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We're seeing a pretty steady stream of overdoses—roughly 15 to 20 overdoses or more in about a 12-hour to 24-hour period.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: What they're facing at the St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver is starting to echo across other parts of Canada with increasing frequency as two synthetic opioids—the extremely potent fentanyl and even more deadly carfentanil—sideswipe addicts and first time users alike, none of them aware that it's there. But even with the antidote Narcan made available in kits, first responders worry the drugs are getting so powerful the antidote will not be enough. In a moment, the CBC's Natalie Clancy on the raw reality of what is now called Canada's fentanyl crisis. And then from harsh reality to fun and games.
I just kind of like the idea of learning how to solve something. And then last year I learned how to solve a two by two and there it just progressed and progressed. And now I'm on to solving like lots of puzzles.
AMT: The Rubik's Cube is enjoying a renaissance. That little cube of colours can be scrambled 43 quintillion ways. And the competition to do it ever faster is intense. In half an hour, why a Cold War analog puzzle thrives in the digital age. And why stop there? We’ll be talking toys for the rest of the program too including the game one retailer shunned as sex in a box.
VOICE 1: Right foot blue.
VOICE 2: Right foot blue.
VOICE 1: Left hand red.
VOICE 2: Left hand red.
VOICE 1: Left.
VOICE 2: Right.
VOICE 1: Yellow.
VOICE 2: Blue.
VOICE 1: Green.
BOTH VOICES: [Singing] Yeah, Twister. You gotta play Twister.
AMT: From the stuff that creates delight or outrage through generations to the very idea of what games are really for. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
[Music: Theme]Back To Top »
'I was dead for 10 minutes': Vancouver's opioid overdose crisis
AMT: In a single night late last week in Vancouver, there were nine drug overdose deaths in the city. It's an alarming figure. It led the police and the mayor to hold a press conference Friday calling for more detox and addiction treatment help. It led the BC Coroners Service to issue an urgent warning to users of illicit drugs, especially in the downtown east side of Vancouver, to take extra care. Sadly those nine deaths in a single night were the continuation of an ongoing trend. Over the past year, Vancouver-area hospitals have treated more than 6,000 cases of drug overdoses and 70 per cent of those cases are dealt with in ER. CBC has spent a shift in the emergency department with the doctors and nurses on the front lines of the crisis. Of course, the drug fentanyl has been a major factor in the problem. But those frontline workers say they're increasingly dealing with the effects of carfentanil—an ever stronger opioid being bootlegged on the streets. CBC reporter Natalie Clancy joined them on a particularly busy night. This is her documentary, Fentanyl Ground Zero: A Night in Canada’s Busiest Overdose ER. And a warning: some of what you're going to hear is pretty raw.
[Sound: Ambulance sirens and dispatch]
ALEXANDRA LAVIOLETTE: I remember being told that I was dead for 10 minutes and that I wasn't answering and I wasn't responding and I wasn't breathing between seven to 10 minutes.
NATALIE CLANCY: Alexandra Laviolette has no idea how much naloxone, or Narcan, it took to revive her. That's the shot that reverses the effects of opioids. The 24 year old was rushed to St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver by ambulance.
ALEXANDRA LAVIOLETTE: I just remember my friends telling me that and telling me that I had to go in the ambulance. And I honestly don't remember even doing the drugs. So apparently, I overdosed. That's scary.
NATALIE CLANCY: She's a striking redhead who could pass for a model, if not for the red scabs on her face and needle marks on her arms—signs of chronic IV drug use. Paramedics found her on the street— not quite how she remembers it.
ALEXANDRA LAVIOLETTE: So I was at my friend's house just hanging out actually. Well, I suppose it was heroin that had been laced with fentanyl or actually, just very pure. So one of the two. I mean I can still feel the effects from it now. I’m really groggy and I’m very tired. I’m lethargic and I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. You know what, lately I've been finding that the drugs are weaker and weaker and weaker. And then all of a sudden, you’ll get this crazy batch of super strong stuff. You can't go just zero trace amounts in everything and then bam, full blown, 100 per cent. Like nobody in their right mind should be serving a cocktail that strong.
NATALIE CLANCY: As we talk, her eyes roll back and she nearly passes out as the naloxone wears off. Nurse Tanya Campbell watches her closely.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Right now, she’s okay. We’re going to definitely keep an eye on her. She was a lady who was found outside of the clinic—what’s it called—the safe injection site. She was found outside on the road, pretty well on the sidewalk. Decreased LOC, so a decreased level of consciousness. They ended up—the staff from the clinic came out. They actually administered Narcan. It didn’t really work. They were bagging her with a bag. When the paramedics arrived, she still hadn't woken up. It wasn’t until they actually got her into the ambulance that she started to wake up. And then as you’ve seen her now, she’s awake, she’s alert. But it doesn’t mean that she’ll go back—she could possibly go back down so that’s why we’re going to keep an eye on her for a little bit of time.
NATALIE CLANCY: Another nurse bring Alexandra an egg sandwich and a glass of juice, as she sits on a hard resin chair where overdose patients must wait, next to the emergency entrance.
ALEXANDRA LAVIOLETTE: Thank you, Ann.
ANN: You’re welcome.
NATALIE CLANCY: Not getting a bed or any privacy doesn't seem to bother Laviolette. Nurses watch her a little longer, give her a donated winter coat, and she's out the door and back on the street, likely to return.
TANYA CAMPBELL: You really don't know what's mixed in whatever you are taking. You might think it's a high but you could end up with us having a tube down your throat and not being able to breathe on your own.
[Sound: Radio dispatch, sirens]
NATALIE CLANCY: While another overdose patient arrives by ambulance, someone tells the triage nurse a woman needs help in the hospital’s public washroom. [To Tanya Campbell] Is it actually an overdose?
TANYA CAMPBELL: Yeah.
NATALIE CLANCY: Nurse Tanya Campbell races down the hall pushing a gurney.
TANYA CAMPBELL: We just found her in the washroom.
NATALIE CLANCY: While most overdose victims are brought to the hospital by paramedics or police, her next patient is already here, unresponsive on the bathroom floor.
VOICE 1: Somebody grab the oxygen please.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Wakey wakey.
VOICE 2: She had Narcan times two from the Narcan kit.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Lay on your side. We're going to take you to emerg. We just picked her up from the washroom down the hallway.
NATALIE CLANCY: The middle aged woman had just been discharged from upstairs and overdosed while waiting for a taxi.
GERI PLATKO: You overdosed.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Are you still with me?
NATALIE CLANCY: Her friend didn't inject as much, so was able to give her naloxone.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Both of them went into the washroom to do a hit and when—I’m not sure if the one who actually became the patient did the hit first—but both of them did a hit. And the one who was the friend noticed that her friend had gone down and decided to use her own personal Narcan kit to try to save her friend’s life, which of course she did.
TANYA CAMPBELL: Guys, I’m just going to put her straight in the spot over here. I’ve got an empty bed so let’s go into 15.
GERI PLATKO: I ran out of the bathroom and I hollered at people, "Somebody's overdosing in the bathroom.”
NATALIE CLANCY: Geri Platko says she's no hero. The 62 year old says she and her friend thought they were being careful.
GERI PLATKO: Now this stuff we got, I was told don't do it alone, but you’re always told that. And I was told it’s really strong. And then she says well, when you fix, don't do it all. Just put half in. I said okay, you too. But she threw it all in and she went under.
