Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Good, bruising, childhood games

Away from politics and economics for a minute. Today I started to remember the old games we used to play as children, mad school games we inherited from older siblings or improvised as improvements on those we already knew. I wonder how local these games were. Did we play the same thing as children all around the world? Let's look at a few.

Knuckles
Combining brute force with agility. Two people touch fists. One person begins by trying to whack his opponent's fist as hard as possible with a downward blow. The opponent tries to avoid this blow by flinching backwards.

However the attacker can also just fake his attack by twitching his fist and not following through. If the defender flinches at this non-attack, the attacker is given one free blow, to which the defender was not allowed to flinch. Painful knuckles ensue!

Last Man Back Football
In school nobody wanted to be goalkeeper, with no chance of glory and goal-scoring. One solution was the 'last man back' rule, which simply meant that whatever team-member was closest to the goal had the right to touch the ball with his hands. A moment later he could rush back out into the game and become a striker! We totally neglected the off-side rule in this too, playing football in a trapezoidal field that grew into a knee-deep meadow in summer. One of the goals was made up of two rocks on the ground, and the wire fence running around it had multiple holes through which we wriggled whenever the ball was shot over.

Gun Fights
Supremely simple. Children spread out around the garden or schoolyard. If they spot an opponent they shout 'BANG, you're dead!' I think the 'dead' child has to count to 30 before returning to the game. In reality the dead child often vigorously denies that the killer had seen him at all, in which case the game turns into a brief and bitter argument.

Sometimes we used toy guns for this, otherwise just fingers pointed in a gun shape. My brother and I used to make 'guns' from pieces of wood nailed together; the trigger was just a nail crudely hammered into the base - bigger guns included sights made of staple nails. Pine cones were hand grenades. I invented a 'smoke gun' once, consisting of a 2 litre plastic bottle half-filled with sand. By punching the side of the bottle, a puff of dusty 'smoke' would emerge: all critical to the happy fantasy violence of gun fights.

Catchings
Another one that tended to collapse into anarchy. Usually the boys flee from the girls. If a girl 'catches' a boy by grabbing him, she brings him to the 'jail' (in my school this was the gap between two trees). The other boys try to free their captive friend by rushing into the jail and slapping his hand. The main problem in my time was that boys tended to cheat, wriggling out of the girls' grip once caught. We ruined many a lunch break for our teachers with complaints and counter-complaints about cheating with this game!

Our 'jail' was on earthy ground that turned into a filthy soup of mud in winter. One of my happiest childhood memories is of a classmate skidding in that and emerging with a white grin behind a full-body mask of muck.

Scoop
A genuinely brilliant game, invented by my brother and I. We had a narrow corridor in our house with a bedroom door at one end and a radiator at the other. Sitting at either end (in Japanese seiza, as it happens), we would whack a small rubber ball as hard and fast as possible so as to score goals against the door or radiator. Speed and strength were important, but there were other skills, like knowing how to cup one's hand properly to 'scoop' the ball over our opponents. Carpet burns were a regular affliction: destruction of household ornaments was another.

I credit Scoop for my unusual ability to sit in seiza for long periods. Noticing this at a staff party in Japan, one of my Japanese colleagues said I should have been a Buddhist monk. Not so: I should have gone pro with Scoop.

Mercy
A primitive one. Two people intertwine their fingers and seek to push their opponent's hand downwards so that his or her fingers are bent painfully backwards. The loser shouts 'MERCY!' when this pain becomes too much to bear!

First One Caught
An upgrade to the simple Tip game, where one child is 'on' and has to tip another child to make them 'on'. In First One Caught, the second child joins the first in hunting the others. Every captured child joined the 'on' team, in a kind of viral explosion. This was a sneaky game because you do not know if a friend is on or not. Trust nobody! Once everyone is captured, the second child (the 'first one caught') is 'on' and it starts again.

Tip With the Ball
As it sounds. One person is 'on' and has a football. He or she tries to strike other children with the ball. Whoever it hits is then 'on'.

Deserts
Not really a game at all, this was just a mad fantasy developed by one of my classmates and I when we were four or five years old. Inspired by a tiny Ladybird book about deserts, we imagined cacti that not only produced water, but also commercial soft drinks like 7UP and Coca Cola. Reading that deserts had periodic rainstorms which rejuvinated the land every few years, we decided that they also had snow storms: I can remember the two of us pretending to ski through imaginary desert snow in our schoolyard!

Dead Arms
Two competitors take turns to punch each other as hard as possible on the upper arm. I don't remember how this was won, I guess the competitor who begged to stop first lost!

So, many of our beloved games were wild and rough. Knees were skinned. Noses bloodied. Bruises gained and shown off.

I hear sometimes of modern parents so terrified that their children might be hurt that they drastically limit their freedom to explore and experiment. When I was four years old our school finished at 2pm, while the older children finished at 3pm. This meant that I and a few of my classmates had a free hour to hang about the school with no supervision. Usually our teacher remained inside while we raced about the schoolyard, bumping into each other and skidding on sand and having fun. I've heard that this is no longer possible in most schools because paranoid parents demand constant supervision for their kids.

What a shame! I hope this generation of children will still find space to get the bruises, burns and cuts we earned before them.

How about you readers, did you play these kinds of games as a child? Did you invent games? Were my experiences universal or local? Thanks!

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