Fun and Threat

Keva TowerIn preparing one of our upcoming Major Fun Award reviews, I came across a short video of the construction of a world record tower constructed out of Keva planks and its subsequent destruction. There are all sorts of videos out there documenting the destruction of things: buildings, bridges, bunkers, and virtually anything ever associated with Mythbusters.

The Keva tower took around 10 hours to complete and consisted of over 4000 blocks of wood. It stood over 50 feet tall when complete. It is a testament to human ingenuity, patience, and play. It served no purpose outside of the challenge of creating such a structure (OK—and probably the promotion of Keva planks but as advertisements go it’s very restrained). The video is short, compressing the entire process to just over 3 minutes.

[youtube][/youtube]What struck me was the part at the end when they were trying to knock the thing down. Instead of just pushing it over, the creators allowed kids to swing a plumb bob at the structure to knock out the planks that comprised the base. At this point in the video, you can see the crowd that has gathered. You can hear their cheers and gasps and laughter. It takes many swings to bring the structure crashing down and the tension is palpable as is the joy. When the tower ultimately topples over, there is a swell of noise not just from the collapsing blocks, but also from the assembled witnesses.

The tower falls as if it has fainted. It happens quickly but with a fluidity that gives the impression that it was held up with wires. The Keva planks pile up in a drift across the floor like a wave that freezes the moment it strikes the shore. Destruction markedly devoid of violence.

We often talk about violence in games and the media. And rightly so. There is a distressing amount of interpersonal violence that permeates much of our culture. What I want to note here is that there is perhaps a fine distinction that should be made between violence and destruction. That our fascination with destruction—with the undoing of static order—can devolve into a morbid nihilism is probably not surprising, but every so often it is good to observe closely as things fall apart.

exploded toiletI have always loved those exploded-view diagrams of common objects. And high-speed photography of events that occur between the blinks of my eyes. In these examples we get a peek at the complexity below the placid surface of mundane matter as well as the elegant order at the heart of even some of the most confusing phenomena. I would love to see a slow-motion, high-resolution video of that Keva tower as it succumbs to gravity. Even in the few seconds that we have in the video you can discern some of the logic behind the collapse.

stick bomb - andreOne of my daughter’s friends set a world record recently for longest stick bomb (click on picture for video). That’s STICK bomb, not STINK bomb. And before you alert DHS agents, there are no explosives. By weaving popsicle sticks in a specific pattern, you can create a mat that looks a lot like a trivet you would make in elementary school. Remove one specific stick and all the kinetic energy that went in to bending the sticks around each other is released. The sticks jump up off the floor with surprising force. It’s like a domino topple as the woven line of sticks unravels down the length of the construct. And here we find ourselves back at the undeniable fun and fascination that adjoins acts of destruction. Very few people want to watch, let alone participate in, the creation of large scale domino installations, but they will come out of the woodwork if it means they can watch the whole thing fall down.

I think, to a certain degree, fun is contingent on threat. There must be a chance of failure. There must be a tension in the construction of something, no matter if that is something physical like a stick bomb or something abstract like a chess strategy. For there to be fun there must exist stakes. And as those stakes are raised and challenged the tension mounts until it must be released, either tragically when a careless elbow destroys the tower before a record can be achieved or triumphantly when everyone has had a chance to admire their handiwork before they enthusiastically swing a plumb-bob until the tower is nothing but a pile of wooden blocks.[youtube][/youtube]

The Awesome Power of a Fully Inflated Earth Ball

Yesterday was Field Day for my daughter’s school. Grades K through 8 converged on a local park and rotated through a series of field games. Each team was made up of about 12 to 15 students from all the grades. They had team names and colors and many of them came in coordinated costumes.

The day was beautiful: blue skies, light breeze, and a broad expanse of grass and clover that was tall enough to cushion a fall but not so tall as to get everybody worried about ticks and chiggers and poison ivy. The kids were in high spirits. The teachers and parent volunteers were relaxed (well, as relaxed as can be expected with 200 or more kids in a field full of games).

With 15 minutes to go before the buses arrived, I was trying to work out in my head the rules for a game that would utilize two giant “Earth” balls AND would not result in debilitating injury.

Earth BallFor those who don’t know, an “Earth” ball is just a giant, inflatable ball (also called a cage ball). I grew up calling them Earth balls because they are huge (anywhere from 48 to 72 inches tall) and because the ones I played with as a youngster were scale replicas of good ol’ planet Earth. I spent many years as a camp counselor and many more working for camps and adventure programs. I’ve led countless field games that use giant cage balls of every color and yet I always call them “Earth” balls.

This is the second year I have volunteered at Field Day. Last year, I noticed that they had a giant pink “Earth” ball for a game called Sumo Wrestler. I immediately volunteered to be the adult supervisor. In part I volunteered for this activity because “earth” balls invite all kinds of fun, physical play: jumping, hitting, pushing, kicking, etc… But the bigger reason I volunteered was because all of those activities inevitably result in injuries—injuries that always take us adults by surprise.

It was my hope to fend off at least a few of the worst ones, because nothing ruins a field day more than a dislocated shoulder or a case of whiplash.

The game of Sumo Wrestler is one of those games that are instantly attractive to kids and most adults. The idea is that the giant ball is in the center of a circle that is split in half. Two contestants start on opposite sides of the ball and try to push it past the opposite side of the circle. Kids get really excited about challenging their friends. Even kids who don’t usually go in for physical conflict will line up to take a turn in the ring. I attribute this to the fact that they focus on the ball more than the conflict. Adults also see it as a safe way for kids to wrestle. The ball is big and soft and filled with air—how could a big ball of air hurt, right?

newton's second lawWell, all that air and the membrane that surrounds it are excellent conduits for Newton’s laws of motion. Especially the second law. In short, if there is even a small difference in the mass of the kids who are pushing against the ball, the smaller one will almost always be catapulted away with often surprising force. It gets worse if one or both of the kids manages to get even a little running start before they hit the ball. After all, force equals mass times acceleration. And if the kids are not pushing on opposite sides of the ball, if they are both even a little to one side of center, the ball shoots off and the two kids collide with whatever part of their body was foremost at the time—generally the noggin.

Although I abandoned Sumo Wrestler early in the day, my attempts to come up with an energetic replacement that would involve fewer than two kids leaving my station in tears left much to be desired.

So this year, with a little trial and error, I came up with a game that I called Sumo Volleyball (please feel free to make suggestions in the comment section—PLEASE). Teams get to push not just one but two giant balls. Here’s the set-up and rules:

  • Set out cones to form 2 parallel lines (about twice the width of your ball apart and maybe 30 feet long).
  • Teams face each other across the space between the lines. Teams play on their knees at all times.
  • An adult stands at each open end of the lines to keep the ball in play.
  • GOAL: push one of the balls over the opposing team so that it lands on the ground behind them. As soon as one ball hits the ground behind a team, stop play and start over.
  • RULE #1: all players must stay on their knees at all times. No standing up. No squatting. If someone gets off their knees, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • RULE #2: Knees may not cross the line of cones. You can reach across the line but you can’t “walk” across the line. If someone crosses the line, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • OPTION: every 2 points have the teams switch sides (gives them a chance to stand up, rearrange, and not have a disadvantage because of wind)

Earth Ball GameOnce the kids got over the disappointment that they wouldn’t be knocking each other out in a semi-sumo match, they had a blast. With 2 balls almost everyone is included and you can still get a very satisfying hit on the ball although it is harder to generate as much force compared to when you are standing up. You can still be knocked over, but when you are on your knees your center of gravity is much lower. The greatest risk actually comes from getting knocked over by one of your own team mates. The ball can still shake up a smaller child, especially if it catches the child on the head, but I saw that happen only twice and both times the kids came back after sitting out for a round.

What I loved seeing was that there were many times when the kids just loved hitting the ball back and forth. I think if I had made the lines farther apart they would have been just as happy to spend 20 minutes or so battering these giant balls back and forth with no score at all.

Field Day play at its best. Silly, active, and fun.

Do you want to play a game?

At some moment on the hazy horizon of memory, I am sitting in the tiny breakfast nook my mother called the “kitchenette.” This me is probably still in elementary school but I’m guessing that middle school is not far off. In this particular recollection I am eating cereal from a white Corelle bowl, but I could just as easily be playing with the last few strands of spaghetti from dinner. I am repeating a phrase over and over, sometimes out loud and sometimes just under my breath.

“Do you want to play?”

Each time I emphasize a different word.

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Each iteration carries a slightly different meaning without changing the grammar. The emphasis alters the tone of the question which in turn directs the kind of answer that I expect from my imaginary interlocutor. I’m fascinated with the way the tone shifts with only a little extra volume on a single word. I am especially struck by what is implied when I ask, “DO you want to play?” As if I am speaking to a liar or someone who is only humoring me.

OK, so I was no Blaise Pascal, but in the solipsism of youth, the idea that language could be more than the sum of the literal words was quite a revelation. And that fascination with the subtle (and not so subtle) relationship between the denotational and connotational nature of language stuck with me.

When I tell people what I do as Major Fun, their first reaction is generally one of good natured jealousy. “That must be fun!” And it is! I get to play games and then write about the ones that I think are amazing. I can also write about any and all of the things that I think about as I decide what fits the criteria for the Major Fun Award and what doesn’t. I can write about the fun and playful nature of language.

That part of me that was fascinated by how emphasis shifts the tone of a question also drives me to do more than just play the game, but rather play WITH the game and everything it implies.

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

I think many folks regret engaging me in this conversation. It’s about as much fun to listen to wonky abstractions as it is to listen to someone as they relate their dreams. Fortunately for them, in our age of the internet, clicking the Back Button is a handy escape. If you have made it this far then perhaps you are enough like me that from time to time, you will want to splash around a bit in the abstract end of the pool.

Scroll To Top