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Cowboys and Indians

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"Are you ready? You're the bad guy. And when you're bad, you just run. That's fine, right? Well... Shall we play?"

Bang! Bang! You're dead!

Or "Cops and Robbers," "Spacemen and Aliens," "Prosecutor and Defendant" and many other variations.

A game where children play out a battle between two opposing forces, generally considered as a struggle between good and evil. A trope both in fiction about children, and in fiction about adults who sometimes interact with children.

Generally, there will be more competition for the "good guys" role, while less popular or socially adept children will get stuck with the "black hats." True friends will make sure to switch the roles around fairly, and watch out for that one kid who's always eager to play the villain—he'll probably be trouble later on.

Sometimes the children will learn An Aesop about the dangers of war or prejudice, or how cultural perceptions change over time, causing Values Dissonance.

In stories starring adult characters, the children's pretend battles are generally used as commentary on or echoes of the main plot. For example, if the hero has been doing poorly, he might overhear a child complain about having to take his role in a game. Or hearing his excuses for wrongdoing coming from a child might prick a character's conscience.

A Tabletop Role-Playing Game is essentially this kind of play, but with precise rules, statistics and a referee to make it function properly as a narrative scenario.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The plan of "Friend" in 20th Century Boys is directly based upon an elaborate game of "Good guys vs. League of Evil" Kenji and Otcho made up.
  • One of Revy's Pet the Dog moments in Black Lagoon involves playing Cowboys and Indians with a few Japanese children. She later subverts it by bringing a real gun to a second round. Oh, not in that way, but a few of those kids may get traumas later.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: In flashback, Kenshin plays the role of the "Dreaded Manslayer" with a bunch of kids (who of course have no idea that he is said manslayer).
  • Serial Experiments Lain has an online shooter game somehow getting mixed up with a couple of children playing tag. The result? A dude commits suicide after being tagged by a little girl, which looks to those who play the game as the Big Bad. As a result, she ends up getting killed by another player.

    Comic Books 
  • In the early Daredevil issue where he battles the Matador, the Spanish villain has managed to create a public image as a Gentleman Thief and made a fool of Matt. So the local kids play Matador and Daredevil, with the former as the preferred role. When ol' DD manages to turn the tables and not just defeat Matador but show him up for the Jerkass he actually is, the children discard their Matador costumes.
  • There was an Iron Man story about a group of kids who dressed up as the Avengers; it wasn't exactly "playing" since they did good deeds like defending their classmates against bullies. But when the real Iron Man leaves the real Avengers, the kids feel compelled to kick their own Iron Man off the team. He's heartbroken, but after a later act of heroism on his part, they urge him to rejoin their team.
  • In Marvels, Phil Sheldon's two young daughters are introduced playing superheroes and supervillains. The younger sibling complains that the older one always makes her play the bad guys. ("I do not! I let you be Spider-Man, remember?" "Spider-Man's icky!")
  • Similarly, at one point in What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, Superman overhears a child saying he no longer wants to play as him because he can't kill while his opponents can.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one Bloom County strip, Olivia and Opus are playing Cowboys and Indians until told by the cockroach that it's politically incorrect. They go through a series of other villains ranging from Klingons to communists, each time being told that group is not a suitable villain. They ask the cockroach what he does for a living and he says he's with the media. Cue much cocking of dart guns and evil grins.
  • In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes play "Americans and Soviets" with dart guns and both get shot, subsequently deciding "War's a stupid game, anyway."
    • They also play more traditional Cowboys and Indians in the house, much to Calvin's mother's chagrin. A recurring trope is Calvin's attempts to cheat, zapping Hobbes with his cattle prod when Hobbes declares his gun's out of bullets. Hobbes also cheats from time to time, saying that Calvin missed since he's obviously still there talking to him.
  • In FoxTrot, Jason and Marcus frequently cast Paige as the villain of their games. She never wants to play, but they don't take no for an answer. Hilarity Ensues.
  • There's a Mafalda strip where all the kids are much too busy to play their usual game of Cowboys and Indians at the park, so they play Global Thermonuclear War instead—a much shorter game which consists of saying "boom" and dropping dead in unison. Punchline: "This modern life demands ever briefer forms of entertainment."
  • In an early Peanuts strip, Linus and Charlie Brown play "Liberals and Conservatives".
    • Also straighter examples in the 50s strips, with jokes about Infinite Ammo, the science fiction fad replacing cowboys and Indians with spacemen and monsters overnight, and so on.
    • Subverted in this really early strip.

