The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.
Play Stuff Blog
How do you tell the history of video games?
For more than a decade, The Strong has been collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of video games. Over that time our collection has grown to more than 60,000 video games and related artifacts, as well as hundreds of thousands of video game-related items in our archives. We’ve showcased them in exhibits, featured them in online content like our timeline of the history of video games, and made them available to scholars from around the world who have come to The Strong to do research.
Now we’re highlighting this amazing collection with a new book from The Strong’s World Video Game Hall of Fame: A History of Video Games in 64 Objects.
The book uses 64 items from the museum’s collection to tell the story of how video games have changed, and how they’ve changed society. For me, one of the most challenging aspects of producing the book came at the very beginning—choosing which items to include and which to exclude.
Some choices were easy. We knew we wanted to represent each member of the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Will Wright’s design notebooks for The Sims? Check. A Pac-Man Halloween costume (anytime something becomes a Halloween costume it’s probably of some cultural significance). A Pong arcade cabinet? Obvious. But after accounting for the games inducted into the first three classes of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, there were only 48 slots remaining in the book. How to pick 48 objects from the hundreds of thousands in the collection?
We chose some because they represented the work of pioneers. Humpty Dumpty, the first pinball with flippers, offered useful historical perspective about the development of the playfield. John Burgeson’s baseball game from 1961 was the first computer version of the nation’s pastime. Jordan Mechner used rotoscoping techniques to fluidly render human movement on a computer, and so it was natural to feature the photo prints he had originally created for that purpose.
Other objects represented milestone games or symbolized an era. Thus anyone who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s probably played a handheld game like Mattel’s Football, owned a Texas Instruments Speak & Spell, traveled the Oregon Trail, or matched wits with Simon.
Some artifacts, our curators knew to be historically compelling. The Digi-Comp 1, which came out in 1963, billed itself as the “first digital computer in plastic” and offered kids the chance to write simple programs in binary, such as a rocket countdown and the game Nim. Produced at the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, it showed how grand geopolitical concerns often filtered their way into kids’ play.
The Magnavox Mini Theater, the first retail display for a video game, opens a window into how manufacturers tried to make video games understandable to audiences who had trouble even conceiving what it meant to play a video game on a television. A game like Densha De Go, a Japanese train simulation game, shows how tastes in video games vary from place to place.
We easily could have filled a book with another 64 artifacts, but we’re excited that these selections provide not only an introduction to many of the games in the World Video Game Hall of Fame but also an introduction to gaming history as a whole.
So we hope you enjoy the book, available online from HarperCollins or in the museum shop.
In addition to collecting video and other electronic games and materials that document how these games are made and sold, the staff at The Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) is also interested in preserving evidence of player culture.
Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s.
It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, people everywhere are constantly on the go. Traveling to work or school, the gym, or the grocery store—the list goes on and on. We eat on the run, drink coffee on the run, and even get our information on the run thanks to smartphones that make emails, news, and calls available wherever we are. Today, many folks would tell you that life on the go is hectic but necessary. For a moment, let’s set the necessary aside and look at the more playful side of “things that go!” as children so frequently phrase it.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.
I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.
One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by the Ms.
Today, fantasy role-playing video games—in which players assume the role of heroes wielding swords, casting spells, riding dragons, and battling monsters—are among the most popular and influential of games.