It might have gone on forever if the kindergarten kids hadn't cried when they lost. At my Catholic primary school in Sydney, in the late 1970s, playing marbles was serious warfare. Within minutes of the bell ringing for lunch, scores of us would line up around the perimeter of the bitumen netball court. You were either a defender or an attacker. Defenders set up small piles of marbles that attackers would shoot at from behind a line a few feet away. Hit and the marbles were yours. Miss and the defender kept your missile for keeps. Attackers roamed the playground looking for easy targets, testing their skills to win the most desirable "toms," "milky ways" or "galaxies," weighing up the odds game after game. None of us had studied the theory of a free market but we knew exactly how it worked. Defenders willing to gamble one of their rarest marbles always made the odds much harder, while anyone offering a mundane prize had to entice business by making winning easier. It was a perfect symphony of risk and reward, 45 minutes of brutality and beauty. Until the little kids began to cry.
It's possible we received a warning, and I do vaguely recall the teachers separating us oldies and the littlest kids in different parts of the playground. But in my mind the end to the marble craze was swift and total. A school assembly was called. The headmaster spoke about how older kids shouldn't pick on younger ones, that he had received complaints from parents. I distinctly remember a reference to Jesus in the temple throwing out the gamblers and moneylenders. And that was it. Marble season was over.
You might think that with all the newfangled computer and video games these days, a toy as elemental as a tiny sphere of glass might have vanished forever. Ditto with yo-yos and hula hoops, two other crazes that swept my school three decades ago. But such games are surviving and in some places thriving. Marbles remain hugely popular in poorer parts of the world, and are strong sellers for the growing number of retailers peddling retro toys in places like the U.S. Yo-yos have undergone a renaissance in the past decade or so and now have their own world championship and ever more fans in the swelling middle classes of Asia. Hula hoops, too, are back.
The attraction of such toys is easy to see. There's something wonderful about the simplicity of games that don't need wires, batteries or a broadband Internet connection. I've played my fair share of video games but there's a basic kind of joy to the classics. Perhaps it's because they so clearly define that old Bauhaus maxim of form following function. Give kids a bag of marbles and they'll figure out how they work within seconds. The yo-yo and the hula hoop may be a little harder to master but the theory is easily explained in a phrase. Try getting a gamer to outline a multiplayer computer game in just a few words.
There's also the question of longevity. Yo-yos and marbles have captivated successive generations for centuries. Believed to be a Chinese invention, yo-yos (we know from Greek records) may have been around for two millenniums or more, while kids have enjoyed playing marbles since ancient Egyptian and Roman times. It's true, especially in the West, that the popularity of the yo-yo or marbles has always come in waves, with surges of passionate interest followed by leaner spells. But that's just further proof that their appeal is timeless. More modern fads have yet to prove themselves. Recent crazes Tazos, Pokémon cards are collectibles more than games, playground currency that require neither skill nor guile beyond the most basic of bartering techniques. While marbles and yo-yos share a simplicity with such curios, they require practice and dexterity too. They are objects of beauty and battle, desirable as things yet also dynamic and fun.
In any event, there's nothing wrong with fads and something deliciously subversive in the fact that adults my primary school headmaster excepted can't control when they happen. Companies might produce a toy, market it and try to get kids to buy it, but the nature of a fad is such that it can swell quickly and die even faster, all based on that hard-to-control concept of what's cool. That a 2,000-year-old toy is still played around the world is very cool indeed.
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