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.

Outlook Good: Magic 8 Ball Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Magic 8 Ball, Alabe Crafts Inc., about 1960. Our lives are complicated and expectations for the future lie between idle longing and fervent wishing. As I entered the angst of middle school, I often wondered “what might happen?” and “what should I do about it.” I sought an oracle that could illuminate the future for me and Magic 8 Ball proved an intriguing way to harmlessly flirt with the future. On November 8, 2018, Magic 8 Ball took its place of honor in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Syco Slate: The Pocket Fortune Teller, Alabe Crafts Inc., about 1948 The first stage in Magic 8 Ball’s history occurred when Cincinnati clairvoyant Mary Carter created the Syco-Slate, a small chalkboard that she placed in a sealed container. She would then ask her clients a question and they would hear the sound of chalk scratching across a board. When she opened the container, Mary revealed the magical message on the chalkboard. Mary’s son, Albert, predicted that his future lay in advancing his mother’s creation.

Without a doubt, the pair turned to family member Abe Bookman, a business-savvy man who had graduated from the Ohio Mechanics Institute in 1921, to handle the logistics. Bookman and Carter formed Alabe Crafts Company of Cincinnati and sought to introduce a novelty that would provide answers emerging randomly out of its inky depths. Carter applied for a patent, but sources say that he died soon after from his eccentric lifestyle and alcoholism. But Bookman proceeded with the project on his own.

The size of an overgrown softball with a flat spot that let it stand as a desktop paperweight, Magic 8 Ball would respond to questions with one phrase framed in a triangle in the round window. What’s the mysterious secret to this toy? The black ball holds a 20-sided polyhedron that floats in diluted dark blue propylene glycol. Inscribed on each of its facets is a different answer to any yes-or-no question.

Magic 8 Ball, The Muppet Show, Mattel, Inc., 2003.

When I played with Magic 8 Ball, I found that if you pose a question, one out of four times Magic 8 Ball puts you off, offering only “ask again later,” “better not to tell you now,” “reply hazy, try again,” or something similar, which to many 12-year-olds is much more reassuring then a definite “no” or a hedged negative like “outlook not so good.” What I liked most about Magic 8 Ball was that it served as a confidant. Any uncertainty, secret romance, or hope could be confessed, and it responded. It’s this versatility that appeals to children and adults.

Magic 8 Ball: Hello Kitty, Mattel, Inc., 2017. Magic 8 Ball has endured for more than a half-century. In the process it became an icon of popular culture. First appearing on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s, the toy showed up over the years on Friends, Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, and The Daily Show. Variations of the original seem almost as popular as the real thing. Fortune-telling Magic 8 Balls feature Homer Simpson, the Muppets, Hello Kitty, and Japan’s Gudetama, among others. Individuals can commission a customized version, and online editions respond to typed questions.

Millions of Americans have purchased their Magic 8 Balls during the last seven decades, yet the toy is still statistically gaining in popularity. According to one Internet survey, Magic 8 Ball ranks among America’s 20 favorite toys from the 20th century. One humorist called it the “best decision-making model of the millennium.” So, Magic 8 Ball, will you still be providing a fun glimpse of the future a hundred years from now? My guess is the answer floating to the surface might be “You may rely on it.”

Chris Kohler Fanzine Collection Documents Video Game Culture

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.

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The Eyes Have It

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Would Girls Like It? Why Atari's Market Testing Failed to Produce a Female Audience

Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s.

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Attention Trekkies: Star Trek Tridimensional Chess!

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Good to Go: Playful Ways to Get Around

It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, people everywhere are constantly on the go. Traveling to work or school, the gym, or the grocery store—the list goes on and on. We eat on the run, drink coffee on the run, and even get our information on the run thanks to smartphones that make emails, news, and calls available wherever we are. Today, many folks would tell you that life on the go is hectic but necessary. For a moment, let’s set the necessary aside and look at the more playful side of “things that go!” as children so frequently phrase it.

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“All Aboard!” for Fun with Trains

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.

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Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.

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Scott Adams Adventure International Collection Documents Early Commercial Computer Gaming

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When I Was a Kid: Adult Memories of Play

One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by the Ms.

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A Genealogy of Fantasy Play (with a Special Nod to Iceland)

Today, fantasy role-playing video games—in which players assume the role of heroes wielding swords, casting spells, riding dragons, and battling monsters—are among the most popular and influential of games.

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