It’s been a couple years since I visited The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, but I took advantage of a recent week visiting my family in Western New York to pay the place a visit. The museum was founded in the early 1980s with the massive hoard of dolls, toys, games, household items and other objects collected over the lifetime of Rochester heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. Since then the museum has evolved and expanded to encompass the more recent history of play, as evidenced in some of the wonderful exhibits I had a chance to see this past month.
Running through September 7, 2014, Pinball Playfields offers up a tight overview of the American history of coin-operated pinball machines from their earliest appearance in the 1930s through today. A number of early games from the museum’s permanent collection kick off the small exhibit showing the first rudimentary gravity-fed games where balls plunked and clinked their way through a series of “pins” which would give the game its name.
By the 1940s, electrified games were on the rise and the introduction of flippers late in the decade added enormous playability and control for anyone willing to feed the growing craze a coin at a time. As explained on the brief wall text, it was this coin-fed frenzy that caused many cultural killjoys throughout the country to advocate for laws banning pinball as a frightening tool of gambling in the 1940s through 1970s (just this past summer, Oakland, California finally repealed an 80-year ban on pinball).
Despite its opponents, pinball fandom grew into the 1960s and 1970s, crossing over into rock music with The Who’s iconic “Pinball Wizard” from 1969’s Tommy. In my 70s childhood I can easily recall many pinball machines tucked into pizza parlor corners or inhabiting the basements of some of my lucky friends with their constant glow of light and pinging sounds. The exhibit includes a number of playable machines from the 60s and 70s, including superhero tie-ins with Superman and the Incredible Hulk which demonstrate intersecting pop culture influences on games.
By the late 1970s video games were creeping into territory dominated by pinball machines. Gimmicky games like 1979’s enormous Hercules machine attempted to maintain the hold on fistfuls of coins which would soon be increasingly making their way to video arcades. With video games dominating coin-fed play throughout the 1980s, it was not until the 1990s and the 2000s that pinball rebounded by incorporating increasingly-complex mechanical animations, advanced LED and video screen elements into games. The more recent Wizard of Oz, Monster Bash, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games on display — and all playable — show how the old-time pinball fun has truly been integrated with a modern thirst for visual effects overload.
Aside from the dozen or so playable machines, Pinball Playfields gives a good deal of historical information with descriptive text, early photos and advertisements, news articles and modern design schematics. All this is certainly fine stuff for the museum context, but anytime I found myself lingering a bit too long over some of the historical material I had to look around to find my wife and kids feeding another token and pulling back the plunger to start another play.
The last time I was at the Museum of Play, the museum had just launched its important International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The collection now contains tens-of-thousands of video game artifacts, making it one of the most important repositories and research resources for the dominant mode of play of the past forty years. The debut exhibit a few years back presented an overview of video game history and dozens of playable arcade and home games from the 1960s through the present. My latest visit allowed me time to see the full permanent exhibit, eGameRevolution.
The exhibit traces the development of the now-ubiquitous video game from its science lab beginnings of the early 60s through early console and home computer games in the 70s and 80s to the modern games which now inhabit so many living rooms worldwide. Changes in the sophisticated technology, graphics and marketing of video games are well-traced along with traditional curated displays behind glass. And, of course, there are plenty of playable games throughout the exhibit.
Pinball machines, an air hockey table, arcade cabinet classics, interactive dance and music games and a half-dozen home console games of different eras are set throughout the exhibit. A dark, low-ceilinged room reminiscent of the video arcades inhabited by many first generation video gamers like myself in the 1980s is set in the middle of the more traditional displays. At five plays for a buck, a visitor to eGameRevolution can easily lose themselves in decades of electronic gaming history.
Museum goers willing to take a few steps further back in time will also find a dizzying and deep story of traditional games in the Game Time! permanent exhibit nearby. Three centuries of American board, card, puzzle and electronic games with brief, well-researched text offers a tremendous overview for those who wonder how gaming culture has evolved since the 19th-century.
Games are arranged both in a historic timeline and also along themes such as economic games, chase games, strategy games and puzzle games. Along the way, a story unfolds where games provide a view into the American values and politics of each era, as well as the rise of the big business of games and the importance licensing particularly in the late 20th-century through the present.
Wargames and role-playing games each receive their equal due with an early copy of Little Wars by H.G. Wells and some classic Dungeons & Dragons books from its genesis in the early 1970s. Seeing these games side-by-side with other games, like the extensive exhibit on Monopoly, is incredibly validating for someone like myself who has spent my life engaged in games which once dwelt only at the edges of our culture.
Putting all these games — from pinball and video games to board and role-playing games — which so shaped my youth and those of countless others within a broader context of American history is something one can experience in few places like you can at the Strong Museum of Play. If you can get yourself to Rochester, stealing away a few hours to play through time will be time (and maybe some game tokens) well-spent.