Jon-Paul Dyson // Chris Bensch
Chris Bensch: Okay, this is Chris. I'll start. My full name is Christopher Bensch. My title is vice president of collections at The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York. I'm 59 years old.
I have been at the museum for 27 years, working with more than 400,000 items in the museum's collection and helping make the leap from when I started, us being the museum that didn't collect anything past 1940 to a museum that collected up to the present -- to now a museum that collects not only to the present in standard playthings, which is our mission, the history of play and playthings, and collecting -- we realized a number of years back that we would be seriously delinquent as historians if we were missing the world of electronic play.
I share that overall responsibility, but JP is our institutional key person to the world of videogames.
Jon-Paul Dyson: This is JP, Jon-Paul Dyson is my name. My full name is Jon-Paul Charles Dyson if you want my middle name too. [Laughs.] I'm vice president of exhibits here at the museum, and also as Chris said, director of our International Center for the History of Electronic Games.
My own personal association -- I've been at the museum now 18 years and I'm 46 years old. My own personal connection with videogames is that I've been playing them for much of my life, starting on mainframe computers, and going back to early computers, micro-computers and personal computers. An Osborne, which was the first portable computer, was my first computer that my family owned, and Apple IIe. And I've always sort of played games on and off since then. I went to college to be a computer programmer because I liked programming games, too -- and then realized that eh, I may not have the chops for computer programming. Ended up a historian.
I'm a PhD in United States history, with a focus on the 19th century and intellectual and cultural history. But it has been relevant to what we're doing here at the museum, as children's culture was my dissertation. And when, as Chris mentioned, we decided really to start focusing on videogames, that they're having this transformative effect on play, for a number of reasons I think I was the most logical person to do it -- mostly because I have lifelong experience with them, and some knowledge of programming and how to develop, and this background in history. So I became first associate curator for videogames, I think was my first title, and then we started building a collection, and that was very much a group effort. That then led to the development of our National Center for the History of Electronic Games -- I want to say 2009, maybe, and then 2010 we changed the name to International Center for the History of Electronic Games.
Now we have, I think, one of the world's most comprehensive collection videogames and related artifacts. It's more than 55,000 videogames and related artifacts. In addition to that 55,000, there are extensive archival collections -- and that includes things like you've probably heard from the website, so things like Atari's coin-op division.
And roughly the ways our responsibilities I think are -- they're not really divided, actually. We always blend roles. [Laughs.] I think I'm probably the overall direction and vision of where our videogames collecting and interpretation is going, and I'm an assistant director -- but then many people who work as part of that process report to Chris, not necessarily to me. Things like art conservators or arcade-game conservation technicians. And that's something about The Strong, we are a boundaryless organization. We take that very seriously here, and so we work across teams, and Chris is working on heading exhibit development teams, then I'm sometimes heading collections-based teams. Really we work very interchangeably.
So I mean, speaking of things you guys take seriously -- this is sort of a broad point but I think a good point of entry: Why study or intellectualize or institutionalize play? I mean, as adults, aren't we inherently sort of bad at just enjoying things? [Laughs.]
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think there's institutional reasons why we would do that, but then there are overall sort of interpretative reasons. I think basically play is something that's inherent to who we are as human beings, and we would say that extends across the lifespan. Obviously play plays a very important developmental role for children, but it's something that -- hopefully you don't stop playing when you get older. In fact, if you're not playing, it's probably a good clue that maybe there's other things in life that you need to be dealing with. Brian Sutton-Smith once said -- I think it was Brian Sutton-Smith -- said "the opposite of play is not work, it's depression."
Jon-Paul Dyson: And I think there's truth to that. So we see play as intrinsic to how we operate as individual humans. Lots of animals play, and there's a whole bunch of literature about that as well. But aside from the individual level, I would say play is vital to how culture in society develops. Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens said that culture emerges out of play. And so I think that's an important thing in recognizing the importance of play, is not just that play is one important expression of culture, is that in fact culture is deeply intertwined with play itself, and arises out of play and is intermingled with play. So we see it as vital to the basic human condition, and I would also say historically, is playing a more and more prominent role in society. And so to the extent that you look at a history museum, I think that has an important role. But I'm just summing up right now, I'll let Chris add more.
Chris Bensch: First, and I'm thinking about as an institution, and since it opened to the public in 1982, The Strong Museum has been dedicated to studying and revealing how everyday Americans live our lives. And in early 2000 we did some self-analysis, and we felt that what we were uniquely qualified to do was to represent the dimension of play and playthings. Nobody else had a collection like ours, the biggest, most comprehensive collection of toys, dolls, games in the world, and we could apply that to this topic in a way that nobody else was pursuing in such a concrete way -- intellectually, or in sharing it with the public.
I come from a background in American material culture, that is what my master's degree is in from the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. So I'm approaching -- I studied lots of chairs and Chinese export porcelain during my time there, but playthings are every bit as rich and revealing in understanding people and the transitions and the continuity; and we're applying those same skills and perspectives to this slice, this crucial slice of human life.
Obviously I would agree with you, because I'm of my own volition spending time working on a project like this, but where do sort of these notions come from? When we say something is fun, though, it can also be alleged that it's trivial. In other words, why is it difficult to say something was fun, without it seeming like we're also saying it's trivial? How did those two get to be synonyms at some point?
