from frieze november/december 1995
Playing for Keeps
If the first five years are any indication, the 90s is not going to be a banner decade for kids. From the astronomical increase in American children living in poverty to the starving youth of Sub-Saharan Africa to the extermination of girls in China and boys in the Balkans, kids have taken the brunt of the evil running amok at the end of the 20th century. In an effort to alleviate some of this disruption, grown-ups have been working overtime to get kids involved—helping with ecological cleanups, writing letters, making pictures, describing their own lives. Writing essays may be how kids speak to their elders, but when they want to speak to each other, kids use games. Adults have more important things to do than to listen into
the mysterious conversations of game playing, which is probably just as well.
Kids especially love the elaborate economies and desirable objects of representational games, even if much of their visual character originates in grown-up culture. Marbles were the representational game of the 40s and 50s, and just like the prevalent reasoning in visual art at the time, marbles were beautiful abstract symbols, part geometric universal, part organic specificity. Marbles could be played anywhere by anyone, but in fact were mostly played by boys who defined the game not for the beauty of its objects but by the blustering skill it took to get on top. In the 60s and 70s, marbles gave way to bubble-gum trading cards. Like the grown-up art world of those decades, trading cards were decidedly American, exclusively pop, and obsessed with the cult of celebrity. Unlike marbles, bubble-gum cards were exchanged through trading. In the 80s bubble-gum trading became a complicated system of scarcity and demand, resulting in a tremendous boom in which small fortunes were made and lost. Sound familiar? When trading cards crossed over into mainstream grown-up culture, kids were left looking for a picture game to call their own.
Enter POGs, the product of a Hawaiian school teacher named Blossom Galbiso. In 1991, remembering a milk-cap game she had played as a child, Galbiso collected caps from a local juice drink and had her class decorate them on one side with pictures. The name POG was actually the brand name of the juice drink, an acronym for Passion fruit, Orange and Guava. Spread by word of mouth, POGs soon showed up in California and the rest of North America. An adult may have invented POGs but kids made them the current picture game of choice. By 1994 the game had become so popular that many schools in the US and Canada had banned POGs from school grounds. Police have actually been called in to disperse POG rings blocking sidewalk traffic.
Realizing their economic potential, entrepreneur Alan Rypinski tried to corner the market by buying the copyright to the name POG from the Hawaiian juice company and setting up an exclusive POG production and distribution system under the name World POG Federation (WPF). Even though the WPF has taken out large ads in the Wall Street Journal threatening to sue any company it finds making and selling POGs, small companies have replied by marketing their POGs as 'milkcaps' and kids still make their own. Like zines, alternative music, and hotel-room exhibitions, POGs have
remained stubbornly decentralized and cheap (20 POGs cost as little as $1.50)
The pictures on POGs are not only their greatest selling point, but are also part of the reason they remain so inexpensive. There are no photographic representations, meaning none of the added time and expense of reproduction rights, agents' fees, permission forms, and escalating celebrity value. (Actually the WPF has been marketing copywritten characters such as The Fantastic Four and The Simpsons, but these WPF POGs are a small percentage of the thousands of POGs filling any hobby store bin.) The overriding majority of POGs use non-copyright figurative icons: animals, maps, generic athletes, words, etc. Rendered in an endless variety of visual languages from hand drawings to computer-generated patterns, POGs have no single aesthetic but exist in a seemingly infinite and uncontrollable number of versions.
The result of this representational play and image economics is that POG pictures skip over the specific data of reality (photographs of sports stars and starving babies) and move on to the larger, more abstract forces that shape the world (icons and universal symbols). Some of these powers are hopeful or neutral such as the yin-yang symbol of balance, but most POGs are about the dark side of fate. Although silhouetted antelopes and line-art sailing ships abound, skulls— the symbol for poisons of all kinds—are everywhere. Almost as popular is pool's eight ball, with its connotation of impending personal crisis. Even Christianity reverts to its lowest common denominators of pain—spikes and crowns of thorns. There may
be a few happy faces, but there are no happy endings in the most popular POG pictures, only the continuous reminder of various dangers lurking just around the corner.
The actual economy of POGs—the way they change hands from one child to another—also embodies an awareness of forces outside the range of human action. To begin the game, each player places the same amount of POGs picture-side down in a vertical pile. Each then takes turns dropping a slightly heavier POG (known as a “slammer') on the stack. The POGs that flip over picture side up belong to the player dropping the slammer. The rest go back into a stack and the next player takes his or her turn. Even though the WPF spends a lot of time explaining the intricacies of dropping and the optimum type of playing surface, the fact is that POGs is almost entirely a game of chance. Big kids, little kids, boys, and girls all sit around the circle equally powerless to affect the outcome. The player with the most POGs may win the game, but exactly why any player wins remains inexplicable, unpredictable, more a working of fateful accident than of talent, knowledge, or accomplishment.
It's not surprising that kids should be carrying on these discussions about life, death, and fate at a time when a special commission to the New York City School Board has reported that many New York school buildings are in such ill repair that a child could lose his of her life from falling beams or plaster simply by going to school. What is surprising is that kids continue talking at all—to anyone, about anything. POGs are proof not only that kids know and discuss a lot more than we give them credit for but also that games provide something grown-up culture can't seem to find—a way to look an incomprehensible and unforgiving fate in the eye and play.