NATALIE CLANCY: Platko says it was the first time she’d ever used the kit that is now widely distributed to drug users in Vancouver.
GERI PLATKO: But I got my Narcan kit in there. She’s on the ground and I broke it and they said, "Do you know what you are doing?" and I said yeah. They said [unintelligible]. And they moved aside and I [unintelligible] and I put it right in the muscle. And I know I have to wait three more minutes. If she doesn't retrieve, I can put the second one in, right? So I put the second one in and that helped, right? It started bringing her around, the second shot of Narcan.
NATALIE CLANCY: Platko sits at her friend's bedside. She knows exactly what she's going through because she overdosed herself in the same hospital, three days earlier.
GERI PLATKO: They told me if I wasn't in the hospital and did it, I would have been dead, right? My heart stopped and everything.
NATALIE CLANCY: So you overdosed three days ago?
GERI PLATKO: Well, yeah. I zonked right out and I fell down to the ground and they heard that. But somebody was with me, a friend of mine, because they told me not to do it alone. So the nurse, they came running because when they heard my body hit the ground, they came and they Narcaned me right into my leg, right? But I wasn't reacting, they said. But you know the strange thing about it? I could hear them and see them but I was dead. My heart stopped. And I couldn’t move or anything, right? My body wasn’t reacting.
NATALIE CLANCY: Platko recovered, used again, and knows there is no way to be sure she won't OD again. She says she's been addicted since she was 14 years old. [To Geri Platko] Is it getting worse? Is the stuff that’s out there stronger?
GERI PLATKO: Oh yeah. It’s getting scary. There's a lot of heroin out there that's really strong. Very strong. Very.
NATALIE CLANCY: What many heroin addicts don't realize is that they are being sold fentanyl, not heroin. So many of the people dying from fentanyl overdoses don't even realize they are on the drug. While nurses restock Platko's naloxone kit with three more shots, Dr. Kevin Nemethy checks in on her friend who can barely keep her eyes open.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Dr. Nemethy. How are you feeling? You okay? Do you remember what happened?
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Okay. She told you, eh? Okay. Are you on the methadone program or the suboxone program? Methadone? And do you take that regularly? Do you have a naloxone kit or have you used one before? No. Are you interested in one? Okay. We’ll make sure you get you one before you go. And we'll just watch you until you’re a bit more awake. We’ll print out for you as well. We have a rapid access addictions clinic that's running Monday to Friday, nine until five p.m. You can actually self-refer there. You don't need an appointment. You can just go during their hours if you are interested. We’ll give you that information so you have it.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: [To Natalie Clancy] We’re seeing a fairly steady stream of overdoses and overdose related complaints. I haven't looked at the numbers but I think we are seeing roughly 15 to 20 overdoses or more in about a 12-hour to 24-hour period. We’re seeing actually a great response to the take-home naloxone kits. It's been a really positive side of this whole crisis, is that the community has really rallied. There’s a big interest in taking the naloxone kits home so we’ve actually found that we’re using more than we ever anticipated. The people who use the drugs themselves are doing an incredible job of figuring out ways to stay safe. So things like using together, using in a place where you can be seen if you get into trouble, and then also the naloxone kits. There’s all sorts of little bits of silver lining like that, that are at least helping with some of the saves that are happening.
NATALIE CLANCY: He says without a small army of what's been dubbed the Narcan warriors—the users who carry the antidote to fentanyl—the death toll would be so much worse. But with carfentanil now on the streets—the much more potent opioid that’s supposed to tranquilize elephants—is a game changer.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: One of the things we are quite concerned about with something like carfentanil and even fentanyl is that we’re seeing cases where before, a single vial or a single standard dose has been more than enough. Now we are not finding the desired effect until we give ten times the dose or even twenty times the dose of naloxone.
NATALIE CLANCY: [To Dr. Kevin Nemethy] Twenty times the dose? So how many shots of naloxone is that if I have a kit?
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: A typical dose of naloxone would be about 0.4 to 0.8 milligrams, so almost a milligram, say. And a vial typically has, I believe, about a milligram in it. So we are now having cases that need 10, sometimes even more than 10 milligrams, or even a continuous infusion of naloxone running over time to actually maintain the effect.
[Sound: Radio dispatch, sirens]
NATALIE CLANCY: Dr. Nemethy's next patient is a middle-aged man who overdosed on what he thought was cocaine and heroin, but was more likely fentanyl.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: It’s almost in everything now.
NATALIE CLANCY: Paramedics and nurses work together to figure out what drugs he took.
PARAMEDIC: The friend said the other [unintelligible].
NURSE: Oh, friend said the other?
PARAMEDIC: He had both, half and half.
MAN: No, I just did heroin. I did coke earlier.
NURSE: That’s what you know you did.
MAN: Oh yeah.
NURSE: Yeah. Could be anything but that’s what you know you did.
NATALIE CLANCY: He won't be discharged until gets a naloxone kit and training on how to use it.
NURSE: This is for you. So you have three doses.
NATALIE CLANCY: The nurse gives him a small zippered case with everything he needs to give himself or someone else a lifesaving first dose.
NURSE: They’re not pre-done. So if you feel yourself getting too sleepy, you’re going to—first thing—call for help because this is not the end. This is only buying you time to get you to the hospital. Especially if there’s fentanyl in it, you know it’s going to last longer than the Narcan because this is only good for half an hour. There’s three doses in here, but it’s still only good for half an hour. So once it wears off, the opiate comes back, grabs you, you are down again. Flick it, crack it, draw it up. Now, the reason we give you these in here, is the alcohol swab. You’re going to put in in the big muscle here.
NATALIE CLANCY: The man leaves and his empty chair is quickly filled with another overdose patient.
[Sound: Radio dispatch]
NATALIE CLANCY: A 19-year-old woman in a soaked hoodie who gets another egg sandwich from Nurse Campbell. [To Tanya Campbell] People have told me the stigma of addiction—we’re not mobilizing like we would for SARS or H1N1. Are we doing enough? And when you see this population, it’s not like—I don’t know how to convey it to people—it’s not like these people are all partying and having a great day.
TANYA CAMPBELL: No. No. It becomes more of their daily life—at least for some of the people in the downtown east side—that they don't even know how to get out of it because it's become such a pattern in their life. It almost becomes the norm, which is very sad. Extremely sad.
NATALIE CLANCY: [To Tanya Campbell] Do you worry there’s going to come a time where Narcan is not going to work because whatever people are taking is just too strong?
TANYA CAMPBELL: I think that's a fear that all of us have as healthcare workers. There’s one day we’re not even going to be able to even try to save these people. We're going to have a horrific amount of people dying on the street because they’re not quite sure what they’re taking and it ends up being something we can't bring them back from. I think that's a horrific thing that might actually happen, sooner than later, which is really scary.
NATALIE CLANCY: [To Tanya Campbell] You had that? Have you had the same person come again and again and you’ve saved them and tried to help them?
TANYA CAMPBELL: Oh yes. Yesterday we had someone come back seven times in one day, getting Narcaned in the community or here every single time. So it can get overwhelming. It can get to the point where you’re just like, why are we doing this? This is getting too much. But at the end of the day, when I actually saw him at the end, he’s like you know, I really need to do something about it. So occasionally you can break through and you can find that one moment. Everyone has their limit of how much they can handle. I haven't seen him today so perhaps he is getting a little bit better. You just hope. Just keep the hope going.
[Sound: Radio dispatch]
VOICE 1: Okay. Okay. We can bring him in.
VOICE 2: That didn’t work out very well.
