I’ve spent a lot of time in the car this summer. And for much of that time, my six-year-old son has been my constant companion. When I was a kid, getting ready to travel involved books, crayons, paper, and a snack in a Ziploc bag. Today, we travel with a mobile electronics store. By the end of a trip, the backseat is littered with my iPod and headphones, a mobile video player with an assortment of SpongeBob and Scooby Doo discs, and a Leapster with its colorful array of cartridges. Watching my boy in the rearview mirror as he tunes in and zones out, I breathe a sigh of relief, but I’m also conscious of the family time that’s lost when we all retire into our little electronic cocoons. And then I recall the alternative. When I was a kid, the only electronic thing in the car was the radio, and I’d spend hours lying sprawled across the backseat (no seatbelt laws back then) shouting at the ceiling, “Are we there yet?”
Resourceful parents have always had tricks up their sleeves to keep their offspring from pestering them to death on long car trips; 20 Questions, I Spy, cow and car counting, and license plate spotting were (and are) perennial favorites. Kids corralled in the backseat had their own amusements, particularly the ever-popular Punch Bug that gave siblings and friends the chance to slug each other every time a Volkswagen Bug came into view (our version allowed two hits for a red Bug, but I understand there are variations).
Resourceful game manufacturers have always been happy to help parents whose patience ran dry before the gas tank did. The Regal Game Manufacturing Company of Chicago stands among the earliest vendors of glove-compartment-friendly travel games, adapting the slide-window style card developed (and patented) for its Finger-tip Bingo games to highway travel. Starting around 1965, Regal produced at least four variations of Highway Auto Bingo, all of which provide a view of a roadside world lost in the interstate age. Players looked for hand-pumps and haystacks, wheelbarrows and wood piles, barber shops and post offices as the miles rolled by. In addition to Highway Auto Bingo, the company sold Traffic Safety Bingo (“Teaches children to look for and understand road signs for greater personal safety!”), License Plate Bingo (“for year ‘round driving pleasure”), Car Race Bingo (“keeps children occupied on family automobile trips”), and Find-A-Car Bingo. This last, like Highway Auto Bingo, offers a glimpse of long-gone roads traveled by Studebakers, Imperials, Ramblers, and more familiar brands like Ford and Dodge with unfamiliar, stately logos.
Over the years, dozens of companies have offered travel-friendly versions of popular games such as Scrabble and Boggle with high sides or pegs to keep pieces in place on bumpy roads. And there have been countless magnetic chess and checkers boards in tiny formats. But variations on the tried and true games keep coming back again and again. One such game, made in both automobile and air travel themed versions, is the appropriately-named Are We There Yet—a variation on I Spy that includes some elements of Trivial Pursuit. The great virtue of the game is that it relieves tired parents of trying to keep coming up with new things to look for: with 216 different cards in the box, kids can be kept busy for hours looking for things like “a vehicle with a rental sign,” “a big bird,” “a vehicle backing up,” or, from the airplane edition, “a parachute,” “a person sneezing or hiccupping,” or “a sign in two languages.” As a bonus, Are We There Yet comes in three languages—Spanish, French, and English—making it possible to learn indispensable words and phrases in other languages while on the road.
For those who still crave the simplicity of Highway Auto Bingo in the age of the iPhone, there’s an app for it made by Loy Enterprises. Offering updated pictures more relevant to the interstate age—tow trucks, tanker trucks, gas stations, wind farms, and Ferris Wheels seen in the distance—it even features virtual versions of the nifty red or green slide windows found in the Regal Games original. The only drawback is that it’s a single player game. Unless, that is, both parents happen to have smartphones to hand back over the seat to the kids.