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Some Views on Technology - Why Do Children Around the World Like "play tag"?


"Play tag" is a game that all the children in the world like to play. Even though it is simplest of games, it has its own rules. As an explanation for the widespread incidence of "play tag" worldwide, it is more reasonable to consider that the human being is an animal that plays "play tag" in the infant stage rather to consider this incidence the result of the game spreading from one region to another. Young Japanese monkeys raised by humans play a kind of relay game in which they pull branches and chase one another. In this game, the monkey with the object runs away while others who have nothing give chase; when a chaser takes the object from the escaping monkey, the chaser will then run away. Based on a similarity in rules and structure, some scholars think this game may be the origin of "play tag." Neither monkeys nor humans are innately able to play rule-based games, but this game appears spontaneously in "abundant" groups. A game such as "pulling branches and chasing" is one that changed considerably after the origin of human species, and has since maintained distribution worldwide.


The Japanese picture scroll, Choju jimbutsu giga (Caricatures with frolicking animals) of the early 12th century and Peter Brueghel's painting, Children's Games of 1560 depict a variety of games. Viewing these games and recalling my own childhood, I am intrigued by their rich diversity and the similarities among different countries and different periods. We discover that although groups in different places and with different cultures have their own distinctive games, they also have very similar games. The games may appear in the same periods or in different periods. (Aoyanagi, 1977; Obayashi et al., 1998; Huizinga, 1938 and Mori, 1989). One such game is "play tag." Many variations have been reported by native researchers[1] (Obayashi et al., 1998). Not only children today, but also children in ancient Japan, China and Europe, etc., played "play tag". It is also depicted in Choju jimbutsu giga (Caricatures with frolicking animals) and Children's Games (Komatsu, 1987; Sakai, 1935; Matsumura, 1907; Mori, 1989; Yanagida, 1976). There seem to be no nations where this game is not played. Why is "play tag" so popular among children all over the world?

The prototype of "play tag"

There are countless varieties of "play tag," all of which may be derived from a simple prototype after adding various factors and conditions (Hanzawa, 1980). As such, we only need to consider the problem through the prototype of "play tag."

In one description of play tag, one child becomes the oni (Japanese demon)or the "it" who then chases the other children. When one child is caught, he or she becomes the new oni. This may be the simplest form of "play tag." There are two important points in this description. First, there are two rules if "play tag" is to be established as a game: one is that a "candidate" is required and the other is that the candidate must be replaced. Furthermore, all children in the game must agree on this. Second, the oni is the role of the person who chases, and this is different from the concept of the oni found in Japanese folklore (Origuchi, 2000).

Even the simplest prototype of "play tag" has rules. It is different from a mere "chasing" game, in which the children only run and chase each other (Kanda, 1991). It is the existence of the rules that allows the game to continue as one child chases the others (oni vs. other children).

Play tag can then be defined as a kind of chasing game to which some rules have been added, and it is these rules that make the chasing continuous.

Hypothesis on the origin of "play tag"

There are two views regarding the distribution of "play tag" in the world. One view considers that "play tag" spread from one region, while the other view considers humankind to be a kind of animal that plays the "play tag" during the period of infancy. The latter view seems more reasonable (Brown, 1991).

If the second view is correct, the origin of "play tag" may be earlier than that of humankind. In this case, it would be possible to observe "play tag" among animals that have the same ancestors as humans. But is this kind of "play tag" found among animals? If play tag were to be found among animals, it would be at most a prototype of "play tag."

In this article, the author describes the games of Japanese monkeys to verify this hypothesis and conducts further research on "play tag."

The games of the Japanese monkeys

Monkeys also play games, usually in the period of babyhood (0 year old) and infancy (1-3 years old). If we observe monkeys in a wild monkey park, we can see that young monkeys, in fact, play many games. They play in all kinds of places, such as in open spaces, wooded areas, and ponds. There were many situations when little monkeys involved in solitary play (playing independently). This included playing with movement such wallowing and running, as well as playing with objects like stones and rubbish discarded by humans (Iya, 1954).

Among these games, the most intriguing were the social games that little monkeys played in which they chased each other in various fields in the park. In fact, we know that the social games, which consist primarily of two types, chasing and fighting, are frequently played by the children of quadrumanas (Hayaki, 1990; Fagen, 1981; Symons, 1978). As such, this kind of chasing game without rules is a commonly played by many quadrumanas, including humans. But among the social games of the Japanese monkeys, are there any games that have rules identical to "play tag"?

The "pulling branches and chasing" game of the Arashiyama E group

There is a group of Japanese monkeys raised by humans at Arashiyama in the Arashiyama monkey park in Kyoto City, called the Arashiyama E group [2]. Among them we can observe a kind of game in which monkeys scramble for an object, usually branches, but sometimes a PET bottle, etc.

The monkey with the branch will escape to protect his branch, and one or more monkeys will chase him to take the branch. The escaping monkey sometimes runs with the branch in its mouth, and sometimes escapes by swinging under huge branches, which have a lot of leaves and are larger than his body.

Generally speaking, the grown Japanese monkeys do not dispute the ownership of objects. Nor have young monkeys been observed to seriously quarrel over objects. For this reason, we can assume that young monkeys are playing games. This "pulling branches and chasing" game, once started, will involve more than ten monkeys, who repeatedly leave the group and join in. They have been observed to enthusiastically play with one object for more than 20 minutes. [3]

According to the author's research in 2000, there is a definite rule in this game. The rule stipulates that the monkey holding an object will escape while others with nothing will chase the escaping monkey to take the object away. When one of them gets the object, he will become the new escaping monkey. While this rule may seem natural, it could not have been occurred naturally.

