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Looming large: A brief look at toy crazes and addiction

A few days ago my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Dunn asked me Have you written anything about loom band addiction? It’s a hot trend right now and it’s not just for the kids”. If you are not a parent of a tweenager, some of you reading this may have no idea of what a ‘loom band’ even is. Basically, it is a bracelet made from coloured rubber bands using a toy loom (such as the Rainbow Loom or the Cra-Z-Loom Ultimate Bracelet Maker).

Although I have never written on the topic, it just so happened that the day before he asked me the question, one of my regular blog readers sent me an article from the online BBC News Magazine examining the ‘loom band craze’ that is apparently sweeping the UK. Earlier in the year, I also got sent an article by Mark O’Sullivan in The Guardian newspaper on the same topic (“Loom bands: tweens are obsessed with it, and it’s a welcome sight’). Just so we are all clear, the definition of a ‘craze’ as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “an enthusiasm for a particular activity or object which appears suddenly and achieves widespread but short-lived popularity”.

The BBC article – written by Justin Parkinson – began by noting that in this age of the screenager, it’s “curious to find that rubber bands are a big thing”. One of the reasons they have been in the British press is that some schools have banned them (because some children have been using them as weapons rather than as decorative wrist wear. There are also news reports of schools in New York banning them because they were alleged to be the cause of playground fights. Other countries (e.g., the Philippines) have complained that the bands are dangerous to pets as they eat the discarded bands and end up being lodged in animal intestines. Parkinson reported that:

“The Rainbow Loom…has sold more than three million units worldwide. The sheer scale of the craze can be seen in the stats for Amazon UK. All 30 of the best-selling toys are either looms or loom-related. The products top the sales list for every age group except the under-twos…Children use the looms, or their own fingers, to weave coloured bands into items such as bracelets, necklaces and charms. They use dozens of different designs, recommended on YouTube and by word of mouth, including the ‘fishtail’, the ‘dragon scale’ and the ‘inverted hexafish’. In an age when the toy market is dominated by more complicated toys and expensive computer games, backed by marketing campaigns, how did they become so popular?”

It wasn’t so long ago that a similar rubber band craze (i.e., Silly Bandz) swept across a number of countries. Silly Bandz are silicone rubber bands that are shaped into everyday objects, letters, numbers, musical instruments, and animals. However, Silly Bandz were to be collected rather than to be created. In relation to loom bands, the US writer Hallie Sawyer alluded to an addictive quality by describing loom bands as “Silly Bandz on crack [that will] someday clog up every landfill in America”. All I can remember as a kid was using rubber bands to make cheap catapults. For his BBC article, Parkinson interviewed Esther Lutman [assistant curator at the Museum of Childhood] about why loom bands were so popular:

“It’s part of the charm of these crazes that the kids find something they can do at school until they are banned. They keep pushing new stuff, particularly in the summer, when they spend more time in the playground together…I would bracket loom bands] with marbles in the Victorian era, yo-yos in the 1930s and hula-hoops in the 1950s. They are quite cheap, which helps explain their spread around playgrounds. They are at their absolute peak now. Who knows what will be next?”

Although we have no idea what will be next, there will be something else that comes along and captures the time and imaginations of children. Loom bands are clearly the latest in a long line of toy crazes. In my own lifetime I have personally witnessed (as both a teenager and parent) Rubik’s Cube (1980), Cabbage Patch Kids (1983), Slap Bracelets [also known as ‘snap bands’ and described as “Venetian blinds with attitude” by the New York Times) (1990), Tamagotchis (1996), Furbies (1998), Beanie Babies (1995), POGs (1995), and Bratz Dolls (2001).

I am no stranger to writing about crazes (and particularly ‘toy crazes’) and over the last 20 years whenever any new craze comes to the fore I am invariably asked by the media to what extent any of them are addictive and/or problematic. Arguably the most noteworthy (and in hindsight the most embarrassing for me personally) was the rise of the Tamagotchis and Furbies in the mid- to late-1990s. I was quoted in many national newspapers at the time as I had begun to do a bit of research into the psychological effects on children of virtual pets (and even published papers and articles on them – see ‘Further reading below’). For instance, the snippet below appeared in many newspapers:

“Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University has researched what he calls ‘electronic friendship’, and is an authority on technological addictions. His latest subject is the Tamagotchi phenomenon. ‘Children make a massive psychological investment in these things. There have been reports of children going through a bereavement process when their Tamagotchi dies. That has its good points. The whole thing about simulations, whether it’s a pet or an aeroplane, is they help you in real life. I personally feel, the earlier people learn to cope with bereavement the better it is later in life’. He adds: ‘People do actually have attachments with their computer games and favourite fruit machine games. With virtual pets, I can understand it totally. People like to be needed’”.