Chris Bensch: We've worked that past that here as an institution and I guess I would say “serious” or “significant” are the words I would apply. I take an issue with re-enactors. Why do they always re-enact wars and battles? Why don't they re-enact a really great party, or something that was happy? And we skewed our view of history or what's important to death, turning points of crises, and there are parts that are every bit as integral and probably in terms of actual experience occupy a lot more of most of our lives, are not those worst possible moments. They're lots of other kinds of moments.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think part of that, too, only I agree with what Chris says -- I think from the broader culture perspective, get back to what is play. This is something I'm sure by now you've discovered, that when people actually try to nail down a definition of play, it ends up being squiggly. It's hard to do exactly. But one of the things that people often point to is play being its own end. So you play for the sake of playing. And so I think at different cultural moments in the past, there have been times where that's maybe been viewed with suspicion. "What is the point to it?" Why do that?
And I think we're at a cultural moment now where we're seeing the value of this. That when you're playing, you're learning probably better than at any other point, at large part because it's always intrinsically motivated. That it's a great way to break down social barriers as Chris said, that parties are a great way for people to interact. It’s a great font of creativity, and also building inner strength, and so I think we're at a point now where I think the cultural conversation is changing. We're seeing the value of play. Someone like Max Weber might have talked about the product and work ethic or something like that. [Laughs.]
I think we're at a point where we can see a lot of these values that -- where as play itself as its own end yields all these unexpected benefits that we don't get into. If you get into say, ethology, looking at animals, why do animals play? Because on the one hand, it's not getting them food, and so there must be a reason why they're doing it. And part of it's because it's a great learning tool. But I think with advances in psychology, and also frankly with advances in society where we have more leisure time perhaps -- again, that's a complicated question, because we might not have more leisure time. But there's just more opportunities for us to play, so I think the changes in the material framework of society and organization in society, as well as changes in our understanding of how humans and animals develop, we've come to a new appreciation of play, which perhaps is getting us past that feeling that if it's fun, it's trivial.
I saw that George Rollie Adams, your CEO, say in the Journal of Play a few years ago that "play is in trouble, and it's also changing." It feels silly to ask you to clarify on something you didn't say, but what does this mean? Have videogames been threatening play in some ways?
Chris Bensch: I think Rollie was thinking about the challenges that play is experiencing by things like the movement in schools to eliminate recess in order to double down on studying to meet the needs of standardized tests. Similarly, kids have lots of programmed time outside of school with sports and other structured adult-directed activities that often don’t really function as play.
Well, I love the notion of re-enacting a party or something like that.
I'm curious, this is a question I just found myself wondering when approaching a conversation like this, simply because I don't know, and obviously you guys should know far better than me: When it comes to a concept like children's culture, I just don't know the culture of museum curators, but as children's culture, how long did it take for that to catch on as something worth paying attention to?
Chris Bensch: I think a lot of people don't pay attention to it, that it's only the grown-up world that makes a difference, and that's owing to being in this environment that we get to think about that, we get to tap our inner children. We get our own children, we observe children here at the museum, and one of the constant refrains that we get and we've always had at the museum is people saying, "Oh, I had one of those!" Things that are owned by famous people or that are unique are not the only valuable things to retain or study or celebrate. And we get down to the sort of granular level of what makes up everyday life as players in our broad, squishy definition of it from things that are sold as playthings or games, to things that are hobbies and crafts and free-time occupiers in any number of ways. Doing the analogy of -- we're testing all the dimensions of the elephant, we never have the full picture. We get a better picture of the trunk, for a while, and we go down certain paths, but just the fact that our jobs don't end, it's never like I'm going to close my office door and head home and say, "Well! I've collected it all! It's done."
Chris Bensch: Never.
I mean, Pokémon alone would keep you busy for a while.
Chris Bensch: [Laughs.]
Jon-Paul Dyson: Right, exactly, yeah. I would just add to that in terms of some sort of concrete development of a museum standpoint. One is the idea that when museums first arrived, they emerged as basically either to preserve art, great art, and there's a whole literature on the purpose of that, which is often about educating and you know, things that are elite value to the masses and that sort of thing. Or maybe it's about science, about educating science. Children's museums as an institution don't really emerge broadly until the 1960s and ‘70s. The Boston Children's Museum has been around for a long time, I think it's the Boston Science Museum which opened in the ‘60s, and in the ‘70s emerged -- the idea of having a museum that focuses on children as opposed to say, great art or science is is not a new concept.
Now, we don't consider ourselves a children's museum, I should be clear about that, instead of a history museum. But obviously a lot of what we do in dealing with play is about children's things, because play is a predominant mode of childhood. And so we're in this space where I think the second challenge, and this is the institutional trajectory of the development of museums, which is that children's culture is often hard to preserve. Sometimes it's ephemeral. What is that play in the backyard of the game of tag or cops and robbers? I mean, how do you preserve that? There's no material remnant of that. Or many objects are not valued. Either by the child, they're using to play with, as opposed to someone in Amsterdam in 1657 who paid this much money for a Rembrandt -- you know at the time probably knew it had some value and took good care of it. If it's a plaything, they're going to use it and abuse it. So there's a real challenge to that. Either there's no physical, material object of the play, or it's used by the child or thrown out by the parent at some point. We face this all the time, "oh, we really wish we had that one toy, where can we find it?" eBay has been great for us. [Laughs.]
So there are specific challenges that come with children's culture, I think.
Is children's culture just seen as inferior to grown-up culture?
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think that depends on the time and place and who's talking. I mean, generally we're all egotists: Adults value adult culture because we're in it right now. But there have been times and places where children's culture has been really valued. There's the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. Or late 19th and early 20th century, where you have people like Robert Louis Stevenson's Children's Garden of Verses, or Little Lord Fauntleroy phenomenon and that sort of thing. Or the 1960s and ‘70s, with the counterculture, see the child as the ideal.
