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.

Comments

That last anecdote is beautiful:)

"Increase Speed, Drop Down and Reverse Direction!"

Herein lies the fundamental flaw of the Strong Museum of Play: You cannot restore, catalogue and mount toys without undermining the whole point. 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.

See, this is what I never understood about 'collectors' who kept their action figures in the original packaging. How is that fun? They'd probably answer:

Joy can't live behind glass cases; without context, it evaporates and is replaced with the smug satisfaction that arises from a slowly-appreciating monetary investment.
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."

Oh geeze... Now you got me sitting in the office trying to hide moist eyes. Hope you're happy.

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.

This.

Wait, I'll elaborate. This is why the Will Wright-curated video game part of the KRAZY! exhibit failed, and why I walked out of it feeling like Katerin did about the toy showcases.

It was a single room, a fraction the size of the graphic novel or anime rooms, and of the sixteen (I think) games exhibited, all of two were playable. Most of them were looping video. Civilization was the box art and two inkjet screenshots. The unreleased Spore was print-outs of creatures. A wall featured a grid of projected videos of Quake mods, speaking of nonsensical. No context, no interactivity--hell, no room to walk around the people playing Super Mario World (did I mention those TVs were placed on the floor?).

Like N'Gai Croal says and Katerin alludes, we see games with our hands, and KRAZY! was, as they say, epic fail in terms of letting the audience see its games. It's not like dancing about architecture, but going to a concert that's just a display of album art. I'm happy somebody understands how to exhibit video games.

MoonDragon wrote:
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."

Oh geeze... Now you got me sitting in the office trying to hide moist eyes. Hope you're happy.

This was my reaction as well.

Sounds like a fascinating place, probably close enough for me to take a weekend out there...

The only thing preventing a trip is the location, Ro-cha-cha is fairly far away from the West Point area.

MaxShrek wrote:

The only thing preventing a trip is the location, Ro-cha-cha is fairly far away from the West Point area.

Between Videotopia, the Eastman House and the love song to atherosclerosis that is the Garbage Plate, it's worth a weekend trip.

My son and his mom go to that butterfly exhibit about once a month.

There is also an indoor train that you can ride for 50 cents. Being as into Thomas as my son is I have ridden that train for many more than 50 cents. There is also a Sesame Street area that makes it feel like you are really there. I cannot imagine the way a child must feel walking into that area for the first time.

I have to admit I don't go with my son to this place that much but I have renewed interest now that they brought in an arcade.

Garbage Plates are worth the trip in and of themselves. 2 Cheeseburger, mac, home-fries, everything. That is all you need to say to order. Move out of the way.

Your concerns must surely drive the curators crazy. Leaving the toys out in the open will surely lead to breakage and theft; but they must realize, like you, that being able to PLAY is vital context. I wonder (if they have a sufficient endowment) whether they couldn't put out recreations of some of the toys...?

I really liked this story, Kat. Thanks.

beeporama wrote:

Your concerns must surely drive the curators crazy. Leaving the toys out in the open will surely lead to breakage and theft; but they must realize, like you, that being able to PLAY is vital context. I wonder (if they have a sufficient endowment) whether they couldn't put out recreations of some of the toys...?

They have done that with some of the toys: In the Toy Hall of Fame, for example, you'll see bins of Lincoln logs, Duplex, Tinker Toys, etc--mostly the easily available stuff you'd find in any toystore. And downstairs, there's the aforementioned playhouses and science experiments, and stuff for kids to romp around on. But most of the upstairs display cases, including the Barbie exhibit, the time capsules and the Victorian dollhouse exhibit, are strictly "see, but don't touch".

I totally understand why they had to place things in preservation cases; some of those toys are hundreds of years old. But still.

I loved this! Awesome article! I really want to go see this now, but it is on the other side of the country....

Yonder wrote:
MoonDragon wrote:
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."

Oh geeze... Now you got me sitting in the office trying to hide moist eyes. Hope you're happy.

This was my reaction as well.

Sounds like a fascinating place, probably close enough for me to take a weekend out there...

Glad I'm not the only one trying to convince his office-mates there's something in his eye.

This reminds me, I've got some pics of my visit to Funspot this summer. I'll post em online if anyone is interested. When I told my friend who lives near there I really wanted to go he was like "Why? It's such a kiddie place". When we got there I dropped 20 bucks for 100 tokens. With hundreds of cabinets most only a token to play, we spent 2 hours just on my 20 bucks. Played some old favourites like TMNT, Gauntlet, Outrun, and finally figured out Hard Drivin'.

Definitely gonna drop another $20.00 on my next visit!

Thank you Kat. Just thank you.

I can only imagine how I'd react if I were to go to the Videotopia section. It would bring back such fond memories... sad ones as well as I probably would recall watching more and more arcades shut down. Now I feel the urge to go there. Very nicely written, Kat.

Man I missed it. I was in Rochester for 2 weeks this Summer and couldn't make it there. It's like the only thing in Rochester that I wanted to see, besides friends and family. But friends and family took priority

I think Kat's out to make us all feel jealous.