    Fan Works 
  • Kyoshi Rising: during the segments when they are children, Kyoshi's older brother and his friends enjoy playing rounds of "Earth Kingdom Soldier", breaking off into teams and having the heroic Earth Kingdom defeating the evil Fire King with the assistance of the Avatar (the biggest argument is not over who gets to be on the good team, but who gets to be the Avatar). Kyoshi is often "kidnapped" to be the Damsel in Distress, at least until she gets more control over her Earthbending and gets everyone to accept her as the Avatar whenever they play.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Braveheart - some little Scottish boys seem ready to join the war by attacking some full-grown English soldiers — but it's a gag. They're actually throwing rocks at some makeshift toy enemies.
  • In High and Low, Jun and Shinichi play "sheriff and outlaw", then switch roles and outfits, leading to a kidnapper grabbing the wrong child.
  • In High Noon, kids imitate the battle to be between the Marshal Will Kane and the bandit Frank Miller, with "Kane" getting shot dead. When the real Will Kane turns up, they quickly disperse.
  • A brief part of the "Once-A-Year Day" dance in The Pajama Game.
  • Reign of Fire has a scene in which Christian Bale and Gerard Butler entertain the children by acting out the Luke, I Am Your Father scene from Star Wars.
    "Of course we made it up."
  • Spaceballs has a famous Throw It In scene where Dark Helmet plays with action figures of the cast. Of course, he beats the heroes and gets the girl, too.
  • Terminator
  • In Wagons East!, some of the kids are playing a game involving taking the roles of various adults, and one character is dismayed when a kid complains about playing him.

