Kick the Can vs. Capture the Flag: What Is the Best Game of Tag?

Efficient fun under the sun.
Aug. 24 2014 9:15 PM

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.



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