COVID Tag and Other Games: Children Defy Disaster with Play

Fun and CreativityPerSpectives
Artwork by: Hans Thoma, 1872

Children’s games seem to flow like an underground river that resurfaces here and there and from time to time, welcoming variation and drawing inspiration from current events. Kids grow stronger and process their fears through play as they grapple with the unknown.

Play is key to kids’ resilience and flexibility, but it usually falls beneath adults’ notice.

Because games come and go, their roots remain mostly buried and obscured. Folklorists labor mightily to uncover the origins of games, inferring connections and deducing timelines from the surviving scraps and snippets that literature, music, and occasionally objects record. When these scholars are lucky in their discoveries, we are fortunate in our fuller insight, too, because all of us are, or shortly will be, former children.

On the way to better understanding, let me tell three stories, out of chronological order. The first is about the birth of a new game, the second about our misplaced confidence in the history of an old game and its connection to plagues, and the third about another new game and the current pandemic.

First the new game. When our children were growing up, my wife and I would take our daughters to visit my parents who, like many others, had retired to Florida. We timed our visits to Grandma and Grandpa to fit the annual spring break. In those days, vacation usually coincided with Easter which moved from year to year. We could count on one thing staying the same, though; each spring the pool would fill up with kids from northeastern states who would renew their intermittent but lasting friendships. They keep in touch, even to this day.

Alas, the gleeful sound of a pool full of kids at play is rarer this summer as swimming facilities close to slow the persistent pandemic, but the noise is still easy to call to mind. Those delighted squeaks and shrieks carried. Close up, the exuberance bubbled over as kids took over. Residents, for their part, prepared for the annual one-week invasion by improvising rules. They would informally reclaim the water for a quiet interval when the pool would empty for the “adult swim.”

This seemed to satisfy most everyone. Except for one that is, a former physician who never dreamed that his fifty-one week-long repose would be shattered by the sound of children playing. Play has often divided the old and the young. And the trouble this time involved the call-and-response of the game “Marco Polo!” “Marco Polo!” especially sent this guy around the bend.

Now you’ll remember that “Marco Polo!” is basically a game of tag. The rules of “Marco Polo!” designate a player who is “it,” and in this case the game grants the it-player special powers of transformation. Like most games, “Marco Polo!” installs obstacles to make play more complex and durable. In “Marco Polo!” the it-player must play with eyes closed, making it play much like the more ancient game “Blind Man’s Buff.” The it-player, paddling or bobbing, yells out “Marco” and locates other players only through the sound of their responses. They respond with the first name of the famed 13th century Venetian explorer and give up their position.

The player who is caught in a burst of splashing then becomes “it,” and she, in turn, closes her eyes and pursues the others.

Those kids in that pool, a mixed-age group, generally kept order among themselves and looked out for the safety of the youngest. They would grumble when the grouch would fly out onto his balcony and bellow for quiet. The older kids began to refer to him the as “the pool Nazi.” Taking the kids in tow, I said that we would have “no name calling in this pool.” And, looking up, I assured the complainant most sincerely that he would hear no more “Marco Polo!” games.

What happened after I dove into the pool enhanced my reputation for impishness; play is sometimes subversive after all, and I decided to meddle. Drawing them close I said in a booming voice, “now we’ll have no more Marco Polo games that disturb the neighbor.” “From now on,” (Here, cue the collective groan.) “From now on,” I continued, “you will only play a new game. It’s called, wait for it, “Amerigo Vespucci!” The swimmer's eyes glazed over as I explained how Vespucci’s first name ended up on the first maps of the “new world,” but I could not resist casting some side-eye at the grouch, the steam again piping from his ears.

And so for years thereafter at this pool, kids who hailed from New York, Long Island, Buffalo, Connecticut, and New Jersey, would cry out “Amerigo!” and listen for the responses, “Vespucci!” “Vespucci!” If you happen to hear “Amerigo Vespucci!” in the pool instead of “Marco Polo!”, now you know where the game came from.

Most games’ origins are not so easy to date. And sometimes the accounts that we are most sure of turn out to be false. The best wrong explanation is the famous old kids’ rhyming game, “ring around the rosey” and it brings us to the subject of play and pandemics.

In the mid-twentieth century a story began to circulate, and it went like this. Ring around the Rosey dated to the Black Death, a plague that ravaged Europe starting in 1349. Or perhaps it was the Great Plague that later hit England. The ring, so the story went, identified the circular rash of bubonic plague. The posies, fragrant flowers, were thought to have warded off the foul infection. “Ashes, ashes,” referred to cremation. And when players collapsed singing “we all fall down” they replicated the unhappy ending.

The story of preserving a forgotten history is so ingenious, I wish it were true.

But the explanation has several problems. First, a rash, or “ring,” does not fit the symptoms of either pandemic. Second, a similar game appears in several cultures in several different languages at different times, suggesting a more ancient origin. And these foreign games, of course, do not feature the English words “ring” or “posies.” Third, pandemic victims of both plagues usually were not cremated. And most disappointing of all, across the cultures and at different times, sometimes players did not collapse, they curtsied. Is this the end of the story of kids defying tragedy by turning a distant memory into play?

But all is not lost for the story of play and resilience. A philosopher friend of mine told me about a game her granddaughter plays with her playmates in Birmingham, Alabama. They call it Covid Tag. Cleverly, and in line with recommendations for social distancing, the kids play at spreading infection by tagging each other’s shadows. Kids play this same shadow-tag game in Denmark. In London, tagged kids go into a circle of isolation. In Kansas City kids cough into their sleeves and draw down their hoodies as they pretend to wear a “hazmat suit.” In Manitoba, Canadian children play “Corona Ball,” where they dodge a spiky orb. And in Buffalo, New York, older kids become targets in a kind of Corona Tag played with airsoft projectiles.

Whether these games will endure is as uncertain as the future of the virus. One thing is certain though; in pretend play kids both honestly acknowledge the threats they feel and at the same time gamely play against them.

Scott Eberle is a writer, exhibit developer, lecturer, historian, and Emeritus Vice President of The Strong National Museum of Play. He is past Editor of the American Journal of Play and Co-editor of the Handbook of the Study of Play.

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