Food & Culture

The Most and Least Winnable Carnival Games, According to an Ex-NASA Engineer

Take note, frustrated high school dude trying to win your girlfriend a giant, ragged stuffed Tweety Bird: Carnival games are very, very difficult. They're so hard that, according to an ex-NASA engineer, some are near impossible to ever beat. If you're going to attempt a victory, there are specific games to seek out. Others are essentially scams.

It's a Trap!

Mark Rober, a YouTuber and former NASA JPL engineer who worked on the Curiosity Rover, among other projects, published a YouTube video finally confirming what we all know to be true: Carnival games are not your friends (not unlike claw machines). With the help of a New York Mets pitcher, Rober did some on-site research at a carnival to investigate just how scammy certain popular games are. To do that, he separated the 24 games at his local carnival into three groups: random-chance games, skill-based games, and near-impossible games. You may perceive some of these games to be easier than they really are because carnivals purposely implement little tricks that make you overestimate your chances of winning.

What Are the Chances?

Though the random-chance games seem like innocent games of chance, the cards are stacked against you. For example, consider the game that has you toss a ping-pong ball into a glass jar where the color of the jar corresponds to a prize. To calculate your statistical probability of winning this game, divide the number of winning jars by the number of total jars. Let's say 10 percent of the jars are colored, so one in ten throws should win you a prize. However, carnivals are sneakier than that. These games typically use balls that are lightweight and have a "high coefficient of restitution." That means they bounce a lot, magnifying any imperfection in your aim. Throwing a medicine ball into a trash can would be easier than aiming a beach ball, right?

Games You CAN Win

With a little skill, you can take home a prize from a skill-based game. However, you need some background information. For example, the classic basketball-hoop game differs from sinking a three-pointer on a court. Rober notes that the hoop at the carnival is one foot higher than a standard net and one foot farther than the standard three-point line. Therefore, your LeBron-esque muscle memory won't get you very far. Pro tip: Overshoot it.

In the whiffle-ball and woven-basket game, aim for the bottom lip of the basket. If it hits the back of the basket first, the ball will fly straight out.

If you're trying to knock down stacked bottles, first understand that carnivals purposely use heavy, sometimes metal, bottles or bottom-weight bottles. Throw hard, straight, and make sure to strike the bottom row of bottles in your pitch.

Avoid Like the Plague

In his one-day research study, Rober found three games that fit the near-impossible camp. These are the ones you should absolutely stay away from. One game that challenges you to shoot out a star from a piece of paper using an automatic BB gun is riddled with issues. The guns aren't precise or accurate, and it's basically impossible to shoot a hole through a tab of ripped paper that offers no resistance. Newton's third law, baby.

The ring toss is another one you shouldn't attempt. Unless the clouds separate and the stars align and you somehow magically sink the ring around the bottleneck, it's probably not going to happen. Not only are the rings bouncy, the diameter of each ring is incredibly close to the diameter of the bottle neck.

The last scamtastic game is the ladder climb, which has participants attempt to crawl across a ladder over an inflated cushion. The problem is, the rope bridge is held up by single points on either side, so climbing across will very quickly see the ladder twisting and dumping you to the ground. If you really, really practiced on climbing this ladder while keeping your center of mass perfectly aligned in the center, you'd win every time. But who's got time for that?

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Learn the history of circuses and carnivals in "The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus" by Linda Simon. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Watch Mark Rober's Video: Carnival Scam Science

Written by Joanie Faletto December 3, 2017

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