VOICE 1: Alright. I’m just going to go grab security. Can we grab security?
NATALIE CLANCY: Another man who overdosed yesterday is back—agitated, complaining of chest pain because they were too rough performing CPR the day before, after he overdosed and nearly died.
MAN: I have the right as a citizen of this country. I do not have to go in that hospital. I can go.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Do you know what day it is today?
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: What day is it?
MAN: It’s Thursday.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Thursday. And what’s the year?
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Okay. Okay.
MAN: I passed it. Good. Now leave me alone.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: No, no, no. Hang on. So you’re having chest pain, right? What could happen to you if you’re having a heart attack and we don’t do anything about it?
MAN: I already know. I’ve had four of them.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: Okay. So what kind of things could happen?
NATALIE: He's not having a heart attack. He’s high and falls down in the ambulance bay where Dr. Nemethy and two paramedics try to get him to come back inside.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: You just fell over, okay? We’re just trying to make sure you’re okay.
MAN: I’m fine.
NATALIE CLANCY: The patient leaves before the hospital social worker is able to intervene and refer him to a new rapid access program to get treatment for addiction, which Nemethy says is the biggest missing link in BC's response to the fentanyl crisis.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: We have a significant difficulty getting patients interested in drug and alcohol rehab into beds from the emergency department. There is often a significant delay, so what we feel that does is put the patients at risk of a relapse, where they continue to use until they get into a rehab kind of scenario.
NATALIE CLANCY: As his shift ends, he is grateful this time, every single overdose patient survived. They don't always. The youngest he lost was 15.
DOCTOR KEVIN NEMETHY: It was, what we call a post-arrest patient, so a patient who had arrested, in the context probably of an overdose, who we had temporarily gotten back. But I did have to talk to the parents and family and let them know that the prognosis was incredibly poor and that their child probably wouldn't survive. And unfortunately, that child did go on to pass away. There's nothing harder in our job and there’s nothing harder, I think, in life to have to tell someone that their loved one is probably not going to make it.
[Sound: Sirens, dispatch]
VOICE 1: Be advised, you can tell ambulance this is not a pedestrian struck. This is an overdose in the middle of the road, over.
VOICE 2: Overdose in the middle of the road.
AMT: We've been listening to the documentary, Fentanyl Ground Zero, produced by CBC's Natalie Clancy, edited by CBC's Alison Cook. For more on Natalie's reporting from St. Paul's emergency room, go to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. New information about the number of overdose deaths in BC will be released today by the province’s Coroners Service of BC. And the health officer of BC has warned the numbers are expected to be very grim. You can turn in tonight to CBC Television’s The National to watch Natalie Clancy's television report on this issue. Let us know what you're thinking. You can tweet us. We are @thecurrentCBC. Find us on our site: www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. The news is next.Back To Top »
Fun and games: Why we should take time to play
Guests: Ian Scheffler, Chris Bensch, Ian Bogost
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Well, still to come, we're having a little fun with the rest of today's show. In half an hour, we're cracking open the vintage toy chest to check out some classic toys and games from the US National Toy Museum. They're bound to leave a nostalgic twinkle or two in your eyes. And we’ll philosophize a bit too—if I can say that word—on the nature of the games we play. But first, don't be a square, be a Cuber.
There’s never been a puzzle quite like Rubik's Cube and America may never be the same. A medical journal has written about a unique phenomenon—a Rubik’s thumb. A museum recognized it as a work of art. Rubik's Cube has been involved in divorce proceedings. People are practicing at clinics, entering tests and competing across the country. Rubik’s Cube from Ideal. Twenty-five million Americans have made it a part of their lives. How about you?
AMT: Well, that's how the Rubik’s Cube fad sounded in 1980. The toy would go on to become one of the most popular in history and you may remember it. The Rubik’s Cube was everywhere for a while—a source of unequal parts frustration and fun. But then, the Rubik's Cube seemed to disappear. Believe it or not, the colourful cubic puzzle is staging a comeback. There are a growing number of people who are borderline obsessed with what they call Cubing. A cube speed competition took place earlier this month in Toronto and The Current’s Howard Goldenthal went to check it out.
[Sound: Rubik’s Cube clicking]
DAVE CAMPBELL: My name’s Dave Campbell. I'm the director of canadianCUBING. We're here at the YMCA in downtown Toronto for our Toronto Limited, Fall 2016 speed cubing competition. We have so many people that want to come and compete that this room is just not big enough. So we’ve limited it to 170 competitors. This up here is the competition area. So you see, we have about 10, what we call, timing stations. So at it we’ll have a judge. There's the timer which starts and stops with the competitors’ hands. So what happens is that we have a scramble station behind it. Competitors bring their cubes up and our trusty scramblers scramble it according to a specified algorithm. So it's almost like reading like music notation. You look at it and say okay, I have to turn the top this way and the right this way. You come up with a set scramble that everyone will get for this round. At that point, the competitor goes down, sits and solves his cube. When he's done, he gets up and comes over here and we bring the cube back, that’s solved now, to get scrambled again. And they repeat that five times.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: What are your names?
COMPETITOR 1: Caden.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: How old are you?
COMPETITOR 1: Fourteen.
COMPETITOR 2: Justin MacLean. I'm 15.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: How long have you guys been cubing?
COMPETITOR 1: So I've been cubing for about a year and a half now. And Justin, how long have you been cubing?
COMPETITOR 2: I've been cubing for about three years now.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: What do you like about it so much?
COMPETITOR 1: I just kind of like—I went to his house before I got into this and I always saw he had these and I just kind of liked the idea of learning how to solve something. And then near the end of last year, I learned how to solve a two by two and there it just progressed and progressed. And now I'm onto solving like lots of puzzles.
COMPETITOR 2: It's like—I just kind of enjoy to do it. It’s like kind of fun to see it like just form stuff. Even though I've been doing this for so long and I know how to do it, it's just fun to see it come together and see if you can get faster and faster.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: Hey, what's your best time?
COMPETITOR 1: Mine is 13.1. And I got like a complete last layer skip and I was pretty happy when it happened and I was just surprised, so.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: How about you?
COMPETITOR 2: My best time for three by three is seven point five seconds and I had probably two F2L pairs and a PLL skip.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: Can you give me a quick demonstration now?
COMPETITOR 1: Yep.
COMPETITOR 2: Yep.
COMPETITOR 1: And I’ll scramble it here. Okay.
[Sound: Rubik’s Cube clicking]
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: Wow. [chuckles]
DAVE CAMPBELL: I was a kid in the eighties and it was one of those things that's impossible because there was no way to learn how to do it. You pretty much had to figure it out. But today, with the advent of YouTube and just the Internet, people being able to talk together, it enables people to learn to solve it so much faster to the point that I would say almost anybody can learn to solve the cube.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: So do you think I could learn to do it?
DAVE CAMPBELL: I totally think you could learn to do it and I think you should learn to do it.
HOWARD GOLDENTHAL: And what about Anna Maria Tremonti? Think she could do it?
DAVE CAMPBELL. I think so. Absolutely. She is super smart, right? So she probably could've done it without the Internet. But now that the Internet is here, she could totally do it. She should too as well.
[Sound: Rubik’s Cube clicking]
AMT: I think I've just been set up. I have a cube here. We'll see about that. Ian Scheffler knows all about the twisting story of the Rubik's Cube and the modern cube speed competition. He is a competitor and a journalist and he's written a new book called Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving. Ian Scheffler is in our New York studio. Hello.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Hi there.
