I received a fellowship at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. I will be here for the next three weeks researching the North American Game Industry Crash of 1983-1985. Below is my attempt to document the experience.
Arrived in Rochester on Sunday. I feel it is best to arrive a day in advance of actually visiting the Strong since it gives you time to orient yourself around the city. I also think it’s good to have a free day before research so you can take a look around the museum.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Strong is the architecture – it’s an odd mishmash of traditional and futuristic and playful – not exactly the most attractive building in the city, and probably constructed in several periods. Not quite sure what to make of it, coming from the Denver Art Museum.
The archives were closed for MLK Day, so I spent the entirety wandering around the exhibits. There are many fantastic interactive exhibits framing play in the context of games, toys, and exploration of the world.
The first floor contains dozens of interactive exhibits for children – small toy adventure worlds that kids can climb in and explored. Many of these warranted a chuckle, particularly the Sesame Street and Story Land sections, and the noise clearly demonstrates how popular these are – at least two busloads of children arrived today. It is interesting to see how dance and song are implemented to play, from sea chanteys to Sesame Street. Some spaces are too small for an adult to reach – at least comfortably – and thus spaces such as the interior of the whaling ship give children a space that is their own.
The second floor is dedicated to toys and games, primarily from the US. Some of these toys are placed in historical context through plaquards (such as Malibu Barbie and the first GI Joe), but many are simply objects of reflection placed within a context of other objects – such as large collections of dolls. Collections and collecting seems just as important to adults’ relationships with toys and play as is the original use-context. I kind of reflect on this old worn-out doll I saw in a bar recently. Everybody shied away from it because it was ‘creepy’ – her hair was completely torn out, mustache and beard drawn on her face, along with tattoos, and the half-open lips in a crazy smile. While one might be repulsed by such an image, especially to find it sitting behind one’s shoulder, it struck me that someone must have once played with and cared for this doll – an unwritten history that is now lost in its current context. Such with these toys and action figures – removed both from the original play and historical context by virtue of display.
There is a large section here dedicated to videogames as well. There are dozens of arcade machines, including a few I had never played before. Tokens are 5 for $1 and feature the Strong Museum.
The first game I played was Robotron 2084. The settings on this must be REALLY low, since I quickly broke my score of 848,000, then 1 million, then 2 million… I decided to aim for 9,990,000 or thereabouts. Getting a score that high takes about two hours of play. It’s incredibly tiring, and I can’t imagine someone playing that high on competition settings. It was also frustrating to get up that high, only to score a few too many points and roll over back to 0. Final level was something like 399, with something like 10,500,000 points (or rather 500,000 on the scoreboard). I always kind of imagined there would be some wonderful experience, but it was actually incredibly disappointing. I spent the next three minutes wasting my 87 stored lives.
Lunch was a burger from the 1950s style burger shop. The food here is pretty awful – I decided to get the BBQ burger, rootbeer float, and curly fries. I recommend NOT eating at the museum – you can pay about that much I suppose at Dinosaur BBQ, which is just a short walk from the Strong. My advice is to make the food better, but I guess like Chuck E. Cheeze, the quality food doesn’t matter.
I checked out the rest of the toys and board games on the second floor and examined a few of the videogame exhibits. It was very emotional to see Brenda Romero’s Siochan Leat, along with Jerry Lawson’s badge and other artifacts. Some of these historical artifacts have plaquards describing the context, but others, such as an original Space Invaders cabinet from Midway, lack description. The games seem more aligned with one’s memories of play than with a historical description – why is this object here? What does it mean to the history of videogames, play, and pop culture? Does it really matter when you’re elbows-deep in Guitar Hero?
I’ve pretty much spent my curiosity for the exhibits. I am sure I will ask JP Dyson and some of the other curators about this when I go to the archives tomorrow. Should be good to focus – I just wish I was a bit more invigorated, but after a good six hours in the museum on my feet (after an hour of walking from the house I’m staying at), I’m pretty exhausted.
Time to head back for some potluck!