Four square for grown-ups?

Childhood games like tag, dodgeball and rock paper scissors are being reclaimed by adults. Is there some deep societal reason why people are returning to kiddie fun?

Published June 28, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

I had a plan. It was a good plan, a solid plan, one I felt sure would outfox and overwhelm the champion. When the time came for our big match, I'd step forward timidly, my expression and stance a picture of submission. Maybe I'd twitch. Then with a go-ahead from the ref, I'd unleash a devastating assault.

Rock, rock, rock.

The mighty fist of rock, thrown three times to the exclusion of a single peaceful paper or crafty scissors -- it was a reckless move, aggressive and obnoxious and sure to rattle the battle-hardened winner of the first annual $50,000 USA Rock Paper Scissors League championship.

That's right: They're now giving 50 grand to players of rock paper scissors, a kids game that's mostly played to settle such high-stakes disputes as who rides shotgun. Ridiculous, I know. But I can't help it -- I feel an irrational attachment to any game that poses a negligible risk of injury and allows me to drink margaritas while playing it. So even though I hadn't qualified for the tournament and had no chance of actually taking home the big money, I did the next-best thing: I worked out a deal to fly to Vegas and play the winner in a best-of-three showdown.

I'd always thought of rock paper scissors as a game of pure chance, so I was puzzled at the discovery of what is called "advanced RPS strategy." Along with a bestselling strategy guide, self-styled RPS experts claim to possess mathematical and even spiritual techniques that can be used to read an opponent and beat the odds. "It's like any great sport," explained tournament promoter Matti Leshem. "When you're well prepared and in the zone and totally focused, you can feel what your opponent is going to throw."

Lacking the time or patience to develop the sort of Jedi oneness with the universe Leshem described, I settled for a quick primer on basic "combination moves" like the Scissor Sandwich (paper, scissor, paper) and the Fistful of Dollars (rock, paper, paper), before deciding on the balls-out gambit known as the Avalanche (rock, rock rock). He'd never know what hit him.

All that pre-game confidence was shaken, however, just before the match when I fell into a conversation with an RPS veteran who'd made it to the final eight from a field of 500. "If all your moves are set in advance, you're fried," advised Kristina Hartman, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep in a fetching white cowboy hat. Hartman claimed her IQ had been tested at 172, all the better for employing "profiling strategies" and "pattern algorithms." Now the Mensa Cowgirl let me in on a secret: Any experienced RPS player would see my all-rock routine coming a mile away. My genius plan, it turned out, was a total rookie move.

I'd do better, she advised, if I made quick intuitive judgments in response to little things like my opponent's demeanor (tense players throw rock), stance (arms held at side are a good predictor of paper), or even accent (Southern girls throw scissors). Then again, such signs might be "false tells" from advanced players who would also, by the way, be simultaneously sizing me up, running me through a "13-point inspection" described by the RPS guru Master Roshambollah, a former phone psychic and Arthur Andersen researcher whose only advice to me was, "Don't throw paper first -- everyone knows print journalists throw paper first."

It was at that point, at the very moment when my pre-game certainty had crumbled away and been replaced by a complex matrix of guesses and second guesses that a tournament organizer approached and tapped me on the shoulder. The champion was ready for me.

By the time I got to him, Dave McGill looked like he'd just stumbled out of a heap of flaming wreckage. Which, in a way, he had -- McGill had been playing rock paper scissors for six hours straight, egged on by his girlfriend and an endless supply of free Bud Light. In the sudden glare of cameras from NBC and ESPN, the 30-year-old bartender from Omaha, Neb., turned belligerent, cursing liberally and, astonishingly, dissing the game that had just put $50,000 in his pocket.

"Rock paper scissors isn't even a sport," he spat. "A sport is catching a football or getting punched in the face. This is ridiculous."

Ridiculous? Was that just bravado meant to throw me off my game? And as we took our positions on either side of the official RPS referee, I watched the champ's face harden, focusing on that small but essential quantity of skill (5 percent? 2?) that had helped him triumph through a grueling 14 rounds of play. "Engage," called the ref.

And with that, the game was on.

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The specter of 500 adults competing in a televised rock paper scissors tournament may be disturbing -- one local columnist took it as proof that "the apocalypse is here" -- but it's not, in fact, all that unusual. Rock paper scissors is just one of many childhood pastimes that have been enthusiastically reclaimed in recent years by adults who should have, by any traditional standard, outgrown such juvenile nonsense eons ago.

