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.

Playing in the Past

Playing in the Past
Robert Whitaker
2019 G. Rollie Adams Research Fellow
Research Fellow, The Waggonner Center, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA

To study the early history of digital games is to study games with historical settings. Whether the game was designed for educational use like MECC’s The Oregon Trail, or commercial profit like SSI’s Computer Bismarck, history games are an essential part of the early history of digital games as a medium.

Examples of MECC's other trail games. For the past six years I’ve been studying the relationship between digital games and history for my public history project, History Respawned. For the most part I’ve been looking at games released in the last 15 years, such as Assassin’s Creed, Crusader Kings II, and Red Dead Redemption. My project considers how these games depict the past, what kind of arguments the developers are making implicitly or explicitly about the past, and what kind of historical knowledge, if any, is imparted to the player. In this work I’ve been able to identify a familiar set of tropes and practices developers employ when adapting history, but as a historian I’m curious if these practices only developed recently or if they are part of the longer history of historical games. In order to answer this question, I spent a week at the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play to consider The Strong’s manuscript collections related to digital history games and history game developers.

My search focused on, unsurprisingly, the files of the Minnesota Education Computing Corporation (MECC), the publishers of The Oregon Trail. This game wasn’t noteworthy solely for its historical setting. The Oregon Trial was also an important pioneer (pun intended) in several popular digital game genres, including action, adventure, resource management, role-playing, roguelike, and shooter. The game debuted and succeeded first in schools, where The Oregon Trail’s historical elements made it an attractive pedagogical tool for grade school teachers. Yet the game’s innovations with regard to genre gave it commercial value beyond the classroom. The story of The Oregon Trail illustrates an essential truth about digital history games: if the game isn’t fun, no one is going to care about the history.         

Cover page for MECC’s 1992 game 'Freedom!' What was remarkable to me looking through MECC’s files wasn’t the story of The Oregon Trail, but instead the numerous ways MECC attempted to replicate the stunning success of this game using other settings. These attempts included The Yukon Trail, set in the late 19th century during the Klondike Gold Rush, The Amazon Trail, a time travel game set along the Amazon River and its tributaries, and Wagon Train 1848, essentially a LAN multiplayer version of The Oregon Trail. The underlying rationale behind these titles made a lot of educational and financial sense: take the compelling game mechanics behind The Oregon Trail and use them to illustrate other historical periods and themes. This rationale was backed up by market research reports conducted by MECC during the 1990s. These reports, included in The Strong’s collections, are a useful way of understanding what players—including children, parents, and teachers—found so compelling about The Oregon Trail model.

'Freedom!' Teacher's manual with suggested roleplay activity to “re-enact the institution of slavery”. However, these reports also reveal some of the ways that MECC went astray attempting to replicate the success of Oregon Trail. The key example here is MECC’s 1992 game Freedom!, a historical simulation game that had players take on the role of a runaway slave traveling along the Underground Railroad in the Antebellum period. The game, which borrowed heavily from the design principles of The Oregon Trail, was pulled from the shelves by MECC in 1993 after players, parents, and teachers complained about Freedom!’s insensitive depiction of black Americans. In particular, critics cited the game’s use of era-specific dialect for black characters, which led to ridicule and racist remarks in the classroom. Furthermore, the game’s teacher manual included a suggested roleplay activity in which students would “re-enact the institution of slavery” in the classroom. Some students would be slaveowners, others would be slaves, but MECC advised that teachers should make sure to not let “all the white children be ‘owners’ and all black children or children of color be ‘slaves.’”

Page from 'Africa Trek' focus group research document. The negative reaction to this game cast a pall over MECC’s subsequent development projects, including a game called Africa Trek, which would have been based on a 12,000 mile bike journey from north to south Africa. The focus group research related to Africa Trek, included in The Strong’s collections, explicitly references the “adverse public and [school] administrative reaction” to Freedom!, and recommended that Africa Trek should not be marketed “as a way to ‘discover your [African] roots.’” Moreover, the focus group panel strongly advised that “development management should obtain consumer and teacher feedback … as a disaster check” before publishing. As one focus group member summarized, “whenever you try to recreate history, there’s a lot of hostility that comes out.”

The story of Freedom! illustrates another essential truth of digital history games: if the developers are too cavalier with the history in the game, the gameplay won’t matter because the history is all anyone will talk about. History games can be useful in the classroom, they can be big business, but because of the deep personal connection all players have with the past, publishing history games comes with significant risk as well. You can see an acknowledgment of this risk whenever you boot a game in the Assassin’s Creed series, which includes a line before the title screen about the game being “designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities.” My study of digital history games will continue, but after visiting The Strong, I know at least when it comes to history games and CYA language there’s a long legacy to consider.

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

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An Expansion Pack for A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

In our new book from the World Video Game Hall of Fame, A History of Video Games in 64 Objects, we faced a challenge. Which objects should we include? The Strong museum, home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, has hundreds of thousands of objects related to video games in its collections, and so we needed to include just the right mix of artifacts that were important, helped tell the broader history of video games, and would engage readers.

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The First Mobile Game Goes Viral: Pigs in Clover

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A Museum is Born

If you’re one of the more than half-million visitors to The Strong museum each year, you may have spotted the gallery wall about the life of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong en route to the admissions desk (and later, when you mosey back over to the food court). The museum in its current state grew out of the original collections of dolls, dollhouses, and other playthings amassed and cherished by Margaret Woodbury Strong during her lifetime.

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More Stories from the National Toy Hall of Fame

Get out your library cards and alert your book club! As far as we’re concerned, National Toy Hall of Fame season never ends, making it a fine time for another edition of Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love. Last year, I recommended books about 11 Toy Hall of Fame inductees and their inventors.

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