originally published May 29, 2012

If you grew up in western society during the last 50 years, chances are you have spent some fraction of your time on Earth hunched over a cardboard human with a red plastic nose, steadying your tweezer hand while digging for a plastic wishbone tucked within his innards. Maybe you owned a copy of the game. Maybe, like me, you owned a few copies, having occasionally lost your temper and smashed Cavity Sam right in his baffled little face when the buzzer shattered your concentration.

Operation is a game of hand-eye coordination. If you have the steadiest hand among all your friends, luck will rarely tilt this game their way. That said, this is probably the most pointless game to attempt if you’ve been drinking. Just saying.

In 1962 John Spinello was a sophomore at the University of Illinois. He received the assignment of designing a toy, because university is that awesome. Spinello was an industrial design student – he wasn’t about to make a game dependent on something as crude and boring as a dice roll. He built a 10-inch-by-10-inch metal box with an attached metal probe. The idea was to stick the probe in the box’s holes (I’m resisting all dirty jokes here, and I urge you to do the same) without touching the sides. Touching the edge would close the circuit and set off a loud atonal buzz.

Spinello’s godfather worked for Marvin Glass & Associates, a Chicago-based game manufacturer. He arranged a meeting between Spinello and Marvin Glass himself. Marvin was not impressed by the box, but all it took was one failed try to make him jump in surprise, and completely change his mind about the game. He cut Spinello a $500 check and promised him a job.

That five hundred bucks was all Spinello would ever earn from his invention. Marvin never followed through with the job offer, and started marketing the game himself as “Death Valley”, a game in which you had to cross the desert by inserting the metal probe into ‘watering holes’ without touching the edges. Milton Bradley took notice and bought the rights to the game.

Spinello got five hundred bucks. Marvin Glass got a visit (and probably a much bigger check) from this guy.

It hardly seems fair. But Milton Bradley knew how to repackage the game from being a desert-based chore into something kids would actually want to do: dig through some guy’s internal parts.

Operation was a huge success right away. It was a board game that made noise, and it featured rules so simple any kid could teach his idiot friends how to play. The game could be over fairly quickly, depending on how long it took for someone to have the patience and cool nerves to nab that goddamn breadbasket. I hated the breadbasket.

Any successful game begets a number of spin-offs, as I previously discovered while researching the ridiculous breadth of the Clue franchise. They haven’t yet made a feature film out of Operation, though I’m sure Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are gearing up for a bidding war as we speak. Operation’s first spin-off was a giant version, played by kids on the 60’s-era game show Shenanigans, which was conveniently sponsored by Milton Bradley.

They made a few hand-held varieties of the game, either with a screen in Cavity Sam’s gut or this monstrosity, which I would have thrown out a window within a few minutes of playing.

If your steady hand skills can only be found in your mouse technique, you can try to track down the 1998 PC game. You’ll also have to find a computer old enough to play it, because they never updated the game for newer versions of Windows. Instead we have Operation Mania, which looks to be more like those diner-management games where you have to multitask and think quickly. But the best part about the original Operation game is that you can’t think quickly; it’s a game of patience and concentration. Neither of those nouns are big sellers in kids’ games these days though.

They made the obligatory TV and movie adaptations of course: Shrek, Spider-Man, Simpsons, Family Guy, and a SpongeBob SquarePants edition of the game in which you remove something called a ‘Krabby Patty Pleasure Center’ from the eponymous hero’s… I’m going to guess groin?

In 2002 they introduced a version that appears closer to John Spinello’s 3D version. The Brain Surgery game had players yanking things out of a slightly less Moe-Howardesque Cavity Sam’s head before the timer ran out.

2007 saw the release of Operation Rescue Kit, a more complex beat-the-clock version of the original game, which features a heart monitor and the ability to pump oxygen into the patient to get more time.

The real lesson here – and I learned this with Clue – is that the games that amused us when we were young are no longer intense enough to amuse this generation. Reboots are necessary, and luckily Hasbro (who now owns the Milton Bradley empire) is pretty good at staying on top of freshening the old standards.

In 2003 they held a poll to introduce a new ailment to Cavity Sam’s list of grievances. Brain Freeze (an ice cream cone in his head) beat out Tennis Elbow and Growling Stomach. None of my write-in ideas were used:

  • Purple Nurple (a round, purple piece of plastic on the right side of Sam’s chest – worth 200 points)
  • Head-In-The-Ass Cluelessness (A piece shaped like Sam’s head, extracted from the posterior through the hip, since the board game doesn’t show his rear end – worth 150 points)
  • Urge To Burn Things (This would be a rubber band, like the Ankle-Bone-Connected-To-The-Knee-Bone piece, but found in Sam’s head – 200 points)
  • Pus-Filled Uvula (A tricky one in Sam’s throat; if you squeeze the piece too hard with your tweezers, fluid leaks out. If this happens over the body, no points and you lose your turn – worth 300 points)
  • Inflamed Foreskin (Give Sam a circumcision! Careful though, messing this one up will lead to a lawsuit and cost all your points; not only that, but Sam will be soundly mocked when he attends the B’nai Brith summer camp this year – worth 1000 points)

Hasbro will continue to spurt out new versions of Operation as long as kids keep playing them. And John Spinello will continue to earn nothing from the mountain of cash that Hasbro will rake in. He doesn’t mind though – he stated in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year that he holds no resentment over how things turned out. He did eventually get that job with Marvin Glass & Associates (after Marvin had left the company, probably because he had bilked some poor senior out of his retirement property in Florida), and he’s had a long and fruitful career.

He was once approached by a woman who told him that his invention inspired her son to become a doctor. Really, what’s money when you can reap a reward like that? I hope that someday a mother will approach me and tell me, “Hey, that 1000-Words project you did? It inspired my son to spend an inordinate amount of his day doing something no one will pay him for. Thanks, asshole.”

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