So I think in general, adults value their own culture more than that -- except what then Chris was alluding to earlier, every adult values their own childhood enormously. I think the "I had that," and the flood of memory and emotion that come with seeing an old toy, that's universal, I think.
Why are art museums more common than, say, toy museums? Isn't valuing art just as arbitrary as valuing kid's culture?
Chris Bensch: Historically art has been more highly esteemed culturally than other artifacts of the past, in part because unique one-of-a-kind artworks have a special appeal because the cost, rarity, and elite reputation of art has made it an appealing way for wealthy benefactors to indicate their status.
Yes, it’s all arbitrary.
I would think that videogames existing in a non-shared space and they aren't even real -- just images on a screen -- would have them lag behind toys with the path to cultural relevance, which are real, and we have shared memories with more senses. But if videogames are pulling ahead of toys, is that just because we call toys for adults something other than toys -- jet skis, iPhones, fancy knife sets for home cooks -- so we still segregate toys as things just for children?
Chris Bensch: I think you’re onto something with the adult vs. kid divide. The fact that adults don’t necessarily leave videogames behind the way they mostly do with dolls or Pokémon cards means that people view videogames through adult lenses and value them above “childish” objects and activities.
This is not at all intended to sound flip: Why in 2016 does having something in a museum matter?
Chris Bensch: There’s so much “stuff” in the world in every sense of what that implies that it’s helpful to have recommendations or endorsements. We certainly see that dynamic occurring online. Museums are one way to filter and select what at least one group or institution has felt is important, interesting, or meaningful and would be worth your time to consider or explore. Museums as a form certainly have a longer track record than Yelp, for instance, and offer authority as experts that gives them and what they collect or display a value in our society.
I had a conversation with one of the curators at MoMA about their videogame exhibit. I asked the very broad question: “What do you think it will take for videogames to be given equal or similar weight as other mediums?”
And I realize I am talking to two museum curators now, but he gave what I think is sort of a museum curator-y answer, which is that it was just matter of time. But I don't know if necessarily that's all there is to it, that cultural legitimacy collects like twigs in a river. What more do you think there is to it, given the wide variety of play you pay attention to, for something like videogames to be seen on par with other mediums?
Chris Bensch: I think it's getting there. The fact that for more than a decade now we've had our annual National Toy Hall of Fame inductions that celebrate toys that have stood the test of time, and hits and coverage in the billions of media impressions, and similarly with the World Videogame Hall of Fame that we just launched last June; and the kind of awareness from top to bottom in popular culture, in individuals, and media of all stripes, and proven that people are in tune to that.
Well, a lot of those hits might be from kids. [Laughs.]
Jon-Paul Dyson: Well, I think kids and adults. And there is a certain amount of just time and generational turnover. I think right now we're in the thirtieth anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and one of the things we have is this giant Nintendo controller, and I want to say every time I walk by I see a parent with a child, playing with it. And the parent's usually better at the game, you know, getting a little frustrated because the kid's not hitting the jump button at quite the right moment, because they know exactly what it takes to top this world.
So, there is an element of generational turnover. I think that's true for generations. I also think there's a broader cultural revolution that's happening. I think if you look at the history of media, referencing different mediums, and I think you can look at the 19th century as very much I would say the book and the novel were the dominant media -- the printed word was the dominant medium of the day. Not as if printed work was much better, but if you look at who are the artistic heroes of the day, people like Charles Dickens, where people were waiting at the docks and the next installment of a novel to come out, to find out what happened to Little Dorrit. Or Mark Twain, or any number of famous authors.
Then the 20th century is really the moving image on, I think especially movies but also television. So you have great directors, there's these auteurs who are celebrated. That's Hitchcock, or Fellini, or Steven Spielberg, whoever it is.
And then 21st century I think is really going to be the century in which the videogame is the dominant media of the time. In many way we're there already, as Chris was saying, in the number of impressions we get. If you look at -- certainly you're familiar with this, the sales in the industry, it's just how it's really surpassing other media, in terms of how people spend their time. In terms of how it becomes appreciated by everyone in society, I think there is a certain level of scholarly interest that plays a role, and then again it's this generational turnover, again. If you grew up playing videogames, you'd be valuing them. If you didn't, they're dreck and something that you don't think is worth spending your time on.
Jon-Paul Dyson: And those elders retire, or die off, and they get replaced by new ones. But part of this is specific, though. It's not just a matter of generational turnover. Part of what we do here that drives us is we feel that when looking at videogames we said, "Hey, videogames are having this transformative effect.” We think people are going to be studying them in the same way they studied these others artforms. So we need to get preserving a record of them now, because part of what is necessary for scholars to do their work, which in turn lends cultural legitimacy to something, is that they need to have access to records of the creation of these, or the dissemination of these, or reception of these. And so that's what really drove us to begin collecting that. I know personally I thought, “Well, in 20, 30 years people will really be using this stuff, and we need to collect it now.”
And we've been amazed already the rapid increase in reception of this. Right now in our research lab there are three historians: the guy who came back from his six-month sabbatical from Japan who's looking at the development of new games, someone who traveled here from Denmark who's looking at the history of early computer games, and the guy who came here from Boston is actually looking at the Ouija board. So there's this tremendous growth already in the scholarly interest, which in turn is one of the key foundational pillars of getting something cultural legitimacy.