Every Christmas for the last few years, UK television’s Channel 4 has repeatedly shown the programme 100 Greatest Toys with Jonathan Ross. The Tamagotchi was voted in at No.54 and I am featured in the show – being interviewed by Andrew Harvey on BBC 1’s Breakfast Newstalking about the bereavement like reactions by children to the death of their Tamagotchi.

The good news with all of the crazes that I have ever been asked about is that none of them features a documented case of any child being genuinely addicted to any of the toys that I have been asked to comment on. While some of the children may have engaged excessively in the playing of the toys, there was never any evidence of the children experiencing detrimental effects as a result of being addicted.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cruz, G. (2010). From Tickle Me Elmo to Squinkies: Top 10 toy crazes. Time, December 23. Located at: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1947621_1947626_1993018,00.html

Conradt, S. (2010). The quick 10: 10 Toy crazes. Mental Floss, December 18. Located at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/23547/quick-10-10-toy-crazes

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Are virtual pets more demanding than the real thing? Education and Health, 15, 37-38.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). The side effects of Furby fever. Nottingham Evening Post, December 18, p.15.

Griffiths, M.D. & Gray, F. (1998). The rise of the Tamagotchi: An issue for educational psychology? BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology Newsletter, 82, 37-40.

Parkinson, J. (2014). A craze for ‘loom bands’. BBC News Magazine, June 25. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27974401

O’Sullivan, M. (2014). Loom bands: tweens are obsessed with it, and it’s a welcome sight. The Guardian, April 21. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/21/loom-bands-tweens-are-obsessed-with-it-and-its-a-welcome-sight

Don’t be square (beware): A brief look at “Rubik’s Cube addiction”

“The speed world record for a single attempt [of solving the Rubik’s Cube] is 5.55 seconds, set by Dutchman Mats Valk last year. The world championship is determined by averaging three attempts. The current champion is 18-year-old Australian Feliks Zemdeg who averaged 8.18 seconds last year. To ensure fairness, a computer generates a randomised cube which all the competitors are given. The record for most Rubik’s cubes solved in 24 hours is 4,786, set by Milan Baticz of Hungary…There is a one-handed world record – held by Zemdegs – of 9.03 seconds. Fakhri Raihaan of Indonesia boasts the feet-only record of 27.93 seconds” (BBC Magazine, April 2014).

Back in 1981, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers that spent far too much time playing on a Rubik’s Cube (RC). Once I had mastered how to do it, all my friends and I would sit at the back of our classes having RC races. In fact, I and two of my friends were once given a detention by my mathematics teacher for continuing to race each other despite many warnings to stop. My typical time to complete the puzzle was around 90 seconds (although having done it recently in trying to teach my children, I took nearer five minutes). The reason I recount this story is that a few days ago, a report appeared in the BBC News Magazine headlined “The people who are still addicted to the Rubik’s Cube” followed by one in The Guardian (‘Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing’). The author of the BBC article (Tom de Castella) noted that:

“In the 1980s Rubik’s Cubes seemed to be everywhere, but there are still legions of people obsessed with the coloured puzzles. The record for a human is 5.55 seconds. A robot can do it in 3.253…The Magic Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik. After being relaunched in 1980 as the Rubik’s Cube, it sold an estimated 350 million around the world.As an object it has charm – its colours, the distinctive rattle as the pieces turn, a pleasing feel in the hand…The traditional cube has six faces each with three squares by three. Every face is a different colour – white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. That is, until the cube has been thoroughly scrambled. The challenge then is to return it to its original state with each side a single colour. It all relies on impressive engineering – an internal pivot allowing both the rows and columns to turn.It is devilishly difficult. There are said to be 43 quintillion permutations – the number of possible positions the cube can hold…Some see it as a challenge – like swimming the Channel or climbing Everest – that must be overcome. There was a spike in sales in the US in 2006, attributed to Will Smith‘s movie The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Smith’s homeless character solves a Rubik’s Cube and impresses a businessman… Extreme devotees find completing it easy. Their focus is on speed, stamina or overcoming extra obstacles – such as being blindfolded”.

