The ideal form of dodgeball probably isn't worth saving

October 1, 2021

When I was a kid, I liked playing dodgeball. In my childhood experience, it was no more freighted with anxiety than kickball, basketball, or any other game. Part of that is because I was athletic and a good thrower, but we also played a different version of the game than the ones I’ve seen played elsewhere and acted out in American pop culture, versions that provide an opportunity for bullies, sadists, and chaos monsters to dominate other children.

We called our version Prisoner, and our rules hewed pretty closely to the rules laid out in this YouTube video. Our outdoor blacktop playground had two large painted squares that were probably laid out specifically for dodgeball. We’d divide into two teams, one in each square, and try to peg our opponents with a bouncy red ball. If I hit an opponent and the ball hit the ground, they would have to leave their square and go behind my square, but they were still involved in the game. From there, if a ball made it to them, they could then throw it at us, and if I got hit by one of those throws, the thrower was allowed back into their square, and I’d have to leave my square for the back of my opponent’s square. We played with the rule that catching the ball simply made the catcher safe and did not eliminate the thrower. You won when you eliminated all your opponents from their square.

While my school had its share of problems with bullying and hurtful exclusion, Prisoner wasn’t used for that purpose, for a couple main reasons. The first was that I remember playing Prisoner was always voluntary. I don’t recall our Physical Education teachers ever having us play, and if they did, I hope it was one of a variety of choices we could make during a given time period. This was a recess game. My school was also generally good on gender issues, particularly when it came to sports and athletics, so all through grade school we played Prisoner with both boys and girls mixed on the teams — though, to be sure, a greater percentage of the boys wanted to play than girls.

The second, and more important, reason that our dodgeball games weren’t used for bullying is because we inherited as canon a simple rules tweak that eliminated most of the chaos and introduced certain strategic elements: We rarely used more than two balls.

Part of that was because our playground was a converted parking lot that was built on a slight slope, so using more than two balls would inevitably involve chasing some of them well off the court, and part of that was because the school simply didn’t have that many red bouncy balls to go around. But I strongly suspect that at some point before our time, an authority at the school had realized that playing with more than two balls would lead to groups wanting to launch volleys at other kids in a way that would make those targets feel small and helpless. With only two balls in play, it was much easier to keep track of where the balls were coming from, a lot harder to surprise someone, and virtually impossible to overwhelm someone with by throwing balls at them.

It also prompted us to strategize. Many times, as soon as someone was hit and went to the other side of our opponents, we’d hold one ball in our square and pass the other ball over to the other side in order to create what we called a “sandwich”. The players who’d been sandwiched had their own tactics: They usually went to a side of the square and halfway between the two throwers where they might partner with a teammate to stand back to back, trying to catch any ball thrown at them. Or they’d go to that spot and then run straight across the square to create a difficult moving target. Sometimes, a sandwiched player would get as close as possible to one of the throwers on the theory that because we were using relatively large bouncy rubber balls and no one could palm them to throw, it was actually harder to hit someone right in front of you than someone 10 to 12 feet away.

But again, using only two balls meant everything was trackable, meaning the less-mobile kids still had a chance to play and stay in their square for long periods. And the rule that catching a ball didn’t eliminate a thrower meant the kids who weren’t as good at throwing were still incentivized to actually try to peg an opponent.

In the end, it’s probably for the best that schools move away from dodgeball and even ban it outright. To make it a fun activity that doesn’t actively harm children in some way, the school needs to have a strong empathetic culture in which bullying and domination dynamics are strongly opposed by students and adults alike, and everyone has to agree to rules that reinforce those values. And even if all that’s in place, how important could it possibly be to play dodgeball that you’d risk eroding those values?

(Photo: "Dodgeball" by Joey Gannon. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)