Play Stuff Blog

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.

Art + Toys = Art-Toys?

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:

Eyezon Art Toy ​1. Eyezon

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.

Qwezshun, Art Toy ​2. Qwezhun

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.”

Wish Come True, Art Toy ​3. Wish Come True

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. 

Mr. Bumper, Art Toy ​​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.

Is Fantasy Football an Electronic Game?

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Dr. James Paul Gee Speaks on Gaming and Learning in the 21st Century

Six years ago, James Paul Gee announced at the beginning of his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, “I want to talk about video games—yes, even violent video games—and say something positive about them.” It was not quite as provocative as Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to th

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ROC Gardens

Most of my colleagues and friends know this about me: I am a gardener. Except during winter, you’ll find me in my garden whenever I have a spare moment.

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NCHEG Has Acquired the Videotopia Collection!

I’m psyched! Today, the National Center for the History of Electronic Games is announcing that we’ve acquired the Videotopia Collection.

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Retro Arcade Gaming…in the Adirondacks?!?

My recent family vacation to the Adirondacks was a great respite from work, school, and the seemingly endless yard work that has consumed the better part of my summer.

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Raggedy Ann Makes Her Move

It was a sunny August day when the Strong curators roll

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Ouija Board: “Yes, Yes” and “Oh, No!”

First patented in 1891, the Ouija Board has been popular ever since—a remarkably long run.

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Why collect gaming magazines?

Game enthusiast Joseph Qualls recently donated more than 750 back issues of video game magazines to NCHEG. The magazines, mostly from the 1990s, wonderfully document the industry’s transition into the 32-bit era and beyond. Select almost any time from that decade and you will learn about the state of video games from this collection.

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Alternate Interfaces and Project Natal

The first time I played a video game without holding or stomping on a controller was at a 2002 traveling museum exhibit.  There was no joystick, no steering wheel, no pads to stomp on--simply  cameras that sensed my body movements.  The interactive graphics were fairly primitive, but they allowed me

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Game Boy’s 20th Birthday, Already?

Can it be 20 years already for Game Boy? In 1989, Indiana Jones embarked on his “Last Crusade,” Joe Montana and Jerry Rice led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, and Milli Vanilli lip-synced their way to the top of the charts.

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