Monday, November 6

slap it up!

It's been almost a year now since I and my colleagues on the shipping and receiving dock sat down to formally codify the rules of an exciting new game — dare I say it, a sport — we had devised over the course of many hours, using only the materials and playing surfaces at hand. Since then, we've all gone our separate ways, but I like to think that little burst of autumn creativity will live on in the annals of sporting history.

Here, then, I present a key historical document retrieved from the depths of /home/bbearnes:

Rules of Slapball
First Edition

Issued by the Slapball Rules Committee, November 15, 2005


The slapball is roughly spherical. It should weigh between 2.4 and 3 ounces, with a diameter of 3 to 4 inches. It is composed of an appropriate combination of plastic shrink wrap, bubble wrap, and packing tape. The ball may be layered, wrapped, and packed to achieve desired characteristics.

A broom or similar object may be necessary for retrieving the slapball.

playing field

Slapball is generally played on a smooth, hard surface. Indoor rooms with walls, exposed joists, pipes, and ductwork are optimal. Streets, athletic courts (indoor or out), and other environments are also acceptable.

rules of play

Optimal play generally requires three or more players, although fewer are acceptable and solo play (freestyle) is encouraged.

  1. Play begins when the slapball is served by bouncing it once off the floor. Any other player may then continue play with a slap.
  2. A slap consists of the use of any body part to keep the ball in play, or alive.
  3. A player is allowed an unlimited number of total slaps, but may only hand slap the ball twice in succession without a reset. A reset consists of slapping the ball with any other body part, or of bouncing it off of any object.
  4. The slapball is considered dead when it has ceased to bounce, with the following exception:
  5. If the slapball lands on an object or surface above the level of the playing floor and rolls, the slapball may be played when it rolls off an edge. Examples would be a tabletop or cardboard box.

Given these simple rules, a surprisingly complex and athletic game emerges. Slapball offers lower barriers to entry than, for example, the superficially similar hacky sack. The game is initially slow paced and forgiving, since most errors can be quickly recovered by one of the players. With experience, however, greater confidence leads to more daring slaps, and the true scope of potential play begins to emerge.

Elements of the playing environment substantially impact the game and expand its possibilities — it is not just a concrete floor, it is a concrete floor littered with pallet jacks and server hardware in boxes destined for Mumbai. Where ceiling features such as ductwork and lighting fixtures once seemed to threaten the untimely end of a game, the experienced slapballer recognizes a rich and varied surface, amenable to countless bounces, rolls, and interesting combinations.

As players incorporate more features of the court and make ever-bolder slaps, greater effort and skill is required to continue play. Keeping the slapball alive often means negotiating an unforgiving arena at high speed, avoiding obstacles, and diving to perform an emergency slap just before the last of the ball's momentum is exhausted.

Playing slapball also turns out to have a unique social dimension, for slapball is basically a cooperative game, in two important senses:

First, although it would be easy to devise a competitive scoring method, the highest level of play seems to be achieved by working towards the shared goal of sustaining the game for as long as possible, in the most interesting fashion. Rhythms of play emerge, with bursts of intense cross-court activity following risky slaps, and improvised solos, extended series of slaps by individual players, become integral to the flow of the game.

Second, at least in its native arena, slapball is fundamentally a transgressive and anti-authoritarian activity, and to-date has always taken place in an environment of surveillance. The true obstacles to the continuation of play were not crates of drive arrays, or piles of freshly delivered FedEx packages — they were irate, chainsmoking Xerox site management and needy Sun employees, and avoiding their wrath was crucial to the continuation of the game.