AMT: Well, how many of these cubing competitions have you been to?
IAN SCHEFFLER: As a competitor myself, roughly a dozen and I've attended several more than that as a spectator.
AMT: And what's your personal record time?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So there's actually a number of records. There's the single solve and then there's the average solve. My best average is 18 and a half and my best single is 16. That's in competition. At home I'm faster because everyone gets nervous on stage.
AMT: Hmm. Okay. Well, you're not going to teach me to do it in 16 seconds, are you? [laughs]
IAN SCHEFFLER: I believe you could.
AMT: Okay. Well, I’ll work on that. We'll keep talking. Tell me about your first experience with a Rubik's Cube.
IAN SCHEFFLER: So like a lot of folks, I was actually born in the nineties. I didn't grow up with this in the eighties. I saw it at a museum gift shop and didn't know that it was a puzzle in fact, which is very much like the inventor’s first experience. It was totally accidental. But my real love affair with the cube, I guess you could say, began at summer camp 11 years ago, when I happened to sit next to the greatest Rubik's Cube solver on the planet. And I didn't know that's what he was. I just knew he could do it under the table without looking at it. And it turns out he later was hired to teach Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness. He set the world record and years later, we reconnected and I started falling down the rabbit hole of competing.
AMT: And who is that, by the way?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So that's a young man named Toby Mao. And he's such a competitive guy—and you can look this up on YouTube—that when he got married, he and his wife eschewed the first dance and they'd met at a Rubik's Cube competition and like solving Rubik's Cube in jujitsu. So they decided to combine these two things by doing a jujitsu match in front of the wedding party with the caveat that if you can solve the Rubik's Cube first, you win. So with his now wife choking him out, he managed to do it one handed.
AMT: [laughs] Well, okay. There's an interesting relationship. Let's go back. Rubik's Cubes were big sellers and then they seemed to disappear. What happened?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So you're exactly right. They basically dropped off the face of the earth. Part of it has to do with the nature of fads, right? I mean every fad has this life cycle where it blows up and then it dies. And with Rubik's Cube, because the amplitude of the fad was so big, I think the drop was commensurate with that. But part of it was that it had to do with the sort of specific history of the cube. It came out of Eastern Europe so there was a big commercial lag in terms of meeting demand. It was hard to scale up at first. And there were a lot of pirated cubes that didn't work as well. But I think also just the absence of an easy way to learn how to do it meant that so many people got frustrated that they just gave up on mass. There was actually a patent issued in the US for basically a hammer called the Cube Smasher and it came with an instruction manual about all the different ways you could destroy a Rubik's Cube.
AMT: It's harder to destroy them today, isn't it?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yeah. Well, it's also less necessary since you know you can certainly go online and there’s YouTube tutorials that have been watched millions of times, although obviously to solve it fast is very different from just learning to solve it.
AMT: Well, the way they're made is a little different too, is it not?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes, that's correct. So there are traditional Rubik's Cubes which you can buy at any big box store for your niece or nephew. And what we solve in the cubing community are called speed cubes and these are puzzles that are designed with speed in mind. The world record recently fell to just four point seven three seconds for a single solve. And the statistics on that, I think, were average of about 10 moves a second, you know which is close to the speed of slow hummingbirds. So you need a specialty puzzle to actually turn it that fast.
AMT: What's in there?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So it looks exactly the same as a normal Rubik's Cube on the outside but it's much more curvilinear. So in the same way that you know if you put the engine of a Ferrari in a model T, it would look like a model T but the inside’s very different. There is also a lubricant. I had the very strange experience of being in a casino in Las Vegas at my very first competition and a young man came up to me and offered to lube my cube and I wasn't sure what exactly he meant by that. But we all do that in fact. And the puzzle has a core in it that's similar to the normal Rubik's Cube but you can adjust it, you can tension it. It's not unlike a car engine really.
AMT: That's so interesting. And of course, I let you just go by with that four point seven seconds line. That's pretty fast.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yeah. And believe it or not, that record—so there's two speed Cubers who are kind of like the Ronaldo and Messi of this little world and they've been trading that record off for the better part of half a decade now. And they were literally sitting next to each other at a competition in Australia and then one of them broke the record that the other one had just set weeks earlier by one one-hundredth of a second.
AMT: So interesting. So tell me about the man who invented the cube: Ernő Rubik.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes. So I like to think of Mr. Rubik as the Willy Wonka of Eastern Europe. He's very wealthy, very reclusive, very creative. It took me two years to get a one hour sit down interview with him which was easily one of the most surreal hours of my life. And it was surreal in some ways because I had the experience of learning that Mr. Rubik is like his own puzzle. If you ask 10 people who’ve met him the same question, they're liable to give you 10 different answers. Not all of which can possibly be true. So he's a bit hard to puzzle out but it was very interesting to get to meet him. It's sort of one of the major storylines of the book, was the quest to understand like where did this puzzle really come from?
AMT: And so where does he live?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So he is a native and still inhabitant of Budapest in Hungary.
AMT: And he's in his seventies now, right?
IAN SCHEFFLER: That's right. He's in his early seventies. He was only 29 when he invented the puzzle.
AMT: And he's an architect.
IAN SCHEFFLER: That's correct. He's many things. He is a licensed practicing architect with an architecture firm based in Budapest. He's done work on the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC among other projects. He also taught design for many years at a university in Hungary and he has been trained in sculpture and many other arts. His father was an engineer and his mother was a poet. So he's kind of literally the union of art and science.
AMT: And you say he doesn't have a dining room table.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes. So back in the eighties, the most significant profile of him I found was written by an American journalist in the 1980s and he visited Mr. Rubik at home. As far as I know, he's the only person ever to have done that who was a reporter. And he asked where the dining room table was because Mr. Rubik had just built a new house. And Mr. Rubik said we'll just eat over there and he pointed to a corner of the kitchen which didn't look all that accommodating and the reporter asked well, do you plan to have many people over for dinner? And Mr. Rubik took a puff on his cigarette and said I hope not. That kind of sums up the difficulty of getting to know him.
AMT: Well, I guess he was just thinking too much about that cube. So how did he come up with the construction of this cube?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So that's the question that you get a lot of different answers to. I mean he himself has confirmed and denied some of the stories, like the idea that he invented it as a teaching tool for geometry or he was inspired by the shape of the stones of the Danube for the interior mechanism. But what seems to be generally true is that he is someone who loves playing with shapes and he wanted to create an impossible object because after all, the cube will remain a cube no matter how many times you manipulate it, which is a fairly unusual property. And he only put stickers on it, as I understand it, to understand where the pieces were travelling as he played with it. He didn't realize it was a puzzle. So he compared the experience in an unpublished manuscript to going for a walk somewhere you haven't been before and it was entertaining to see all the pretty patterns that arose. And at a certain point, as you often do when you go explore somewhere, he wanted to go home and that's the moment he realized he had no idea how and simultaneously the moment he realized he'd invented a puzzle.
AMT: And so how did he go from that, in communist Hungary, to selling this thing worldwide?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Well, that's a very convoluted story which took a while for me to puzzle out. And in fact, it involves a number of other players. One of the major ones is actually still alive as well. His name is Tom Kremer and he's a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who married into the British aristocracy and sort of found the cube when it was really not enjoying any commercial success at a toy fair in Germany. And he spent two years travelling the world in the late seventies just desperately trying to convince any toy distribution company and they wound up working with the Ideal company because the Ideal company was going bankrupt and figured that trying the cube out wouldn't hurt. It wound up saving the company.
