When you think of folklore, you think of stuff like Robin Hood. And that's because folklore, generally, is a guy or a girl, who probably didn't do something heroic, existing in a time and a place that's real, even if the circumstances are fanciful. But folklore isn't just legendary forest-dwelling hermits or nude women parading through cobbled streets on horses; it's also cultural and societal ephemera, like The Game (you just lost The Game), or that fable about the Frosties advert kid dying a gruesome death.
In fact, even The Circle Game has earned its place in the history books.
The Circle Game is a very short game. It has only one goal, but it never ends. There is no winner or loser. It's just meant to keep going until all parties forget it existed. The aim is simple: you create a circle with your thumb and forefinger – like the "OK" hand gesture (also known as the "That's a Spicy Meat-a-Ball" gesture) – and you draw someone's gaze to it. If the person(s) look at the circle, you are allowed to strike them on the arm with your fist. The circle must be below the waist; you can't just hold it up to someone's face and smack them. That's against the rules.
It's one of many adolescent games that has no aim, no end point. But unlike your Stuck in the Muds or Tags, The Circle Game isn't about playfulness – it's about deception, harm, trickery and bruises. Only one person at a time gets to enjoy it. It's very boyish.
But where does it come from? Who, if it can be traced that far, started it? And when?
The first place to start is where The Circle Game was most widely popularised: Malcolm in the Middle.
In the fourth episode of the second season, The Circle Game is the subplot to Stevie and Malcolm's family meeting. Stevie is repeatedly tricked by Reese into looking at the accursed ring, until he manages to outsmart him and brutally beats him on the arm in a restaurant. But is this where it all began? Did the writers of Malcolm in the Middle create this game?
It would seem not. In my search for the true originator of The Circle Game I came across a few forum threads full of people who were on a similar journey. Reddit asked the same question, and some people attributed it to Malcolm in the Middle. However, the episode that featured it aired in November of 2000. The people commenting on the thread claim that they were playing it at school as early as the 1980s.
So it's older than the show; we know that much. But where did it come from? There are conflicting reports. A lot of people say it originated somewhere on the West Coast, maybe Los Angeles. Others are adamant that a Detroit schoolyard is responsible. One guy even claimed that it had travelled over from Australia, The Circle Game emanating from the dusty plains of the antipodean landmass. Over there, apparently, they call it "ballgazing", and there's an added rule: if you manage to jab your finger through the hole before they remove it, you get to hit the offender ten times.
I mentioned this on the VICE.com desk and a colleague said that's the version he grew up with on the south coast of the UK, near Brighton, only there you get to hit the hole-server just the once, and if he manages to grab your finger while it's inside the hole he gets to hit you twice. So there are clearly mutations and variances in how the game is played the world over.
Which is to say: I was getting nowhere. None of these fucks had any idea where The Circle Game came from. They just did it. They weren't anthropologists; they were sheep, bah-ing while making circles with their hooves and ramming each other in the soft of their woollen sides. Pathetic.
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How could I be expected to find the person who invented this anyway? It doesn't really make any sense. It's unlikely that one person even did invent it. It was a stupid idea in the first place.
And then, out of nowhere, something appeared. An article on Wikibin – a graveyard for old Wikipedia entries deemed too worthless or factually shaky to exist – turned up. It was about The Circle Game. It listed the rules, the various monikers – and named a creator: Matt Nelson, of New Bremen, Ohio. According to the entry, he invented the game in the early-1980s.
Matt Nelson. New Bremen. Ohio. Did he exist? If so, was he still there?
I googled the information I had. A name emerged in a telephone directory. Matthew Nelson, aged around 40 to 44, of New Bremen, Ohio. The white whale was in sight.
I checked his name on Facebook. It said he ran a bowling alley in New Bremen called Speedway Lanes. I called them, and asked for Matt Nelson.
He answered the call.
VICE: Hi Matt. I read online somewhere that you invented the circle game.
Matt Nelson: Haha. Well, you know, that's kinda true.
Can you tell me more about it?
It's just some game we used to play in elementary school, and it just caught on. I don't know how it all took off.
But you're pretty sure that you're the one who created it?
I'll take credit for it.
How did you create this global phenomenon?
I have no idea. My whole life I've just been inventing cool things like that. That one must have stuck.
Has anyone tried to contact you before about this?
Not that I know of.
So I'm the first person?
It says on some deleted Wiki page that you invented it. Did you write that?
No, I did not. I have no idea who put that one there.
How did Malcolm in the Middle pick it up?
I have no clue. I was kinda shocked by that. I never even... I never watched the show. I didn't even know about that, someone had told me that.
So you created it in elementary school?
How did you invent it? Was it just a way to punch your friends?
I think so.
Did they deserve it?
Heck yeah! I grew up with two brothers as well, so I mean, it was just something to do.
Could your brothers take any credit for being the original punching bags?
[Laughs] I don't know… we all just played that game non-stop. I mean, it's in our family photos; it's just been going on for such a long time – especially in this town. We're known for it, so...
So New Bremen is the hometown of The Circle Game?
And this was this in the 1980s?
It was right around 1980... like 81, 82? So right in the 80s, early-80s.
Do you ever tell people that you invented this game?
I tell people all the time.
So the game got out but the originator didn't.
Well, you know, I was a kid. So, I mean, whatever happens, happens.
It seems a little bit unfair to me that it got so much international recognition, yet you remain a secret.
Well, here's what I think: it's kind of like flipping someone the bird. Where did that originate? I don't know, but everybody does it, you know what I'm saying?
It's the same thing. Yup – that's the way I look at it.
Okay. Well I'm going to make sure the world knows that Matt Nelson, of New Bremen, Ohio, invented The Circle Game.
Haha. Rock on.
There goes my hero, he's ordinary.
And just like that my short journey – and conversation with a man of few words – was over. Though it was no monumental excavation, I felt as if I'd unearthed something special, and spoken to a true hero of humanity. Obviously we're taking one man's word here, but as far as I can see that's the best we've got (if you believe you are the true creator of The Circle Game, take it up with VICE UK on Twitter).
We can create art to communicate through time, but art gets lost, paintings fade, music and film go out of fashion, become passé and forgotten. The Circle Game will most likely live on forever, voicelessly, until all the waters of all the seas evaporate, and this rock crumbles into the black darkness. All thanks to a Midwestern bowling alley proprietor, a family man, a human being.
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