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.

Pinball Flips, Thumps, and Pops into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Bagatelle, about 1900Pinheads (or pinball enthusiasts, to the uninformed) rejoice! On November 8, 2018, pinball joined the 67 other iconic toys and games inducted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame. At its most basic level, pinball challenges players to use plastic flippers to control, aim, and fire a 1 1/16-inch stainless steel ball around a wooden playfield covered with objects and obstacles. It’s no surprise then, that pinball descended from centuries-old bowling, marble, billiard, and bagatelle games that all required players to roll (or forcefully strike) a ball into objects across a playing field. The first modern pinball machines originated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. These glass-covered, countertop “pin games,” which often featured fixed pins and scoring holes, were simple by today’s standards. But these games nevertheless entertained millions of people and paved the way for today’s dynamic, sensory-saturating pinball machines. But why does pinball deserve a place in the pantheon of playthings?  

The Addams Family Pinball, 1992 Pinball is iconic. A product of America’s industrial past, pinball symbolizes the nation’s technological ingenuity. In 1930s and 1940s pinball machines were mechanical marvels. Today, their thousands of individual mechanical and electronic parts work together in a symphony of physical and digital play. Even if you’ve never played pinball, the game’s rectangular cabinet, sloped playfield, flippers, and metal balls are instantly recognizable. And to generations of people who grew up playing pinball, the sight of a game’s eye-catching vertical “backglass”—often decorated with beloved superheroes, celebrities, or monsters—or the sound of a familiar “call out” (or sound clip) such as Gomez’s voice from The Addams Family (1992) pinball shouting “Keep the ball I have a whole bucket full!” are invitations to play.

Pinball has enjoyed popularity over time and in various forms. Over the past nine decades, Americans played pinball in bars, amusement parks, arcades, restaurants, family fun centers, and other public places. Although, beginning in the 1930s, moral guardians fearing the spread of gambling and juvenile delinquency instituted pinball bans in major United States cities and the video game revolution of the 1970s and 1980s nudged pinball out of the public eye, the game never entirely disappeared. In fact, in the economic boom years following World War II, pinball machines remained staples of college dorms, bars, and home game rooms. Today, “barcades” run local and regional pinball leagues and tournaments and the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) attracts more than 100,000 people to its events. But pinball has also thrived in other forms as nearly every home video game console since the 1970s has included a digital pinball game and one of the first computer games to allow players to create and customize their own in-game content was Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set (1983). Child-sized pinball games made to fit into tiny hands or on tabletops also remain popular toys for licensers.

Wildfire Pinball, 1979

Pinball fosters learning and discovery. The game offers players the opportunity to enhance spatial awareness and sharpen their eye-hand coordination by shooting and tracking a steel ball through a miniature playground of ramps, pop bumpers, and interactive toys. Playing pinball requires quick thinking and reflexes, but it also rewards patience, persistence, and following and analyzing sophisticated rules and complex orders of operation. Although many players are happy to just keep the ball in play, the most skilled players strive to master an individual pinball machine, attempting to experience all the modes, levels, mini-games, and novelties the game has to offer. The Cardboard Teck Institute’s PinBox 3000 has even turned designing, building, and customizing a cardboard tabletop pinball games into a fun way to learn math, science, engineering, and physics.   

Pinball at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show, 2016, Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kirk & Barb Nelson Pinball changed the way we play.  There’s no doubt that pinball offered people new and exciting ways to play, but it also helped lay a foundation for video games. Steve Russell, a co-creator of Spacewar! (1962), one of the earliest computer games, described the dueling spaceship shooter game as “the most advanced, imaginative, expensive pinball machine the world has seen.” Many early arcade video games such as Pong (1972), Pin Pong (1974), TV Flipper (1975), Breakout (1976), and Video Pinball (1978) asked players to hit digital balls with virtual paddles or flippers, much like pinball. Video game designers even borrowed from pinball’s basic game structure of three balls and accumulating extra balls, translating it to “three lives” and “extra lives.”

Today pinball enjoys renewed interest as a new generation of digital natives appreciates the physical, tactile, and kinetic game play that’s easy to learn but difficult to master. In a digital age, Americans are just as likely to play pinball on their mobile phones or tablets as they are on a full-sized, mechanical-action machine that delights and immerses players with thundering sounds, electrifying light shows, and fast-paced play. 

Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

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.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

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.

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Teetotums

“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.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“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.

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Rack ‘Em Up

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.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

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.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

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.

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Playing the "Good War"

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.

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