AMT: Well, why was it such a hard sell?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So everything about the Rubik's Cube that makes it so successful, I think, is what makes it a bad pitch. It doesn't have anything electronic. It's extremely hard to solve on your own. There's no pre-existing intellectual property it ties to. The thing Tom heard over and over was how many Harvard professors are there? That's a very small market. And yet ironically, all of the things that were held up as deficits are the things that make it so distinctive and successful.
AMT: So the Ideal toy company of the United States buys it and what happens?
IAN SCHEFFLER: It just blows up. I mean Tom Kremer describes it almost as if it were like you know something out of a Roald Dahl story like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They just kept trying to ramp up production and ramp up production and they could never meet demand. It was really wild. Mr. Rubik for a while, when it was being distributed at first, was the only person on Earth to be able to solve it. And so he would show toy distributors that it could be solved and he would just go around toy fairs almost like an organ grinder's monkey. But as anyone who lived through that period knows, there was really no bigger fad on Earth at the time.
AMT: And so he becomes a millionaire in communist Hungary.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes.
AMT: And Ronald Reagan actually thinks that this is an example of American entrepreneurship.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yeah. That was one of my sort of favorite stories that I found in this, is this was just such a successful product from a commercial standpoint that Reagan just naturally assumed it must have been made by an American. And he made this remark at the White House and it was written about by the New Yorker magazine as an example of why Reagan's aides wanted him to give fewer off the cuff speeches because of course, someone had to sort of stand up and be like well, actually it's from communist Hungary.
AMT: [chuckles] And this was a time, of course, when there was a very big wall between everybody.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes.
AMT: So how is Ernő Rubik viewed today by Cubers?
IAN SCHEFFLER: I think in the same way that Methuselah might be, if sort of, he wandered into a church. You know I mean there's an exhibition called Beyond Rubik’s Cube that's travelling the world. And it's in Shanghai and Mr. Rubik travelled there for the opening and I've seen photos of lines out the door for hours of young Chinese Cubers and just Rubik's Cube enthusiasts waiting to meet him and have him sign their puzzles.
AMT: Wow. Really crazy, huh? When did competitive speed cubing really start then?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So there was a sort of first burst of it in the eighties. There was actually a very successful Canadian puzzle solver named Duc Trinh, who I believe was a Vietnamese refugee, and he made it to the world championships and did quite well. But it died out along with the cube and then it was revitalized in the early 2000s. The first modern world championship was in Toronto in 2003. And it's happened every other year since and it's grown to the point where there are now over 60,000 members of the World Cube Association. I neglected to mention earlier—that young man who sat next to me at summer camp, he and his brother helped create the World Cube Association, which made reconnecting with him even more surreal to find out he and his brother basically created the FIFA of Rubik's Cubes. Obviously they're less corrupt because they have less money.
AMT: Well, for you the holy grail of speed cubing is 20 seconds. How important did it become for you to crack that?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Fairly all consuming. Folks who've been listening this whole time will remember in that ad earlier, it mentioned a medical condition called Rubik’s thumb. So I myself acquired that, not intentionally of course. It was a repetitive stress injury that I got from solving not quite in the most ergonomic way. I visited my parents once and they got woken up because I was solving the puzzle and it makes this little clicking noise. I've got one here I can demonstrate. And they came over and said what are you doing? I said I’m just practicing. They said just go to bed. You know like it's very addictive.
AMT: You see mine doesn't make as fast a clicking noise as yours. [laughs] I’ve got mine too.
IAN SCHEFFLER: I’ve had a fair amount of practice. Yeah.
AMT: So you write about a multi blind competition. What is that?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Right. So if you go to a big Rubik's Cube competition, it's actually a lot like the Olympics. There's 17 different events. And my favorite to watch is the multiple blindfold. I think it's just really mind blowing. What that involves is not just solving one Rubik's Cube blindfolded, but solving as many Rubik's Cubes as you can blindfolded in a row without ever taking the blindfold off. The basic idea is you're given an hour and you can attempt as many cubes as you want, but you have to just put the blindfold on once you start solving and not take it off. What would you guess the world record is for that?
AMT: I have no idea.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Believe it or not, it's 41 cubes, I believe.
AMT: In an hour, blindfolded.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes. By a young man in Poland. There's a great YouTube video of him doing this sped up, of course, and it's set to the “Flight of the Bumblebee.” And he’s just sort of going over and over solving these 41 cubes.
AMT: So how is it possible for someone to figure it out if they can't see it?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Well, you get to look at it first. And the way you remember it is actually using techniques that date back to ancient Greece. And you may have heard of the term the “memory palace.” You know Cubers will assign information to the parts of the puzzle that's easier to remember than trying to picture you know 41 Rubik's cubes in your head so you might—you know each piece might have a letter assigned to each sticker, like ABC or something and maybe letter A is where V is supposed to be. So you try to translocate those letters in your head or you assign images to the different stickers and you sort of you know maybe—I talk to Cubers in the book who do this—and one of them recounted that part of the narrative in his head that he had to follow in order to solve the cube involved “Donkey Kong punching a wall of owls out in space.” And I said well, if you can picture that, you know good for you because I certainly can't.
AMT: So interesting. Now what about people who are truly blind? They also go into competition, do they not?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Well, there are—I mean there's a number of colour blind Cubers. I myself have yet to witness a truly sight-challenged person solving the cube. There are sight-challenged people who’ve solved the cube but a blind person, I haven’t seen them in competition, although there are Braille cubes— cubes that are sort of tactile highly designed so that you can feel your way or you know sort of feel this is this side, this is this side, this is this side.
AMT: Has anyone ever been caught cheating at a cubic speed competition?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes, actually. There was a large scandal in the late 2000s involving the greatest Cuber in the world at that time—a Hungarian prodigy named Mátyás Kuti—who really, sadly, really had no need to cheat. But it turned out he was peeking under the blindfold in the blindfold events and it was a big falling out and he was banned from the organization and kept the prize money that he'd won. It led to a rule change where now, even if you take your blindfold off, you still can't see because they put a giant sheet of opaque cardstock or paper in front of your face.
AMT: Hmm. And so why has this become so popular, even though it makes people you know quite obsessive?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Right. So I think that's the sort of core question.
AMT: Maybe that’s the answer. [chuckles]
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yeah, but that's the core question I wanted to try to figure out. What about this diminutive piece of plastic has had such enduring appeal? Because after all, you can see it everywhere you look whether it's the movies, television, the news, the life of Edward Snowden or you know. And I think the answer is that there isn't one single answer. You know the Rubik's Cube company has tried to digitize the cube and never quite succeeded. It's got this tactile element that is very appealing. You know the young men who were interviewed earlier by your producer, they're the youngest, most digital folks in the world and yet here they are doing this analog activity. So it really, I think, touches on something very fundamental to the human, which is the desire to make order out of chaos.
AMT: In your book, you talk about going slow to go fast and other unexpected turns in the world of competitive Rubik's Cube solving. Going slow to go fast—what are you saying?
