Slang dictionary

Circle Game

or circle game [ sur-kuhl geym ]

What is the Circle Game?

The Circle Game is an activity in which one person makes a “circle” with their fingers closely resembling the “OK” hand gesture and holds it below their waist, convincing a second person to look at it. If the second person looks, they receive a punch to the shoulder.

Important context: While the “OK” hand gesture has many long-standing, harmless meanings, it was co-opted as a white supremacist symbol in the late 2010s, including in its emoji form, the OK Hand Sign emoji 👌. One should be mindful of context when deciding to use this gesture and emoji as part of the Circle Game.

Related words

4chan, 👌 Ok Hand emoji, OK boomer, OK wallet

Where does Circle Game come from?

Playable anywhere, the Circle Game is initiated when one person makes a circle with their forefinger and thumb, resembling the “OK” gesture, and holds it below waist-level. If someone else makes eye contact with the circle, then the “circler” gets to punch them in the arm. Players especially enjoy the game in inappropriate situations, sometimes setting elaborate or creative traps for their target.

In one common variation of the Circle Game, if the target person breaks the circle with their finger, they get to punch the “circler” instead.

The origins of the Circle Game are disputed. People anecdotally recall playing the game in the schoolyard in the 1970–80s. Vice traced the game to one, Matthew Nelson, who claims credit for inventing it in New Bremen, Ohio in the early 1980s—though there’s no proof he either created or named the game. The TV show Malcolm in the Middle, which featured the game, helped popularize the Circle Game in the 2000s.

In the 2010s, references to the Circle Game have grown in popularity, often as an online meme, marking a new digital era of the schoolyard game. Its contemporary usage may be driven by millennial nostalgia (or an effort to capitalize on it) or simply by the possibilities the internet has opened up for the game.

Pictures of people making the circle with their hand, particularly as a way to photobomb an otherwise serious photograph, are often accompanied by the phrase got ’em or simply gotem, meaning that the circling hand has “got” whoever is looking at it. Not surprisingly, the popularity of the Circle Game and “got ’em” has been commercialized to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Beginning in 2017, the “OK” hand gesture began to be interpreted as a white supremacist hand signal due to a hoax spread by alt-right communities and users of the web site 4chan that the symbol was actually a secret white supremacist gesture. At first used to troll the media, the gesture eventually lost its satiric intent and was used sincerely by white supremacists to promote racist views. The hijacking of the gesture was so widespread that the Anti-Defamation League added it as a hate symbol in 2019.  

While the Circle Game mostly avoided the “OK” sign controversy, it did briefly get roped into it following one particular incident. In December of 2019, military cadets were caught flashing hand gestures resembling the “OK” sign on ESPN Gameday during the annually televised Army–Navy college football game. The U.S. Military Academy reviewed the incident and concluded that the cadets were playing the Circle Game rather than endorsing any ideological views.   

Today, some caution must be exercised when playing the Circle Game, as the “OK” hand gesture has many different meanings in different cultures around the world, including in sign language. The gesture is still widely and acceptably used to mean “OK,” but you should be mindful of the more nefarious uses of this gesture so your innocent game isn’t seen as something more than it is.

Examples of Circle Game

Confused, but oddly satisfied the circle game is back 👌🏼
@MLehman_11, February 3, 2018
But the Circle Game is not just limited to the movie set. In a recent interview, Josh and Jennifer sneakily played while Liam answered a question.
Jenna Guillaume, BuzzFeed, November 14, 2014

Who uses Circle Game?

The Circle Game is most popular among young boys. Adults might refer to the Circle Game out of nostalgia (e.g., “Remember back when we played the Circle Game?”) or perhaps surprise an old friend by playing it. Mentions of the game online are sometimes accompanied by the OK Hand Sign emoji 👌. Because of its link to white supremacy, the phrase Circle Game is also used to discuss displays of the symbol in the media or in photographs.


Though the basic rules of the Circle Game are fairly universal, different groups, regions, and people might have significant variations, such as poking people instead of punching them.

The schoolyard pastime Circle Game is not to be confused with Margaret Atwood’s 1966 book of poetry or Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song of the same name.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of Circle Game like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of Circle Game that will help our users expand their word mastery.