Minnesota's kids' game can't duck controversy

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2014 - 3:51 PM

Preschool children in Afton played Duck, Duck, Gray Duck the Minnesota way on a summer day in 2012.

Photo: GLENN STUBBE • Star Tribune file,

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More proof of Minnesota’s superiority: We play better games. Or, at least, our version of a classic children’s game is better than everyone else’s, according to a handful of admittedly biased experts.

The game is Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Or is it? If you think it’s Duck, Duck, Goose, then either: a) You’re wrong, b) You’re not from Minnesota, or c) Both.

Minneapolis resident Christopher Pollard is the pre-eminent national expert on Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. He didn’t ask for the job, but, as in the game itself, when he was singled out, he jumped to his feet and charged into action.

His mission: To proclaim that Minnesotans are the only ones playing the game the right way. We play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, while the rest of the planet plays the inferior Duck, Duck, Goose.

“Minnesotans are not necessarily boastful people,” he said. “But when you see those best-of lists of positive attributes, Minnesota always ends up at or near the top. This is just another example of how we are slightly superior.”

Minnesotans also take pride in being nice, so he’s willing to acknowledge that “there probably is room for both games to coexist.” He paused before adding: “But ours is better.”

The games begin the same way. Participants sit in a circle, while the person who is “it” circles the group, tapping each player. That’s where the differences start. In DDG, the tapper says only “duck” until using the word “goose,” at which point the tappee jumps up and gives chase.

DDGD is more elaborate. To each “duck” designation, the tapper also adds a descriptive color, such as “red duck” or “yellow duck.” The chase starts when the tapper dubs someone “gray duck.”

Pollard, who by day is the digital strategy director at Go East, a branding agency in St. Paul, inadvertently stumbled into the Duck, Duck controversy about a year ago.

A friend from Minnesota had opened an art gallery in Texas called Gray Duck. Texans didn’t understand the name. So Pollard did some research and discovered that Duck, Duck, Gray Duck is a regional term used primarily in Minnesota. He put together a “playful little map,” showing the state standing alone when it comes to the Gray Duck nomenclature, and posted it on his blog.

That was the end of it. Or so he thought. Suddenly last week, his e-mail inbox was overflowing with messages that his map was turning up all over the Internet.

“I’d become the de facto expert on Duck, Duck, Gray Duck,” he said.

The impetus behind his sudden national prominence was a column in the online news source BuzzFeed. Minnesota native Katie Heaney wrote about growing up playing Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, only to discover as an adult, much to her dismay, that the kids in the rest of the country are “playing some abomination version called Duck, Duck, Goose.”

Her proof was Pollard’s map. When Heaney’s column went viral, the map went with it.

“I didn’t know about it,” Pollard said of his map showing up all over the Web. “My friends told me that it was on BuzzFeed, so I went to check it out. But by the time I got to BuzzFeed, it was everywhere.”

Realizing that he was likely to get calls from people wanting to tap into this newly ballyhooed expertise, he spent the weekend doing a lot more research on the Gray Duck phenomenon. It paid off when he uncovered a possible explanation for the regional differences.

“I found a story that two versions of the game existed in Sweden,” he said. “The story was that the Swedes who came to Minnesota played Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, while everyone else played Duck, Duck, Goose. Maybe that was just made up, but it’s still a good yarn. It’s like the Paul Bunyan lore — another great story about Minnesota.”

Minnesotans don’t have to venture far to find themselves in alien Duck, Duck country. Michelle Waters grew up in Rochester before becoming the partnership coordinator at the Chippewa Valley Montessori Charter School in Eau Claire, Wis., where she discovered: “The kids here are playing the wrong game.”

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