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.

Out of the Kitchen: Board Games and Our Complicated Identities

Just after Thanksgiving of 2018, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks at The Strong museum on a Valentine-Cosman fellowship. I wanted to know how board games mirror our understanding of ourselves, and how that understanding has changed over the last half-century or so.

I arrived on a chilly morning in Rochester to what the newscasters were calling “nuisance snow”—just enough to make driving annoying but not enough to shut anything down for these hardy Upstate New York folks—and was excited to see the stacks of games that curator Nicolas Ricketts had compiled for me. There was Barbie’s Keys to Fame, a 1961 game with an astonishing range of careers including ballerina, fashion designer, mother (!), movie star, stewardess, teacher, and astronaut (not only does she go into space, there’s a ticker tape parade in her honor). There were the parallel What Shall I Be? games for boys and girls from the mid-60s. Boys might choose to be an astronaut, athlete, doctor, engineer, scientist, or (very well-dressed) statesman, while girls could explore their potential as an actress, airline hostess, ballerina, model, nurse, or teacher.

Blondie goes to Leisureland, boardgame, 1940. I was interested to see the Blondie Goes to Leisureland game that was given away with the purchase of any Westinghouse appliance in the 1940s, where the famous comic strip housewife’s problems could all be solved if only she had purchased the right products. There was the infamous illustration on the 1967 Battleship box that showed mother and daughter washing the dishes in the background while dad and son enjoyed playing a rousing game of Battleship together. And I learned about the Mother’s Helper game from the late 60s, which was designed to “teach your children good habits” by having them practice helpful tasks such as closing the windows in case of rain, fetching slippers from the bedroom, and helping Mother prepare for company coming to visit.

But gender, while important, isn’t the only thing that defines us. We’re a complicated mixture that merges gender with race/ethnicity, religion, social class, age and ability, and a host of other defining characteristics. Take Mrs. White, the cook-housekeeper in Clue, for instance. Ever since the game’s introduction in 1949, she has stood with Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and the rest of the guests as the representative of the household staff. She’s the stand-in for “the butler did it.” Her inclusion as a suspect crosses traditional social class barriers—people in Agatha Christie’s world would sincerely have argued that no one was home at the time of the murder even though scores of servants were in residence.

The changing faces of Clue characters. But in recent years, Mrs. White has been replaced in two versions of the game, and both substitutions are significant. The oft-criticized 2013 “Boardwalk Clue,” which had the mansion scene on one side of the board and a seaside scene on the other, replaces the white middle-aged servant with a high-powered, youthful African American lawyer, Alexis Villeneuve, who appears in a white pantsuit (evoking suffragettes, strong women, and the opposite of humble servitude). She is a top lawyer who must see justice served, even if that means turning vigilante, and she represents a house that guards the secrets of revolution. This image is especially powerful in Rochester, the home of The Strong, which was also the hometown of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, and not far from Harriet Tubman’s residence.

And in 2015, a more traditional edition of the game, the cook is replaced by a new character, Dr. Orchid. She’s Asian, has a PhD in biology, knows a lot about plant toxicology, and was homeschooled by Mrs. White in her youth. The servant has been replaced by a highly educated scientist, the older woman by a younger one, the Caucasian by an Asian. That’s a step toward diversity, even if Dr. Orchid does come with some baggage (there was that near-fatal daffodil poisoning incident…).

Dr. Orchid may have her flaws, but at least she’s not limited to washing the dishes and burning the dinner. Is there a word like nuisance snow that describes the slowly evolving images of ourselves in our playthings?

Video Game Villains Countdown 5: The Most Evil of Them All

Here’s what you’ve all been waiting for—the top five most iconic video game villains of all time.

Donkey Kong from Wikipedia

#5: Donkey Kong: King of video game gorillas!

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 4: Mind Games

Welcome back to our countdown of the all-time top 25 villains. Below we have a nice combination of villains from both classic games and exciting newer ones, along with one of my personal favorites coming in at number six!

#10: Space Invaders Aliens: “Just…one…more…quarter…”

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 3: Is Your Favorite Listed?

This edition of our video game villain countdown will take us more than halfway through our list and will, I hope, bring back some wonderful memories for you.

Dracula from Gamexeon

#15: Dracula: Evil is seductive.

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 2: Monsters, Machines and Many Arms!

Here are our next five classic favorites, as we continue counting down the Top 25 video game villains.

Cyberdemon from Giantbomb

#20: Cyberdemon: Demon to the nth degree

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Top 25 Video Game Villains 1: Evil Beginnings

Who’s the baddest of them all? Find out one opinion here. This and each of our next four ICHEG blogs are dedicated to those nefarious antagonists we love to hate—video game villains! For five consecutive postings we will cite five villains, leading up to the biggest baddie of all time. As with all lists of this nature, everyone has individual ideas and personal favorites. I used the following criteria when compiling the list:

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Backyard Adventures

As a kid, my summers included family camping trips, excursions to the amusement park, and Fourth of July fireworks. But those were the landmark events that punctuated the extended freedom of June, July, and August. On a day-to-day basis, my activities centered on the fun we created ourselves. And the location for those activities tended to be the small patch of sun, shade, and lawn in our suburban backyard.

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Traditional Influences on Digital Media

As a fan of the hit television series Man vs. Wild on Discovery Channel, I was thrilled by my chance encounter with the show’s celebrity adventurer Bear Grylls at E3. On screen, Bear inevitably finds himself in harrowing situations that test his expert survival skills. Publisher Crave Entertainment is betting gamers will want to walk in Bear’s shoes in their upcoming video game adaptation of the show. From Bear, to Wonder Woman, to Mickey Mouse, countless faces from other media showed up in games demonstrated at the Expo this year.

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Ever the Crafty One

They say that the best things in life are free, and that concept definitely applies to my creative endeavors. I’ve always been a scavenger (and hoarder) of craft materials too pretty or unique to pass up. I picked up the habit at summer camp, where I spent as much time as possible on arts and crafts. Half the fun of those projects was in dismantling them later for parts.

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Three Themes of E3

Between individual meetings about our work here at ICHEG, I grabbed an opportunity to wander the E3 conference floor in LA. After interacting with the various displays, I concluded that this year's E3 encompassed three themes:

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On the Road with Video Games

Last week, my husband and I took a road trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our drive took us through parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and over the course of our six and a half hour drive, we visited many of the convenient highway stops along the way. While stretching our legs at these rest stops, I happily discovered that the vast majority contained small video game arcades!

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