After boy scout meetings in Calgary, 13-year-old Johnny Seipel and 12-year-old Kristopher Pataky play their latest favorite game in a corner of the coatroom, in among the racks of snowsuits, scarves and winter mitts. The game, featuring cardboard discs based on old-fashioned milk bottle caps, is simple enough, but the distance it has travelled is remarkable. Four years ago, the POGs hotbed was 5,000 km away in Hawaii. Since then, it has leapt across the Pacific to California and spread throughout the United States and Canada. Parents and teachers from British Columbia to Newfoundland report fevered interest in what is now a $141-million industry, and growing. Pataky first saw POGs at boy scout camp last summer. By the time he returned to school in September, all his classmates were playing. A month after that, the game had made it to Seipel's school, as well. Both boys say that they have been playing, trading and collecting POGs ever since. "Before, it was for the glory - who could get the most POGs," explains Seipel. "Now, we're just playing for the fun of it."
Compared with the video and computer games that used to preoccupy schoolchildren, POGs is both low-tech and relatively inexpensive. Cardboard caps sell for about 25 cents; larger plastic or metal discs, called slammers, go for about $2.50, though discs with the fanciest logos can sell for more. Kids stack the caps - each the size of a poker chip - then throw a slammer at the pile, hoping to flip as many caps as they can. Variations of the same game were played as long ago as the 1920s, but it faded when old-style milk bottles gave way to cartons. And it was only revived when a Hawaiian schoolteacher, remembering the game she played as a child, taught it to her students in 1991. She used caps from a fruit drink produced by the local Haleakala Dairy and emblazoned with the acronym for the company's popular Passion fruit, Orange, Guava drink.
Unlike the new Magic game now hot among teenagers, POGs - most popular among four- to 14-year-olds - was launched by consumers, not by a toy company. And it was spread primarily by word of mouth. Marketers call it "diffusion theory" and, according to Robert Kelly, chairman of the marketing division at the University of British Columbia's faculty of commerce, it works much better than even tv advertising because word-of-mouth implies personal endorsement: when the most popular kid in the schoolyard starts playing, everyone else does, too. "It's like a really gregarious virus," says Kelly cheerfully. "It just zaps everybody in a very short period of time."
But once a fad picks up momentum, big business is sure to climb on board. One California-based firm, the World pog Federation, bought the rights to the pog name from the Haleakala Dairy, and went to court in a successful attempt last year to ban other manufacturers from using it. Rivals now call their discs milk caps, though children still refer to the game as POGs. And ever more corporations are getting in on the action, producing discs with all kinds of logos, from skulls and crossbones to cartoon dinosaurs and, now, licensed products emblazoned with NHL stars or characters from The Simpsons. Ross Kekewich, manager of Harvey's Collectors Corner in Calgary, has stocked the caps in his store for about two years. "But they weren't moving," he says. "I would go through a box over six months. Then all of a sudden I was selling a box in a month, a box in a week, a box in a day." Before Christmas, he was selling $1,000 worth each day.
Not everyone is delighted, though. As in the United States, several schools in Alberta have banned the game, saying that it has provoked fights and delinquency. At the Our Lady of Assumption School in Calgary, principal Don Summersgill just banned "keepsies": students have to return whatever discs they win. Otherwise, he says, the game amounts to gambling. "And once they play for keeps," says Summersgill, "they're going to get mad at each other." But even Summersgill says that "it's very social" compared with video games. And some parents seem to like it. "I see kids at 12:30 a.m. down by the 7-Eleven smoking who knows what," says Seipel's mother, Judy Buzogany. "At least this is something they can do at home or around the schoolyard."
The fretting about POGs may be for naught. According to Kekewich, pog-mania has already died down in Hawaii and California. "It's definitely a fad," he says, "and it will probably run an 18-to-24 month cycle." Then, something else will surely take its place. As always, game and toy makers will vie to produce the next hottest item. "But the foibles of human taste often defeat them," warns Kelly. If a whole continent of kids can defy the best-laid plans of corporate marketers for a simple game of milk caps, who knows what they will latch onto next.
Maclean's February 27, 1995