So I know you mentioned eBay earlier, and this sort of will be the last name I'll drop, but I spoke to The Library of Congress last year about their collection, and they told me a little bit about some difficulties they ran into as far as just cooperation from game companies, as far as procuring materials, or just getting supplemental information. The quote that I still remember from them is "game companies act as though their output is not even culture."
Did you run into anything like that for your collection?
Chris Bensch: We operate in a lot of ways at a consumer level, rather than going directly to game companies for our materials. So some of our foundational parts of our electronic game collection came when rental companies were going out of business and we would buy their stock, and it allowed us to get an incredible cross-section very rapidly. It gave evidence of what they had thought was important and which quantities their customers would demand. We've operated sort of sub-corporate in a lot of our collecting.
So you're talking about stores like Blockbusters?
Chris Bensch: Right.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I'm not sure -- I think that's true to some extent, I would sort of say we have -- we were interested in the whole range of the creation process, from the generation of the idea to the business method of implementing it, to the actual creation of the game, to the marketing of it, to the consumption of it. So I think what Chris says is definitely true for the final product side.
Chris Bensch: Yeah.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think in terms of -- because we're looking at how is it games are created, or what's the business behind it, we have done a lot of reaching out to people in the game industry, and so again you can look at our site and see who we have papers for, companies. What I would say -- I dunno if it's David Gibson you're talking to at The Library of Congress?
It was, yeah.
Jon-Paul Dyson: So what I'd say is we've had the most success in talking with people who were the creators of their own games or companies. So, someone like Doug Carlston, who donated all the records he had from Brøderbund, which he created. Or Ken and Roberta Williams from Sierra. Personal, emotional interest invested into their products, and so we know we get some great stuff from that. And again, you can see records of that on our website.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I would say in dealing with a company, a large company that's still very much actively involved in the videogame process, I would disagree in that -- I don't think it's so much that they think what they produce is not of worth or value, as in by the nature of what they're doing they have different priorities. So if I'm say, working at videogame X company, and I'm their director of marketing. Or even their CEO. My job review and assessment is not based on how much I've worked to preserve my company's legacy, my job assessment is based on how many copies of the next game that's coming out am I going to sell. Or the last game that came out did I sell. And so I think the challenge is then in terms of those sort of companies, is not that they don't think it's a good idea. It's that the structure of any business is the business itself. Running the business, making the money.
So unless you have a company that has a person who is deeply vested in it, or perhaps sometimes a company that has a long tradition maybe, that's almost more like a family-run company, even if it's not necessarily a family-run company. Then I think there are disincentives to them to spend a lot of time preserving their materials. It's not because they don't appreciate the medium, I guess I would disagree a little bit with that. I think it's more just inherent to the nature of what their jobs and the demands of their jobs are.
Sure. But it does wind up being this thing that sort of falls through the cracks, even though “both” sides are just trying to do their jobs.
Chris Bensch: It's exactly that same dynamic in the physical toy business. It's the family companies, it's the individual inventors, designers who have a different perspective, and an investment in seeing that their heritage is preserved, or their history. So those are the places, as opposed to the large corporations where we find the greatest traction, and who are interested in us and eager, not just willing to have their materials preserved.
I mean, I was having a coffee last week with someone who is still working in the game industry, and he told me, I'm going to be paraphrasing here -- but here said that he felt or had the impression that toy companies are far more secretive than videogame companies. [Laughs.] Do either of you have a thought about that comment?
Chris Bensch: It's probably a lot easier to knock off than the kinds of investment it takes to make, and personnel and time to create a top-tier videogame. That's not something you can turn around and produce at a knock off at all, ever. So yes, I think they feel vulnerable in a different way. Stitching up a stuffed animal is not rocket science.
Right. [Laughs.] You had mentioned Blockbuster, which is sort of strange, I think of it as being so firmly in the rear-view mirror. But we think of these physical spaces that existed which did curating for us. Think of something like Blockbuster as opposed to something like Steam, and of course you know, I remember going into Blockbuster, but I have not done a mass-purchase of wares that they were trying to unload. But in your collecting from those stores, what sort of patterns or things did you notice about the collections that those types of stores had?
Jon-Paul Dyson: I would say, I mean, Chris mentioned that one rental store -- that was something we did fairly early on, when we were really just getting the collection going. And that was the way to get -- we had nothing pretty much when we first started. So it was a way to get -- maybe two of those at least a couple of those. Collections are developed in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes they're created for commercial reasons, sometimes it's because it's an individual collector who has an interest in it. So we can get a collection more than seven thousand Japanese videogames, that this collector in France who had collected them set out to basically complete runs of 23 different systems. So that was a case where the collection was gathered because of a personal interest, as opposed to a commercial interest. So there are many different motivations, and if we're asked a lot of it is seeing well, what is the reason for collecting something? Is it because it fills a gap in a collection? Is it because we think it's historically important and we need a really good representation of it? Is it because we're doing an exhibit, and we need certain items that make this interpretive point?
So there are different reasons for why we would collect something, and then in turn different reasons why a collection was formed in the first place, which then affects the nature of the collection. I don't know if that gets at what you're looking for.
Well, I was just curious, because I certainly remember going to those stores back in the day, but I didn't have a more clinical or specific outlook in purchasing -- so I'm just wondering if anything sort of stuck out to you, or if you even remember from purchasing up a Blockbuster store's wares.
Chris Bensch: It was 55,000 videogames ago, and -- [laughs.]
