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
In 2006, when we began our efforts at The Strong to preserve the history of video games, we knew we were onto an important subject, but we did not truly foresee the vast array of challenges that we would face in preserving video games. Over the years as we founded the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) and grew our collection to more than 60,000 video games and related objects we’ve learned quite a bit about how to care for these materials. That is why it is so exciting that, as part of The Strong’s upcoming expansion, we will open state-of-the-art laboratories dedicated to the preservation of video games, facilities made possible in part by a recent generous donation of $100,000 from the Killian J. and Caroline F. Schmitt Foundation, Inc.
The basic challenge of video game preservation is inherent to the medium itself, for unlike analog objects, video games operate through digital software that must exist on perishable platforms. Sometimes these platforms are physical. Arcade games, computers, consoles, electronic toys, handheld games, and smartphones all make electronic play possible, but each platform presents unique preservation challenges, with lifespans that can often be measured in decades, not centuries. Furthermore, these physical devices are often married to digital platforms such as cloud-based servers whose long-term survival is even more uncertain, in part because they are controlled by companies who may choose to shut them down in the future. The three interconnected laboratories that we are building as part of the museum’s expansion will help us tackle these long-term digital preservation challenges.
The first area in the new space—the Arcade Game Conservation Lab—will be a conservation facility for our coin-op collection. It was with arcade machines that we first confronted the challenges of video game preservation. In 2009 we acquired 114 arcade video games and decided that we wanted to let guests play many of them. So we had to establish processes and procedures for determining which games could withstand the rigors of use and how we would go about preserving them. To that end, we brought on staff an arcade technician who works under our director of conservation to make these games playable while also caring for them in accordance with best museum practices for conservation and in ways that maintain their historical integrity.
The second new laboratory space—the Digital Preservation Hub—will enhance our ability to preserve digital objects. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital preservation, so staff led by our digital games curator will use this space to ensure that the information stored on digital media is saved in ways that assure its accessibility far into the future. For example, a game created originally for an Apple II is likely stored on a 5¼” disk that will, over time, lose its data because of the deterioration known as bit rot. Using disk imaging devices such as the Applesauce and Kryoflux, we’re able to preserve the contents of these disks. Another important method for documenting the history of video games is by recording video capture of game play using original devices. Here too the lab will have the necessary equipment to do this sort of work.
Finally, we’re adding a third area—the ICHEG Access and Research Center—that will provide access to the many researchers from around the world who come to The Strong to explore video game history. These scholars are often looking to play games on original equipment, because the experience of playing a game in its original format frequently differs—sometimes in very important ways—from how it is experienced through an emulator (if it’s available at all). With the fields of game studies and game history growing rapidly, there is increasing demand for this sort of use of our collections. Currently we do not have a space dedicated to giving researchers this high-level access, so this facility will fill that need, operating like the reading room in a traditional library or archive. But for studying games, rather than paper manuscripts!
In addition to helping with internal preservation projects and giving more access to outside researchers, these improved labs will advance collaborations with other institutions, notably Rochester Institute of Technology. The Strong has long enjoyed a productive partnership with RIT. Professor Stephen Jacobs has been scholar-in-residence at The Strong for a decade, lending his expertise (as well as that of many of his RIT colleagues) to numerous projects. We’ve collaborated on exhibits and worked together on preservation initiatives such as a video game capture grant sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in which we hired more than a dozen RIT game design students to record videos of thousands of older video games on original equipment.
With RIT, The Strong has also created an online edX course on the history of game design that used the museum’s preservation facilities, and we have hosted multiple international conferences on game design and game history that have made these spaces available for researchers. In 2018, in collaboration with Second Avenue Learning, The Strong and RIT jointly produced The Original Mobile Games, an app that ported vintage ball-rolling dexterity games to the modern smartphone. Going forward we are excited to use these new spaces to enhance classroom collaborations. RIT classes often visit our current workspace, and we’re looking to enhance their capacity to serve as codesign spaces for classes involved in game design, especially ones focused on the creation of arcade and pinball machines.
As The Strong continues to build our video game collections, the challenges of video game preservation will only grow. We’re excited to be a world leader in this field, and these new facilities will help us enhance that work. And it’s important work. As more and more of our broader culture exists in digital form, the expertise that we gain here will have broad application to libraries, archives, museums, universities, and other institutions worldwide seeking to figure out how to preserve our modern digital culture.
Time travel doesn’t require a magic potion or a Back to the Future DeLorean. Sometimes all it takes is a familiar scent, sound, or taste.
The next time someone criticizes video games for their impact on moral values, here’s some historical perspective to offer them.
My grandmother loved to play all kinds of games. In fact, I probably inherited my love for games from her.
Winter brings romantic holidays and parties with mistletoe and Dean Martin singing “Baby’ It’s Cold Outside.” When the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, we pucker up.
Kids often use play to explore adult roles, and toy and game makers are only too glad to produce playthings that tap into that behavior. The museum’s collection includes a group of games that provide revealing illustrations of adult perspectives on how kids can or should envision their roles as adults.
Recently, my husband and I made our way through the crowded hallways of the Sony Center in Toronto to hear Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy. As we took our seats in the mezzanine, musicians on the stage below tuned instruments and briefly practiced music. I sat back in my seat and watched the crowd stream in—women in evening gowns, men in suits, teenage girls in elaborate Gothic Lolita dresses, and others in full video-game-character cosplay outfits. My crowd-watching ceased as the lights lowered and conductor Arnie Roth took the stage.
I miss my favorite vampire. No, not Edward Cullen or Bill Compton—I’m in Count Chocula withdrawal.
Some 135 years ago, four squirrels romping merrily through the woods met an unfortunate end. But, fortunately for us, those squirrels found a place in a playful diorama in the museum’s collections. Situated in a well-decorated parlor, the four squirrels are now posed in an eternal game of cards. That made them a perfect illustration for the induction of playing cards into the National Toy Hall of Fame a month ago. But before the diorama could go out on exhibit, it required conservation treatment—cleaning and stabilization of the scene prior to photography and display.
Whether the advertisements we see all around us are the brainchilds of Madison Avenue or of the local lawn care company, we cannot seem to dodge the onslaught. And it extends well beyond traditional product placements in newspaper, radio, and television. Corporations now place their advertisements on escalator steps, sidewalk trash receptacles, and even on restaurant bathroom stalls.
If you’re the right age and you spot Sixfinger among other Cold War spy toys on the museum’s second floor, it will bring back a flood of memories.