  • In the Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel King's Ransom, a rich man's son and his chauffeur's son play "sheriff and outlaw", then switch roles and outfits, resulting in a kidnapper grabbing the wrong child.
  • There's a story in the Arabian Nights wherein a sultan is having trouble deciding how to judge a (well publicized) case, and ends up wandering around town for a bit to clear his head. He happens across a group of children who are playing judge and defendant and the like, mimicking the case at hand. They actually have a smart way to solve the case (showing that one of the participants was lying), and the sultan takes the kid who was playing judge back to the palace to do the same thing in real court - although the kid was too smart to pronounce sentence, instead deferring back to the sultan at the end of the case.
  • In the Bill Bergson books the kids play a game they call "War of the Roses".
  • An early chapter of Ender's Game features one of these, in which Ender's older brother demonstrates his sadism. Since mankind is currently recovering from a war with a race of insect-like aliens, the game has been changed to "Buggers and Astronauts", with the "cowboy" character wearing an astronaut helmet and the "Indian" character wearing an alien mask.
  • The battle of Rorke's Drift (in that case, Redcoats and Zulus) is recreated in Evil Eye by Michael Slade. Thematically, the battle of good vs. evil resonates in many of the Special X novels.
  • In the Just William series, William sometimes plays this kind of game (although more often he's seen playing "Red Indians" or "Pirates" - note that despite the former's name, neither of them count as this trope). Of particular note is the "Lions and Tamers"/"Tigers and Tamers"/"Tamers and Crocerdiles(sic)" series of games he plays in a chapter of the first book (changing to a new name whenever the game is banned under the old name so he can claim he's obeying the ban).
  • In the Kojak tie-in novel Siege, Kojak reflects that his childhood games of Cops and Robbers never included hostage situations, but now the neighborhood kids who play the robbers always grab hostages as they've seen it on the news.
  • In Alan Dean Foster's novel Nor Crystal Tears, near the end when the alien and human children are playing together, the human children have to explain a game of Cowboys and Indians to the aliens: the Cowboys are the bad guys trying to kill the Indians and steal their land. None of the kids end up wanting to be the cowboys.
  • The title character of O. Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief is a boy who is all too enthusiastic about playing the Indian part.
  • In The Return of the Great Brain, the boys play a more formal game called Outlaw and Posse, in which the outlaw is given a head start and the posse has two hours to track him down. In this particular game, the posse ends up rescuing the outlaw from a ledge. The boys promise never to tell their parents, who would never let them play the game again.
  • Roys Bedoys: Discussed in “Do Your Homework, Roys Bedoys!”, where Maker wants to play cops and robbers with his friends.
  • In Harry Turtledove's World War series, a Lizard (invading alien) prisoner asks Corporal Sam Yeager what a group of children were doing. Yeager replies that they are probably playing "Cowboys and Indians", which of course means nothing to the alien. After a few abortive attempts to explain, Yeager simply says "think of it as Lizards and Americans."
  • In a series of Christian children's stories, a mother sees her young sons playing Cowboys and Indians and has them stop. Furthermore, she then tells the story of William Penn, the founder of the British colony and later American state of Pennsylvania, who made efforts to secure peace between the colonists and the neighboring Native American nations.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One Alfred Hitchcock Presents story follows a boy playing Cowboys and Indians and what happens when he borrows his father's gun for playing.
  • New Tricks: A flashback in "The Rock" had two British boys and their Spanish friend in Gibraltar during The Falklands War playing "Brits & Argies' in an old fort. The Spanish boy complained because he always had to play the Argentinians.
  • In the Only Fools and Horses episode "May the Force Be With You", Slater remembers how he and the main characters used to play pirates as kids, and he was always the one who had to walk the plank.
    Slater: I always wanted to be Blackbeard, but you wouldn't let me.
    Del: We did once.
    Slater: Oh, I remember. That was the day Blackbeard had to walk the plank!
  • In early episodes of Stargate Atlantis, some of the Athosian children are shown playing, with one wearing a wraith mask, and the other saying he's playing as then-Major Shepherd.
  • The Untamed: After the Time Skip, Wei Wuxian sees a number of children playing out the Sunshot Campaign, taking the part of various warriors who'd participated and acting out the political squabbling that followed. He asks why the kids don't seem to have anyone playing the "Yuling Patriach" (himself), but they have assigned that role to a fun-ending older lady who chases them out of the marketplace.
  • An incident in The Wire episode "Dead Soldiers", where detective Bunk Moreland sees children pretending to be Omar and robbing the Barksdale crew. Ironically, the kid pretending to be Omar goes on to kill Omar in the fifth season.

  • Referenced in "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" by Cher:
    I was five and he was six
    We rode on horses made of sticks
    He wore black and I wore white
    He would always win the fight

    Print Media 
  • Evoked in a cartoon of H. T. Webster's entitled "The Passing of a Idol", where the children all want to play gangsters instead of cops and are overheard by a passing policeman.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • One of the earliest "angle"(storyline) tropes, wherein professional wrestling became worked and wrestlers took on gimmicks. According to one history of the sport, this type of angle was common during the 1930s, often using two Americans, the well-tanned half of the feuding tandem being the "Indian," who would be asked to engage in a publicity stunt (e.g., pitching an Indian teepee in town and "refusing to leave" unless granted a match) to draw media attention and interest in the upcoming local event. Through the years, this would used sparingly, as both cowboys and Amerindians were usually portrayed as baby faces.

  • Legend has it this trope was once ingeniously invoked to discredit the Ku Klux Klan; a journalist who'd infiltrated them gave details of secret meetings, passwords, titles, etc. to the writers of The Adventures of Superman radio show to use in a Supes vs. the KKK storyline. Soon enough, there were kids running around neighbourhoods all over America dressed in pillowcases, being beaten up by their friend with the Superman pyjamas.
  • My Word!: During his closing Feghoot on one episode, Frank Muir talked about playing cowboys and Indians at school, and how the toughest boys got to be the cowboys. He always ended up being the pregnant pioneer woman giving birth in the back of a wagon during an Indian raid.

  • Buffalo Bill toured the world with a The Wild West show that used cowboys and indians and a romanticized version of this era as it major selling point. He did more than anybody else to popularize and engrain the cowboy and Indians era in the public consciousness.

