Sex in a Box: The Twisted History of Twister

If it hadn’t been for Johnny Carson, Twister may have never gotten off the ground.

On the May 3, 1966, episode of the Tonight Show, Carson took a few minutes to demonstrate the little-known new party game. His guest that night was the blonde bombshell actress Eva Gabor. After a few right foot reds and left hand blues, Carson and Gabor were playfully entangled and the studio audience was in hysterics. Twister went on to sell more than 3 million copies over the next year.

“The game that ties you up in knots” sprang from the imagination of a St. Paul-based ad man / inventor named Reyn Guyer in 1965. Guyer’s firm, the Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design, was hired to do a local back-to-school promotional display for Johnson brand shoe polish. As Guyer tinkered with a colored polka dot paper mat to highlight kids’ shoes, he realized he might be onto something bigger – a game where people acted as the game pieces. Guyer first called his invention King’s Footsie, testing it out on some fellow artists and designers. The fun that four people were having while crammed into provocative shapes onto a 4 x 6 mat was all Guyer needed to see.

© Astapkovich Vladimir/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

“It didn’t make any difference what the game was at that point,” Guyer told me, “because we began to laugh so hard that it was obvious we were onto something.”

Guyer pitched King’s Footsie to 3M, but they passed. He then hired game designers Charles F. Foley and Neil Rabens to help him further develop the idea. The three of them came up with eight different game ideas for the polka dot mat. The obvious winner was called Pretzel, a test of balance and skill that eventually became Twister. They then licensed Pretzel to Milton Bradley, and that’s where the story gets, well, twisted.

Some accounts say that the company changed the name to Twister against Guyer’s wishes. But Guyer says that the name Pretzel was not legally available. “Still, Twister didn’t seem to have the positive resonance that Pretzel did,” Guyer says, “nor did it really describe the game that well. But it’s solid proof that it doesn’t matter what you call something. Once you name it, that’s what it is.”

Other accounts claim that Foley and Rabens walked off with the patent, taking credit for the invention. It’s true that theirs are the only names on the patent, but according to an interview with Rabens, on the day they applied for the patent, they signed over the rights to Guyer. They made a verbal agreement with him to get a certain percentage of profits, but Rabens says it was not honored. He and Foley soon went their own way, starting their own toy company.

Guyer remembers it differently. “There is a patent, and quite frankly, I wasn’t part of it. Foley and Rabens did a fabulous job and we worked together on it. I feel badly that they didn’t stick around to develop a division of our company. People have a tendency to attribute new products to one person, and I’ve never, in any of the products I’ve developed, seen it happen that one person did it. You share ideas and it’s a process.”

Too Hot for the Sears Catalog

Meanwhile, back in 1965, some execs at Milton Bradley were reportedly uncomfortable with Twister’s sexual undercurrent and felt it went against the company’s clean image. To others, the game – one vinyl mat, one plastic spinner - seemed like a profit-making dream. But in its first months on the market, Twister barely sold at all. Retailers were confused by it. “Sears didn’t think it was appropriate for their catalog,” recalls Guyer. Just as Milton-Bradley was about to give up hope, the PR firm that was promoting Twister tried a last-ditch idea, pushing it to the Tonight Show.

After the spectacle of Carson and Gabor entwined, Guyer says, “people were lined up fifty deep at Abercrombie & Fitch the next day in New York, and Twister was born.” One of Milton-Bradley’s competitors accused them of selling “sex in a box,” but they countered with TV commercials that pushed it as a fun game for the whole family. Looking at the commercials now, there is something slightly disquieting about the thought of a multi-generational pile-on, but in the ‘60s, there was no stopping Twister. It was named Game of the Year in 1967. And like the Hula Hoop, it became one of the biggest fad toys of the decade.

Guyer attributes part of its success to timing. “Ideas that become iconic tend to break rules or norms. Twister broke the rules in a social setting. People had not up to that point been granted the possibility of being that close and enjoying it in a group setting.”

Over 65 million people are said to have now played Twister, and it has found its way into all aspects of pop culture. Weird Al Yankovic and R.E.M have sung about it. Bill & Ted beat Death in a game of it in one of their movies. The characters on Friends played it. Twister tournaments have become popular fund-raising events for college fraternities and sororities. And in 1987, 4,160 students at University of Massachusetts set a world record, laying out mats for one big tangled marathon of Twister.

As for the game’s creators, Foley and Rabens went on to invent a few now-defunct games such as Grab a Loop and Bing-Bang-Boing, as well as the first plastic handcuffs. And in 1969, Guyer helped pioneer another landmark toy - the Nerf Ball. He remains an active designer, with his latest invention a new backyard game called King’s Court.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios