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Keeping the Peace With Road Trip Games

by Staff

So long as travel continues to rebound from the pandemic, American roadways could see well over the 55 million travelers that AAA predicted for last year’s Thanksgiving holiday. And for those opting to join the hordes, these numbers may translate to spending several hours in a car with family members. That way madness lies — and the best of us might lose our wits, but for the grace of car games.

We shouldn’t be looking at our devices in cars, anyway, and friendly analog competition can make time on the road feel like a passing memory. The origins of car games may be somewhat apocryphal — it’s impossible to trace, for example, the first instance of a bored driver suggesting that his or her companions collect words on highway signs in alphabetical order — but their present-day influence is measurable: 25 percent of Americans still play games such as “I Spy” or “License Plates” on road trips, according to a 2019 OnePoll survey.

In my family of highly competitive wordsmiths, car games could be a source of either entertainment or ire depending on the rules: Whenever the “X” of crosswalks wasn’t fair alphabet game, things got ugly.

This fluidity makes up the spirit of our guide to car games, which recognizes that while the stressors of holiday travel can be alleviated with an activity as simple as state-license-plate spotting or word-searching, such activities are only as reliable as the morale of the people playing them. After all, the only real game of the car ride is keeping everyone on speaking terms until you reach your destination.

Car games — which, for the purposes of this guide, can be defined as any game that lends itself easily to two-to-four players and the constraints of a moving automobile — fall into a few categories. For wordsmiths, there are naming games such as “Geography,” in which players daisy-chain place names using the first and last letters of countries, cities or states; or “Ghost,” a kind of anti-spelling bee that penalizes the accidental completion of words instead of rewarding it. For riders whose attention spans wax and wane with the scenery, spying games — like “License Plates,” in which players aim to collect sightings of cars’ license plates from every U.S. state — are an easier sell.

Danial Adkison, a staff editor on The New York Times’s Travel section, said that the “Alphabet Game” was his mother’s preferred choice for their long drives together through western Colorado when she was contracted as a lineman with the phone company, and he was just learning to read.

“You’d try to find the alphabet in order using only the letters you saw on highway signs,” Mr. Adkison explained. “Technically, billboards and store signs were not allowed.”

He and his mother would become reliably competitive on certain difficult routes, such as the drive west from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction, Colo., along Interstate 70. “About two-thirds of the way there, there is a town called De Beque, and if you hadn’t reached the letter Q by the time you got there, you were pretty much out of luck,” Mr. Adkison said. He added that “the second-hardest letter to get, Z, was right at the end of the trip,” and that he’d hold his breath until they saw the exit that indicated the letter was nearing, so he could race to claim it.

Road travel, even when done in good company, is a volatile environment: personalities clash; moods shift with hunger; the desire for quiet time is rarely synchronized. Among siblings who don’t get along, lighthearted competition may be a recipe for temper tantrums. But not every car game has losers.

To Annica Eagle, a 35-year-old improv teacher in Spokane, Wash., friends or family members on a road trip are no different than students in a classroom: They can learn to cooperate when challenged to do something profoundly silly.

“My capacity for the awkward has greatly increased,” Ms. Eagle said of her work as an improv instructor, adding that it has helped her “tremendously in familial and social situations” where introducing games with rules might lead to spats.

“We innately have the tools for connection,” she said. “We just need more practice.”

When traveling with friends or family on road trips, she often suggests a word association game drawn from her class curriculum called “Mind Meld,” in which a pair of players repeatedly yells out simultaneous words on the count of three until they arrive at the same one (like an imagined Venn diagram).

The ensuing laughter, she explained, was a “crucial ingredient” to play that tended to ease the tension on road trips. It could even make them fun and memorable.

“Nothing beats the joy everyone experiences when the same word is spoken,” she said.

I was lucky to emerge unscathed from a childhood in which I repeatedly asked my father to play “The Kilometer game” (I’m Canadian), a dastardly invention of mine in which I’d try to guess the point at which our car had traveled exactly one kilometer. In order to adjudicate, my father had to dart his eyes constantly from the road to the odometer to see when it ticked upward. I got points for accuracy; he got stress hives, I’m sure.

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Games that invite the driver’s participation should be limited to those that require only mental exertion. It was to this end that Debra Kamin, a reporter for The Times who regularly drives long stretches with her husband and 7-year-old twin daughters, came up with a version of “I Spy” more suitable for a moving car.

“You spy the object in your mind instead of actually having to have your eyes on it,” Ms. Kamin explained of the game, which the family calls “I’m Thinking Of.” She recalled a recent drive from Manhattan to Teaneck, N.J. — a stretch of roughly 20 miles between states where traffic conditions can slow the commute to 45 minutes or more — during which one of the twins, Anora, said she was thinking of something “yellow and brave.”

“It only took us three or four guesses to realize she meant a lion,” Ms. Kamin said. “Other times, when one of my kids is thinking of things like ‘a roller coaster that works in antigravity’ or ‘a unicorn that only eats Jolly Ranchers,’ the game can be a bit tougher to win.”

No doubt we’ve missed many games that readers of this guide will remember fondly from their childhoods, and it would be foolish of us to suggest any definitive limits to the arena of car games (besides the walls of the car, obviously — please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times). Research for this guide turned up a host of similar game formats but, predictably, a lack of consistent nomenclature; every family thinks of their own “I’m Thinking Of.”

Treat this as your invitation to go wild. Borrow, blend and build from games you already know. Invent something that doesn’t count as a game at all — even if it’s just a means to get some hard-won peace and quiet through the final stretch of the drive.

Ms. Kamin shared her fondness for one game, for example, that required no contributions from its players at all: “We’re big fans of the ‘quiet game,’ which is something we tend to shift into when we’re hoping for our most favorite car game — nap time.”

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