Remember four square? That recess favorite in which you bounce a red playground ball around a blacktop grid? More than a dozen teams now compete in a New England adults-only league. New Yorkers now relive the glories of their window-smashing youth in one of three adult stickball leagues. Jump-rope is the specialty of Double Duchess, a California group whose members do acrobatic routines dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms. Then there's dodgeball, the gladiator contest of the schoolyard set that has, in a strange sort of media feedback loop, become a near-exact reproduction of the semipro fringe sport depicted as absurd comedy in the 2005 Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn comedy "Dodgeball." There's now an International Dodgeball Federation, an annual championship tournament and talk about introducing dodgeball as an Olympic event.

Easy to mock, absolutely. What's next: Candyland endorsement deals, ESPN hopscotch, skipping footwear by Nike? Regarded in passing, such games look kooky at best, and at worst pathetic. I mean, really: Have we become so desperate to recapture some remnant of our carefree childhoods that we'll ditch all vestiges of dignity the moment some geek in a SpongeBob shirt calls out, Olley olley oxen free?

But I'm not sure it's as sad as all that. To be perfectly honest, I was weirdly thrilled to learn that adults were reclaiming games I remembered from childhood, even if not all my memories were fond. One never quite recovers from the exquisite pain of waiting to be picked for P.E. and realizing it's just you, the chubby kids and the scab-eaters.

Still, I hadn't actually played most of these games since I was a kid, and the fact that they've been simultaneously revived by adults mostly left me mystified. What was going on here? What were so many otherwise reasonable adults getting out of games designed to satisfy the pint-size capabilities of children? Weren't these games mind-numbingly easy, or else so dependent on luck that winners were mostly arbitrary? And so I set out on a mission: to fan out across the country and go head-to-head with the most dedicated adult players of a few choice kid games. In so doing, I hoped to finally understand their appeal to adults, and along the way, heal some of the schoolyard scars from my own past. After all, I wasn't a scrawny, asthmatic kid anymore. And really, couldn't any reasonably in-shape, halfway cunning and sporadically intelligent adult kick ass in, say, a water-gun fight? Even, say, me?

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My double life as a water-gun assassin began with the arrival of a stack of "target dossiers" from the headquarters of StreetWars, a "watergun assassination tournament" that was having its inaugural run in Los Angeles after stints in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Vienna. Looking through the stack, one picture stood out. It was a blurry snapshot of a vaguely Matt Damon-ish character with a smoldering cigarette. He was local. He was smirking. And his name, if the dossier was to be believed, was Lane Kneedler.

That clinched it. Must. Get. Kneedler.

StreetWars is the latest, adult-geared incarnation of Assassin, a role-playing game that combines the strategy of hide-and-seek with the soft-core violence of paintball, and which has long been popular in summer camps and on college campuses. After studying my mark's profile, I now had three days to track down this total stranger and use the water-based weapon of my choice to take him out. I was entering the game late, admitted as a "rogue assassin" to help thin a field that had started three weeks earlier with 200 players. As such, I had the luxury of not being a target myself. But I had to abide by the same ground rules that applied to all players -- I couldn't attack my target at work, on public transportation or in a bar; among their many other charms, kid games played by adults offer a fine excuse to hook up with a bunch of like-minded adults and get loaded.

Before heading out, I sought the counsel of StreetWars' self-proclaimed Supreme Commander, a 30-year-old securities lawyer from New York named Franz Aliquo. My choice of weapon came first, Aliquo said; he favored the Flash Flood Super Soaker, with a shooting range comparable to some ICBMs. Far more important, however, was preparation. Surprise, he advised, is key. Some players spend days stalking their victim, learning their routines and even ingratiating themselves with friends before breaking cover and going for the kill. Others take a more dastardly and direct route, such as the TV director who learned his target was an aspiring actress. One call to her agent for an "audition" and she was as good as soaked. A simple water-gun fight it wasn't. Aliquo and his disciples had taken a kids game and amplified and complicated it to the point where it more closely resembled jumping into a summer action flick.

Not being a TV director or someone with an enormous amount of free time to devote to surveillance, I knew I had to come up with something to get past Kneedler's defenses in a hurry. Something I could use to my advantage. Something he'd least expect.

"Use my Brain Blaster," offered my 6-year-old son, Charlie, scurrying up to his room and returning with a nifty little water pistol emblazoned with a pulsing plastic brain. He'd won it as a prize for being good at the dentist, dear boy. The gun might come in handy. But the boy, I realized, could prove very useful indeed.

