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.

My Week with Brian: A Conversation with the Collected Works of Brian Sutton-Smith

Alec S. Hurley, 2018 Strong Research Fellow
PhD Student, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX

A photo of the label of Box 1 of 171 of the Brian Sutton-Smith papers at the archives at The Strong.

 
 

Despite growing up in Rochester and routinely passing The Strong museum en route to the family business on Oregon Street, I failed to take advantage of the museum’s wonderful exhibits and its abundant collections until late June of 2018. Then, over the course of five days leading up to the July 4th holiday, I was fortunate enough to take a break from my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin to work through sections of the museum’s Brian Sutton-Smith Collection.

 

Hailing from New Zealand, Dr. Sutton-Smith spent a 37-year career in academia focused on the sociological and anthropological development of games in both children and adults. Among his final stops in a storied career was as a resident scholar at The Strong National Museum of Play, where the collection of his life’s work would be housed. While my dissertation research (the intersection of sport and global imperialism) does not mirror the focus of his life’s work, the research fellowship afforded me the opportunity to explore a tangential interest of mine.

Draft diagram and description of the game Foursquare, The Strong, Rochester, NY

 

The research question which drove me to The Strong was “when do games turn into sport?” I had been stuck attempting to answer this question philosophically, and it was not until my hours-long engagements with the esteemed professor’s collection that I realized the question was better approached sociologically. The collection—comprised of his own drafts (over 300 articles and books), research notes, community outreach, and correspondence—runs 171 boxes deep. After scratching the surface of the deep and fruitful collection—19 boxes and roughly 8,000 pages—I had discovered several novel approaches to answering my initial question. Sutton-Smith, through his work, guided me to more nuanced models focused on gendered approaches to conceptualizations of sport. Therefore, the point at which games turn into sports could be significantly influenced by the relationship between games and young girls versus young boys. Furthermore, the professor’s collection included a prodigious amount of material on board games and, much to my surprise and delight, jokes. How children and adults are socialized through what might be broadly termed as “mind-sport” is something I have incorporated into my research since my visit.

Handwritten notes on play, The Strong, Rohcester, NY

 

My week with the professor proved both enlightening and productive. Sutton-Smith’s collection provides the theoretical backdrop for a paper currently under construction focused on debunking the myth of the “weakest link” in youth team sports. To those who embrace visits to The Strong for the museum’s incredible collection of play memorabilia and interactive exhibits, I strongly encourage a moment with the papers of one of the most esteemed professors of play. A collection filled with powerful research, personal anecdotes, and a touch of well-placed humor—one would be well served to take a step off the typical museum path and spend some time with Brian Sutton-Smith.

Switches and Screens: Researching Video Game Interface Design

In Will Wright’s game design documents

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The Strong Acquires Monster Toys

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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?

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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.

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Documenting the Skylanders Story

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.

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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.

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