IAN SCHEFFLER: So that's kind of the kernel of solving fast, which I think actually can be applied to a number of other things in life. I don't know if you've heard the psychological term “flow”, which was actually first described by a Hungarian incidentally. But it's the idea that your optimal performance comes at moments when you're so keyed into what you're doing that time itself kind of dilates or changes character. And this could be happening whether you're working on a factory line or you're a ballerina on stage or you're solving a Rubik's Cube. I heard from lots of the fastest Cubers that their fastest solves felt the slowest, which didn't make any sense to me because I thought if you're going 100 miles an hour or 100 kilometres an hour, you're going to feel faster than if it's 60 kilometres an hour. And I didn't really believe it until I experienced it for the first time and I got a huge personal best. I got like a 33 seconds solve at a competition when I thought it would take a minute because I was just so focused on every passing moment. I mean it really is a very Zen activity. Solving Rubik's Cubes are like passing rosary beads, which I think is one reason we are so addicted to it. It's very meditative in a very calming kind of way because in order to go fast, you have to go slow. You have to enter this very meditative cast of mind.
AMT: And that is maybe the key then, huh?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Indeed.
AMT: The total concentration. So that nothing else around you is even—you’re not picking it up. You're just concentrating on that one thing.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes. Yes.
AMT: So without getting too technical, how is it that some people can solve it under 20 seconds and some people can never figure it out?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Oh. Well, I think certainly part of it has to do with like the difference between trying on your own and being taught at least part of how to get there because I've interviewed hundreds of people and met only—you know I could count on two hands the number who figured it out on their own with no assistance. But it has to do with a combination of efficiency and speed. You know the reason Usain Bolt is so fast is not only that he can move his legs very quickly but he covers more stride with each step. So the most basic methods of solving the cube are very rote. You'll sort of repeat the same thing over and over until it works. But the more advanced you get, the more improvisatory and artistic it becomes, almost like playing a musical instrument. The fastest solves are almost like jazz solos, where in the same sense that a jazz musician has you know scales and chords that he or she knows that will you know create the bounds in which improvisation happens. If I'm solving a cube, I have a framework I follow. I divide it into layers, almost like a layer cake and I solve it from the bottom to the top and I sort of know generally what I'm going to do. But the precise things I do change from solve to solve. The cube is so complex—it’s got 43 quintillion permutations—that you actually never do the same solve twice ever, just by definition. So you're always thinking on your feet.
AMT: And quintillion is a billion billions?
IAN SCHEFFLER: Yes, that's correct. It's a billion billion. I did the math and found that if you wanted to gather enough human beings to represent by the number of their collective cells, the number of possibilities in just one Rubik's Cube, you wouldn't need you know a church full of people or even a soccer stadium. You'd need the entire city of San Francisco plus about a quarter of a million tourists.
AMT: Well, okay. So I’ve got my cube in front of me and I will—we've actually got something on our website that will help people out as well. But thank you. We have to let you go. And mine isn't solved but I'll work on that. I’ll report back.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Okay. Sounds good.
AMT: Ian, thank you.
IAN SCHEFFLER: Thank you for having me.
AMT: That's Ian Scheffler, author of Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving. He's in New York. We want to hear your Rubik's Cube stories, whether you solve it in seconds or days. Tweet us @thecurrentCBC.
AMT: Send us an email from our site, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. We do have a video for you: five tips to help you learn. You will find that on Facebook. Good luck. Stay with us. In the next half hour, fun and games continues with a trip down memory lane and a little philosophy on why we play the games we play. This is The Current.
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
[Sound: Slinky commercial]
AMT: Well, that's from a time when the most popular toys had no microchips. It was a 1960s commercial that you just heard, promoting the Slinky—the coiled metal toy that could walk downstairs in fascinating fashion—which believe it or not, can still be found under the tree this Christmas. From the Slinky to Yo-Yos, Pac-Man and beyond, when it comes to Toyland, Chris Bensch has seen it all. He's the vice president of collections at The Strong, which is also known as the National Museum of Play in the US. According to its website, The Strong has “the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of toys, dolls, games, electronic games and other historical materials related to play.” Chris Bensch joins us from Rochester, New York. Hello.
CHRIS BENSCH: Hello.
AMT: So the Slinky's in there too, I'm guessing.
CHRIS BENSCH: It is.
AMT: How many items of play does your museum have in its collections?
CHRIS BENSCH: More than 460,000.
AMT: Hmm. And there's a Toy Hall of Fame there as well?
CHRIS BENSCH: There is. It's part of our facility that fills an entire city block and welcomes half a million guests every year.
AMT: And is the Rubik's Cube in your Toy Hall of Fame?
CHRIS BENSCH: Rubik's Cube got into the Hall of Fame just a couple of years ago.
AMT: Is that right, huh? Okay. And is the Slinky in the Hall of Fame?
CHRIS BENSCH: The Slinky is. We have a special Slinky step so our guests can practice their Slinky skills.
AMT: Okay. And special Slinky steps are what? Like should your steps be like wood or something? What works better?
CHRIS BENSCH: Your steps should be as shallow front to back as possible. Slinkys can step down but they're not really good at stepping out.
AMT: Okay. That's good to know. [laughs] You got Twister in there too. It was inducted last year. That game came out just as the sexual revolution was getting hot. What's the connection?
CHRIS BENSCH: It hit the fan when it was being introduced by Milton Bradley and it was considered absolutely risqué at the time. And Sears, Roebuck and Company refused to carry it in their stores. They said it was like selling sex in a box. But unbeknownst to Milton Bradley, just when they were about to abandon production, the Johnny Carson Tonight Show picked it up as a tease of this new product. And Johnny and the lovely actress, Eva Gabor, played live on camera and people realized that it was sexy but not sexual fun and funny. And sales of Twister skyrocketed, Sears caved and Twister remains a classic to the present.
AMT: That is fascinating and it was Eva Gabor that he did that with. That's interesting because she died, I guess a couple of years ago, but her sister just died yesterday. Zsa Zsa Gabor.
CHRIS BENSCH: Well, a plunging neckline on her elegant evening gown was not an impediment to getting the audience's attention.
AMT: Okay, so there you go. So Twister was helped by a late night TV show. What are some of the most controversial items then that have made it into the Toy Hall of Fame?
CHRIS BENSCH: The ones that I hear most about are the non-toys that we've inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2005, we inducted the cardboard box and maybe you think shoe box but what we were really especially thinking of are those big appliance boxes. I know that in my own life, long before social media when some kid’s family in my neighbourhood got a big appliance, a refrigerator or a washer, I knew about it without any access to Facebook.
AMT: Okay, it was such a big deal. Why would somebody object to that being in your Toy Hall of Fame? That's actually really smart.
CHRIS BENSCH: Well, the toy industry I thought would protest it and they were not as oppositional to the cardboard box. But I've heard more from our people who are against our next non-toy, which is the stick and of course, I got the classic “you'll poke your eye out” stories.
AMT: Hmm. And the blanket is in there too, isn't it?
CHRIS BENSCH: That's right. Not Linus's comfort blanket, but more the princess' cape, the superhero's cape, the island in the middle of the living room floor and sharks are circling you. The blanket that goes over a couple of chairs and creates a blanket fort. So blankets, sticks, cardboard boxes—they've really got the best qualities of play, imagination, open-ended kind of play that doesn't restrict kids or adults and their imaginations.
AMT: I was just going to say, you've basically inducted imagination into your Hall of Fame. Yeah. [chuckles]For older patrons, for the people who come to your museum, is there a lot of nostalgia? Are people reconnecting with childhoods? What do you see as people come through the door?
CHRIS BENSCH: There is a refrain I hear over and over again of, “I had one of those” or “When I was your age, I had or I wanted,” and people are really sent back in a time machine and we love getting those conversations going in multigenerational groups. Very few of our guests come solo. They come with kids. They come with grandparents. They come with a mix of people and they reflect on their personal past and that's one of the brilliances of a museum of play. It's not about famous people. It's not about historic events. It's about things that touch all of us so intimately in our presents, in our pasts and that we want to carry forward into the future.
