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On Being IT

by Bernie DeKoven

Children’s games are elegant simulations of basic human conflicts. In the right hands (children’s) they are tools for exploring self and society.

For a case in point, take the game of Tag.

Tag can be reduced to a very simple form:

  1. Somebody is IT.
    One person is singled out and assigned a goal different from everybody else’s. This makes his actions so predictable that we call him IT, because in order to do what he's supposed to, he has to move like a madmanor thing.
  2. IT Doesn’t Want to Be IT.
    In fact, his goal is to make somebody else IT.
  3. If IT Tags You (All it takes is contact)...
  4. You're IT (Instantaneous reversal of roles).

An even earlier form of tag is Monster. This is played by very small children, almost as soon as they are old enough to waddle. Somebody is Monster(usually it’s type-cast). That person chases everybody else. Everybody else runs and runs until the Monster catches them and eats, or tickles them up. Then, everybody runs away again, and the Monster does his thing.

This game usually ends with the exhaustion of the Monster.

As a simulation, it’s fairly obvious. It describes a relationship between a fear or an authority and its victims. It is an irreversible relationship. It is enforced equally, by the pursued as well as the pursuer.

By the time children begin playing tag, they have perceived that the role of authority is reversible. It resides more in position than in the person.

The players are aware of their relationship. IT selects whom he is going to pursue. It is looking for a challenge. In like manner, the other players are looking for the right challenge to offer IT. The game only works as long as the challenge exists. If IT never catches anyone, if the same person is always IT, the game is no fun.

The game simulates a slightly more complex relationship. It is a contest for position, even though the position is, in itself, untenable.

If we identify IT as a position of responsibility, we can label a social structure with which we are still familiar. Everyone wants to be given the responsibility, if they feel they are deserving of it. At the same time, no one really wants the responsibility, and, once having assumed IT, they wish to confer IT on someone else. (Another variation of the game would occur if IT wanted to keep his position and get rid of his responsibility.)

Thus the game of tag can easily be used as a basis for a simulation called RESPONSIBILITY. The designer would probably want to present more cues and, naturally, a means to objectify the relationship presented in the game.

There are many variations of tag, probably because it is such a dominant game in our societyas it is in most.

Let’s start again, with a review of the structure and its variables, and then examples of some games which result from variations.

When you are playing tag, either somebody who is IT wants to stay IT or somebody who is IT wants to become NOT IT and when someone gets touched, something about what he or she wants to do gets changed.

When somebody who is IT wants to stay IT, then everybody else is chasing him, because if they didn't, there'd be nothing to play with. IT might be given the power to decide when people can try to get him (Red Light). IT might even be able to tell people how they can move (Captain, May I?).

When somebody who is IT wants to become NOT IT, then everybody else is running away. It's usually called Tough Tag. IT might be given the power to decide when the chase is going to start (What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?). IT might be able to decide whom she is going to chase (Johnny, May I Cross the River?, Duck Duck Goose). IT might even be able to get people to help him (British Bulldog).

On the other hand, IT might not have as much territory as everybody else (Circle Tag), or people might have an easy escape (Freeze Tag), or even substitute other players (Squirrel In The Tree). Sometimes there are people who are neither IT or NOT IT, but who are there just to make it harder for IT (Cat and Mouse). Sometimes, IT can try to touch people with an object instead of his hand (Ball Tag). Sometimes, IT has an object that he is trying to put somewhere (Steal the Bacon, Football).

When there’s us and them: Sometimes, if one of us gets tagged, we lose the whole game (Guard The King). Sometimes, when one of us gets tagged, we join the other team (Lemonade, Crows ‘n Cranes). Sometimes, we and they both have the power of tagging, and if we get tagged by the wrong guys (them) we are out of the game until we get tagged by the right guys (Prisoner’s Base, 5-10-Ringo).

If you don’t know any of the games mentioned, you can find them in most good children’s game anthologies. My point is that it's very useful for a simulation game designer to know the traditional games and the relationships they model.

The above games only begin to define some of the variables that can be played with. The result of each change is a new game, an expression of another aspect of the tag relationship.

Bernie DeKoven has spent more than thirty years developing new games and new technologies for collaboration. He combines fun, games and creativity with advanced facilitation technology to work with a wide range of businesses. For Deep Fun try

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