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.

You cut me, Kat. You cut me deep with this one. I can picture you and likely most of the other adults there gazing and smiling at the glass cases holding integral parts of their youth with memories of play times of long ago filling their heads as if it were yesterday. Youthful nostalgia is a beautiful thing and nothing can ruin it more than youth.

I also find it ironic that a museum of play and toys is also likely one that has "Do not touch" signs everywhere. I will say that the Please Touch Museum here in Philly got it right. If the kids can reach it, then they are MEANT to touch it.

I'm fortunate in one regard though. My boys like the older games I've shown them. They could be very jaded based on today's standards of graphics and sound, but they are still at the age where all they care about is that games are cool. I think I may have to make the trek up there and let the boys reminisce with me about the times when my brief escapes to happiness only cost a single shiny quarter.

Thank you for sharing the museum and the story Kat. An excellent piece to be sure.

One more thing...

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.

LOVE this line!

Kat great article. Thanks for letting us know such a place exists. Now I need to figure out how to get to Ra Cha Cha with the kids.

I also think, (even though I hate to say it) now that you are married you have become an adult..

KaterinHLC wrote:

How I wanted to chide them, to scream and to make them understand.

I also didn't know that Rabbit went to the museum with you. This is such a Rabbit anecdote

KaterinHLC wrote:

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."

Thanks again for sharing.

I found the last bit touching too. Nice article, Kat, thank you for sharing!

TonyBone wrote:

One more thing...

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.

LOVE this line!

I'm firmly in the group that thinks wakes should be celebrations. There better be board games and whiskey at my wake, or I'm coming back to haunt you all with rattling semicolons and dangling participles.

I've long-since had my brother promise that my funeral and burial will incorporate videogame death and game-over tunes, though. Perhaps I view death a bit differently than most--or maybe I just view games differently than most.

As I was reading this article (which is wonderful, btw. Thank you.) I was reminded of our childrens museum here in Indianapolis. They had an animation exhibit a couple of years back and one of my interests are animation so I took some friends with me and they had kids with them in tow. As soon as we stepped inside the animation part of it I realized that they had done it right.

There were of course TV's and cells from movies and all that stuff safely protected inside glass, but what was really awesome is that they had places where you could move stuff around, take a picture by hitting a bright red button, move the piece a little more and repeat the process, creating short little stop motion animations. They also had a crude version of the matrix camera setup with 10 or 12 cameras and kids as well as adults were jumping and striking awesome-poses. As soon as you get to touch and create something it comes alive.

It was one of my favorite museum events I've ever been to just because there was so much joy in the room. Kids shouting that they made the horse move and laughter from the matrix part... it was great.

I worry I've given the wrong impression of the Strong Museum. There are plenty of exhibits where kids can run around and touch things: A Sesame Street playhouse, a pirate ship, a detective's mystery room, the aforementioned science experiments and mock grocery store. (Else it would kind of suck as a Museum of Play, right?) But all the actual historical antique toys on display--no, you can't touch those.

But you can touch the antique arcade machines. And you really should. Videotopia has to be seen to be believed.

KaterinLHC wrote:

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.

You must have been ecstatic! What was your old score?

MoonDragon wrote:
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."

Oh geeze... Now you got me sitting in the office trying to hide moist eyes. Hope you're happy.

Thirded, or fourthed, or whatever. Many'd.

Beautiful article. I really want to go there now, to see both halves of it but especially to experience Videotopia.

Coldstream wrote:
KaterinLHC wrote:

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.

You must have been ecstatic! What was your old score? ;)

Beautiful!

As is this piece, a really awesome read.

wordsmythe wrote:
TonyBone wrote:

One more thing...

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.

LOVE this line!

I'm firmly in the group that thinks wakes should be celebrations. There better be board games and whiskey at my wake, or I'm coming back to haunt you all with rattling semicolons and dangling participles.

I've long-since had my brother promise that my funeral and burial will incorporate videogame death and game-over tunes, though. Perhaps I view death a bit differently than most--or maybe I just view games differently than most.

Yeah, I want a happy wake full of drunk people saying how awesome I was. And 'Lake of Fire' by the Meat Puppets is to be played.

Ah. I went to the Game On exhibition in the UK a few years ago (twice), which had a veritable cavalcade of retro arcades and consoles. All were playable, and it was a truly delightful day, wandering through my childhood gaming experiences, rejoicing in the games I used to love, and finally getting a chance to play some of the ones that passed me by.

More please!

About 10 years ago I ended up at a little tradeshow in San Antonio Texas. It was the AMOA's (Amusement and Music Operators Association) annual trade show. Tons of new pinball machines and video games all inviting you to play for free. Better than E3 because attendance was about 10%, but there were a lot of exhibitors. I spent 2 or 3 days just playing games and not getting much work done, but it was totally worth it. Back then, it was this experience of all these games to play at a whim and free. I really wished someone was with me to share the experience with, but it was quite the good time.

They also have a Stan wanna bee logo on there site...
IMAGE(https://amoa.com/joomla/images/stories/news/money_guy.jpg)