Steve Woods

Tag and the Social Media Contract

In What Day is it? on October 8, 2009 at 8:52 pm
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”  – Plato

“Want to play tag with us?”

Learning to fulfill social contracts...

Learning to fulfill social contracts...

Today is National Tag Day. Tag is the first, most basic, and most popular of all early playground games.  At its bare essence, Tag requires no equipment, only the desire of a group of children to be together in play.  Psychologically, the traditional game of Tag, as played by the average Kindergartener, is an incredible growing experience, preparing the child to navigate the social grey-areas of our complicated grown-up world.


Learning from Tag

The next time you’re relaxing in a park, enjoying the sunshine and cool breezes, watch children playing Tag. If you see the game begin, you see the immediate establishment of a home “base,” where any kid is safe from becoming “It,”  for as long as they hold on.  One of the kids volunteers (or is simply named) “It.” The nature of children is to not think out the rules too deeply, as the impetus of play calls to them, draws them all together, and feeds on their excitement. Tag begins in a frenzy, as children run in all directions, screaming in glee for the beginning of a new experience, hands reaching out furtively at each other’s backs. What happens next in Tag is what you should really pay attention to, because it helped shaped who you are, within a larger societal perspective.  It helped define quite a bit about how you behave at home, at work, on the road, in Love, and even here in Social Media…

Playing the Rules of Tag


Learning to be like us...

Learning to be like us...

The most important part of Tag, the part that helps a child grow within the social microcosm of the playground, lies within the fluidity of its very rules.  As soon as the first transfer of “It” happens, the children instinctually begin “playing” the rules, rather than the game itself.  You can hear it happen by the shouts of  “You didn’t touch me!,”  “I’m safe!,”  “You can’t touch my clothes, you have to touch my body!,” or “You ran out of bounds!”  It is as though our children are taking a playground break from Law school, engulfed in interpretation of increasingly complicated outdoor social contracts.  And like lawyers, responses are shouted, rebuttals are heard, and settlements agreed upon.  All for the sake of continuing Tag.


tag_quoteThe more rigid of us, those that require firm rules in our lives, will consider much of this back-and-forth as child-like pettiness, or even cheating.  It’s not either of these.  Our children are constantly experimenting with social boundaries, figuring out the limits of both Tag and Life, and what must change in each to keep it going, to make it enjoyable.  Tag is amorphous in nature, as each child shouts what they think the evolving rules are (or should be,) watching the facial expressions of and listening to the shouts of the other children for acceptance or counterpoint, adjusting as a group the combined rules of the game, in real-time.

A Game Without a Winner

In Tag, children are learning to go along, how to let go of disagreements, to figure out what is set in stone and in what acceptable grey areas they can reside.  A multitude of mental social calculations are going on each and every second, as little feet scramble on the grass, the pavement.  Children playing Tag together over weeks develop intricate rule structures, daunting in scale to any new 5-year old wishing to join in.  There are no “Winners” in Tag, as the rules are changed to accomodate any number of players.  Children leave the game when either too tired to continue, called back to class or home, or are told, in group unison, to leave due to rule-breaking, as defined by the ever-changing social group.

Tag as a Ticket to Adulthood


How is tag and driving related?

How is tag and driving related?

Why is it so important for our children to spend that time on the playground, learning and playing Tag?  Because they’ll use these basic skills later to navigate the grey areas of their adult lives.  Every day when you or I speed up a bit to just squeeze past the transition zone between yellow and red lights at the intersection, we “play” the shared social rules.


The cars waiting for the green don’t honk madly at us while we cross through, because it is agreed that we  (and they) can go through a yellow light, but not a red.   When we allow someone to join a friend in line ahead of us, we play within the social rules developed from activities such as tag.

Playing the Rules in Social Media

In social media, we play the rules, too.  Follow Friday on Twitter is a fine example.  Those that are new to Twitter soon discover that every Friday, Twitter users have agreed that although not a rigid “rule,” we shoutout to others those we follow whose “tweets” mean a lot to us, who make Twitter fun.  There are no “Winners” in this process, no tally as to who got the most shoutouts or subsequent new followers.  We do this because we want them to hang around, to continue to play with us.  We want the game of social Tag to continue, and adjust the rules to that effect.

Rule-Playing in Digital Play: The Win


Where is the social contract?

Where is the social contract?

The little digital natives of today are losing quite a bit of the desired flexibility of Tag while game-playing on the PC or television.  And I’m not just talking about bigger waistlines.  What I mean is that the computer games are typically rendered rigid by design.  You can’t bend the rules, or vote on them, because they’re hard-coded.  The bending and flexing of the social contract that comes with Tag, the wielding of and molding our shared activity under minute social cues, is lost on computerized games.


Our children aren’t becoming dumber while playing the Wii or PS3; they are simply losing opportunities to develop within a shared environment what is best for a group, a class, a workplace, a society.  They are seeking the Win, not the continued Play.

The Next Step: Digital Tag?

Is this the future of play?

Is this the future of play?

The “Projected Playscape” is a concept making starting to make rounds in gaming system design.  It’s a combination of playground play, with motion and sound and social group interaction, but enhanced through a computerized gaming system.  A digital playground is presented by the game via large-scale projection into a space much larger than a simple den or living room.  While children play within the “playscape,”, the system follows the motions and exclamations of the children, adjusting both the environment and the rules to fit the desires of the players.   Over time, the game radically changes, and the players become extremely invested in it, true owners.  Players newly entering the gamescape will have to learn the rules, same as on any regular playground.  The goal of the game is to continue, not to define a winner.

Projected Playscapes are being designed and tested, and have shown that inserting educational activities in such an environment help children learn rapidly, enjoying themselves with little or no adult intervention needed. Imagine being chased by another child in such an environment, but having to solve a math problem out loud to the computer in order to have the safe “base” show up for the grabbing.  Or if a map of the World is


You can play the rules in social media too!

You can play the rules in social media too!

displayed underfoot, and clues are provided aloud by the computer as to which country the safe zone is.  This is Tag at its essence, but amplified and directed by computing power.

Using Tag’s Concepts in Social Media

Watching children play Tag at the park on on the playground, we can learn how to better play in social media.  The rules are fairly similar.  Let go of a lot of your inhibitions, your concerns about being accepted.  Just run with it. Don’t spend too much time quietly aside in the safe zones.  Let go and allow others to chase you, too.  Help shape the rules of the play by following them, and sharing your opinion on them.  Take time for other things, but remember to return to the game often, because your friends miss you.

Hope you’ll decide to play with me on Twitter and FaceBook.  Tag, you’re it!

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