I promptly grabbed my new accomplice and hightailed it to Kneedler's work address, where we parked the minivan for our very first father-son stakeout. Our plan was to tail Kneedler when he left work and, as Charlie charmingly put it, "jump him" the first good opportunity we got. After a fruitless few hours, we headed out for some reconnaissance, casually pumping the lunch truck crowd for information. A co-worker eventually offered up a prime piece of intelligence: Kneedler, we were told, was home sick.

A half hour later we were in front of Kneedler's apartment with a get-well bouquet. Crouched under a staircase, Brain Blaster at the ready, I watched as Charlie marched up to the front door with the flowers, glowing like a Hallmark spokeskid. As he rang the bell, I felt my finger twitch on the trigger and my heart swell with pride. My boy was a natural stalker.

But then -- no one answered the door. He wasn't home. It wasn't until we got home and checked the StreetWars message board that we discovered the awful truth. Kneedler had looked out his window at work, made us as would-be assassins and sent his colleagues out to feed us a line. As much as I wanted to hate the guy -- what sort of paranoid loser would go to such lengths for a water-gun game? -- I was just as into it. And I had to hand it to him: Not only had we been spotted, we'd been duped.

I'd like to say things got better from there, but the truth is that subsequent attacks were even more pitiful. One night after a family dinner, I did a quick drive-by of Kneedler's place and brought my 4-year-old daughter to tears after leaping out of the car screaming, "Kneedler dies!" He wasn't home, of course, just like he wasn't home the morning I mistakenly opened fire on his skinny Asian roommate. And Kneedler, damn him all to hell, lived on.

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I may be a terrible assassin, but it just so happens I'm an outstanding zombie. This I learned one balmy evening a few days later, charging through a public park with my eyes rolled back in my head and arms outstretched in the classic zombie pose, picking off one competitor after another. The game was Zombie Tag, a variation of the venerable kid game in which "it" is recast as a zombie who turns everyone he touches into fellow members of the undead.

As dorky and dignity-stripping as it sounds, tag is also, it turns out, a hell of a lot of fun. Yes, there's some cringe-inducing make-believe involved, but once all traces of self-consciousness are stripped away, all that's left is the engrossing, primal thrill of chasing down packs of other people and dodging pursuers hot on your heels. It can even get pretty rough. After my early triumph as a Zombie, I got reckless in a game of Octopus Tag, in which tagged players sit on the ground and flail at free players. Dashing away from a 40-something videographer, I wheeled into the path of a fellow Octopus, who snagged my passing foot and sent me skidding to the turf. A short while later, in the final stages of Caramel Corn Tag, in which the "its" link arms in a giant chain, I found myself cornered by a phalanx of advancing players, all my possible routes of escape suddenly cut off. So I did what came naturally: I crumpled down into a fetal position and let out what I hoped was a mature, manly whimper.

That's the thing about adult tag: It may be fun, but it is in no way cool. I got an inkling just how uncool when I told a friend I was planning a trip to Kansas City, Mo., to play with the Tag Institute, a club devoted to the glories of all-ages tag. His reply: "God, that's gay."

Tag Institute founder Kate Schurman has heard it all before, but it's a measure of either stubbornness or obliviousness that she doesn't particularly care. A sweet-faced 26-year-old, Schurman loves tag like she loves Oscar the Grouch, old-school Popeye cartoons and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. There's no kitsch or self-consciousness at work; she simply never outgrew this stuff. Schurman was working as the manager of a law office when she dreamed up the institute as a sort of weekly play date for grown-ups. Finding fellow adults who shared her enthusiasm took a bit of doing -- even friends in a local dodgeball league scoffed -- but pretty soon a regular crowd began showing up for the Wednesday night game. On the night I played, the group numbered about 30 and included a tattoo artist named Scott, a sensible soccer mom, her 9-year-old daughter, a few wisecracking college kids, and Schurman's 53-year-old mom.

No matter that they all look like what one player called "escapees from an asylum or rehab clinic." During an intense game known as Cougars and Horses, I found myself galloping and whinnying like a wild colt, in pursuit of players who were leaping and growling like big cats. Pausing to catch my breath, I noticed we'd attracted the attention of a couple of women out for a power walk, a high-performance cardiovascular workout that I've always enjoyed stopping to sneer at. But today, to my astonishment, the power walkers had stopped to stare at me, and not at all in a supportive, isn't-that-cute way. It's some measure of how fully invested in all-ages tag I had become that in that moment, I had to stop myself from hollering, "I'm not the freak -- you're the freak!"

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Hopes of redemption ran high on my arrival in Norfolk, Va., an unremarkable industrial port well known as a bustling Navy town and lesser known as a hotbed of adult kickball.

