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How Fun Is Tag to Play With Kids?

Not very, but freeze tag is, according to our expert guide—inspired by ‘Tag’ the movie—on which games you should play with children, and which ones to avoid

Alycea Tinoyan

There’s tag the game, and there’s Tag the assistant (the guy who Rachel briefly had a thing with on Friends), and there’s Tag the movie, which opens Friday. The following is about tag the game:

The rules of tag are simple: A person is chosen to be “it.” The it person chases after other people. If the it person is able to touch another person, then that person becomes the new it person. Occasionally, a “base” will be included as part of the game. So long as you are touching base, you can’t become it. But other than that, that’s it. That’s all. Those are all the rules of tag. That’s all that tag is.

As an adult and a father, tag is (mostly) a bad game. At the moment, it is only fun to play with one of my three children, and soon enough it will be fun to play with zero of my three children. What I mean is: Right now, two of my sons are 11 and the other one is 5. It’s fun to play tag with the 5-year-old because, really, he only wants to run away from you long enough to get excited about being caught. In fact, sometimes he’ll just stand still and giggle and yell as you run toward him because he knows that, rather than just tagging him, I’m always going to pick him up and tickle him some and then throw him onto a bed or a couch. It’s adorable and he’s adorable.

Catching the 11-year-olds, though, is this whole other thing. They’re tall and slender and agile and have legs that reach to their necks. If I’m chasing them and they decide to turn on the big engines, then I’m fucked. There’s nothing I can do about it, short of throwing something at their feet and hoping it trips them. (I honestly had no idea that we’d gotten to this point in our father-son[s] relationship until a few weeks ago. We were at the beach and one of them threw what was supposed to be a ball of sand at me but really was just a handful of muck. It splatted against my back. I turned around, saw him, then sprinted off after him so I could pick him up and bodyslam him into the ocean. It’s an exchange that’s taken place many, many times these past few years. But he was just too fast for me catch that time. And what’s worse: He figured out that he was actually too fast for me and that it wasn’t one of those situations where I was letting him escape. He was running and he was afraid and then all of a sudden he was running and in control of the situation and laughing a great deal about it. He shouted things backward toward me like, “Come on, Daddy,” or “Try to keep up, Daddy.” And those barbs stung. It was the laughing, though; it was the laughing that stuck out the most.)

There’s a variation of tag called freeze tag that, while not an out-and-out good game to play with children, is better than regular tag. In freeze tag, rather than transferring the it-ness to someone you’ve touched, instead you “freeze” them so they have to stand there still until either (a) a non-it person touches them and unfreezes them, or (b) the person who’s it successfully freezes everyone, thus winning the game. I like freeze tag more than regular tag because when we play it I can just freeze the tinier child and then hover around him until one of the other two works up the courage to charge in to try to unfreeze him. There’s still running involved, but it’s a tactical game, really. There’s strategy involved beyond just “be fast.” I’m not faster than an 11-year-old anymore, but I’m still smarter than one, you know what I’m saying?

Like tag, video games are conditionally fun to play with children. If it’s a game that scrolls either left to right on the screen (like, say, old Super Mario Bros. games or NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat) or up and down on the screen (like, say, NFL Blitz), then I’m good. If it’s a game where you can move in all directions then it’s a wrap for me. (The 11-year-olds have taken to playing Fortnite lately with great regularity. We take turns playing. You start a game or match or campaign or whatever it’s called and you get to play until you die. My turns usually last somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Their turns last something like, I think, seven or eight hours.)

Tic-tac-toe is a game that is still fun to play with children. It requires zero running, which is great for me, and also you only have to be moderately smart to figure out the strategy in which, no matter what, you can never, ever lose, which is also great for me. Card games are good for the same reason, as is loteria, which is basically bingo for Mexicans except rather than using little balls for the bingo numbers, cards are used, meaning it’s very easy to cheat at it.

Regarding board games, that’s a case-by-case basis. It goes:

  • Monopoly: A good one because it’s complicated enough that, should you end up in a pinch, you can usually lie your way through it and be fine. (This goes both ways. You can lie your way into letting a child win the game and you can lie your way into letting yourself win the game against a child.)
  • Trouble: A bad one for exactly the opposite reason (it’s not quite complicated enough to confuse kids, and also the dice-inside-the-bubble thing makes it hard to cheat when you need to roll a specific number).
  • Battleship: A good one.
  • Checkers: A good one.
  • Chess: A bad one (mostly because it’s boring enough that the only kids interested in playing it are ones who know they’re going to destroy your whole life as soon as you sit across from them).
  • Candy Land: Both good (it’s over quickly) and bad (it requires exactly zero skill, which means there’s always a chance you can genuinely lose to a child in it, and genuinely losing to a child is always the very worst thing).
  • Life: Same as Monopoly.
  • Operation: A good one because kids have shaky hands, and shaky hands are a death sentence in Operation.
  • Scrabble: A good one, assuming that your kid is not in any sort of AP English class, in which case it’s the fucking worst.
  • Connect Four: Probably the best one. It’s fast. It rewards planning (but doesn’t need the sort of advanced-level planning that a game like, say, Risk requires). It rewards risk (without ever really penalizing you for it). And, should you find yourself about to lose, it’s flimsy enough that you can “accidentally” knock it over with your big, dumb, clumsy paw.

Legos are fun to play with when you’re not with a kid and the worst to play with when you are. (If a kid asks you to play Legos with them, really what they’re asking you to do is sit there and build exactly what they want in exactly the way that they want, and also your main responsibility is pulling apart the flat Legos that are too hard for little kids to pull apart, and also, should you actually end up getting to really “play” Legos you don’t get to use any of the good pieces, only the leftover ones that nobody wants.)

Sports are the same as tag, in that they’re fun to play with children until the children can legitimately beat you, at which point they become the least fun thing of all. Really, that’s probably what’s central here: Any game that you can play where you’re good enough at it that you can let a kid win if you want to is a fun game, and any game that you can play where you’re not good enough to do that is a bad thing. That’s what it is.

So: Fuck tag.