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think in some ways it's just self-evident what you're going to get from those collections, it is a reflection again of what the purpose was. So the purpose of a Blockbuster was to rent out as many videogames as they could, and so therefore they're going to rent out the most popular ones. As opposed to an individual collector whose purpose might be to gather rare or unique or never-released games. So each of those are different reasons for forming their collection.
The commercial ones tend to prioritize the most common, the most popular. Which is fine with us, because we want to represent that. As Chris was saying, we're representing everyday experience. Everyday lives of Americans. And a lot more Americans were playing Super Mario Bros. than maybe were playing some very obscure game that -- I'm trying to think of a parallel game that would have come out by '85 that -- some computer, PC game that had very minimal release at the time, or something like that. Or was created by a sixth grader in Hoboken, New Jersey or something like that.
Chris Bensch: And we do deal with the collectors of the rarities, who when their item comes here are horrified by the thought that we would take the shrink wrap off of them. Not just admire them on a pedestal. It's not just about genuflecting in front of the cartridge, it's what was that experience like?
[Laughs.] That's something I am curious about, just your thought process on that. What is the role of an archivist when you're dealing with something so ephemeral as play? You mentioned the game tag, but even if you have a yo-yo, and you put it under glass, it's not really going to demonstrate what it's capable of or how it was used.
Chris Bensch: Which is why we're as much as we're able to be a hands-on museum, with physical things to manipulate, with video examples of these things in use. We did an exhibit about a year ago that included a bunch of mechanical toys and we said, it's not enough to just have these on the shelves. We've got to have live samples of Baby Alive pooping in her diaper and things like that.
Is that a real example, or something you just made up?
Chris Bensch: No, that's a real example.
I figured. [Laughs.]
Chris Bensch: Baby Alive is part of this display.
This is sort of one of the central things I was wondering about: the path to museums or other cultural institutions. Has it been quicker for toys than for videogames? Have they had a similar trajectory? Have they had a different trajectory? How can you compare the two’s paths?
Jon-Paul Dyson: I would almost say it's -- Chris may disagree with this, but it's the opposite. In some ways videogames have achieved quicker cultural acceptance at a higher level than toys have. I think there have been toy museums around for a while, but they tended to be individuals who amassed a toy collection, or one-off in a larger museum. At the Field Museum, the big dollhouses. I think videogames, perhaps because adults have continued to play them and you have this whole rise of indie games, and art games, and serious games and all these other things, similar to, I think -- and also in part because they're a much bigger business. And so you get a lot of museum directors saying, “Hey, maybe we better do videogames!”
In some ways, I think their path to acceptance has been faster. The fact that the MoMA makes a big splash about collecting a dozen videogames or whatever they've done now. They may have done some stuff with toys before, but not to my mind at the same level of the publicity that they've tried to do around that. You see a lot of museums now, art museums doing stuff with videogames. So I almost think for videogames it's been faster than for toys.
Chris Bensch: I agree with J.P. Maybe it's that there are so many more toys and varieties of them, and they don't have the marquee value in general that the big names in videogame titles do. So there's a few above the old kinds of names like Barbie, but so many toys are maybe -- sell for a while, or there's variants of them, or they've been around so long that there's no zing to a Parcheesi. It's enduring, it's beloved, it spins off into variants of Sorry and Aggravation and Trouble, but it doesn't have the sort of depth of content that richest videogames have as an artform.
They're a little close to the other artifacts of human life, to me, rather than art forms in themselves. So they're more akin to those Chippendale chairs I was studying at Winterthur. Some layers, but they don't have as many depths to plumb as the kinds of naturalistic qualities that today's top-tier videogames can have.
Chris, I'd seen on your LinkedIn page, you had listed your background as decorative arts, collecting housewares, home furnishings, holiday materials. I feel like even the phrase "cultural legitimacy" or "relevance" can be a little fuzzy as far as what that means.
I had guessed you might be taking a position that objects that are little bit more everyday might speak to us a more just because we have more of a shared experience with them. That a pair of shoes might mean more to us than a rare painting. Is that what you're saying? For something to be culturally legitimate, more people are able to relate to it, or they have a memory of it?
Chris Bensch: Yes, I think that touches people in the fact that, "I had a Spirograph set like that!" It connects with people in a different way from admiring a work of art of whatever sort that I've only see in museums, like maybe I have the postcard version or the calendar or something like that. But it has a personal resonance that excites people in a different way. I think people have a lens, that there's a particular period of all sorts of playthings that they're most interested in. It's typically the things that they have personal experience with. So one of the things I'm observing right now is people who've invested lots of money in cast-iron toys. They're beautiful things, they're well-made, they will endure through the next 10 ice ages or heatwaves. But there aren't generations coming up who want those with the same passion, typically, because they never had cast-iron toys. All their toys are plastic.
The people I'm competing hardest against on eBay are the folks, as J.P. was saying, that are at one level or another capturing or recreating the childhood they've had or the childhood they wish they had. It's those, especially people from -- I don't know, 40 to 65 who have time, money, interest, nostalgia, kids are gone, they've got enough income, they're not downsizing yet. They're the folks who are collecting their childhood, and perhaps collecting all sorts of things. And that cohort is going to keep moving, and we see some of that with our Nintendo exhibit right now, that's tapping into. It's 30-years-olds, people have the same kind of, "Aha, oh this is a time machine sending me back to when I was 10 and we got our first NES."
So toys are actually sort of lagging behind videogames from that perspective?