Thinking back to my own RC playing days (or should that be ‘playing daze’?), I started off with the aim of trying to complete one side of the same colour, then one row, then two rows, and then three rows (i.e., a completed cube). Once I had mastered how to do it, the aim was to do it as fast as I could. Over time, the motivations and reasons for doing the puzzle changed. I spent more an more time doing it and I suppose I would describe it as a kind of tolerance (i.e., needing to spend more and more time playing it to feel good in a good mood). The notion that trying to complete the RC is addictive is not new. In fact, back in 1996, I published a paper on behavioural addictions in the Journal of Workplace Learning. One of my introductory paragraphs in that paper noted:

“There is now a growing movement (e.g. Miller, 1980; Orford, 1985) which views a number of behaviours as potentially addictive, including many behaviours which do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviours diverse as gambling (Griffiths, 1995), overeating (Orford, 1985), sex (Carnes, 1983), exercise (Glasser, 1976), computer game playing (Griffiths, 1993a), pair bonding (Peele and Brodsky, 1975), wealth acquisition (Slater, 1980) and even Rubik’s Cube (Alexander, 1981)! Such diversity has led to new all encompassing definitions of what constitutes addictive behaviour”.

In the BBC article, Tom de Castella reported the case of Hampshire builder Graham Parker who after 26 years of trying, finally solved the RC in 2009. Parker allegedly wept when he finally solved it even though the activity “caused him backache and put a strain on his marriage”.In the same article, IT worker Billy Jeffs learned to solve the RC after making a bet and claimed that “When you learn to solve it the first time you either get the bug or not. It’s quite hard to leave the house without one. I have three in my bag”.

Despite the BBC article using the word ‘addicted’ in the title, no-one interviewed was anywhere near to being addicted based on the quotes that de Castella cited. I’m also unaware of any academic research that has examined the excessive playing of RCs (let alone research that has examined any potential addiction). The reference I cited in my own 1996 paper on behavioural addictions was actually from a story in the New York Times by Ron Alexander. However, although the RC is described by Alexander as an “addictive invention” there is again little evidence that any of the people interviewed in the article were actually addicted.

As there appeared to be little evidence either in academic or journalistic articles, in the name of research I went searching on the internet for anecdotal evidence of RC addiction. There were the usual types of humour (such as ’50 reasons you know you’re addicted to speed solving [the Rubik’s Cube]’) and ‘Signs of Rubik’s Cube addiction’) but I did come across what appear to be some people that might be having problems with their RC use and/or urges to solve the puzzle. For instance:

  • Extract 1: “I Have recently been diagnosed with Rubik’s Cube Addiction Syndrome and it is getting out of control. Every time I try to stop, I cant put it down for five minutes! I just have to solve it! Everyone says it’s just a phase but I really don’t think it is”.
  • Extract 2: “I was once [a Rubik’s Cube] addict as well. And I decided since everyone thought it was dumb that I was obsessed with thing I would teach them how to solve a Rubik’s cube so they too saw the magic and became obsessed…I taught someone who got really good and caught on fast then challenged me to a showdown. Luckily I won …but unluckily I was so happy that I won I threw the cube on the ground like a touchdown in football and it burst into a million pieces all over the school till I lost some and had to buy a new one but never got around to it resulting in me becoming unobsessed with the thing”.
  • Extract 3: “I have been cubing for like 3 years now…maybe a little more. I don’t have the urge to solve a cube more than once, but if I see a cube that is unsolved, in a friend’s room, or anywhere that is unsolved, I want to pick it up and solve it. After I do that I usually just put it back down and forget about it though”.
  • Extract 4: Many cubers have been accused of addiction to the Rubik’s Cube at least once. What is it about a 3x3x3 cube that turns someone into a crazed speedsolver? It all seems to start the same way, an innocent mission to find the ‘how to’ and ‘why’ behind Rubik’s design. I had two friends in high school that knew how to solve the cube…I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it… There I was, completing a task that boggled most challengers. The first few days just the completion was enough for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Diminishing returns is a pain though, and the satisfaction wore off because the challenge of it wore off. My first recorded time for the 3x3x3 was over 5 minutes. Nervous fingers, shaking hands, and fuming inner dialogue…ahhh, yes, the good stuff. The second solve was sub-5 (under 5 minutes), and I got that warm fuzzy feeling again! Within a few days I was consistently under 2 minutes. ‘What if I can go a little faster?’ It was the question that drove me personally in my journey, and ultimately it is what grabs everyone”.
  • Extract 5: Rubik’s Cube is played very frequently because it is very addicting. Many people ‘infected’ by Rubik cube only because they see their friend or seller play the cube. Once somebody addicted by the cube, it will be very difficult to escape from the addiction. Rubik’s Cube is often played during the lessons and many of the players often ignore their teacher or their friends who ask something. They don’t respond quickly to their surroundings. They may become antisocial. They play alone and only focus to the cube. Rubik’s Cube also may cause mental and physical disorder. People who play Rubik’s Cube usually play it for many hours non-stop. It is dangerous for eyes. It makes the eyes focuses and work hard. Many of them sleep below 8 hours only to solve puzzle that not yet solved. It disturbs human metabolism activity that only can be happen while sleeping”.

