Friday, April 13, 2012

Observations pertaining to Four Square


Four square is a simple game.  4 people stand in squares that have been drawn onto a surface.  Each of these squares shares a central point creating a large square composed of 4 smaller ones.  Each of these squares has a value in a hierarchy with one square being the game leader (ace), an adjacent square second (king), 3rd (queen), then 4th (jack).  When a player is out the player leaves the square and takes their place at the back of the line that is feeding the game.  This gap in play is then sealed by the adjacent square which is one lower in the hierarchy and a new jack enters from the feeding line.  There is an increase in temporary prestige as you ascend the hierarchy, but apart from the ace being the leader of the game, there are no additional responsibilities or abilities given to the rest of the players.

The ball is passed down the hierarchy starting with the ace based on several "rules" which dictate how it can be passed or what games of skill must be individually satisfied before it can move further.  While the overarching rules as described above are quite simple and unchangeable the additional rules the ace applies to the game create an intensely complex organism that develops as the society that plays it develops with new rules being created, applied and either discarded or synthesized into the expression of the game.

The ace is normally allowed 2-3 rules selected from the playgroup's synthesized list.  Once the ace has decided on his or her rules they persist until he or she is deposed or until the group decides that the ace should change them.  Whenever a player is out, the ball is returned to the ace who can then select from any of his rules or decide to play by the "old school" rules.

Any conflict is brought before the ace whose opinion on the matter is considered final.  Sometimes there are enough potential participants in the game that the last in line to enter the game helps the ace by providing a second opinion.  Children have an immutable drive to feel as though they are being treated fairly which often manifests itself in the voicing of observations, genuine or fabricated, that are colored by their perceptual apparatus and their emotional involvement.

Emotional involvement manifests in a variety of ways in this game.  Often it takes the shape of an attachment to their position within the hierarchy of current players and their desire to ascend.  It can also be colored by their relationship with another player which dictates wether they want them to continue playing or to be taken out of the game.   Other non-local factors, such as prior events in the day, or specific emotional states that existed before the child approached the game also color the observations of a child.  For this reason consensus is the most valuable method for the game's continuing play.  However, while all children want to be treated fairly they will often attempt to break the rules or voice emotional rather than accurate observations in order to attempt to receive exceptional group treatment and push the limits of the group's boundary for them.  Although consensus is often reached without intervention, often stronger personalities with more popularity will win any decision.

The ace has the agency to change the game and set the rules.  It is no wonder, physically, why this position is held the longest by older children, but it is also telling that these children are the ones for whom the rules and their creation are so essential.  Younger children maintain this position for a much shorter duration and usual relying the help of older kids for setting the rules.  For these younger children, following the rules and being seen as "a good person" by their peers is essential.  If a younger child (6-8) is doing something in the game that is non-conducive to play they are much more likely to listen and be corrected than older children (9-11) who take much longer to comply especially if they are the ace. Although initially the position of ace is prestigious, longer stays generally cause suspicion among the other players.  This suspicion increases linearly based on the length of time a player maintains position as the ace.

Situations occur often that the rules don't specifically have an answer to.  Often arguing erupts as to who is out and how they specifically broke a rule.  The very observational will see these events as an opportunity to return agency to the larger group and call for a consensus as to what the rule will be henceforth should such a situation arise in the future.  The whole group decides, the game learns and they move on.

Children will often laugh or point fingers when someone breaks a rule and is called out, often they make fun.  Often this happens in jest but can still be taken quite personally.  Once a child jumped in front of another and laughingly yelled "YOU'RE OUT" quite loudly, this caused the other child to startle and walk away crying.  Even though the instigating child didn't mean to provoke this reaction and was merely caught up in the emotional moment, the hurt child didn't return to the game for the rest of the day.  Other children often yell about perceived rules violations at a steadily increasing volume dictated by their length of stay in the game.  These children are often less skillful older players who wind up spending a lot of time in the line into the game.  The relatively large number of situational gray areas in any given four square game can mean that getting to the point where the group moves on and play resumes results in fair amount of distress among participants.

