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Play-Time: Racing Against the Clock

Consider a paradox: people who play the fastest devote great lengths of time to doing so. This presents a conundrum only slightly less challenging than a Rubik’s Cube—unless you’re the current world record holder, who solved the puzzling polyhedron in less than six seconds. If you asked champion Feliks Zemdegs, he’d probably say the goal of playing quickly is achieved slowly. Videos abound online in which Rubik’s Cube gurus demonstrate how to solve the puzzle. Novices will have no trouble with the first simple rule: keep the cube upright at all times. Beyond that, the prevailing strategy is far more complicated: memorize and apply a set of algorithms that account for most arrangements of colored tiles across the cube’s six surfaces. Outstanding Rubik’s Cube performance obviously requires dedication beyond the average rainy-day folly—it’s a vocation.

Many other playful pursuits prize mind-boggling rapidity achieved through mind-numbing perseverance, and include something for everyone. Those who can tolerate skintight suits may gravitate toward speed skiing. There’s also competitive eating—though skintight suits are out of the question—and speed pumpkin carving, from which I’d prefer to keep a safe distance. More sedentary or cautious folks, like me, should be satisfied with Perfection, a matching game demanding mastery in less than 60 seconds. The noisy explosion at the buzzer used to terrify me, and I practiced harder to avert that crisis. Midway on the spectrum between speed skiing and Perfection lies sport stacking. Rarely have I seen people display sharper concentration and focus than when they are hustling to build and dismantle pyramids of plastic cups with machinelike efficiency. Watching a tournament here at the National Museum of Play at The Strong some years ago, I noticed sport stackers displaying Zen-like steadiness—at least until they stopped the timer and exploded in triumph. These high-speed, no-frills contests stand in opposition to longer endurance challenges such as hula hooping, jumping rope, Pogo Bal bouncing, and juggling, which not only test one’s stamina but perhaps invite playful embellishment as well. There’s simply no time for that when every hundredth of a second matters. Yet, the two share common goals: in striving to exceed others’ records, competitors ultimately better themselves. And that’s well worth the time invested.