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. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Valentines for Trolls

Barber Valentine, 1850-1875.Sometimes it seems as if civility and kindness are in exceptionally short supply today. The Internet liberates a portion of the populace from any standards of decent behavior. As I catch myself lamenting about the dark side of human nature, it helps me to think about Valentine’s Day and bear in mind that bad behavior is nothing new. “What?!” you exclaim, “Valentine’s Day? That day of chocolates and roses for sweethearts? How do snarkiness and insults apply there?” But come with me, back to the Victorian period, and you’ll discover that our forebears weren’t always the saintly paragons we might envision.

Bustle Valentine, about 1875. Examining valentine history reveals a long tradition of malicious pranks. In the days prior to postage stamps or FedEx, it was the recipient of mail—not the sender—who paid the cost. That situation led to a popular Valentine’s Day prank of sending a box filled with rocks or bricks to someone you disliked. When the recipient anted up the price of shipment for a heavy package, they’d then open the box to discover the weighty and worthless contents. Dissed again!

People without such resourcefulness in pranks could turn to commercial cards that offered the sting of an insulting rhyme attached to an unflattering illustration. By some estimates, these so-called “vinegar valentines” accounted for 50 percent of valentine sales. Anyone with an ax to grind could pick up a comical valentine card targeted at a very particular person—be that a barber inclined to upselling, an overdressed woman, or a lazy salesman—and let them know precisely the nature of their flaws of character or appearance. And of course, these nasty cards were always sent without a signature—a forerunner of Internet anonymity. 

Salesman Valentine, about 1920. Reflecting on our present circumstances, I think it’s probably better that people a century ago or more restricted their anonymous revenge and shaming to a single day out of the year, as odd as it may seem that they chose Valentine’s Day to express their scorn and aggression. Optimist that I am, I can hope that people today return to that earlier tradition and restrict themselves to venting on just February 14. Meanwhile, the pessimistic side of me will hope that my mailbox and inbox stay free from the zing of any vinegar valentines.

Play it Again, Sam

Recently my wife and I heard Michael Feinstein in concert. Feinstein has earned fame not only as a pianist and singer of popular songs from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, but also as a dedicated researcher into the history of popular song in America. His knowledge was on full display during the concert, when he would often pause between songs and recount the back story of the next number.

Read more >

Showing Our Stuff

You might not think of museum curators as showoffs, but we are.  Personally, I love speaking in public and appearing on TV.

Read more >

Creating an Ideal Community

The games I love to play as an adult—strategy games such as Age of Empires: The Asian Dynasties and Sid Meier’s Civilization IV—are clearly influenced by my childhood favorites, perhaps most significantly Utopia for Mattel Intellivision.

Read more >

Comic Book Heroes and the Battle of Good vs. Evil

Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative myth whose work inspired the Star Wars saga, reminded us that every archetypal hero of fable and fiction is drawn into an adventure, enlists the support of trusted comrades, passes alone beyond a threshold of ordinary endurance, survives the crucial ordeal, and then remerges steeled and restored. Whether his name is Gilgamesh, Quetzalcoatl, Hercules, Odysseus, Orpheus, Beowulf, or Luke Skywalker, every typical hero of myth endures the arduous tests that give him moral substance, self-knowledge, and the key to restoring his power.

Read more >

You Say It’s Your Birthday

My mother just celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday.

Read more >

Is Fantasy Football an Electronic Game?

Autumn in upstate New York is not my favorite season. I’m a summer guy. I enjoy the heat, swimming, golfing, landscaping, fresh air blowing through open windows, and light clothing. Autumn abruptly ends all of these things, and each year I suffer more than your normal New Yorker from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Read more >

Dr. James Paul Gee Speaks on Gaming and Learning in the 21st Century

Six years ago, James Paul Gee announced at the beginning of his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, “I want to talk about video games—yes, even violent video games—and say something positive about them.” It was not quite as provocative as Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to th

Read more >

ROC Gardens

Most of my colleagues and friends know this about me: I am a gardener. Except during winter, you’ll find me in my garden whenever I have a spare moment.

Read more >

NCHEG Has Acquired the Videotopia Collection!

I’m psyched! Today, the National Center for the History of Electronic Games is announcing that we’ve acquired the Videotopia Collection.

Read more >

Retro Arcade Gaming…in the Adirondacks?!?

My recent family vacation to the Adirondacks was a great respite from work, school, and the seemingly endless yard work that has consumed the better part of my summer.

Read more >

Pages