    Video Games 
  • An unusual variant occurs in Final Fantasy IX when Vivi watches a couple of Lindblum kids playing a war between Lindblum and Alexandria. Rather than see one side as good and the other as evil, Vivi finds himself comparing his fellow black mages to the toys the kids are playing with, thinking that they're not so different.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask: Psychopathic Manchild that he is, Majora considers the final boss battle a variant of this. He plays the "good guy" and Link plays the "bad guy." Since both he and Link are throwing around deadly weapons and magic with the fate of the world at stake, this fits the trope only in Majora's mind.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: If Link visits Hateno Village at night and talks to the man watching the windmill, he'll ask what Link is doing awake at that hour. Link can claim to be a thief, whereupon the man assumes that he's playing "guards and bandits."
  • In Rune Factory 5, one of the dialogues Hina has remarks that it's her turn to be the ranger captain while playing "Rangers and Monsters" with Julian.
  • In The Sims 2, Sim children can play "cops and robbers".
  • With the exception of the Neutral and Fantasy themes, the main plot of South Park: Phone Destroyer consists of this, with the kids playing large-scale (Collectible Card Game with multiple sets levels of large-scale) games of cowboys vs. indians (with pirates thrown into the mix), aliens vs. cyborgs, Jews vs. Christians (with some classical mythology thrown into the mix), and superheroes vs. supervillains.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
    • When Mario first meets Gaz in Super Mario RPG, he is pitting his Mario and Bowser toys against each other. Bowser wins. (Between this and a few later comments, one gets the impression that he doesn't think much of Mario as a hero.)
      • ...then again, Gaz may have just been getting Mario out of the way so he could introduce Geno to the plot.
    • Part of Wario's Backstory, according to old Nintendo Power comics, was that he played Cops and Robbers (Western variant) with Mario as a kid, but almost never got to play the Sheriff role, and the one time he did, Mario just laughed at him.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • In the Adventure Time episode "Davey", Finn is feeling burned out from all the attention he recieves from random strangers, and BMO tries to cheer him up by playing Cops and Robbers with him. The game mostly consists of BMO running around while wearing a mask and an oversized black-and-white striped shirt while yelling Malaproper-filled threats. While Finn does not do much besides sitting in a corner, the scene is so hilarious that it does cheer him up, on top of giving him the idea of disguising himself to avoid attracting attention.
    "Give me your bank account! Bang bang!"
  • Justice League Unlimited, "Patriot Act": After the second-stringers such as Vigilante, Shining Knight and Green Arrow manage to fend off the Shaggy Man, the kids of Metropolis want to play as them, the Seven Soldiers of Victory.
  • In the Merrie Melodies cartoon Robin Hood Makes Good (1939), three... um... well, let's just call them sciuridae for now, are preparing to play Robin Hood. One gets the impression that the largest always gets to be Robin Hood, while the smallest is stuck as the Sheriff. Not much roleplay is involved; the "sheriff" doesn't even do anything before the two others mount their attack. The two "heroes" are caught by a predator, but the little one manages to rescue them. They start a new game, the bigger one beginning to assume the role of Robin again, when the small one says: "Whooooo's gonna be Robin Hoooood?" (The cartoon is by Chuck Jones, who in later years might've considered it an Old Shame along with the Sniffles the Mouse character.)
  • Samurai Jack: After establishing himself as potent threat to their once all-powerful overlord, kids started to pick up a game where they dressed in robes and beat an unlucky kid with a Aku-ish haircut over the head with sticks.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Springfield Up", young Clancy Wiggum plays cops and robbers with Homer, before getting disturbed by Homer's reaction to being "shot" ("Oh, I can't take the pain! Please put one in my brain!")
    • Another episode had the kids playing Cowboys and Indians. Bart gives Lisa the "Indian" name of "Thinks-Too-Much".
  • The South Park kids, in one of their moments of actually acting like kids, played "Americans and Bosnians" in an episode made during the Kosovo conflict. On another occasion, they play as stereotypical police action-movie protagonists, and get their investigation taken over by kids playing FBI. Then they get involved in a real drug investigation. Then they go play laundromat, instead.
    • There's also "Fun Times With Weapons", where they play ninjas vs supervillain, then ninjas vs other ninjas.
    • The plot of "The Last of the Meheecans" is kicked off when Butters gets lost during a game of Texans vs. Mexicans.