Another article entitled ‘Rubik’s Cube 3×3 – Psychological Barriers and Addiction?!’ claimed that is rumored there was a divorce filed in the United States, with the basis for its request being a spouse obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube. I’m not sure if this is true and would love to find confirmation”.

Whether anyone has ever been genuinely addicted to the RC is highly debatable but there have been a few alleged medical conditions associated with excessive Rubik’s Cube use including ‘Rubik’s Wrist’ (“a reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome caused by hours of ‘speedcubing’ a Rubik’s Cube, which entails repeated rotation of the wrist”) and ‘Cuber’s Thumb’ (pretty much the same thing but applied to the thumb rather than the wrist and referred to in letters published in the early 1980s in both the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine). Although I have always claimed that almost any activity can become potentially addictive if the reward mechanisms are in place, I have yet to be convinced that there are any real RC addicts out there.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Alexander, R. (1981). A cube popular in all circles. New York Times, 21 July, p. C6.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Orford, J. (1985). Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Wiley: Chichester.

Scheffler, I. (2014). Beyond the Rubik’s Cube: Inside the competitive world of speedcubing. The Guardian, May 2. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/02/rubiks-cube-competitive-world-speedcubing

Thompson, J. M. (1982). Cuber’s thumb. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 126(7), 773.

Waugh, D. (1981). Cuber’s thumb. New England Journal of Medicine, 305(13), 768

Wikipedia (2014). Rubik’s Cube. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubik’s_Cube

Your number’s up: Can you get hooked on Sudoku?

“There is a monster on the loose, and it is out to eat your brain. Pitiless in its advance and deadly in its cunning, Sudoku, a seemingly simple numbers game, has become the biggest puzzle craze to hit the world since Rubik’s Cube. It’s all over the newspapers, spreading across the Internet and heading for television in Britain, yet its phenomenal popularity raises some puzzling questions. Such as why, in a high-speed, hyper-technological age – without noticeable fanfare or promotion – would millions of people become addicted to a game invented more than 200 years ago by a blind Swiss mathematician?…Yet ominous reports pour in of ‘Sudoku seizure’. In workplaces in Britain, stories are circulating of people unable to make their children’s breakfasts, leave for the office or go to bed at night until they have solved their Sudoku” (The Telegraph of India, June 30, 2013).

In a previous blog I took a brief look at the psychology of doing crosswords. Today’s blog is arguably as frivolous as I thought I would turn my attention to Sudoku puzzles. Anecdotally I have read about people who claim to be ‘hooked’ and ‘addicted’ to Sudoku (such as a US woman – Mrs. C. Mills – who wrote about her ‘addiction’ to playing Sudoku on her i-Pad blog by Violet Njo Dicksonin her blog, and a claiming ‘I was a Sudoku addict’). There have also been various journalistic articles such as ‘Addicted to Sudoku’ in a 2006 issue of Newsweek. However, I haven’t seen any real evidence to convince me that anyone has ever developed a genuine addiction to such puzzles (although I don’t rule out that it’s theoretically possible). I certainly know a few people who spend more than a few hours a day doing Sudoku but they have the time to do them because they are unemployed or retired. In these cases, excessive Sudoku use is something clearly adds to these individuals’ lives rather than takes away from it (and on that criterion alone it is not an addiction for such individuals). According to The Telegraph [of India] news article:

“Sudoku – or something very similar to it – was invented in the 1780s by Leonhard Euler, a mathematical virtuoso from Basle. When he lost his sight in early middle age and was unable to work from books, he developed the ability to compute complex sums in his head and a talent for composing puzzles. He invented a grid-based puzzle and named it ‘Latin squares’. It was, in all material aspects, identical to Sudoku, yet it remained barely noticed until it turned up – renamed the ‘number place game’ – in America in the 1980s. It was spotted by Nobuhiko Kanamoto, employee of a Japanese puzzle magazine. The Japanese made the game slightly more difficult and renamed it Sudoku, meaning ‘number single’. Today there are at least five Japanese Sudoku magazines with a total circulation of 660,000. It began appearing in [British newspaper] The Times and has since spread to every newspaper. A mobile phone version is up and running. TV pilots are being planned. Certainly nothing comparable has been seen since 100 million Rubik’s Cubes were sold in the early 1980s”.

