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.
Play Stuff Blog
The novel I’m writing involves, in part, a group of friends who reunite after 25 years to restart their old game of Dungeons & Dragons. That game has been close to my heart since 1978 or so when I received my first boxed set as a gift. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder I felt rolling those exotic polyhedral dice and creating my first character. During my amazing week as a Mary Valentine and Andrew Cosman Research Fellow at The Strong, I was able to dig deeply into the origins of D&D and gain a rich understanding of what makes it so enduring.
Back before we had blogs or even pencils and paper, humans told each other stories in caves and around the cooking fires. Epic poets would recite their tales from memory and for hours at a time, and these tales would be retold and embellished in much the same way the fish I caught a few summers ago has grown progressively larger every year since. That’s how stories work.
Along the way, we found ways to record our stories (for instance, on clay tablets and papyrus) and eventually to mass-produce them (such as in printed books and on Atari cartridges). As a novelist and author in this day and age, I write stories that are easily reproducible in book form—and yet I remain fascinated by the pre-literary forms of storytelling and by the ancient traditions of performed stories.
What on earth does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?
There are countless things I love about the game, from the creativity it requires and inspires, to the time it provides away from my electronic devices. But the most vital thing about D&D to me, which I hope to make clear in my novel, is that with a great session provides a unique method of collaborative storytelling. I don’t know of another activity that so effectively brings us back to those ancient days of epic oral storytelling.
At The Strong, I was able see how the game derived from a 1971 game called Chainmail, a set of “rules for medieval miniatures” by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Taking inspiration from the oeuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien, Gygax’s friend Dave Arneson adapted Chainmail for a fantasy setting and the two of them collaborated on a set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons. The emphasis changed from moving armies across a tabletop to role playing individual characters instead.
In The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I was able to read vintage issues of gaming periodicals like The Dragon, The Dungeoneer, and Alarums and Excursions and with them follow the monthly progression of the game from subculture to the commercial phenomenon it is (again) today. The archival documents I consulted included old hand-drawn maps and even Allan Hammack’s handwritten first draft of what became “Ghost Tower of Inverness,” one beloved of all the D&D adventure modules.
The opportunity to hold a pristine copy of the very first D&D boxed set in my hands was one of the highlights of my fellowship. In fact, sitting in the library one morning, I pulled a set of dice from my bag and rolled a new character from scratch using those early, simple rules. Back then, a character could fit on an index card.
To create a character in Dungeons & Dragons isn’t all that different from creating one in a novel. In fact, if my week at The Strong taught me anything, it’s that my life as a writer may very have begun with my first boxed set as a kid, and with my first set of colorful dice. (It would be amiss if I didn’t also cite the importance of Star Wars figures too.) The lesson here, for me, is that the games we play as children may very well make us who we are as so-called grown-ups.
I also discovered that the success of The Strong’s mission can be most clearly witnessed, I think, at the museum’s exit. That’s where the visiting children scream and bellow at the prospect of leaving such a remarkable place. It’s quite a racket. At the end of my fellowship, not quite ready to return home to Philadelphia, I understood exactly how all those children feel.
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.
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! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.
“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.
“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. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.
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.
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.
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.
The recent decision by the producers of Call of Duty:WWII to return the game’s setting to World War II—after a detour into modern warfare and futuristic science fiction—reflects not only the franchise’s success with this period but also the fact that no other war has so captured the imagination of playmakers and players.
In addition to collecting video and other electronic games and materials that document how these games are made and sold, the staff at The Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) is also interested in preserving evidence of player culture.