Children may be flipping over it, but principals at many schools throughout Orange County have had enough of a new game craze played with decorated milk caps known as POGs or Trovs.
School officials, saying POGs is akin to gambling and often disruptive, have banned or limited the game and its variant forms at about half the elementary and middle schools in the county, according to one estimate.
"The games are competitive and there is an element of gambling that is associated," Cypress Elementary School District Supt. William Eller said. "The other aspect is we found ourselves in the early stages of seeing POGs being involved in disputes between students. . . . POGs don't have anything to do with our curriculum."
The game is simple and played much like marbles, but with silver dollar-sized plastic and cardboard milk caps, similar to the flat circles once used to seal glass milk bottles. Players hurl a heavier plastic disc known as a "slammer" or "kini" onto a stack of the cardboard milk caps, known by trademarks of POG and Trov.
The trick is to flip the Trovs over by hitting them. Rules vary, with children playing for points or to keep the caps they've successfully flipped.
About 10,000 Orange County youngsters, mostly between ages 6 and 13, have been caught up in the craze, either playing, trading or collecting the caps, according to TROV USA, an Orange-based company that has become one of the major suppliers of milk caps in the state. A pack of five randomly mixed Trov caps sells for $1.25.
"It's fun and you get stuff for free if you win," Steven Harris, 8, of Irvine, said during a recent tournament organized by TROV USA.
While school officials say the game has some positive effects on social interaction and can be a constructive activity, the craze has become disruptive at some campuses since POGs started becoming popular last summer.
John Thomas, director of student services for the Ocean View School District, estimates that POGs are banned on most of the district's campuses. The school district has 15 elementary and middle school campuses in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Midway City and Westminster.
"At first we thought of it as just another game, like marbles," Thomas said. "But then it got to be consuming campuses. . . . Kids were taking advantage of other kids."
At Barker Elementary School in Garden Grove, Principal Vince Spinosa said children can play the game in the playground, but only before and after school. Students are asked to keep their caps in their backpacks during the day.
The school banned the game during school hours this fall when a host of POG-related problems, such as arguments and accusations of theft, began to increase.
"It gets very competitive," Spinosa said. "Although they were having great fun, it generated some ill will."
School officials also were concerned that students were missing out on physical exercise by spending their breaks playing POGs.
"Any game that got to this point would probably be limited," Spinosa said.
POG playing had just begun only two weeks ago at Reilly Elementary School in Mission Viejo when the problems started, Principal Kathy Muelder said.
"We had students who started arguing over POGs, especially younger students who didn't really understand they could lose their caps," Muelder said. "It's basically a game of chance, without much educational value.
"I guess you could liken it to going to Las Vegas and losing your money on the table," she added. "Adults don't like that. And children don't like losing their chips." At one point, the school even tried to compromise, allowing the children to play if it was for points, not keeps. But that didn't work for long, and the school principal banned POGs from the campus two weeks ago.
Officials at Rancho Santa Margarita Intermediate School also decided Friday to end a compromise allowing children to play POG during lunch. While most students were having fun with the game and being responsible, Principal Walt Otto said problems were increasing.
"We can't allow ourselves to be in a situation where we're baby-sitting for POGs rather than running a school," he said. "It's a good social thing, but some kids are not as social as others and don't allow other people to have fun."
School officials say parents and students for the most part have been cooperative once the decision was made to ban the game.
Jason Wright, a sixth-grader at Del Obispo Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano, wishes he could play at school, but understands why he can't any more.
"Some kids were gambling with them and playing for keeps," said Wright, who still plays at home and with friends in his neighborhood. "And you can't really bring things from home to school. People were getting mad because they were losing stuff."
Some, however, think schools are overreacting in banning the game.
"I think the concerns about kids gambling are misplaced," said Gerry Caterina of Huntington Beach, who has a son in the fifth grade. "Kids need to learn. When I was a kid we played marbles. We'd lose if we weren't good shooters. It teaches kids a little about gambling. If they don't like losing, it could be a very strong lesson that would keep them from gambling when they're older."
Bill Hodson, owner and founder of TROV USA, said he believes many schools haven't given the game a chance, although his sales have increased with the various campus prohibitions. (If children were playing all day long, he speculates, they'd get bored.)
"The principals don't know what it is," he said. "All of a sudden something has consumed their campus. So they shut it down rather than learn about it."
He said the game, which has taken off in Southern California, has been restricted or prohibited in half the elementary and middle schools in Orange County. County school officials haven't kept track of the number of schools where POG is now unwelcome.
Hodson said the game teaches sportsmanship, how to win and lose, and most important fosters interaction between children in this age of video games and computers. He slams the idea that Trovs are associated with gambling, saying there's little difference between Trovs and old-fashioned marbles.
He also donates scores of Trovs to schools as rewards for good attendance and other incentives, and is developing a line of Trovs printed with educational information.
"You have something the kids want," he said. "If this is going to help get their attention, use it."
POG has its roots in the Great Depression, when a similar game of milk caps became popular among children. The flying-chips were reborn in Hawaii about two years ago when a teacher at an Oahu elementary school rounded up milk covers from a dairy and introduced the game to her students.