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.
Play Stuff Blog
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
When Rolling Stone mentioned recently that Adult Swim plans to release a wave of new mobile video games, fans of the channel’s crass cartoons responded with uncertainty. Adult Swim dabbles in the video game industry regularly, and its track record makes it difficult for gamers to determine if these new games will sink or swim.
If you grew up with siblings, you probably recognize that a brother or sister doesn’t always make the first choice for playmate but will usually suffice. As the youngest of three children by five years, I yearned to play along with my older brothers but could never quite keep up. Both seemed more knowledgeable, more agile, and more talented when it came to play. My oldest brother constructed amazing snow igloos and drove a snowmobile. My middle brother excelled at video games and fort building. I envied them both, until one miraculous day, when the tables finally turned.
The year is 1972, and video game innovator Nolan Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney are fresh from their design of the first commercial arcade game, Computer Space. Before beginning their next big project, they decide to trademark their gaming company, Syzygy, named after an astronomical term for three celestial bodies in a straight line.
Recently, my six-year-old son has taken an interest in learning to cook. For years, he played happily with his toy kitchen, concocting elaborate and dire sounding dishes (broccoli and pineapple soup, anyone?). Now he wants to cook like Daddy.
My two favorite childhood Christmas gifts were a red three-speed bike and a blue-boxed Basic Dungeons and Dragons set. On the bike, I rode miles from home, shifting gears to climb previously unconquered hills and discover new places around my small Connecticut town.
Rolling my artifact cart through the exhibits at The Strong’s National Museum of Play, I often spot guests who are shoo-ins for the stage. These budding thespians linger under the colorful lights in Kid to Kid and the majestic red curtain in Reading Adventureland’s Fairy Tale Forest. There’s nothing like playing at plays—take it from me, since I spent most of my high school years performing in theatrical productions.
Think for a moment about some great video games. Consider coin-ops such as Atari’s vector-graphic Star Wars, Bally/Midway’s James Bondesque Spy Hunter, and Cinematronics’ laserdisc Dragon’s Lair.
The America at Play: Play Stories Video Contest ended on Friday, April 15, and the results are in! Voters selected the first, second, and third place winners: How WE Play in Justin, TX, Dance, and My Game. All three videos prove that play doesn’t end when you become an adult; “grownups” embrace and enjoy play too! Congratulations to the prize winners and thanks to everyone who submitted a video to the contest. You’re to be commended for your dedication, creativity, and love of play.
Imagine that it’s January 1896. To your dismay, you find yourself stuck at your aunt’s house one particularly dreary winter day with absolutely nothing to do.
Over the past few weeks, the America at Play: Play Stories Video Contest has received dozens of fun and creative videos that illustrate the way Americans play, now and in years past. Browsing through all of them takes some time, so I wanted to share a few of my personal favorites and guide you to the ones that I think shouldn’t be missed.