AMT: And beyond the cardboard box and the blanket, do you see continuity in what children wanted to play with as the years went by?
CHRIS BENSCH: Yes. There are some recurring themes. There are the things that cultivate imagination along with those things like Barbie, GI Joe, Star Wars action figures, teddy bears, Fisher-Price Little People that we had just inducted this year. And then there are the sort of social play, whether that's a game like Monopoly or Scrabble, or whether there's other ways of engaging such as with the ball, which we inducted a few years ago too.
AMT: And the ball on the stick. [chuckles]
CHRIS BENSCH: They go together.
AMT: Now why are some toys destined for short but spectacular careers as fads and others timeless?
CHRIS BENSCH: You know if the toy industry could figure that out, they'd be hitting home runs every time. But I think it's the toys that are not constrained by technological limitations, they don't age out, they really wear well over the years—they're the toys that allow people to enter wherever they are in their lives. So it's not something that you want when you're eight and two years later, you think it's a baby toy. It's things that really persist and allow the kind of learning, creativity, discovery that we look for in all the toys that are in the National Toy Hall of Fame. And frankly, some fads get into the Hall of Fame. That's what Slinky was at its moment. The hula hoop is in the Hall of Fame. It was a blazing fad there at the end of the 1950s but it has found a way to persist.
AMT: And you also have a video game Hall of Fame. Do you worry there's going to be a time when video and electronic games that have been so popular and addictive for many kids could eclipse other toys?
CHRIS BENSCH: I am not worried about that. I see very few kids who are begging to take their X-Box to bed with them at night and replace their Raggedy Ann or their teddy bear. And I think kids today, they may be digital natives but they grow up in a physical world too. And there's a continuum of play and they don't say oh, I'm going to stop playing my physical things and I'm going to do my screen time. They think of play as an open universe that has a lot of facets. And so I have confidence that physical play things, physical games are going to persist and continue to succeed.
AMT: Why is it important to see all these toys and learn about play?
CHRIS BENSCH: They are really a lens into our history, both as individuals and throughout the US, through North America, this is part of our shared currency and culture. And reflecting on what has stayed the same or what has changed in the world of play is a way of looking at how our lives, how our history has morphed and changed and persisted through the years. It gives us a vantage that we don't always have as we go through our day to day lives and just concentrate on accomplishing what needs to be done in this moment.
AMT: And it's something that touches everyone, huh? Everybody has a memory or a favourite.
CHRIS BENSCH: Play doesn't end with any particular age bracket. And that's one of the good things about cell phone games that allow people to recognize that they still want to play. Whatever their age, wherever they're stuck, they want to play some things and play is so crucial to all of our human development and to refreshing us as who we are.
AMT: So of all of the hundreds of toys, do you have a personal favourite?
CHRIS BENSCH: I was a big fan of toy cars and I extremely loved my Matchbox toy cars and sadly, while Hot Wheels toy cars are in the Hall of Fame, Matchbox toys are not. And maybe that gives your listeners hope that even with my inside angle at the National Toy Hall of Fame, I have not managed to lobby to get Matchbox cars.
AMT: [laughs] Okay. Well, Chris Bensch, thanks for speaking with me today.
CHRIS BENSCH: A pleasure.
AMT: That's Chris Bensch. He's the vice president of collections at The Strong—the US National Museum of Play. That's in Rochester, New York and that's where he is today. You're listening to The Current on CBC Radio One and Sirius XM. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. While we revelled in the fun and games of the Rubik's Cube and all the nostalgic toys in the Museum of Play, Ian Bogost is with us to take a step back and puzzle over the meaning behind the games we play and why we play them. He is the Ivan Allen College distinguished chair in media studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also a game designer. Ian Bogost’s new book is called Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, The Uses of Boredom and the Secret of Games and he joins us from Atlanta, Georgia. Hello.
IAN BOGOST: Hey. How are you?
AMT: I'm well. What are you thinking as you hear about these games from another time coming back, like the Rubik's Cube?
IAN BOGOST: Right. The Rubik's Cube, the cardboard box. What's interesting about these objects is that they're so arbitrary, they feel ridiculous almost. And yet we are able through play, through the attention that play demands, to give them this kind of strange respect, to treat them with the respect that actually is very difficult for us to muster in other situations—is there a connection between play and respect?
IAN BOGOST: What do you think of the cube as an instrument of fun?
IAN BOGOST: So one of the things that I talk about in the book is that we don't really know what fun means. We use this word fun all the time as if it means something and we're not really sure what it is. We can't really pin it down. You know we think it's a kind of pleasure but actually that's not quite right because when you're playing with the Rubik's Cube, it's not really pleasurable exactly. I mean it's actually very difficult you have to have to do all of this work and all the research that we heard about in order to figure out even how to start solving it successfully, let alone solving it rapidly if you want to be competitive. So it's not exactly right to think of fun as pleasure. It's something slightly different. It's rather the experience of finding something new of novelty and in particular of finding something new in something familiar, in which it doesn't seem like anything new can be found. So you know the Rubik's Cube has all of those you know quintillion, however many quintillion permutations and there's all of that depth of experience in which you can find novelty. And the same with the, you know the cardboard box or the stick that can be repurposed in many different contexts and used in different ways. That's one of the things that tends to make games or any kind of experience fun, is the capacity that the thing offers for the player, the user, to do something different with it than they've thought of or done before.
AMT: So when we say fun and games, how do you react to that phrase?
IAN BOGOST: Well, you know what it suggests is that we think of games, we think of fun, we think of play as the opposite of work, as a kind of synonym for leisure. You know you do your work, you have your job or your chores or other kind of duties in your life, and then the fun and games stuff is what you get to do when you're done doing all of the things that you have to do. And likewise, it's like doing— there's a kind of freedom that we imagine is related to games, to play, to fun—doing what you want to do rather than doing what you what you have to do. Those are some of the ideas that are sort of you know all bundled up in those phrases. But then when you think about the objects that we play with, the objects that can be played, whether it's the Rubik's Cube or the stick or a videogame or what have you, it's actually clear that something else is going on. My favorite example—so simple and so ordinary—is a musical instrument like a guitar. You know when you play a guitar, you might be doing it for leisure. You might be doing it for work. But the play experience is a process of manipulating the physical properties of that specific device—its fret board, its strings, the body and so forth. And that means that you know play isn't exactly the opposite of work or doing what you want, but that experience of working with something, of working it the way that a dancer works the floor or a woodworker works wood. You know you're treating this object for what it is. You're submitting yourself to the constraints of its design and its capacities. You're treating it again with a kind of respect and attention that you might not normally bring to it.
AMT: And you say fun is the opposite of happiness.
IAN BOGOST: There's you know an obsession we have with pleasure, with happiness, with gratifying ourselves in general today. And the problem with that isn't so much that I don't want us to be happy or content, but rather that the notion that we must sort of satisfy our own inner desires and needs and what have you, first and foremost, this is actually a way of thinking that might lead us away from pleasure rather than toward it. Fun emerges when you kind of put your own needs and desires aside and when you look at the thing that you're surrounded with, whatever it is, you know I think the examples from The Strong of these non-toys are great, is what is this thing? What can I do with a cardboard box or what can I do with a stick? And what, you know how can I sort of incorporate it into my experience? And in so doing, there is a kind of abdication of your own desires and needs, at least for a moment while you assess the outside world and say okay, what am I even faced with? What might I be able to do with it? And after that process is complete, after you've sort of treated that object with the respect that it demands in order to give you something back, it might do but giving it—when you start the experience of assuming that fun is all about getting something back, then you're always going to fail.