First, 0 year old monkeys are not able to chase the monkey holding the branch, and they cannot escape when they are holding the branch. More often than 0 year old monkeys, 1 year old monkeys tend to become the chasers, but they are unable to escape at once because they are not very adept at running away after they get the branch. That is, "pulling branches and chasing" is not an innate skill of monkeys, but they learn it gradually with increasing age as they participate in the game.

During this game, maintaining interest in the object held by the escaping monkey is important. This does not mean, however, that any object will suffice. In fact, two or more objects are not usually used in the game, unless the branch breaks. That is, the monkeys are only interested in what is held by the escaping monkey that others do not have. This is the interest that maintains the game.

In addition, in order to continue the game, the escaper with the object must successfully escape the chasers who do not have anything, but this is, in fact, impossible. On the other hand, if he is not being chased by anyone, the escaper will lose interest in the object in hand. He will then approach some monkeys to incite them to chase him. It thus appears that the escaper wants to perform the "escaping" duty.

According to these observations, in "pulling branches and chasing," there are two complementary tasks: the monkey holding something is the escaper; the monkeys holding nothing are the chasers. When the holder of the object changes, the task simultaneously changes. This suggests that young monkeys master the game by studying the relationship between the object and task.

"Pulling branches and chasing" and "play tag"

Many differences are observed when the "pulling branches and chasing" of the monkeys is compared with the prototype of "play tag" played by humans. In "pulling branches and chasing," the task is decided by the "thing"; while in "play tag" it decided by the definition of oni or "it." In the former, there is only one escaper and the others become chasers correspondingly, while in the latter, it is the reverse. Furthermore, participants are free to join and leave the game in the former, while in the commonly played form of "play tag," it is played by a fixed group of children (Hanzawa, 1980).

Nevertheless, between two games, there are some similar important factors that decide the structure of the game. Both games have complementary tasks and rules on alternation. Participants must obey the rules to maintain the basic configuration (one vs. many) while playing. Both monkeys and humans master these rules by studying.

Based on the above, "pulling branches and chasing" can be considered to be the origin of the prototype for "play tag."

Mechanism of the birth of "play tag"

In animal colonies raised artificially, animals receive highly nutritious food from humans and become energetic, so the birthrate increases and the number of young animals who then become playmates increases as well. Furthermore, because grown animals can rest around the feeding area for a longer time, the young animals are able to continue playing for a longer time. This, however, does not take place in normal wild animal colonies. The fact that there is a degree of surplus in factors that restrict game playing, such the amount of energy, playmates, time, etc., seems to represent what we can call "abundance."

Games like "chasing each other" can be observed in all kinds of Japanese monkey groups. The "pulling branches and chasing" game, however, has only been reported among the young monkeys of the monkey groups raised or fed by humans while there are still no such reports regarding the wild monkey groups [4]. Therefore, we can conclude that "pulling branches and chasing" began and was played among young monkeys in "abundant" groups. They added rules to the simple game of chasing, that is, using an object in the game, the complementary tasks within the game, and alternating roles. They then passed the rules on to next generation. On the other hand, abundance is a necessary condition for producing this game.

We can consider that this "pulling branches and chasing" game occurred spontaneously within the "abundant" groups according to a mechanism similar to a prototype of "play tag." Of course, "abundance" does not exist in all Japanese monkey groups and all quadrumanas, but we can say that it exists in all human societies. The chasing game appears to be an innate one among humans, and as seen in the example of the game among young monkeys, rules are then made which allow the game to continue.[5]


Why do children all over the world like playing "play tag"? This author's opinion is as follows. Considering the fact that there are rules in the "pulling branches and chasing" game played by young Japanese monkeys, the source of prototype of "play tag" can be traced back to a time before the common ancestors of humans and Japanese monkeys. We can consider that if they had "abundance," both humans and monkeys would develop the children's game of chasing according to certain rules. After humankind appeared, linguistic and symbolic meanings (oni and children) were assigned to the different tasks (escaper and chasers) within the prototype. From that time, different variations of the prototype appeared throughout the world and remain to the present.

Some have considered the origin of "play tag" to be a kind of practice in which children imitated adults when the adults held a ceremony to chase away the devil (Tom, 1935; Yanagida, 1976), but I consider that the concept of oni derived from "play tag" that children played for enjoyment. In this game, the chasing task is given the name oni. This appears to be the true origin of the Japanese "play tag" game.

This article adopted the viewpoint of "biologism" and used it to look at an activity of children and to imagine the children of distant ancestors of humans playing "play tag." What a pleasant idea it is!

[1] This is a game with a meaning is similar to English word "tag." By using database [Humankind Relational Area File (HRAF)] supplied by Yale which contains all kinds of human social information. We can affirm that "play tag (tag)" is a game found worldwide.
[2] Until the summer of 2004, in Arashiyama Iwatayama monkey park, there were about 157 artificially raised monkeys, 26 of them were children from 1 year old to 3 years old.
[3] Both the "pulling branches and chasing" game and other social games (such as chasing and playing in groups) of young Japanese monkey are based on the animation of [The video database of animals' activity (MOMO)] provided by Japanese Animal Kinematic Institute. See also (
[4] Up to now, for observing "pulling branches and chasing" game, besides the Arashiyama E monkey group, the subjects also included the artificially fed group, Oita-ken Takazakiyama group (Iya, 1954), and the main monkey group in Miyazaki-ken Happy Island (author's observation), the Yaku monkey group in the Japanese monkey center at Aichi-ken, etc. On the other hand, it is very difficult to confirm the existence of a monkey group in which "pulling branches and chasing" cannot be observed, although this is still being investigated now.
[5] According to this deduction, we conclude that if there is no "abundance" among human children, there is no "play tag." However, this opinion still requires more research in the future.


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