Here, at last, was a game I had some real experience playing. Back in the mid-'90s I fell in with a bunch of other floundering creative types who gathered on Sunday afternoons on a scrubby little league diamond to work off hangovers playing what might charitably be described as softball for dummies.

I can't, however, pretend to be even remotely impartial about kickball. I adore the game, not only because I met a deeply funny, improbably available young hottie on one of those bleary Sunday afternoons; not only because I proposed to that woman by planting a diamond ring inside a kickball and dropping to one knee on home plate ... but also because I happen to be a goddamn decent kickball player. At least I thought so, before I was given a spot on the lineup of the Tiki Titans, one of the best adult kickball squads in the country.

The Titans are one of 30 teams in the Norfolk area and one of 1,000 in the World Adult Kickball Association, an international league with an official line of merchandise, a lineup of corporate sponsors (Miller Lite: the official beer of kickball!) and, in a final sign of its maturity, legal troubles. (WAKA filed a copyright infringement suit in February against DCKickball, one of several upstart leagues attempting to muscle into the booming adult kickball market.)

This was kickball as I'd never imagined. There were pre-game drills, rosters, umpires, team chants and a fellow on the sidelines introduced as a "kicking strategist." My other new teammates included a scrappy car customizer, a maternal real estate investor and an earnest cub reporter for a local newspaper. Others were classic jocks and military types, but looking around at the pitcher in the yellow afro wig and the girl at first base with the feather boa, I got the sense that most were the sorts of theatrical geeks and hipsters who never much cared for high school athletics but who still had a thing or two to prove on the field. "Three up!" hollered the 6-foot-7 team captain, an airline manager named Jeff. "Three down!" came the team's thunderous reply. It was all very gung-ho, but also decidedly goofy. This was a team, after all, that competed in the national championships with matching purple Mohawks. In a misguided attempt to fit in, my pre-game warmup included the application of a thick coat of purple fluorescent hair spray.

Sadly, my new purple do did nothing to dampen the dawning awareness that I was no longer, in fact, a kickball badass. Which was quickly demonstrated on my first appearance at the plate with a girly pop fly back to the pitcher. Out in the field an inning later, I found myself protecting second base against a runner with a crew cut and exposed, bulbous biceps. He charged at me, huffing and puffing like a bull. Then, with all the bravery I could muster, I threw my arms forward, gripping the big red polka-dot like a battle-ax, and tagged his chest.

I'd done it -- I'd tagged him out! My brief moment of glory was interrupted by a lot of shouting, which I didn't particularly understand but which had something to do with how second base had somehow, in the course of my spastic maneuver, been moved a good 4 feet away from its original position. The runner was called out, but I knew the truth, a truth all-too-vividly expressed in Mr. Biceps' furious mug as he stabbed his finger toward me and yelled, "Dipshit moved the bag! Dipshit moved the bag!"

And just like that the goofiness vanished and I was a scrawny, asthmatic fifth-grader, cowering before a kickball bully. I felt a tremendous surge of relief, then, when a freak thunderstorm cleared the field and the crowd of 300 packed up their gear and headed for a downtown bar.

Nursing a beer while my teammates got down to a serious night of partying and flirting, it struck me that I'd learned what I needed to know about the appeal of kid games to adults. Of course kid games are ridiculous; they can also be incredibly involving and competitive, as evidenced by the number of RPS Bobby Fishers and kickball Wilt Chamberlains, die-hards whose obsessions have driven them far through the looking glass, long past any trace of irony or nostalgia. But all in all, fun is the only real point of these games. Remember fun? That's that engrossing, anarchic thing that began seeping out of most professional sports around the time of free agent drafts, merchandise tie-ins and doping scandals, the thing that comes so naturally to kids and that adults lost sight of the moment recreation became all about competition, self-improvement and status-accrual. After all, no matter how much money and meaning we invest in our tennis serve or whether the Patriots make the playoffs, we all know that none of it actually matters. All sports are ultimately ridiculous. The beauty of kid games is how they make a mockery of all attempts to take any of this shit too seriously.

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Back in Las Vegas, I considered myself blessed that a seasoned RPS vet had talked some sense into me before I trotted out my lame all-rock plan. Not that I had a better strategy, but as the game began I felt a weird surge of confidence.

Five throws later, it was over. I'd won.

All I can recall now was a moment before the deciding throw, zeroing in on the champ's clenched jaw and suddenly recalling a bit of advice -- tense players throw rock! -- and in a move that briefly obscured a thousand childhood humiliations, laying down the open palm of paper.

By Christopher Noxon

Christopher Noxon is a Los Angeles-based writer and contributor to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Playboy. An archive of his stories is available here.

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