Chris Bensch: Certainly in their celebration. Nobody reviews toys as cultural items in the way that a big title, Call of Duty or whatever title you want to think of, or Grand Theft Auto gets reviewed in the same way that a book or a movie or a television series does.
Why is that? Is it just again what we said before about children's culture?
Chris Bensch: Perhaps you get sort of user reviews, but the fact that there's adult readers who are grown up enough that they care about those things that tap into that.
Jon-Paul Dyson: Right. And I think that videogames that are generally being cited for game of the year, for instance, that sort of thing, are usually ones that appeal to adults at some level, or engaging adults. There are some great videogames that are probably -- their primary market is still kids, and yet they're usually not in the conversation, compared to ones that are geared especially toward older audiences.
Are there any lessons from other play activities about how society deals with adult hobbyists of historically childish activities?
Chris Bensch: We try to make things sound sometimes more serious than they really are. We may not have such puritanical prohibitions against play, but one of my hobbies is gardening, and I talk the language that we frame those things in. I go out to work in the garden. But what I'm really doing is playing with dirt and plant material. We sometimes frame these as responsibilities when they're actually voluntary in certain instances. If you ordered me to dig a ditch I would feel really cranky about that, but if I decide I'm making a trench because I'm gonna put in a series of new shrubs in my yard, that's a very different thing, in my perspective.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I'm curious, obviously talking about toys, talking about videogames, what do you notice or what has surprised you about the ways that toy companies and videogame have been working together? You don't have to talk specifically about these series, but things like Skylanders or Disney Infinity?
Jon-Paul Dyson: First of all, I think they've been trying to do this for a while. You go back to a game like Dark Tower, if you're familiar with that game, which is a boardgame with a computer component. Or even early videogames, like the games of Infocom that had physical components, you go back and forth. I think what Toys for Bob and Activision did, and what Paul Reiche and Fred Ford did with Skylanders was great. I think they're the first ones to really nail it, and I think part of that was because they had an appreciation for both sides of the equation. I know I’ve talked with Paul Reiche, and he and Fred Ford, they love toys. And they love videogames. I don't know if you know Paul or not, but he loves games in general. I think his first job, real job was working for TSR and Dungeons and Dragons stuff.
So I think the success of those are I think both they're finally able to figure out a way that did this effectively. Other people tried to do this before, and it really hadn't worked. To some extent it's the execution, they executed it really well. But then once they executed it, they showed other people how to do it. So Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions and Amiibo and everything else -- in many ways, they're following the script that they laid out, that came from great execution and this love of toys.
I think we're going to see more and more of this combining the virtual and digital because it's the way we live. Does it always make better play? I don't think so, necessarily. But there are some neat ways out there that really can combine those two in fun ways, whether that's primarily a physical experience, or whether that's a virtual experience. There's this card game called, I think it's called One Night. It's about werewolves and villagers, and you use an app to help you in the game. Or a game like Johann Sebastian Joust, which is a very physical game, but using a videogame component. Or games that might use augmented reality, or other aspects of it. There's I think a lot of possibilities here. Chris can probably talk more about the toy industry and how it's reacting to this.
Chris Bensch: It might be a little more cynical in that they see which way the wind is blowing and every toy has to have a chip in it, whether it actually accentuates the play or just raises the price point. I've heard some analysis that grandparents are the worst for buying toys, that they always go for the ones with added features, because they want the super-deluxe version, whether it's really the most fun or the best play experience for kids, that if it's got batteries and five additional features, that must be the one to give to the beloved grandchild. I think that one of the factors is that in things like Skylanders is the computing power and the technology has advanced to the point that it feels seamless in a way that kludgy versions earlier didn't, or felt cumbersome or felt like one side of the equation or the other was subsidiary.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think ultimately, good play is what determines what's a good toy or a good videogame. And that may be a purely physical experience, it may be a purely virtual experience, or it may be doing sort of cyborg mash-ups between the two. I think in the course that you'll see a lot of gimmicky sort of things, as Chris was saying, meant to appeal to people by selling them the bells and whistles. Good play is, I think, will always in the end when you look at -- people tire of something if it's only about the technological gimmicks. We talk about this idea of affordances in -- when we look at toys and I think it holds true for videogames: What sort of play does this afford, does this make possible? I think there are reasons why kids will play with sticks or cardboard boxes, a lot longer than they'll play with a lot of videogames or toys that do too many things. [Laughs.] Ultimately it's about the play that the plaything produces, and less can mean more.
I'm curious, too, about the way that play is gendered. I had heard at toy companies there are divisions for boys and girls that are treated as separate entities? As far as toys for boys or toys for girls.
Chris Bensch: I have seen that on business cards for big companies: Senior VP for Boys Toys. So.
When did that sort of separation start, and why?
Chris Bensch: It's actually been sadly increasing in a lot of ways, and there's been a lot of criticism of places like Toys "R" Us and Target for their segregation of their aisles. But some of it is parents are looking for the cues, and, “If it's purple or pink it's what I should be browsing from for all the items out there in the whole toy universe for my daughter?” It's a selling point as much as it's something that is heartfelt. J.P. has boys and girls in his own family, whether he has fallen victim so some of those things, dynamics.
Jon-Paul Dyson: We raise only gender-neutral children, and so we have no differentiation -- I'm joking there.
I was going to laugh, but I didn't want to offend you. [Laughs.] I suppressed a laugh. But no, yeah, that registered.
Jon-Paul Dyson: Sarcasm doesn't always play as well without the facial expressions.
No, yeah, but this is the first time we've talked. I hear you.
