Once again, one good turns requires another

The Rubik's Cube, toy of the early '80s, returns as devilishly handy distraction

November 11, 2003|By Erica Noonan | Erica Noonan,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Andy Camann never intended to become a cultural anthropologist. Two years ago, he was just a bored adolescent rooting around in the basement of his family's Newton, Mass., home when he unearthed an old Rubik's Cube.

It was at least 20 years old, a relic of his mother's post-college, pre-mom life, a time when a Cube sat on every stylish 20-something's coffee table and was tossed around at every party. Sometime around 1984, Rhonda Camann's used Cube got tossed in a box and stowed away.

But the six-sided, three-dimensional puzzle fascinated Andy. He started twisting and turning that day and hasn't stopped since, except to swap out the antique '80s Cube for a sturdier imported model. Today, at age 15, Andy is the second-fastest "speed" cuber under age 18 in the world, and he holds an esteemed spot in the elite category of "sub-20" cubers who can solve a thoroughly scrambled Cube with a possible 43 quintillion color combinations in fewer than 20 seconds.

He hadn't even been born when the Cube's popularity peaked in 1981, selling 250 million units worldwide, with a force akin to phenomena such as the yo-yo, the hula hoop, Pac-Man, Pokemon, and the Harry Potter books. The high school freshman shrugs when confronted with the historic significance of his hobby. "It's just something I think is fun," he said.

That a new generation of kids is appropriating the Cube, and even declaring a renaissance of coolness, pleases Dan Knights, 24, of Acton, Mass., who was crowned speed-cubing world champion at this summer's World Rubik's Game Championships in Toronto. Knights was barely out of diapers when Cube mania swept the United States, and he didn't even pick up a cube until 1999, mostly because of a friendly challenge by his roommate at Middlebury College in Vermont.

The puzzle has a unique appeal to Generation Y, Knights said.

"People getting into it now were too young or not even born the first time around," he said from San Francisco, where he works as a tech support engineer. "Back in the '80s, most people thought anyone who learned to do it was some sort of math geek with their pants pulled up to their belly button."

The big difference is that today's young people actually want to show off their intelligence, not hide it. This is a generation of Matrix-style computer hackers, not beer-swilling Risky Business partyers.

"Being smart is cooler now," said Knights. "The Cube is an underground way to be smart. It's dorky, but it's cool to be dorky."

And, increasingly, it's becoming cool to own a Cube again. Sales have been on the rise for years. In 2002, 500,000 cubes were sold, up from 350,000 in 2001, and the Cube's U.S. sellers say they expect sales to top 700,000 this year.

It's been a long, strange journey for the Cube, invented back in 1974 by Hungarian professor Erno Rubik. After a worldwide selling blitz, which included dozens of knockoff versions, the puzzle fell out of fashion and distribution in the late 1980s. By the early '90s, however, the Cube had emerged from toy purgatory and was getting distributed by various companies before Winning Moves Games picked up the rights to it in 2000.

The Cube plays into the hands of people seeking a pastime or hobby offering a ritualistic sense of "flow," said Emily Kearns, an Emerson College sociologist who studies rituals and play.

Like crossword puzzles, video games, or even solitary sports such as biking or rock-climbing, the Cube puts users in a trancelike meditative state in which worries fall away, she said.

"We can free ourselves and find inner joy and a sense of possibility," Kearns said. "There's the feeling, it's just me and the game."

Of course, not everyone finds serenity with the Cube. Some easily frustrated people might get the urge to hurl it against a wall. But those people can re-enter society simply by putting down the Cube, Kearns said.

The man who helped invent the 1999 smash toy hit Furby says the most important factor in understanding the Cube's enduring appeal is nostalgia. Richard Levy, also the author of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook, said Rubik's Cube has gone from mass-market craze to marginalized cult toy and has re-emerged in the 21st century as a classic plaything.

Consumers are embracing the "brand equity" of classic board games such as Monopoly, Clue, and Life, as well as the card game Uno. Many of today's toy buyers grew up in the '70s and '80s and are now 30- and 40-somethings buying toys for their own kids.

"When Mom and Dad go into a toy store, they think, `I had one of [those].' The toy's story is told immediately," said Levy.

Toys such as My Little Pony and the Care Bears are back, as are the action heroes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Levy said. The board game Trivial Pursuit, released a year after the Cube hit it big in the United States, came out with a 20th-anniversary edition which was the best-selling game in 2002, said Phil E. Orbanes, president of Winning Moves.

Winning Moves hopes to capitalize on the renaissance of the original Rubik's Cube in the next several months by rereleasing a version of the supersize "Rubik's Revenge," a 4-by-4 cube with 16 squares per side, said Orbanes.

"The Rubik's brand is popular in the hearts and minds of people," he said. "Of course, it's also a reminder to people that life may have a lot of frustration, but you can twist and turn your way out of it."

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