Offbeat Adventure

Road Trip Games Have a History Older Than Road Trips

They say it's not about the destination; it's about the journey. And what defines the journey when you're on a 32-hour road trip, 16 of them through flat plains? Why, road-trip games, of course. But who invented these ubiquitous games? And how far back do they really go?

Punch Buggy Why?

How many road games can you think of off the top of your head? There's the classic "Alphabet game": spot words that start with the letters of the alphabet in order; first one to Z wins. There's the always popular "I Spy" and "20 Questions." There are regional games, like "Punch Buggy" and "Perdiddle" (although this editor grew up playing "Slugbuggy" and this writer grew up playing "Padiddle"). But it's not like these are pop songs that spread over the radio and got caught in everyone's head. They came from somewhere — but where?

Believe it or not, "punch buggy" has only been around since the 1960s. We thought that it might have shown up later after the vehicle wasn't quite so popular, but apparently, road-trippers were just accustomed to higher scores back then. But some classic games have much deeper roots than that.

Questions and Spies

"Twenty Questions" is a simple game, but it tells a lot about both the person guessing and the person with the answers. Its actual origins may be lost forever, but it goes at least as far back as 1882 when Mansfield Tracy Walsorth published his book "Twenty questions; a short treatise on the game to which are added a code of rules and specimen games for the use of beginners." That's right — there's actually an official set of rules to the game, and they say you're well within your rights to say "none of the above" to the question "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?"

"I Spy (with My Little Eye)" has similarly murky origins, but the earliest references date back to the late 1930s, right at the beginning of car culture. The game of spotting small details in a large scene mutated into any number of different games, in numerous different formats. In the 1990s, the book series "I Spy" was explicitly based on the game, and the BBC attributes the popularity of "Where's Waldo" (aka "Where's Wally") to the game as well.

Parlor to the Road

I Spy might have risen out of the road-trip era, but 20 Questions dates back to games played in comfortable parlors to pass the time. There were lots of other games from those days as well, but most of them didn't translate well to the confines of a car. "Blind Man's Bluff" requires one player to wander around in a blindfold, for example, and games like "Lookabout" would require players to find a hiding spot for a small item, somewhere in the room. As the car became more of a gathering place for families, only those games that could be played via words alone kept going into the next century.

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Want some other options for games on the road? Check out Michael Rist's "The Best Ever Backseat Games." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 15, 2018

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