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.

Cracking the Case in Video Games

My recent TV line-up includes Bored to Death and Pushing Daisies. And I just read Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. The detectives in all call to mind a list of favorite video game sleuths:

 1. Nancy Drew, amateur sleuth from the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories

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A Librarian’s Top 5 Video Game Strategy Guides

In 2010, The Strong received a sizable and generous donation from Prima Games, one of the leading strategy guide publishers in the electronic games industry. The gift consisted of more than a thousand strategy guides for both PC and console video games from 1990 to 2009. Following an eight-month cataloging project, all 1,264 game guides can now be found in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play’s online catalog.

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Outside the Box: What We Remember About Play

When you reminisce and think of your brightest, fondest memories of childhood play, what comes to mind? You might recall hours in front of a Monopoly board or days spent crafting intricate models made from LEGO bricks, but are those truly your most treasured memories? Or is it the recollection of rowdy games of freeze tag in the front yard or wrestling with your little brother in a makeshift ring that you hold closest to your heart?

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Charles M. Crandall Toys—Vintage Playthings, Modern Play

Last fall, The Strong’s National Museum of Play began to look anew at some of the dolls, games, toys, and other playthings originally catalogued and photographed more than 30 years ago. Since that time, historians and collectors have added to the museum staff’s knowledge of how these toys were made, marketed, and played with.

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Choosing the Right Video Game

More video games exist than can be played in a lifetime, so every gamer has to choose what is most enjoyable to play. The big question is how to make this decision. Here are some of the things I consider when selecting what games to play, and I hope you might find them helpful, too.

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Imaginary Gardens

Time can be as regular as clockwork or supple as our shifting perceptions of it. Each year I note the winter solstice and hold onto the certainty that each day afterward is growing longer, minute by minute. As the days lengthen, I inevitably succumb to the seduction of the gardening catalogs that “like clockwork” begin to arrive in my mailbox. Though the ground remains buried beneath drifts of snow, these harbingers of spring fill my thoughts with images of lush greenery, exuberant blossoms, and succulent fruit.

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Nostalgia: It’s Good for You!

Last spring, I graduated from college and found myself, diploma in hand, thrust into an unfamiliar world. I felt disoriented without a magical meal plan that guaranteed regular feedings or the overwhelming piles of homework that occupied my time. What good would a double major in history and sociology do me now? In this new world brimming with unwanted responsibilities, I began to reflect on my experiences. I “waxed nostalgic”—a phrase that once was associated with heartsickness, suffering in the present because of the desire to return to times past.

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The 2010 TAGIE Award Winners

Imagine the Oscars for toy and game inventors—with a glamorous gourmet meal. That provides a good picture of the Chicago Toy and Game Group’s annual Toy and Game Inventor Expo (TAGIE) awards presentation dinner in November. The Strong is a co-sponsor, along with many other significant contributors, of the event which coincides with the Chicago Toy and Game Fair and Toy and Game Inventor Exposition, where new and established toy inventors demonstrate their creations. Outside of New York’s annual Toy Fair, it is the largest toy industry event in America.

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Geeking Out on Game History at D.I.C.E. and GDC

Over the last month, fellow CHEGhead Eric Wheeler and I attended two video game events—D.I.C.E. Summit and the Game Developers Conference (GDC)—featuring lots of information not only about the latest titles, but also about classic games and the history of the industry.

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A Tide of Tub Toys

Here’s a story about global toy distribution that’s driven by natural forces rather than consumer trends.

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