by Mary Brigid Barrett

Progressive stories have been around as long as men, women, and children have been able to talk. Imagine an ancient tribe of people sharing experiences at the end of a long day of fishing, each person’s catch growing bigger, each account of an individual’s struggle to catch that fish growing more dramatic, one story building on the other around the campfire as stars erupt in the night sky. Imagine an eye witness sharing the details of an animal attack of his or her friend, and that story expanding, becoming more exaggerated as it is spread throughout the village. Imagine the neighborhood gossips cackling over the long line of suitors courting the rich widow in town, the intimate details growing in inverse proportion to the actual knowledge of the gossips. The foundations of progressive stories and progressive story games are well rooted in the behavior of imperfect human beings and in the vast panoply of human emotions— pride false and true; jealousy and envy; love and passion; anger; and the always present need to laugh, to find escape, entertainment, and objectivity in humor.

The major element that distinguishes progressive stories and progressive story games is that progressive stories and games are group activities. One person begins the game or story and it is taken up and/or added to by the next person in the group. This most simple version can be played in an oral story tradition or, as in the NCBLA’s The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, it can take a written form.

The basic game can be changed by limiting the story to a certain theme or genre—ghost or horror stories, wacky humorous adventures, fairy tale and fantasy, detective and mystery “who dunnits,” murder mysteries, etc. Contemporary progressive story games for children also include the game of “Telephone” and a menu of alphabet games such as “I’m Going on Picnic” and “A My Name is Alice and I come from Alabama.”

A simple visual version of the game is to take a piece of paper and fold it width-wise into five equal sections. Only one section of the five should be seen at any given time. The first player draws the head of a person or animal, then folds the paper so that only the next section down is visible and the section with the head drawing is hidden within the folds. The next player draws the neck and shoulders; the next draws the torso; next the hips and upper legs, and finally the last player draws the lower legs and feet, all without viewing the drawings done previously. The climax of the game, at the end, is when the paper is unfolded in front of game participants revealing all parts of the group drawing as a composite “Exquisite Corpse!”

The most up-to-date versions of progressive story games take place on the Internet, as we did with The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. But we encourage you to play any of the versions of this game with the young people in your life, live and in person. Activities and time spent together take on deeper meaning when your child or teen looks into another human face, not an electronic screen. Your kids need the warmth of human touch, they need to hear your voice, and they need to be able to remember how you smell— the fragrance of your shampoo, aftershave, or perfume, or the scent of grass on your skin after a day hiking in the woods. Plastics and electronics are not the stuff of memories.

I have spent a great deal of time over the last thirty years in schools working with many different kinds of young people. When I have asked kids to tell or write or draw their favorite family memories, the days they most often share are not birthdays or holidays. The times they remember best are days spent on the beach and on camping trips, walks in the park, hours spent traveling with parents in cars and trains and planes, and days of power outages—all situations without televisions, computers, radios, or cell phones. They love these situations because adults are forced to forget about work and spend time with them, hours and hours of time talking, telling stories, playing cards and board games, doing puzzles, reading books aloud together, sharing family memories in the natural warm light of the sun, or in the glimmering haze of candlelight at night.

We hope that you and the young people in your life enjoy The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, a thoroughly modern electronic version of a progressive story game. We also hope that you do not wait for the next power outage, but instead turn off the electronics in your house now and spend time playing this game, telling stories and sharing memories face to face, crying, laughing, hugging, glorying in the warmth of each others’ company.