originally published July 24, 2012

When would be the perfect era to come of age?

To be college-age amid the debauchery of the 1960s? Old enough to drink illegally in the 1920s? Or should we envy the youth of today, who are growing up with a virtually endless trove of pornography but a mouse-click away?

I’m thinking that last one. I don’t know where my generation fits onto the chart, but I know we had it better than the poor saps who trickled into childhood a few years later. For us, the big thing was Star Wars. They had the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We had Atari, Intellivision, and that miraculous first time seeing how the Nintendo Entertainment System was going to absorb our free time like an insatiable sponge. They had… pogs.

That is a pog. For a time in the 1990s, kids wanted as many of these as they could cram into the pockets of their dungarees or stuff into the brims of their straw boater hats. To really understand why the public went all batty for these cardboard discs, we have to go back to where they started.

Pogs have a long and rich history, extending way before someone thought to adorn them with colorful cartoon characters or cross-platform marketable brand insignia. In fact, no one knows exactly where pogs come from.

The Japanese game of Menko is a distant relative of the modern pog. I use ‘modern’ in a relative context here; even though almost no one invests time and money into poggery these days, the Menko craze in Japan dates back a couple centuries. Early cards featured depictions of ninjas or samurai, as opposed to Ninja Turtles and… I don’t know, ALF?

In the 1920s, kids in Hawaii began playing with milk caps. The game was somewhat similar to marbles, in that everyone played with fundamentally identical pieces. I suppose since the original caps were made out of cardboard they could be customized with a pen and some imagination – kids had more imagination back then. Also, pens. The object was to best your opponent and take his milk caps as a reward. The winner would celebrate with a mountain of new milk caps, while the loser would still be happy because he lives in fucking Hawaii.

Fast-forward to Oahu in 1991, where Waialua Elementary School teacher Blossom Galbiso looked around at the recess activities, and found that some of the children’s games – notably the one in which the object was to throw a ball at another kid as hard as humanly possible – were perhaps not ideally suited for nurturing sportsmanship, learning, and a lack of visible scars. She introduced the kids to the milk cap game from her childhood. In fact, she used the game to teach her grade five classes math.

The game was named in honor of this stuff:

That’s POG juice, made from Passionfruit, Orange and Guava. POG caps were ideal for this game, which spread from the islands to mainland North America with a speed and intensity that I would consider quite stunning by pre-Internet standards. Within two years, pogs were the hottest fad going.

The beauty of the pog is its surface as a blank canvas. Unlike previous youth trends, which were either tied in to a specific marketing strategy (my precious childhood Millennium Falcon), unfit for adornment beyond the colors of the spectrum (marbles), or designed as a specific collectible (baseball cards), the pog was, aesthetically speaking, unclaimed ground. Apart from sports stars and the generic discs that feature Pogman, the official POG mascot, anyone and everyone who wanted a chunk of the kid-money market was lining up to slap their brand on a series of pogs. You could get pogs decorated with any number of relics from that era:

  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
  • The Tick, animated series
  • Ren & Stimpy
  • Pokemon
  • Spongebob Squarepants
  • Goosebumps kids’ novels
  • The Simpsons

And so on. D.A.R.E. made anti-drug pogs, because if one inanimate cardboard disc can keep a kid from huffin’ paint, it would be worth the effort. The Boyscouts of America had pogs, so did Black History Month. Every fast-food chain gave them out with kiddie meals. You could even find pogs with beer logos on them, which seems like a bizarre misstep in marketing to me.

Somewhere in the midst of all these collectible chunks of future trash was an actual game, just as there’s a forgotten game at the heart of all sorts of fads: Pokemon, Magic: The Gathering, NFL Football (I just want to see if Tony Romo stays happy after losing Jessica Simpson!). The game of pogs is astoundingly simple. (despite this rather amusing video evidence to the contrary)

Everyone enters the game with their own stash of pog discs and something called a pog slammer.

The players pitch in their pogs, stacking them up face-down in the middle of the table, or professional pogging arena, or whatever. The slammer is made out of a heavier substance – metal or rubber if you were lucky enough to have parents who didn’t care how much they spent on stupid toys for their kids, but more likely hard plastic.

One player throws his slammer down on the pile, which will cause some pogs to flip over amidst the debris. Those are collected by the thrower and kept, the rest are re-stacked for the other player to try. So the game is essentially just throwing stuff at stuff, then keeping the stuff that happened to land face-up.

The original milk cap pogs often had staples in the middle, which made for a more random element of bouncery. Still, losing a plain white stapled milk cap probably hurt a lot less than losing that prized Ric Flair pog you picked up at Carl’s Jr.

Many schools saw the game of pogs as a form of gambling, probably because that’s exactly what it is. The fad doubled in popularity once it started getting banned from schools all over the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Germany and the UK. Now not only was it a game where kids could admire Wolverine or Batman’s face before throwing it as hard as they could, but it was also illegal. Outside the rules.

It’s almost a wonder they didn’t stay popular. But times moved on quickly, and cardboard-based amusements were on their way out.

Like anything else, of course, they’ll be back. Probably with the cast of Jersey Shore depicted on them. I think I’ll set up my pog table in my fireplace.

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