Behind Glass Cases
"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
--Plato, Greek Philosopher
"I feel like I just walked out of a cemetery," I said to G. as we left the Strong Museum of Play, squinting against the haze and natural light of the outdoors.
"I know. It was weird," he spoke in a low voice. He looked like he wanted to say more, but didn't.
I stared for a few moments at some butterflies playing around the side of the building. "In some parts," I said slowly, "I almost felt like crying."
"Yeah. Me too." He draped his arm around my shoulder. "But the arcade was cool, right?"
The Strong Museum of Play, the only museum in the world dedicated to the science and history of play, is one of Rochester's biggest and best-advertised attractions, and yet, we've lived here for almost nine years without once visiting. But once I got wind of Videotopia—a new gaming exhibit featuring 100+ antique, restored and fully playable arcade machines—I could no longer stay away.
Full of children and children's things, the Strong Museum is, in some ways, exactly what you might expect from a museum of play. Much of the place is a brightly-colored jumble of plastic and sound, crammed with interactive science experiments, pirate ship playhouses, even a mock grocery store. I can imagine no better place for parents to take their kids on a Sunday afternoon.
But the museum offers plenty for adults, too. It boasts a butterfly garden, a collection of more than 500 "vintage" Barbies, and the National Toy Hall of Fame, which includes such childhood staples as Legos and The Cardboard Box. And, of course, in every corner of every room you'll find glass displays with hundreds—thousands—of antique toys, board games, action figures, comic books, yo-yos, Matchbox cars, E-Z-Bake ovens, bicycles, chemistry sets and much, much more. I even found a photocopy of J.R.R. Tolkien's notes for The Hobbit, the viewing of which felt almost like a religious experience.
The Strong Museum is a safari through an upended toybox, with each of its contents—even the chipped and mismatched ones—catalogued with the care and attention they never would've received in the wild. G. and I spent hours identifying to each other what among the display items we'd had as kids: Here, his set of Matchbox cars; there, my prized Ninja Turtle action figure.
And yet, as I wandered the rows and rows of display cases, the glass smeared with finger prints and the occasional unidentifiable yet sticky goop, I started to feel profoundly sad—even a little angry.
Again and again, I watched kids press their fat cheeks against a case filled with toys I'd once owned and loved, only to push away seconds later and declare the contents "boring". Some kids ran up and down the aisles, squealing and banging on the glass.
How I wanted to chide them, to scream and to make them understand. This isn't how it was! I wanted to cry out. This isn't how I remember it.
There's something creepy and disconcerting about viewing toys, whether they're from 1887 or 2007, from the other side of a glass wall, as if they were dinosaur skeletons or Picasso paintings. It's one thing to see your old toys in a box, or at a garage sale. It's another thing entirely to see them behind a glass case, with an index card indicating their model number and approximate year of production. It was clinical, sterile, devoid of any meaning whatsoever.
Herein lies a fundamental flaw of the Strong Museum of Play: You cannot restore, catalogue and mount toys without undermining the whole point of them. A toy gun without a boy to shoot it is really just a hunk of plastic; a doll without a girl to love her is just yarn and canvas, a slowly rotting carcass of cotton stuffing. Joy can't live behind glass cases; without context, it evaporates and is forgotten.
But then there's Videotopia.
The exhibit is a makeshift arcade palace, filled with dozens of restored and fully working cabinets. From Missile Command and Lunar Lander to Ms. Pac-Man and Root Beer Tapper, it's all here and it's all playable—and I'll be honest: It's just as fabulous as you remember.
Videotopia isn't a wake, but a celebration: an orgy of sound and pixels, a frenetic paean to sticky hands, cramped thumbs and empty wallets. Here the arcade cabinets and tables are displayed not behind glass but in long, curling rows, encircled by crowds of all ages. Packs of greasy teenagers, too excited to act ironic, smashed through Gauntlet and Donkey Kong, while nearby, a white-haired woman beat her old Centipede high score. Children squealed with delight at Q*Bert and Marble Madness, while their parents smiled knowingly. And everywhere was clangor and piercing sirens and laughter. It was fantastic.
Videotopia works because the arcade is the context; by definition, videogames must be played to be understood. When placed behind a glass case, a videogame doesn't just lose meaning; it becomes nonsensical, even ridiculous. But in Videotopia, you can see what these objects were really meant for; history, excuse the cliché, comes alive.
Case in point: For awhile I watched a curly-haired girl of six or seven, hunched over the Space Invaders cabinet with her balding father. The two giggled loudly as Daughter haphazardly slapped the buttons, while Daddy helpfully pointed out the descending aliens, crowing enthusiastically whenever she managed to hit one.
After she had lost, her dad smiled brightly and fished out another token for her outstretched hand. "You know, this was my favorite game when I was your age," he said casually. "I had the high score for weeks."
Her mouth dropped open. "You got the second row of guys?"
He smiled. "Yep. And all the other ones too."
With wide, doe-like eyes, she stared at her father in open worship.
"Don't worry," he said, patting her back and putting in the token. "You can get them too. We'll do it together."
I smiled broadly. This is how it was. This is how I remember it.