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What is the Game Marco Polo?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Marco Polo is a form of tag which is played in a swimming pool. No one seems to know what the origins of the name are, although there are a number of apocryphal stories. There does not appear to be any real link between the game of Marco Polo and the explorer of the same name, despite the creative efforts by some people, and it is hard to determine when the first game of Marco Polo was played.

This game is probably an offshoot of blind man's bluff, a form of tag which is played on dry land. Blind man's bluff dates back to at least the 1500s, and it was once a very popular parlor game, especially with ladies. In both games, the person who is "It" must close his or her eyes, or wear a blindfold.

In the case of Marco Polo, all of the players are in a swimming pool, pond, or river. The person who is It, or Marco, depending on regional tradition, must find other players and tag them, using sound to detect other players. By tradition, Marco may call out "Marco," and other players must respond with "Polo," allowing Marco to locate them in the water. In some regions, if someone doesn't respond with "Polo" and Marco notices and correctly identifies the player, he or she becomes It.

Once someone is tagged, he or she becomes the new Marco, and the game continues. There are also some variations which can be added to the game for additional interest. Under the "fish out of water" rule, if Marco suspects that someone is out of the water, he or she can call out "fish out of water," and if the guess is correct, the unlucky player becomes It. In a related rule, if someone sits on the side of the pool with his or her legs in the water, Marco can call out "mermaid on the rocks," and he or she becomes It.

This game is primarily played in the United States, Great Britain, and parts of South America, and numerous regions have their own unique variations of Marco Polo. This game is played in the water, so it can be dangerous, especially for young children, and it is a good idea to have a lifeguard on duty. Sometimes the players become so caught up in the game that they miss signs of distress from other players, so having a neutral party to keep an eye on everyone is a very smart idea.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SteveG — On Sep 24, 2016

I tried to add the following edit to Wikipedia's page on Marco Polo (game), but they told me it would take a "cultural expert" saying it was a worthwhile edit for them to add it. Since retroland is one of the references cited in the Wikipedia article, I thought may you could investigate and/or validate my theory, and if so, then it may become an edit worthy of Wikipedia. It went like this:

Of interest is that 3 minutes into the 1938 film "The Adventures of Marco Polo" starring Gary Cooper, a messenger from Marco's father goes about Venice in a gondola searching for the skirt-chasing Marco by shouting "Marco Polo" repeatedly up to the canal-side balconies where Marco's various female acquaintances live. Hence, it may be that the image of someone in an aquatic setting shouting "Marco Polo" as they try to find another hidden person is the origin if the popular game.


By anon144827 — On Jan 21, 2011

I would dispute that the game is played in Great Britain. I've never heard of it being played here and the only references I've ever heard to it all come from the US. I don't think the weather here is conducive to standing around in water of any description.

By Kamchatka — On Oct 02, 2010

@baileybear - We would often play the game at pool parties or birthdays simply because you were more successful with more players. It would make us feel better when we could actually find some one. We do the same with our children now and incorporate a lot of people in the game in order to help them feel like they can succeed. It's a very important lesson to play fair, actually, and when some one is caught they are caught and must be the next Marco.

By ChickenLover — On Oct 02, 2010

@baileybear - I know what you mean! I really hated being the one stuck in the pool yelling "Marco!" because my friends would always cheat and get out of the pool... which you're not supposed to do - cheaters! It was always in good fun, though, but I was a really crummy player.

By baileybear — On Oct 02, 2010

I absolutely love Marco Polo (I love to be the one calling Polo, not Marco hehe). We used to play Marco Polo in hotels all the time when we were younger - in the pool I mean. It is better when there are a bunch of people playing because you have more options and much more of a chance of finding some one than if you're just playing a one on one game.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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