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.

Diving into D&D

Assorted Dungeons & Dragons artifacts (I) The novel I’m writing involves, in part, a group of friends who reunite after 25 years to restart their old game of Dungeons & Dragons. That game has been close to my heart since 1978 or so when I received my first boxed set as a gift. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder I felt rolling those exotic polyhedral dice and creating my first character. During my amazing week as a Mary Valentine and Andrew Cosman Research Fellow at The Strong, I was able to dig deeply into the origins of D&D and gain a rich understanding of what makes it so enduring.

Back before we had blogs or even pencils and paper, humans told each other stories in caves and around the cooking fires. Epic poets would recite their tales from memory and for hours at a time, and these tales would be retold and embellished in much the same way the fish I caught a few summers ago has grown progressively larger every year since. That’s how stories work.

Along the way, we found ways to record our stories (for instance, on clay tablets and papyrus) and eventually to mass-produce them (such as in printed books and on Atari cartridges). As a novelist and author in this day and age, I write stories that are easily reproducible in book form—and yet I remain fascinated by the pre-literary forms of storytelling and by the ancient traditions of performed stories.

What on earth does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?

There are countless things I love about the game, from the creativity it requires and inspires, to the time it provides away from my electronic devices. But the most vital thing about D&D to me, which I hope to make clear in my novel, is that with a great session provides a unique method of collaborative storytelling. I don’t know of another activity that so effectively brings us back to those ancient days of epic oral storytelling.

Dungeons & Dragons Supplement I: Greyhawk At The Strong, I was able see how the game derived from a 1971 game called Chainmail, a set of “rules for medieval miniatures” by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Taking inspiration from the oeuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien, Gygax’s friend Dave Arneson adapted Chainmail for a fantasy setting and the two of them collaborated on a set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons. The emphasis changed from moving armies across a tabletop to role playing individual characters instead.

In The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I was able to read vintage issues of gaming periodicals like The Dragon, The Dungeoneer, and Alarums and Excursions and with them follow the monthly progression of the game from subculture to the commercial phenomenon it is (again) today. The archival documents I consulted included old hand-drawn maps and even Allan Hammack’s handwritten first draft of what became “Ghost Tower of Inverness,” one beloved of all the D&D adventure modules.

Assorted Dungeons & Dragons artifacts (II) The opportunity to hold a pristine copy of the very first D&D boxed set in my hands was one of the highlights of my fellowship. In fact, sitting in the library one morning, I pulled a set of dice from my bag and rolled a new character from scratch using those early, simple rules. Back then, a character could fit on an index card.

To create a character in Dungeons & Dragons isn’t all that different from creating one in a novel. In fact, if my week at The Strong taught me anything, it’s that my life as a writer may very have begun with my first boxed set as a kid, and with my first set of colorful dice. (It would be amiss if I didn’t also cite the importance of Star Wars figures too.) The lesson here, for me, is that the games we play as children may very well make us who we are as so-called grown-ups.

I also discovered that the success of The Strong’s mission can be most clearly witnessed, I think, at the museum’s exit. That’s where the visiting children scream and bellow at the prospect of leaving such a remarkable place. It’s quite a racket. At the end of my fellowship, not quite ready to return home to Philadelphia, I understood exactly how all those children feel.

The Strong Acquires Monster Toys

Read more >

Which Came First—The Comic or the Toy?

Since their inception in the early 20th century, comic books have been synonymous with American youth and playfulness. The colorful, action-packed stories in the pages of comics translated into creative play in the backyard with capes and masks and into elaborate worlds scaled to the action figures on the playroom rug. As comics and action figures evolved, lines became blurred: which came first, the comic or the toy?

Read more >

Not Just Fan Fiction: The Allen Hammack D&D Collection

My first library card was a small rectangle made of royal blue cardstock, with the handwritten number “9555” in the top right corner. This very valuable document allowed me to check out up to six items at a time from my town’s library. Ever the opportunist, I always checked out the first six books that I picked up, knowing that I could come back anytime (!) and swap them for a new batch. This method of binge-reading let me plow through entire runs of some of my favorite children’s (and young adult) series while in elementary school.

Read more >

Documenting the Skylanders Story

It began with a phone call from Paul Reiche III last summer.

Read more >

Dolls in Focus

In October 2017, I had the chance to be at The Strong National Museum of Play as a research fellow collecting data for my Dolls in Focus project aimed at revisiting and expanding the findings of my previous linguistic investigation on dolls’ language. Surprisingly, what I thought would primarily be an exploratory incursion into dolls’ universe from an academic perspective turned out to be a rather touching and personal experience that allowed me to revisit my own childhood memories.

Read more >

Sidewalk Surfing: The Gnarly History of Skateboarding Part II (1973 to 1991)

Read more >

Game Saves: Preserving the First LGBTQ Electronic Game

Floppy diskettes are an incredibly volatile medium. Available in multiple shapes, sizes, and formats, the magnetic disks were often used, rewritten, and eventually tossed aside as new methods of data storage arrived. Disks by their very nature are disposable, and younger generations may only recognize a floppy disk as a save icon. With some experts estimating the lifespan of a floppy disk at 10 to 20 years under the best conditions, many pieces of software, including games, are at risk.

Read more >

Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.

Read more >

Examining 21st Century STEM–related Toys and their Impact on Girls

If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Read more >

Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia

Read more >

Pages