Beer Pong. It’s a game dear to every college student’s heart, whether you’re a frat guy or a hipster. Beer pong is to college drinking culture as apple pie is to American culture. It’s used to settle arguments, determine social status, show off a very particular skill, and much more. “Yeah, it’s the competitiveness and the glory. It’s cool that people can get into something so basic, so trivial,” explained a Tufts fraternity member who asked to remain anonymous. Most people play with the same basic rules, but everyone adds their own twist depending on where they are from and with whom they’re playing. There are so many small variations in the rules that no matter where the game is being played, it’s going to be a unique experience.
While beer pong is widely played on college campuses and at house parties across the country, many participants are unaware of the game’s origins. Several colleges claim to have created the game as it is known today, but its earliest recorded appearance was at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. In 2005, The Dartmouth Independent, Dartmouth’s student-run publication that credits itself in publishing the definitive history of beer pong, reported that fraternity brothers at Phi Tau created the game when they started placing cups of beer on ping pong tables during ping pong matches. They soon developed more complex rules: games would be played in doubles with teammates hitting the ball alternatively. Hitting the ball into one’s opponent’s cup resulted in them drinking. The brothers at Phi Tau dubbed this game ‘House Pong.’
Dartmouth College may be home to the earliest known version of beer pong, but Bucknell University claims ownership over the version of the game more widely played today. The Bucknellian, Bucknell’s student newspaper, published an article in 2011 celebrating their chapter of fraternity Delta Upsilon as the creators of ‘throw pong’ in the 1970s. ‘Throw Pong’ was very similar to the version of Beer Pong played today. Cups would be arranged at both sides of a table with two teams of two positioned on either end trying to throw a ping-pong ball into their opponents’ cups.
Shortly after the development of throw pong at Bucknell, a brother from Theta Delta Chi at Lehigh University brought the game to his fraternity after visiting the school. Through the 1980s, as the game grew in popularity within Theta Delta Chi, the brothers changed the game’s name from ‘Throw Pong’ to ‘Beirut.’ The name change was likely inspired by the Lebanese Civil War, occurring around the time of the change.
In 1980, Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization. Shortly after violence erupted in the country, Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops in to organize and maintain a ceasefire between the parties. In 1983, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in an American military barrack in Beirut, killing 241 marines. This came after a bombing earlier that year at the American embassy in Beirut, in which 63 Americans were killed. As Lebanon remained a prominent topic in the American news cycle through 1986, when the Iran-Contra Affair was a hot topic, anti-Lebanese sentiment rose across the country, including on Lehigh’s campus.
Brothers in Theta Delta Chi renamed the game to ‘Beirut’ to draw an analogous relationship between a ping-pong ball landing in a cup of beer and bombs being dropped in the region. The name change matched their anti-Lebanese sentiment and echoed their desire to see bombs dropped on Beirut in retaliation for the American lives lost there. To make this attitude more explicitly known, the brothers painted a map of Beirut on their tables to visualize the airstrikes as they played.
While the map of Beirut didn’t make it outside the walls of Theta Delta Chi at Lehigh, ‘Beirut,’ as the drinking game coined at Dartmouth, refined at Bucknell, and renamed at Lehigh, spread to college campuses all over the country, maintained the name of Lebanon’s capital city.
Today, the name of the game varies across regional lines. To many, the game is still called ‘Beirut,’ while the majority of Americans know it as beer pong. North by Northwestern, Northwestern University’s student publication, reported in 2008 that 77 percent of Americans use the name ‘beer pong’ while only 23 percent use the name ‘Beirut.’ However, those who live on the East Coast are most likely to use the name ‘Beirut’ compared to the rest of the country.
Beer pong may be embedded in the vernacular of most college students, but it isn’t accepted universally. Several schools across the country have banned the game, along with other drinking games, in efforts to curb binge drinking. In 2008, Time reported that several colleges banned drinking games and drinking game paraphernalia (e.g. beer pong tables and excessive amounts of ping pong balls). The Center for Disease Control defines binge drinking as four or more drinks in a single occasion for a women and five or more drinks in a single occasion for a man. With a game like beer pong, it can be difficult to keep count of how many drinks a player has consumed due to the speed, competition, and quantity of alcohol involved in the game. While beer pong may not necessarily promote binge drinking, at least not explicitly, it doesn’t do much to mitigate it either.
Though the history of beer pong is rich with innovation and camaraderie, it’s important to examine other aspects of the game’s legacy—undertones of ethnocentrism and advocacy for reckless American intervention. This mixed with the obvious concerns about the health risks associated with the game warrants a serious examination of beer pong as a deeply ingrained, and perhaps negative, aspect of American university culture. Nonetheless, beer pong has survived and spread for more than 50 years and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.