Jon-Paul Dyson: These things I would say always existed in interplay between culture and biology. There probably is some differentiation between what boys like to play with and what girls like to play with as a whole. Again, this is not true at the margins, but generally, psychologists have stated that boys do tend to gravitate toward certain things like movement, while girls tend to gravitate more towards connections between individuals. And so this lends itself then to differences in the playthings that they tend to gravitate towards. And then I think toy companies magnify these in the interest of profits, probably, and as Chris said, just to be helpful. Sometimes you're that parent or grandparent or aunt and uncle, you'd think, “Where do you start at this universe here?”
Certainly there's been some historical precedent for this I think both ways. If you look at packaging, say with building construction materials. All their stuff seems to be oftentimes gender neutral in its advertising. Boys and girls building together. But on the other hand, you have certain things like Erector Sets, which are marketed especially to boys, as part of turning a boy into a man. Or Lionel Trains, which was as much about the fathers as it was about the sons, I think.
So there's some historical legacy of this, but I think Chris is right that probably there's gotten to be more of this, especially in the retail level than maybe there used to be.
I'm sure you have seen the pushback about things like wondering why there are missing female characters from action figure lineups. I haven't seen the new Star Wars but I know that there is a central main character who is female, that for some reason has been very difficult to find action figures for. I think of stuff like this, and I don't think you can necessarily do a one-to-one comparison to something like Gamergate, but I am curious, has there been sort of a big schism or ugly pushback in toys as we say in videogames sort of a year and a half ago?
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think again it's cyclical. If you look at stuff from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, there's a lot of reaction to gender-skewing in toys. Or in the 1980s, Chris and I were talking about the Barbie Liberation Organization stuff.
Chris Bensch: We have. I forget the year, '93, maybe, that a small group called the Barbie Liberation Organization, BLO, swapped voice boxes between talking G.I. Joes and the infamous Barbie who said "math class is tough" or words to that effect.
I remember that.
Chris Bensch: It was a publicity stunt to reveal how these were so destructive for people of both genders that only have one model in front of them. It was a good point, but it didn't change the world unfortunately.
Jon-Paul Dyson: But we have examples of them at the museum, and we explore some of those issues in our Play Pals Exhibit, for instance, which looks at the history of these.
In general, why do you think that happens, where the audience for a consumer entertainment product acts like they own the entire medium, or become almost like self-appointed guardians of them? Why does that happen?
Chris Bensch: You're thinking of things like Gamergate, or?
Yeah, I mean I think that's one example of behavior like that. I think you sort of see it among maybe younger music fans, or younger -- you know the sort of behavior I'm talking about? Most specifically I am referring to videogames, but sort of the way it manifested itself around videogames, at least about a year and a half ago at its most vitriolic was people making death threats, or race threats, or bomb threats over people making videogames that somehow they perceived a threat to the types of videogames that they like, and so they acted on that impulse very violently online.
I think that's sort of one instance of people acting like they own a medium -- certainly not everyone who grew up playing videogames necessarily felt that way or reached that conclusion. Maybe that's a little bit of a broad question, but I'm curious if you have any insight into that?
Chris Bensch: I think part of it is that social media gives them a billboard that they never had before to proclaim your emotions, and to proclaim your feelings in an anonymous way, so that people have a chance to vent other than to your best chum.
Jon-Paul Dyson: And that has a corrosive effect, I think, on the way people act. But people were always so passionate -- I remember, going back into the reaches of time, I think back when I was in high school or something, back in the 1980s, and people felt pretty passionate about what music you listened to. You were pretty disparaging of those types of music that you didn't like. You thought you were cool and you were into new wave or something like that, and you couldn't stand the pop stuff someone else was listening to. Or the opposite, or I don't know.
As we are starting to see more museums have videogames within their walls, do you get a sense that some institutions may be sort of forcing games into an existing mold that works for other mediums, that may not work so great for videogames?
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think videogames are by their nature a mixed medium, and so I think there are a lot of different ways to look at them. We're looking at them from an angle of play, and that's our particular approach. If you -- the Computer History Museum is going to look at it differently. MoMA is looking -- in my understanding -- they're looking at it from a lens of design. An art museum might look at them from another: How does this resemble a work of great art? Or a history museum looks from a historical perspective. A children's museum from a children's perspective.
So I think they are -- because of the nature of the medium, there's so many different aspects of them. They're play, they're art, they're narrative, they're story. There are a lot of different lenses. I don't think there's one good way of looking at them. There are people trying to create videogame history-only museums, that's the only thing that that's about. I guess we're pretty welcoming. I think there are a lot of different reasons why we need to be looking at them. We feel it's a medium worth looking at, from the beginning we said we're going to need more than one museum looking at them.
What elements of game culture surprises you?
Jon-Paul Dyson: Game culture in general? I would say I'm maybe more of a -- and I hate to use this term -- gamer of the two of us. And maybe it's more useful with Chris going first, looking from a bit of a not total outsider perspective but --
Chris Bensch: I don't know that there's something so different between the kinds of emotions or investment that people have in their favorites. One of the things though that videogames do have, is people have a capacity to keep playing with them longer in terms of years, and investing enormous chunks of time. When Jane McGonigal was here, she was talking about statistics of how much cumulative time people had put into Bejeweled or -- I forget the example she was giving. That's something that the capacity to play these things on your mobile device at a moment's notice doesn't require inviting friends over for a game of bridge, setting up the card table. It creates opportunity for play where there weren't any before. The kinds of immersion that something like World of Warcraft cultivates in its players is unlike even the most ardent toy person would experience, except on the most rare basis.
