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!

What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

As Chief Curator for The Strong, I start each morning with a to-do list and an idea of what I’m hoping to accomplish, but I can’t always picture what will turn up in the course of a day.

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America!

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Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out."

Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

Carol Shaw, the first widely recognized female game designer and programmer, has donated to The Strong a collection of console games, printed source code, design documents, sketches, reference materials, and promotional objects representing games she created for Atari, Inc.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Since last summer, you may have noticed small groups of millennials walking briskly toward landmarks surrounded by people staring intently at their smartphone screens. Every now and then, cries of delight or disdain erupt from the gatherers. “Oh good, a Snorlax!” someone murmurs appreciatively. “Just another Rattata!” another person groans.

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