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.

Floppy Disks in the 21st Century

Floppy disk, Julia Novakovic, 2016 When’s the last time you thought about everyone’s favorite old-fashioned magnetic media storage device, the floppy disk? Has it been years? Decades? Or never? With our experience today backing up onto cloud storage, shared folders, and USB drives, people seem to have forgotten how difficult saving your digital files used to be. In the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong, our archival collections contain hundreds of floppy disks which hold game design documentation, graphics, text drafts, and more. There are a variety of floppy disk sizes, each of which poses specific preservation issues.

A floppy disk consists of a polyester circle (or “cookie”) coated with iron oxide particles. These particles are magnetized into the ones and zeroes that make up bits of data. The cookie is housed inside a flexible plastic sleeve sealed at outside, with a hole in center exposing a small amount of the cookie. In addition to dealing with the magnetic media actually shedding from the polyester circle, floppy disks can suffer from being bent, scratched, broken, and damaged by disk drives. Also alarming: failures in a data storage device can cause “bit rot,” or data degradation.

In early 2017, museum conservator Hillary Ellis and I embarked on a project to determine the exact quantity of what we called “endangered media formats”—time-based storage that requires specific hardware or players to access the information. These include media types such as floppy disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, audiocassettes, VHS tapes, BetaCam tapes, U-matic tapes, and other magnetic data and audiovisual formats. We were able to determine that, at the time, 41% of The Strong’s fully processed archival collections contained at least one component that we considered endangered. It was time to take action to avert the ticking clock of technological obsolescence!

The Strong received a grant from the Rochester Regional Library Council (RRLC) in summer 2017 for a  yearlong pilot project to address the largest portion of our endangered media formats: 5¼”  and 3½” floppy disks. Since present-day computers aren’t able to connect directly to older, obsolete formats, we needed to create a conversion lab. Hardware required included a non-network-connected PC, lightly used floppy disk drives, and a KryoFlux floppy controller. (KryoFlux is a device-side-driver that allows a 5¼-inch floppy disk drive to communicate to a more modern computer.) The Strong’s Digital Games Curator Andrew Borman eagerly joined the project, and we hired a Digital Conversion Technician, whose job would be to image a selection of floppy disks—meaning creating a sector-by-sector copy of the source medium, replicating the structure and contents of the storage device. Later, we could identify the proper software to open the file for each imaged disk.

Moon is a Harsh Mistress, From the Brian Fargo papers, Originally, we converted the data from a sample of 100 disks—60 disks from the Atari Coin-Op Division corporate records and 10 each from the Penguin Software, Brøderbund Software, Tengen, Inc., and Brian Fargo collections in the archives. Out of the 100 disks in the pilot project, only one could not be imaged—that was a 99% success rate! Following that accomplishment, our Digital Conversion Technician continued to produce disk images of additional floppy disks in the archival collections—more than 1750 in all. Then, we worked on “reading” select disk images, where we uncovered some seriously exciting files that have been stuck on floppy disks for 20 to 30 years or more!

From Brian Fargo, a game designer and founder of Interplay Productions, we discovered an unreleased PC game called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Based on a 1966 science fiction book by Robert Heinlein, this game had been briefly mentioned in old computer magazines, but never published for the general public. With this project, we were able to save not only a playable version of the game, but also the source code for it—both of which are likely the only copies in the world. Andrew even covered this in a live stream on the museum’s “Game Saves” at The Strong’s Twitch channel.

Jem bible clip, From the Christy Marx papers I was personally enchanted when, in the floppy disk files from the Christy Marx papers, we found the “bible” for the hit animated television series Jem. This document provided the show’s writers with character descriptions, universe lore, and storylines. Marx, who wrote for several popular television shows in the 1980s and 1990s, also worked at the video game company  Sierra On-Line, where she created the games Conquests of Camelot (1990) and Conquests of the Longbow (1991).

Marble Madness 2, from the Atari Coin-Op Division corporate records Within the floppy disks imaged from the Atari Coin-Op Division corporate records, we uncovered interoffice communications, graphics, sound files, and other game design documentation. There are also loads of CAD drawings, including one that showed the size and dimensions of the physical arcade cabinet for Marble Madness II: Marble Man—an Atari game that was cancelled before it hit the market. Drawings such as this give us a good look at the design process and the chance to learn more about a game that was never played outside the Atari offices.

As a result of the floppy disk pilot project, we are embarking upon another endangered media formats project. This time, we will work on digitally converting a selection of our U-matic video tapes from Atari and the Bally/Midway and Williams pinball companies. We’ve all learned that endangered media formats aren’t actually that “scary” after all. Who knows what we’ll uncover next!

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Have a Horrid Valentine's Day

What does Valentine’s Day make you think of? Boxes of chocolates? Bouquets of roses? Pledges of undying love? Sure, those are all part of the most romantic holiday on the calendar. On the other hand, from the 1840s into the early twentieth century, Valentine’s Day was also THE occasion to send insulting and downright nasty cards to your circle of acquaintances.

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I Have Pac-Man Fever Again

My fellow CHEGhead Marc Check began his last blog talking about some of the great Pac-Man artifacts in the NCHEG collection and how this character evokes in him a sense of early 80’s nostalgia. Like Marc, I too, caught Pac-Man Fever when it struck in epidemic proportion in 1981. My heart still holds a special place for Pac-Man and his family. Yes, family. Such a global phenomenon was bound to inspire spin-offs, and in this case it included a wife and children.

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Batter Up, Uncle Sam!

Strong National Museum of Play has many historical artifacts that help to tell the story of play in the wider context of American history. One of my favorite posters in the museum’s collection shows how baseball intersected with American history in the early twentieth century.

Baseball was widely recognized as America’s national sport by the late 1800s, and it continued to grow in popularity in the early twentieth century. Two separate major leagues were in place in 1901, and by 1903 the World Series was established. Baseball was here to stay.

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A Gift of Scuba-Divers, Sunken Treasure, and Secret Ink

“You are a daring deep-sea diver holed up on Hardscrabble Island, a dying little seaport all but forgotten….” And so begins Infocom’s 1984 text-based adventure, Cutthroats, about a search for sunken treasure.

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Lincoln Logs: A Name that Fits

Sometimes powerful symbols sustain the longest lasting toys. Lincoln Logs, a favorite for nearly a century, is the best example.

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The Top: Start Here

Start with a top. It’s simple, cheap, fun, unbreakable, and memorable; its principles, too, serve as the basis for several other toys. Assembled from a sharpened peg with a wheel attached, you spin the top between a thumb and forefinger and then let it go.

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Why Is a Football Football-Shaped?

This is a good question to which people give several answers.

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The Toy That Starts the Holiday Season

Even though many homes already display bright lights or pine wreaths and most stores are stocked to the gills with Christmas merchandise, some folks can’t quite begin the holiday season until they see the latest Hess toy truck.

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The Greatest Toy Never Sold

Not every Hall of Fame toy comes from a store. Take the cardboard box, for instance. No company advertises it. Parents don’t line up for it during the holiday shopping season. No one sings its jingle. It costs nothing. Yet the cardboard box offers the imagination a feast. With crayons and tempera paint, you can turn the cardboard box into an ocean liner, a space ship, a dragster, a covered wagon, a submarine, or a castle.

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