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.

"American Mall," Bloomberg
Unwinnable Video Game Challenges You to Keep a Shopping Mall in Business
"American Mall," Bloomberg
"American Mall," Bloomberg

Shopping malls, once the cultural hub of every suburb in America, have become a punchline in the e-commerce era. There are plenty of malls around today, but they tend to be money pits, considering the hundreds of "dead malls" haunting the landscape. Just how hard is it to keep a mall afloat in the current economy? American Mall, a new video game from Bloomberg, attempts to give an answer.

After choosing which tycoon character you want as your stand-in, you're thrown into a mall—rendered in 1980s-style graphics—already struggling to stay in business. The building is filled with rats and garbage you have to clean up if you want to keep shoppers happy. Every few seconds you're contacted by another store owner begging you to lower their rent, and you must either take the loss or risk them packing up for good. When stores are vacated, it's your job to fill them, but it turns out there aren't too many businesses interested in setting up shop in a dying mall.

You can try gimmicks like food trucks and indoor playgrounds to keep customers interested, but in the end your mall will bleed too much money to support itself. You can try playing the bleak game for yourself here—maybe it will put some of the retail casualties of the last decade into perspective.

[h/t Co.Design]

Live Smarter
Why the Soundtracks to Games Like 'Mario' or 'The Sims' Can Help You Work

When I sat down to write this article, I was feeling a little distracted. My desk salad was calling me. I had new emails in my inbox to read. I had three different articles on my to-do list, and I couldn't decide which to start first. And then, I jumped over to Spotify and hit play on the theme to The Sims. As I listened to the upbeat, fast-paced, wordless music, my writing became faster and more fluid. I felt more “in the zone,” so to speak, than I had all morning. There's a perfectly good explanation: Video games provide the ideal productivity soundtrack. At Popular Science, Sara Chodosh explains why video game music can get you motivated and keep you focused while you work, especially if you're doing relatively menial tasks. It's baked into their composition.

There are several reasons to choose video game music over your favorite pop album. For one, they tend not to have lyrics. A 2012 study of more than 100 people found that playing background music with lyrics tended to distract participants while studying. The research suggested that lyric-less music would be more conducive to attention and performance in the workplace. Another study conducted in open-plan offices in Finland found that people were better at proofreading if there was some kind of continuous, speechless noise going on in the background. Video game music would fit that bill.

Plus, video game music is specifically made not to distract from the task at hand. The songs are meant to be listened to over and over again, fading into the background as you navigate Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom or help Link save Zelda. My friend Josie Brechner, a composer who has scored the music for video games like the recently released Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, says that game music is definitely written with this in mind.

"Basically, successful video game music straddles the balance between being engaging and exciting, but also not wanting to make you tear your ears off after the 10th or 100th listen," Brechner says. Game music often has a lot of repetition, along with variation on musical themes, to keep the player engaged but still focused on what they're playing, "and that translates well to doing other work that requires focus and concentration."

If you're a particularly high-strung worker, you might want to tune into some relaxing classical music or turn on a song specifically designed to calm you. But if you want to finish those expense reports on a Monday morning, you're better off choosing a fast-tempo ditty designed for seemingly pointless activities like making your Sims eat and go to the toilet regularly. (It can help you with more exciting work responsibilities, too: Other research has found that moderate background noise can increase performance on creative tasks.)

These types of songs work so well that there are entire playlists online devoted just to songs from video game soundtracks that work well for studying. One, for instance, includes songs written for The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Super Smash Bros., and other popular games.

The effect of certain theme songs on your productivity may, however, depend on your particular preferences. A 2010 study of elementary school students found that while calming music could improve performance on math and memory tests, music perceived as aggressive or unpleasant distracted them. I was distracted by the deep-voiced chanting of the "Dragonborn Theme" from Skyrim, but felt charged up by the theme from Street Fighter II. There's plenty of variety in video game scores—after all, a battle scene doesn't call for the same type of music as a puzzle game. Not all of them are going to work for you, but by their nature, you probably don't need a lot of variation in your work music if you're using video game soundtracks. If you can play a game for days on end, you can surely listen to the same game soundtrack over and over again.

[h/t Popular Science]


More from mental floss studios