AMT: Well, it's interesting because Ian, our first guest in the last half hour, Ian Scheffler, talked about you have to concentrate so much to actually make that Rubik’s Cube, to get it right. But that's what you're talking about too. So that the fun comes from the feeling of having accomplished it as opposed to in the moment you're so intensely concentrating on it. You're not thinking about whether you're having fun. You're just working it.
IAN BOGOST: Yeah and you're subordinating your own needs and desires to this absurd object that is the Rubik's Cube. And when you do that deliberately, then only then can it give something back to you. And when it gives back to you as well, this object that looks stupid or absurd, actually has this enormous depth. And when I start treating it with deep attention, then I can find something that wouldn't be there if I just glanced at it, you know if I sort of asked it to give me something, some sort of desirable experience immediately.
AMT: What role does boredom play in why people play games?
IAN BOGOST: The interesting thing about boredom to me is that it's a good sign that you're on to something. You're kind of on the path to fun and to play. You think about the examples from The Strong, the cardboard box and the stick, these children's toys that are toys by virtue of you know kind of being accessible and you can imagine kids—you know I don't know what I want to do—we have this appliance box. Let's see if we can make something out of it. In boredom, there's a sense that you've expended the obvious capacities of your situation. And when you start to feel bored, you know you have two choices. One is to seek something else out. I'm going to go find something else to do. And another is to kind of pay attention to that boredom and realize okay, you know I'm in new terrain. I've sort of reached the wilderness of my experience and now I can go deeper. You know we've expended all the obvious toys. There's this cardboard box. What can we do with it next? So the feeling of boredom, it's almost necessary in order that you can pursue play and fun because you have this repetition and this kind of cloying otherness of the things that you're playing with that they are not there for you. They haven't been built for you. And the experience of play is richest when you approach those things and ask okay, like you know what else is possible and how can I kind of collaborate with this object and make it so?
AMT: You're a game designer. What should a well-designed game do?
IAN BOGOST: Well, you know part of the question of what makes a good game is aesthetic. You know it's going to be different for everyone. But for me, I think that the best games are those that give you something else to find. That are designed with the idea of the depth of fun that's possible from the very get go. That aren't easily disposed and that have a kind of a kind of richness of experience that is maybe even greater than what the designer can ever imagine. So the Rubik's Cube was an interesting example, or a computer game like Tetris is another example or a folk game like chess or like Go. These are experiences that you know in the case of Go or Chess, they've been around for hundreds or thousands of years and we haven't really found the bottom of them. There's still something new to be discovered there. With the Rubik's Cube, you can play with it. You can put it on the desk as a kind of fetish object or a nostalgia piece. You can learn how to solve it once. You can learn how to how to solve it rapidly and then try to improve your time. You can do none of those things and find something else to do with them entirely. I’ve seen sculptures built out of out of Rubik's Cube configured like little pixels, right? So the experience of a game is best when it acknowledges that the immediate and obvious uses of the thing are never going to be perceptible to the designer. There's always something more, something that’s not resolved in the initial design.
AMT: You created a game called Cow Clicker. Am I right?
IAN BOGOST: I did. Yeah. Yes.
AMT: Tell us what it is and what you learned from that.
IAN BOGOST: This was this was a game I created back in the heyday of Facebook games like Farmville and so forth and it was this kind of meta Facebook game about Facebook games. And there was a picture of a cow and you could click on the cow and the cow would moo and then you'd get a point or a click for having clicked the cow and you could have your friend's cows and your pasture with you and they would get clicks when you clicked. And that was it really. It was kind of you know what is the most absurd and what is the simplest possible kind of sendup of the genre of Facebook games that were popular at the time?
AMT: So you were creating a parody.
IAN BOGOST: It was meant to be a parody. Exactly.
AMT: And what happened?
IAN BOGOST: What would happen is people—it was very popular as a parody but then it was even weirder and maybe more popular as an earnest game that people played. Actually there are a lot of Canadian players of Cow Clicker. And you know the experience of just having this sort of small activity that every six hours, you could click your cow again—that proved to be much more interesting than I ever could have known. So related to that comment I was just making about the sort of depth of the experience being more than the designer can think of. So while I thought I was making this kind of sly, you know snide commentary about Facebook and Facebook games—and I did, that was part of it—I was also making this experience that was bigger than I ever could have imagined. And there are still people—this was you know five, six years ago now—and it was very complicated and I went through this cow-pocalypse and raptured all the cows to end the thing and so there's just empty spaces on the screen now. But people are still clicking. They’re still clicking on the empty spaces where the cows used to be.
AMT: Gives you lots to think about, huh, as you take your philosophical look at all of this.
IAN BOGOST: Oh yeah. And also how simple and again, absurd you know play ends up being. That we are not—we are kind of alone in the universe in some sense but that it's okay. It's not nihilism that we have to conclude is the consequence of all of the things that we surround ourselves with, not being concerned with our fate but that we can work with them. We can find something new in them.
AMT: Well, I want to play a song that you don't like because—and this gets to another part of your view on all of this. This is Mary Poppins’ “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
[Music: “A Spoonful of Sugar” – Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins]
AMT: Okay. Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. You're not crazy about that advice.
IAN BOGOST: Yeah. I mean one of the problems is that where’s the advice really? You know snap, the job becomes a game, but how? Mary Poppins doesn't really teach us that. You know it's a musical number in a film. It's not meant to be life advice really, although many folks have treated it as such. But the real problem for me is that the Mary Poppins assumption is that when an experience isn't immediately and obviously gratifying or pleasurable, that that's it. It can never be so. Something has to be added or imported from outside in order to make it tolerable. And that may seem harmless when it comes to you know swallowing a dose of medicine or cleaning up a room, which is the context of the Banks children in which the song is sung in the film. But the risk or the question is where does that reasoning end? Once you begin believing that a thing, no matter what it is, is insufficient on its own, you start down a dangerous road. You'll habituate yourself to start looking elsewhere the moment that thing or that experience or that person or whatever it is you're encountering stops being immediately gratifying. That's related to that idea of boredom we were just talking about—that things resist us and that that resistance is necessary for play. When you're encountering something and deeply working with it, if it gives everything up right away, then there's nothing left to find.
AMT: Hmm. Lots to think about as we think of fun and games. Ian Bogost, thanks.
IAN BOGOST: Thank you.
AMT: Ian Bogost’s book is Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, The Uses of Boredom, The Secret of Games. He's in Atlanta, Georgia. We'd love to hear your reflections on playing games. What keeps you going back to certain games as you grow older or maybe there's something special about playing games with your kids or grandkids? Tell us your story. Send us an email from the website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent, click on the contact link. We're on Facebook and Twitter @thecurrentCBC. That's our program for today. Tom Power is waiting in the wings with q and the great singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright drops by to perform songs from her latest record, Goodnight City. We just heard a little bit of Mary Poppins and Ian Bogost may object to the message behind “A Spoonful of Sugar”, but we will leave you with another number from that classic musical. In fact, it's about another classic toy. The kite was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2007 so we'll leave you with “Let's Go Fly a Kite”. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thank you for listening to The Current.
[Music: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” – David Tomlinson as George Banks]
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