Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Collecting, Preserving, and Interpreting the History of Electronic Games

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Collecting, Preserving, and Interpreting the History of Electronic Games

Article excerpt

American Journal of Play: Let's start with your personal experiences. Did you play video games growing up?

Jon-Paul Dyson: Definitely. I was among the first generation of kids to have real access to video games. I remember playing a version of Pong in the 1970s and then some arcade games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and my all-time favorite Galaga. But for me, my world opened up when I got access to computers at school and at home in the early 1980s. My first exposure to computer games came when my older brother brought home printed sheets of papers from a teletype printer. For those too young to remember, a teletype printer was a device you used to interact with the computer by inputting commands and reading responses on large spools of paper-it was essentially a giant, interactive typewriter. You typed your commands onto these large spools of paper, and the computer would print out its responses.

My brother had been playing Zork, a text-based adventure game in which players explored a magical world by reading descriptions of rooms and entering short written commands like "get sword" or "climb tree." He would bring home printouts of his adventure, and I would give unsolicited advice about what he should do next. I'm sure he ignored my advice, but the experience allowed me to play vicariously, to participate in computer play.

AJP: Did you have an opportunity to play with computers more directly?

Dyson: Yes. In middle school, I gained access to computers and learned to program games. My parents then bought an Osborne computer for our home (it was billed as a "portable" computer, but it was the size of a small suitcase). It allowed me to play and program more games, and when my parents purchased an Apple IIe, I gained access to hundreds more games. I was hooked, and I have been playing ever since.

AJP: So how did you move from playing video games to collecting them and studying them?

Dyson: Well, for one thing, I never stopped playing them. I also enjoyed creating them and went to college to be a computer science major. However, along the way, I switched to history and got a PhD in American History with an emphasis on intellectual and cultural history and the history of science. In 1998 I began working at The Strong. In 2003 the museum shifted its mission to explore the history and impact of play (for a good overview of this see the interview with G. Rollie Adams in the Winter 2013 issue of the American Journal of Play.

As the museum considered how best to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of play, the staff realized that, although video games were transforming the way people play, learn, and relate to each other, the museum's collections were woefully inadequate when it came to video games. The Strong had an amazing collection of traditional playthings like dolls, toys, and games, but the museum had only a few dozen examples of electronic games. So, we launched an effort to collect, preserve, and interpret electronic games to help us understand video games within a broad context that includes the experiences of players, the work of game creators, and the wide contours of play itself.

AJP: So, video games fit within the Strong's new mission, right?

Dyson: Yes. The Strong's mission is to preserve and explore the cultural history of play and its impact on society. It is impossible to divorce the history of video games from the broader history of play (and vice versa), so collecting video games is a logical extension of everything that The Strong does to serve its mission. In this way, the museum's approach differs from that which might be taken by an art museum or a computer history museum that would look at video games through a different lens.

AJP: Can you explain that-how this approach might influence the way the museum collects and interprets video games?

Dyson: Video games emerged, and continue to emerge, from older forms of play. Think about almost any type of video game, and you'll find an analog antecedent that helps us understand that type of play. …

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