Learn the Science Behind Carnival Games—And Which Ones Are Scams

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Anyone who's spent $40 trying to win a life-sized Minion doll only to go home empty-handed knows that carnival games are a scam. But that doesn't stop many of us from falling for them. Playing for the chance to win a flashy prize can be thrilling, and more often than not, the way the games are set up is deceptively simple. Even though the odds are always stacked against you, there are ways to outsmart the trickiest booths, as former NASA engineer Mark Rober illustrates in this video spotted by Sploid.

Following an investigation at a small theme park, Rober concludes that games fall into three categories: random chance games, skill-based games, and games that are pretty much impossible. The first group includes all the games that involve tossing a ball into a field of cups and hoping it falls into the right one. These usually feature lightweight balls that tend to bounce around, so depending on your keen aim won't do you much good. The best you can do is hope that your ball is one of the 10 percent that fall into the correct cup by chance.

The next category is where you'll find the classic skill games—shooting a basketball through a hoop or knocking over a stack of bottles with a ball, for example. Carnivals use sneaky tactics to get players to overestimate their abilities here (the dimensions of the basketball "court" are slightly modified from a normal three-point throw, and the bottles in the tossing game are heavier than ones you encounter in everyday life). But if you know these tricks going in, you can develop strategies of your own to beat them.

Finally, Rober lists the games you should steer clear of altogether. The most famous of the bunch is the rope ladder game. The wide bars of the ladder make it look like it's possible to keep your balance, but because the bridge is attached at just one point on either end, crossing it is about as difficult as crawling on your hands and knees on a tight rope. After a day of observations, Rober and his team didn't see a single person walk away victorious from this booth.

Even if you think you have a knack for carnival games and some decent hand-eye coordination, the system itself is impossible to beat, because the prizes are virtually always worth less than the money you spend to win them. Winning a simple game on the first try, for instance, probably means you just spent $1.50 on a $.45 toy. Maybe see what stuffed animals they have at the dollar store down the road before blowing your paycheck at the ring toss booth.

[h/t Sploid]