Kois: Sure! Kick the Can is best played on a warm summer’s night, when the crickets are so loud that no one can hear the constant gentle burping you emit from drinking too much soda. One person is “it.” This person is chosen by the time honored tactic of “Eenie meenie miney moe/ catch a tiger by the toe/ if he hollers let him go/ eenie meenie miney moe/ my mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it/ with a dirty dirty dishrag on your mother’s toe.” [Repeat] A fair and just method.

Everyone goes and hides while “it” counts to [an appropriate number]. Then “it” searches the yards and driveways of the neighborhood for the other players, always keeping one eye on the aluminum can—the source of those soda burps—which waits near jail. When “it” sees a player in his hiding place, he sprints back to the can, jumps over it, and yells, “1-2-3 over the can on Seth!” If necessary, “it” can supplement with a description of the hiding place: “Behind the Lybecks’ garage!”

Seth is now in jail, where he must wait, drinking more soda. If he was the first one caught, his stomach begins to ache with the fear of himself becoming “it” (and soda). If “it” catches everyone, Seth, the first person caught, becomes “it.” BUT: If any player manages to run out of hiding and kick the can, screaming merrily all the way, before “it” can reach the can, EVERYONE IN JAIL IS FREE and can run back to fresh hiding places. Often to ease the burden of being “it,” you might place a three-kick term limit upon the duty. But tag without “it” is not tag. The end.

Stevenson: Oh, Dan. I’m sorry you wasted your childhood in this manner. It explains a lot about the Dan I know and pity today.

First problem with Kick the Can: hiding. Who wants to hide? Oh, I guess I’ll go kneel behind this tree and wait in silence until I’m bored, and meanwhile a root is sticking painfully into my patella and a bunch of ants are crawling up my arm.

Kois: You sound like a terrible hider. Without hiding, there is no jumping out of a hiding place and scaring the crap out of people.

Stevenson: You are inventing new parts of your game! Jumping out and scaring people in no way advances one toward the terminus of Kick the Can!

Kois: Of course it does! You stalk your prey, the person who is “it,” moving from spot to spot, until he is so close you can almost smell the Fanta, and then you leap out, screaming, and while he craps himself you run to the can and kick and free everyone and are the hero. And everyone loves you and no one ever laughs at you again.

Stevenson: Why not stealthily sneak your way to the can so “it” never knows what hit her? Wouldn’t that be more effective?

So, to summarize where we’re at: Your game invokes the alienating, “other”-creating concept of the “it”—which serves to single out one helpless kid and harm him emotionally. Your game also requires hiding, which, let’s be honest, no kid enjoys. You have to stay in one place and be quiet! Kids are not into that! There is also no coordinated strategy involved in your game. And the ultimate goal is a can. A can, Dan. Empty. Partially crumpled. It’s the most prosaic quest I can imagine.

Kois: Please tell me about your supposedly amazing game, Seth.

Stevenson: Thank you, I’m glad you finally consented to stop reliving the depressing, enervating summers of your youth so we can talk about something fun.

Capture the Flag is a noble contest. First, two squads are established. Boys versus girls. Fourth graders versus fifth graders. Jews versus Presbyterians. Within these teams, every child finds membership. Belonging. There is no “it” here, Dan, because “it” has no place in the society we want our children to carry forward into the future.

Kois: Yes: Better a martial society of partisans than a group unified against a common enemy. Let’s just play war, Seth. How about war?

Anyways, go on.

Stevenson: Ahem. Within the world of CTF, we learn loyalty and teamwork. We have a shared vision. And what do we seek? A flag! The age-old symbol of the nation-state—that building block of civilization. Along the way we might drink some sodas and throw the empty, crumpled cans (we can agree they are detritus, yes?) into recycling bins. But all the while, we keep our eye on the real prize: the flag.

How do we capture this flag? We strategize! From small-scale tactics to broad, overarching methodologies. We learn organizational skills. There are specialized roles: the jailkeeper, vitally protecting our imprisoned enemy souls; the reconnaissance scout, ferreting out the opposition’s flag and providing intel to … THE FLAGCATCHER. THAT GIFTED, GOLDEN YOUTH, BLESSED WITH SPEED AND AGILITY, WHO WILL SEIZE THE GONFALON AND WIN THE DAY.

A young leader will delegate. He will task his fellow children. Everyone will play her part. And the TEAM—not some random Wisconsin towhead tripping over a lawnsprinkler—will claim glory as one.

Kois: Wow Seth, this management seminar sounds fascinating.

Look, I agree that Capture the Flag is a fun game. But it has a tremendous flaw that renders it useless for summer play: Capture the Flag sucks unless you have, MINIMUM, 20 people. It is a great game for a New England summer camp, where straight-laced youths spend regimented weeks under the care of handsome counselors who all look suspiciously like Seth Stevenson. But in the real world, Seth, American kids need a game you can actually play. Five people. Two yards. A can. That’s all you need for Kick the Can.

Stevenson: Did Alexander the Great, that prototypical youth of leisure, say, “Why don’t I just stay here in my yard in Macedonia drinking carbonated mead soda with like four of my little tween friends?” NO! He ventured forth and built an army! He achieved greatness via a clash of warring clans! Dan, there’s a reason New England summer camps have, for centuries, bred our country’s leaders. Tell ya one thing: They didn’t learn leadership by running around and kicking garbage in the street. Also, regarding the can: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is traditionally placed in plain sight at ground level, yes? Perhaps atop a manhole cover at the center of a paved cul-de-sac?

Kois: Or on the sidewalk, sure.

Stevenson: The flag can be anywhere! It introduces a fourth dimension, if you consider climbing an elm tree entering the fourth dimension.

Kois: “Up” is included in the three dimensions.

Stevenson: You have no imagination—this is what happens when you play rudimentary, bounded games in your youth and thus fail to see greater possibilities.

As I was saying, the flag can be camouflaged—a soupcon of red cotton peeking out from beneath an overturned canoe, perhaps. One must hunt for the flag. Sniff it out. Encircle it. RAVISH IT.

Kois: Whoa Seth.

I admit that Kick the Can might be even funner if the person who was “it” could also hide the can. Though a great deal of the fun of Kick the Can comes from the RACE—the dead sprint that occurs when It sees a victim, and they both run as hard as they can for the can they know is there, and the victim leaps just as “it” kicks, and then you spend a solid 20 minutes arguing about it. Can’t do that if the can’s under a canoe. That’d be Kick the Canoe. Let’s maybe just agree that your game is totally great for the coastal elites, and my game is great for Real America.

Stevenson: OK, I think we’re beginning to hammer out a compromise: I agree that your game is suited to a loose collection of listless, aimless Midwestern youth. And my game is a match for the ambitious, well-rounded, pre-teen scholar-athletes of the East.


Kois: Also my game is better at night, and yours is better during the day.


Stevenson: But mine is good at night, too.

Kois: WRONG.

Stevenson: THE END AGAIN.

Kois: CRAP.