Strong Fellowship Research Report

From January 19 to February 7, I spent three weeks at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY on a competitive research fellowship to study their archives for information on the various videogame industry crashes, shakeouts, and slumps of the 1970s and early ’80s. The purpose of this study was to shed new light on this confusing period of the history of videogames in order to better understand the forces at work. This could best be done by researching the primary sources – magazines and journals printed at the time – rather than relying on analyses made in general videogame history books written decades after the events. It is critical to the study of games and game history to have access to these primary sources because they allow us to see what developers, journalists, analysts, and players were thinking of videogames at the time.

During the course of the fellowship, I wrote a series of daily blog posts, which you can read below. In short, the fellowship was a fantastic experience, and I more than accomplished all the goals I set out to achieve. I had access to materials unavailable almost anywhere else and had the funding that allowed me to spend time at the museum. This is especially important since I otherwise would not have the income to afford such a massive research trip.

During my fellowship, I captured some 10,000 images – literal photocopies of all the magazines, catalogs, and documents mentioned in the daily blogs below. None of this material is available digitally through places such as the Internet Archive or Digital Press, meaning the Strong is one of the only places in the world where a scholar can have access to them – and in the case of the development documents, it is the only place.

Furthermore, the true value of collections like the Strong lies not simply in their completeness, but rather in their proximity to related material. For instance, the Strong’s RePlay and Play Meter collections are missing many issues – sometimes entire years – and this is one area that needs improving. However, while more complete collections exist at the Library of Congress and in Chicago, the Strong is singularly important in that it places arcade industry trade publications not within a general collection, but specifically within a context of game and play studies, surrounded by the games discussed within their pages and easily connected with gamer magazines, and toy publications, as well as the notes and records of the developers who made them. Arguably, it is the proximity of such objects within the collection that gives Play Meter and RePlay greater value than they would have elsewhere, and this demands a more complete collection. Indeed, it is perhaps within the best interests of the publishers themselves to help provide the Strong and other museums with back issues, much as they did for early game writers such as Steve Bloom (Video Invaders, 1982) and Craig Kubey (The Winners’ Book of Video Games, 1982). Furthermore, the digitization of such journals – or at the very least, their indexes – would allow researchers from all over the world to access such valuable materials more conveniently, just as one can now access large collections of gamer magazines and books via the Internet Archive and the Digital Press Library.

Sorting through all the collected research and their contents will take a considerable amount of time, but already I can see several areas of focused research emerging:

  • A comprehensive text on the various industry crashes as a whole.
  • A specific text on the major shakeouts of 1982-1985.
  • Correlating quantitative data from top selling game charts from arcade, home, and computer games to determine the impact of home conversions on arcade performance.
  • Comparison of top 30 list in Softalk with Broderbund and Software Publishers Association data.
  • The usefulness of such charts for determining a list of impactful games.
  • Analysis of arcade industry reflections on the shakeout of 1982.
  • Discussion of videogames sales in 1984 and 1985 when they were supposedly ‘dead’.
  • Analysis of toy industry reflections on handheld electronic games in 1980 and console games in 1983.
  • Detailed analysis of the electronic handheld game industry 1976-1983.
  • Detailed analysis of dedicated home TV games, 1975-1979.
  • Specific reflections on Nintendo’s early arcade games.
  • The context of R.O.B. The Robot and the Nintendo Entertainment System launch.

And in addition:

  • Further editing my paper on The Sumerian Game.
  • In-depth research on Burgeson’s Baseball simulation.

Overall, the amount of material suggests that several articles can be published as a result of this research fellowship, as well as the final goal of integration into a larger book. However, the sheer volume of data also suggests the possibility of a book dedicated to the game industry shakeouts, slumps, and crashes of 1976-1986.

Unfortunately, there is still more data to collect. I still need to conduct a comprehensive analysis of Billboard magazine as well as locate key missing issues of RePlay and Play Meter – particularly as regards the equipment user polls, without which the quantitative data analysis is fairly useless. It is my hope my research and experiences will help provide an index for future game historians.

My recommendations for game scholarship is to make use of valuable archives in places like the Strong. Access to primary source documents from magazines and trade publications provides insight that is simply impossible to obtain through readings of secondary and tertiary sources, such as game history books and articles. Furthermore, archival documentation is simply unavailable elsewhere. In interests of time, scholars are highly recommended to use iPads, smartphones, or tablets to capture data in lieu of digital cameras and photocopying or scanning large amounts of text.

My recommendation for the Strong is to continue collecting artifacts and publications, just as they are doing now, particularly in key areas such as trade publications. However, I also foresee a greater need for indexing of these collections, as well as their digitization. The latter suggests a profound impact on game scholarship, particularly when compared with the Internet Archive Magazine Collection and Digital Play Library. Achieving the first goal will obviously require extensive acquisitions through purchase and donation and may require publisher cooperation; indexing and digitization, on the other hand, will require extensive manpower, perhaps through outside collaboration, and the latter will specifically involve issues of digital rights management. Hopefully, indexes of the Strong’s holdings can eventually be cross-referenced with those of other major archives, such as Stanford University Library’s Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection and the Library of Congress’s videogames collection.

Game studies has evolved greatly since the publication of Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games and Leonard Herman’s Phoenix 3rd Edition in 2001. The past decade and a half has seen not only the digitization of libraries, but also the rise of user contributed digital archives, the development of sophisticated search tools to make such collections more usable, and the establishment of museums, libraries, and archives dedicated to videogames. This has been accompanied by renewed interest in the history of the medium, particularly through new and insightful interviews with industry professionals and creators, but also through focused historical research. The tools available to a modern scholar of game history were simply unavailable to authors such as Kent and Herman at the turn of the century, and the availability of such tools has profound implications on future historical research. It is for this reason that institutions such as the Strong are so important and the availability of fellowships to allow researchers – particularly those with stretched economic means – is invaluable.

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