I’m not sure when I first came across Sudoku but I used to do (or at least try to do) the daily puzzle in The Guardian (in the days when I still read a daily newspaper).  I had certainly been doing Sudoku puzzles for a while before I did my first media interview about them. I was even more surprised when some of my press comments made it into the preface of Alan Tan’s 2007 book Sudoku for Experts. I was quoted as saying:

“Part of the appeal is that it is relatively easy to play. No mathematics involved. Once grasped, the objective is childishly simple, yet infuriatingly difficult to achieve. It looks easy. But to do it well requires real thought. The rules are fairly simple, but the scope for skill is limitless. When you solve the problem you feel terrific”.

In the article in The Telegraph, Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics at Toronto University (and author of The Puzzle Instinct) was interviewed about the popularity of Sudoku and was quoted as saying: “You cannot find a culture, no matter how technologically primitive or advanced, that does not have puzzle traditions”. I was also interviewed for the same article and was asked if Sudoku was something we should be worried about from an addiction perspective. My only comments that made it into the article reiterate what I said above:

 “I don’t think it will be a problem as long as it remains an enthusiasm and doesn’t become an addiction. An enthusiasm gives you something. An addiction takes something away.”


I’m not aware of much scientific research on Sudoku, although in my blog on crosswords I mentioned a study led by Dr. Joshua Jackson published in a 2012 issue of the journal Psychology and Aging. The paper claimed that doing Sudoku and crosswords could change some aspects of personality among old-aged people. More specifically, they examined whether an intervention aimed to increase cognitive ability in older adults (i.e., doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles) affected the personality trait of openness to experience (i.e., being imaginative and intellectually oriented). In their study, old-aged adults completed a 4-month program in inductive reasoning training that included weekly Sudoku and crossword puzzles. They were then assessed continually over the following 30 weeks. Their findings showed that those who did Sudoku and crossword puzzles increased their openness scores compared to the control group. The authors claimed that this study is one of the very first to demonstrate that personality traits can change through non-psychopharmocological interventions.

On the same kind of theme, a non-academic article by Siski Green for the Saga website reported on how Sudoku, the card game bridge, and board games boost both body and mind. In a small section entitled ‘Sudoku to survive’ the article claimed that:

“A simple game of Sudoku could trigger the activation of ‘survival genes’ in your brain, making cells live longer and helping to fight disease. According to a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh, unused genes in brain cells are activated during stimulation like that caused by completing the puzzles. [The researchers] found that a group of these [survival] genes can make the active brain cells far healthier than lazy, inactive cells”

In my writings on the psychology of games more generally, I have noted that there are a number of key factors that determine whether games like Sudoku become firmly established or simply fade away. This includes the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, competitions and tournaments, and corporate sponsorship. For instance, all good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for Sudoku’s continued popularity and future existence. In short, there will always room for improvement. Also, for games of any complexity, there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of books on Sudoku is an indication of perhaps how healthy the state of Sudoku play is.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bennett, J. (2006). Addicted to Sudoku. The Daily Beast, February 22. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/02/22/addicted-to-sudoku.html

Dickson, V.N. (2013). I was a Sudoku addict. March 13. Located at: http://christianitymalaysia.com/wp/sudoku-addict/

Green, S. Playing games for health: How bridge, sudoku and board games boost both body and mind. Saga, April 14. Located at: http://www.saga.co.uk/health/mind/health-benefits-of-playing-games.aspx

Jackson, J.J., Hill, P.L., Payne, B.R., Roberts, B.W., & Stine-Morrow, E.A. L. (2012). Can an old dog learn (and want to experience) new tricks? Cognitive training increases openness to experience in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27, 286-292.

Mills, C. (2012). Sudoku addiction solved forever. December 9. Located at: http://claudiamillsanhouraday.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/sudoku-addiction-solved-forever.html

Tan, A. (2007). Sudoku for Experts. Malaysia: M & M Publishers.

The Telegraph (India). Your number’s up. June 30. Located at: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130630/jsp/sudoku/story_5123700.jsp#.Ug9dmr-9pO1