Are We Losing Our Marbles?
by Peter Zelchenko January 9, 2009

What the heck is "Bakugan Batoru Burorazu"? That's the latest worldwide blockbuster kids' game. "Baku-gan" means "exploding ball" in Japanese. "Batoru Burorazu" is "battle brawlers" in Japanese.

(Linguistic aside: As English is built heavily on Latin and Greek, modern Japanese has a massive foundation of English borrowings: table is "teburu," television is "terebi," etc. Since their phonetic rules are so different from ours -- for example, they don't have an ell sound -- Japanese pronunciation of English words can sound humorous. Try saying, "I was born on a pirate ship" holding your tongue...on YouTube.)

Kids in the world's richest countries now roll elaborately manufactured 1-inch plastic balls onto a field of metallized playing cards. A magnet inside the ball stops it short on a card and pops it open ("explodes" it), swinging out hinged appendages and revealing a unique warrior in full armor ready for battle against your opponent's Bakugan.

Fundamentally based on the prehistoric game of marbles, it's also Transformers- meets-Pokemon-style fantasy-role-playing card games -- which themselves were a marriage of Dungeons & Dragons and baseball cards. This is kids' stuff taken to a new level of profit-potential. You can now buy a starter set in almost any city in the world for around $10. And although the basic game calls for only three balls per player, somehow the sky's the limit for how many your parents can (and "should") buy. Not to mention the tie-in anime TV series, and commercials, movies, books, figurines, carrying cases, and fanwear.

Incessant Bakugan chatter dominating your children's world? Priceless.

As with many things Abraham, I'm experiencing a little internal "battle brawl" of my own. His friends have it, so apparently he has to have it. I would never buy this for him, but gradually it has seeped into his life...and mine. Now that it's here, I have to play along a little bit. We've even been playing at the kitchen table during meals.

(Don't even try to restrict your kids from modern technoculture. It will only lead to rebellion.)

What happens when we search for "marbles" on the Internet? The first hit on Google gives us a Tetris-like Java computer game that has nothing to do with the prehistoric classic.

Now, marbles! That was such an elegantly simple concept: any two kids could walk up with a few glass (or ceramic, or wooden, or dare I say marble) balls, draw a circle in the dirt with a stick, and start playing (for "fair," where you kept their own marbles, or for "keepsies," where you could lose them). It was a skill game, a trading game, a social game. Countless variations were played in both the Old and New Worlds, probably for thousands of years.

And D&D, for its part, may have been a pathetic escape hatch for sociopathic nerds (present company excepted, of course), but at least it encouraged creativity by allowing them to invent characters, environments, and scenarios.

It could be a canon that the more primitive the game, the more creative control is by necessity in the hands of the players. And the more a product is manufactured and marketed, the more the game's parameters are dictated by the manufacturer. We went from wooden blocks, to Lincoln Logs, to Tinkertoys, to plain Lego, to Lego's now totally prescribed structures, in only about three generations.

As Chinese laborers assemble these tiny plastic parts on one side of the Earth, and turtlenecked producers dream up tie-in marketing concepts on the other side of the Earth, up on a shelf, forgotten, sits "marbles" -- one of the oldest, simplest, and most versatile games in the world.

We smile a little at the naivete of Native Americans, who, as the old wives' tale has it, traded Manhattan Island to the Dutch for a few glass beads. But is it any less foolhardy for us to be trading our timeless games for overpriced junk dreamt up in a boardroom?

I think it's very important that we impress these points on our children...

"...And not only that, Abraham, what also troubles me are not the products themselves, but the fact that a year from now you and the rest of Kidworld will be onto something else, and the Bakugan will be more or less forgotten, garbage. And did you know that Bakugan never decompose? Your body will long ago have been recycled into a space station, or a grapevine, and those plastic balls will still be sitting there under some trash heap near Peoria."


"Yes, son?"

"Did you know that when I close my one eye your head looks like it's over here, and then when I switch and close my other eye it looks like it's way over there?"

", Abraham. I, uh...I didn't know that."


Well, then. At least I tried.

Bakugan, brawl!

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