If the children are asked not to point fingers and laugh and instead told to tell the person who was called out that they did a good job or that it was a good try the game changes. Initially their reaction involves exaggerated play acting, but eventually leads to more cooperation.  The life of the game is happier and when grey areas arise the children are able to effectively come to a consensus as to how to treat the situation with minimal direct intervention.

Often compensation is made for particularly young children and their lower skill level.

Rules I have encountered:

"Old School"

1. The ace declares that they are serving
2. The ace drops the ball, letting it bounce once in their square and then must hit it underhand hard enough that it bounces into an opponent's square
3. Before the ball bounces again, it must be hit so it bounces at least once into an opponent's square
4. If the ball hits a player, rather then the player hitting the ball underhanded, they are out.
5. If the player misses the ball, they are out
6. If a player does not successfully bounce the ball into an opponent's square, they are out
7. If the active player bounces the ball in his or her own square before an opponent's they are out
8. If a ball begins to roll instead of bounce, then it is considered a "roll" and play is reset by the ace
9. If consensus is reached that the ball has hit a line, play is reset by the ace

Around the World variation: The ball must be hit from the ace to king then to queen, then to jack, then back to ace.  Play proceeds this way until someone is out.

Feints during serves are common, an ace will often pretend they are going to hit the ball quite hard, then hit it softly or look at a player and then hit it to another.  Feints are less common among other players.


1.  The ace throws the ball in the air and claps once before catching the ball
2.  If the ace succeeds the ball is then given to the king
2.  The next player must throw the ball in the air and clap twice before catching the ball
3. Play proceeds with each player having to clap once more than the player before them should have clapped given how many times the ball has been passed
4. If a player claps more than they have to, they are said to have "exceeded expectations" this leads to one of several game states:

  • The next player must clap one more time than the player who exceeded expectations, then play continues normally
  • The player who "exceeded expectations" is out
  • Play proceeds normally based on how many claps the player who "exceeded expectations" should have been clapping based on the number of times the ball has been passed
5. A player is out if they fail to clap the required number of times while the ball is in the air or if they fail to catch the ball after clapping
6. After the number of claps has reached 5, 2 tries are given to each player
7. Kindergartens get 1 additional try or are allowed to have an older child perform this rule for them

Paris variation: The ace can clap 1-3 times, this initial number is doubled for the next player, trebled for the third and so on.

Children get tired of this rule most often and usually do not allow it too many times in succession, an overbearing ace enjoys agitating the lesser skilled children by calling for this one many times in a row, resulting in it either being banned or restricted to one or two go-rounds before playing a round of old school and/or another rule before "popcorn" can be called again.

"Bus Stop/Chocolate"

1. The ace yells "Bus Stop" or "Chocolate"
2. All the players must put one foot in the central point of the playing field
3. The last one to put their foot down is out

Ideally the feet form a neat pile with the final person obviously being out, having their foot atop all the others.  This doesn't happen in practice very often.  Additionally head on collisions are semi-frequent during the rush to make it to the middle


1. The ace yells "Corners"
2. All the players must put one foot onto the back corner of their own square
3. The last one to put their foot down is out


1. The ace yells "Tennis" and picks two players
2. These two players play by old school foursquare rules until one is out

"Fire drill"
1. The ace yells "Fire Drill"
2. Players leave their squares and run clockwise around the playing field returning to their own squares
3. The last player to return to their square is out

1. The ace yells "hospital"
2. Each player must stand on one leg at the furthest of their lines from the center point
3. The first to lower a leg, lose their balance, or slip off the line is out

Rules specifically played during "Tennis" or "Old School"

"Black Jack"
If any player catches the ball before it bounces in their square they can say "black jack", the initiating player is then out

Often this isn't allowed on serves, making the ace immune during the beginning of  a game

The ball is allowed to be bounced hard  in the opponent's square in an attempt to send it over their head

"Cherry bombs"
A lighter version of the spike that requires the ball be held over the head before being bounced in the opponent's square