A counting-out game is a simple game intended to select a person to be "it", often for the purpose of playing another game. These games usually require no materials, and are played with spoken words or hand gestures. The historian Henry Carrington Bolton suggested in his 1888 book "Counting Out Rhymes of Children" that the custom of counting out originated in the "superstitious practice of divination by lot."
Many such games involve one person pointing at each participant in a circle of players while reciting a rhyme. A new person is pointed at as each word is said. The player who is selected at the conclusion of the rhyme is "it" or "out". In an alternate version, the circle of players may each put two feet in and at the conclusion of the rhyme, that player removes one foot and the rhyme starts over with the next person. In this case, the first player that has both feet removed is "it" or "out". These are often accepted as random selections because the number of words has not been calculated beforehand, so the result is unknown until someone is selected.
Several simple games can be played to select one person from a group, either as a straightforward winner, or as someone who is eliminated. Rock, Paper, Scissors, Odd or Even and Blue Shoe require no materials and are played using hand gestures, although with the former it is possible for a player to win or lose through skill rather than luck. Coin flipping and drawing straws are fair methods of randomly determining a player. Bizz Buzz is a spoken word game where if a player slips up and speaks a word out of sequence, they are eliminated.
(These rhymes may have many local or regional variants.)
In popular culture
A scene in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup plays on the fact that counting-out games are not really random. Faced with selecting someone to go on a dangerous mission, the character Chicolini (Chico Marx) chants:
- Rrringspot, vonza, twoza, zig-zag-zav, popti, vinaga, harem, scarem, merchan, tarem, teir, tore...
only to stop as he realizes he is about to select himself. He then says, "I did it wrong. Wait, wait, I start here", and repeats the chant—with the same result. After that, he says, "That's no good too. I got it!" and reduces the chant to
- Rrringspot, buck!
And with this version he finally manages to "randomly" select someone else.