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
Plastic was invented in the late 19th century, but not until after World War II did advances in chemical technology make it malleable and affordable enough to meet the demands of toy manufacturers. The first plastic toys seemed crude—some toy companies combined plastic heads or hands with cloth or wooden bodies, while others made attempts at translating new concepts into tangible plastic toys. Soon plastic toys of all kinds—Mickey Mouse figures, moon men, ray guns, model kits, and Astro Boy products, among others—hit the market. For more than 60 years, plastic toys have continued to meet the desires of a high-consumption society. By the 1990s, artists such as Michael Lau, Rodney Greenblat, and Eric So started to create art-toys that reflected their individual style and consciously distorted and celebrated mass-marketed plastic toys.
Brian McCarty, contemporary artist and photographer, has donated to The Strong a collection of more than 100 toys featured in his book, Art-Toys, a compilation of photographs that integrate toy characters into real-life situations. His use of implied narratives and ironic juxtapositions often leads to associations with the art-toy movement, which blends personal sensibility with art, design, and toys to create original items. McCarty’s donation presents a comprehensive representation of art-toys. Here are a just a few of the highlights:
The early 1950s introduced the Kaiju genre (roughly translated from Japanese as “giant monster”) to popular culture. Heroes and villains included Rodan, Godzilla, Baragon, Destoroyah, and Gigan, among others. The art-toy movement has seen a resurgence of the genre as many of the artists grew up playing with toy monsters. Mark Nagata, artist and owner of Max Toy Co., is at the forefront of the Kaiju movement. McCarty incorporated Nagata’s Eyezon character into his photograph, “Business as Usual,” intended as an observation of the financial crisis. Eyezon is quite beautiful, considering he is born from a mutant potato, and he demonstrates the connection between highbrow art and the emotions and thoughts rooted in childhood.
Art-toys play with our expectations and conformities. In 2006, McCarty collaborated with Fisher-Price and Hi Fructose Magazine to create a View-Master reel magazine insert. The reel contained 3-D stereoscopic photos of art-toys. One of the images featured Attaboy’s Qwezhun character. The character has been described as the “patron saint of unanswered questions and plots gone awry.” With the View-Master reel, the magazine brought nostalgia and contemporary art to its readership. Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and writer noted that “the merging of toy with art along with the self-conscious merging of commercial, synthetic production with highly personal vision brings the innocence of childhood back.”
FriendsWithYou, Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, created the Wish Come True series of mini figures to appeal to adults and children as young as 18-months. FriendsWithYou described the figures as wishing amulets that “empower individuals with the magic of ritual and wishing.” The rainbow-colored figures come in six different forms with various patterns. Each figure has a weighted bottom and built-in chime that creates a playful rocking motion and a soothing sound. Toys like these brought the subculture of the art-toy movement into the homes of numerous Americans and encouraged toy manufactures to expand the uniqueness of their mass marketed characters.
Other highlights from McCarty’s donation include Mr. Bumper, Axtrx, Devo Booji Boy Quee, Petit Lapin, Brass Knuckle Bob, and Mr. Spray. The donation builds the foundation for documenting the chronology of the art-toy movement, which is still very much in motion. Currently, many art-toy manufacturers depend on a mix of artistic and licensed properties to foster and maintain financial stability. Kidrobot and Funko dominate the market by merging pop culture favorites like The Simpsons, Rick & Morty, Marvel, Fraggle Rock, ‘90s Nickelodeon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with unique toys. By adding these products to their repertoire, manufacturers are connecting with children and adults.
Cataloging a large collection of video games and related materials involves a ton of research and leads to game development stories that often are as fascinating as the games themselves. ICHEG’s recent acquisition of a group of games and game systems from Japan brought Super Mario Brothers’ history to the forefront.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of cataloging more than 10,000 electronic games for ICHEG. As a gamer, I’ve found this a great way to learn about the various genres and mechanics that make up the history of electronic games.
A few days ago a researcher in our ICHEG lab sparked a rich conversation about her favorite childhood gaming platform, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Like so many gamers in the late 80s, she spent endless hours assuming the role of Mario and squashing Goombas in the Mushroom Kingdom. Her memories of Super Mario Bros.
Tetris is a great example of how simple ideas often inspire the best video games. In my recent conversation with Alexey Pajitnov, he recounted how a simple wooden puzzle game inspired him to create Tetris.
Over the last few weeks my e-mail filled up with friends and other electronic games enthusiasts bringing to my attention a couple of eBay auctions. Amused at first, I quickly saw a collectors’ chain reaction happening.
These auctions centered on the rare and elusive Stadium Events video games by Bandai, a Japanese toy making company founded in 1900. The first e-mail I received referred to an auction on eBay for an “Old Nintendo NES system and five games” that sold for $13,105.
Aside from gaming, my other passion is baseball—wherever I can find it and in whatever form. Since my youth I have struggled to fill the void between the final game of the World Series and the return of baseball on opening day each spring.
We at NCHEG extend our deepest condolences to the family and colleagues of Mark Beaumont, who suffered a fatal heart attack during the early hours of February 23. Mark was an industry veteran and visionary who began his career at Atari in 1982 and at the time of his death served as Capcom’s COO for North America and Europe. Previously he held various positions with Activision, Time Warner Interactive, Data East, Mindscape, and Psygnois.