It's different in dynamic, but not different in quality but perhaps in quantity in a number of ways.
What do each of you think is maybe not the most under-appreciated, but the most overlooked item in your museum that you wish people would pay more attention to?
Chris Bensch: There's 400,000 items to pick from in the collection.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think in general, one of the things we talk about at the museum is how can we actually create exhibits, or create experiences or guide people when they come to the museum, elevate certain things in their consciousness so they realize, "Hey, this is a real treasure, here." This is maybe not the first thing I'd go with, but something like we have the prototype for Monopoly here, that was created by Charles Darrow. It was part of an exhibit that tells a larger story. It's something that we talk about, and is very significant. But I think if you think about the role of Monopoly plays, and decided its success as a product that's sold I don't know how many copies every year since it came out -- so it has been an enormous seller, but also I think it has this very important role in shaping the culture, and who we are as Americans. The notion of capitalism, it's something we learn early on: how to bankrupt your opponent. That's the primary goal.
So I think it's had a very important cultural effect, and here we have the prototype for how it developed. To me, that's something that while on the one hand is not underappreciated from our own internal perspective, I think from a broader audience, I don't know how many people in America we have the --
Chris Bensch: -- the original Monopoly here.
Jon-Paul Dyson: The original Monopoly here. So that's something I think we want to get the word out more about. Without this game, he probably would have never made this copy, it would have just fade into history, I think. So that's something that I guess I wish more people knew about. Not that there's not more obscure things that make interesting cultural points to me, but that's something from a broader perspective.
Chris Bensch: I guess I might -- just picking up on a thread of our discussion earlier, that maybe the dolls in our collection are underappreciated because of that gender divide, and the whole -- girls and women will look at boys and men's things in a way that doesn't necessarily work in the opposite direction. One of the gratifying things to me is we've recently reinstalled some pretty neat dollhouses with internal lighting and great detailed furniture and things like that, and it's been fascinating and encouraging to see people of every age and diversity of gender stopping and examining those. Whether they've got kids with them on their visit or not, and our inherent love of cool, little things that are so astonishing in their realism or send you into an imaginative world, and the fact that maybe that's a bridge on the edge of the gender dividing line. It's a little bit like a building, but it's a little bit like doll-play, and it's something that we can all find intriguing in a number of dimensions.
I am brought back to a donor who gave us a 20’-by-20’ toy, a train layout, a couple who had done this together. And the wife says she's not going to become a toy train widow and leave her husband to this, but her territory was the landscape, and his was the wiring underneath the table that they built this on. And she said, "It's basically like a giant, outdoor dollhouse!" And she loved the reality of the trains and the tracks and the trestles, and they both had a phenomenal time together, creating this thing that allowed them to meet on this common ground.
Jon-Paul Dyson: I think that's a great example, because I think it points that the dollhouse comes out of this basic form of construction play, and so I think it's the same motivation that a kid who is spending a lot of time in Minecraft has. He's essentially building, making dollhouses. And so I think perhaps even seeing the dollhouses, because it's like Minecraft, you can come at it with a new appreciation. That's I think one reason why that game -- I don't know if it's a game or a toy -- has been so successful, is because it can really cross genders. So I think that dollhouses are a good example.
Flashing back to the beginning of our conversation, it makes sense you said your experience and focus blend together, because really it doesn't really make sense to segregate types of play. You don't necessarily see a museum for just spicy foods, you know? I mean you could and you might, but we don't really always think about separating all out the types of things we experience. Do you run across people who either come into the museum or who you talk to, who act as though toys and videogames are separate in some way?
Chris Bensch: Yeah. I think that's largely a generational experience. I think going forward that divide will not exist, people will grow up with both of them. It'll be one continuum of play, and you wouldn't cuddle up at night with your console under the sheets to keep you comfort on a stormy night. So there's a place for both of them that is special, unique and you'd be incomplete if you blocked yourself off from either end of the spectrum, or the gloried space in between.
That said, I will segregate toys from videogames here, just to see if we can root out any potential difference or distinction, but what do you think toys have accomplished?
Chris Bensch: I'm not sure that "accomplish" is the right word. Maybe this is my personality type on the Myers-Briggs scale, I am a “P” Perceiver as opposed to a “J” Judger. As a historian I'm an observer and I document what happens and what exists. I don't tend to view it through a value lens. We have the hits of the toy and videogame world, and we have the total bloopers. We just did a little display called "What Were They Thinking?" about really awful playthings in any number of ways, from safety or marketing, or really bad names. That is all part of the picture of how life goes. One of the things we want to have and one of the reasons we've got 450,000 items here is we want to give a rich resource for people in the present, and people in the future to look at our particular piece of American history and world history, and to give them the opportunity to delve like you into the dimensions of what that reveals about us.
I guess I don't think in the "accomplished" word. Sorry to step on your question.
What do you think about videogames and what they have made possible?
Jon-Paul Dyson: First of all, I think there is often a permeable boundary between toys and videogames. I have an essay that's coming out in a couple months, from a new book where I talk about toys within the context of videogames. But I think one of the things -- videogames are great at opening worlds, opening imaginative worlds in the ways that a great book or a great movie, or a great game can do. But also, I think videogames are a great way to tap into and magnify basic channels of play, basic ways we enjoy playing. That could be a racing game, you love to race. Well you put that into that competitive piece into it -- in your videogame, and you can add all sorts of fun elements.
So they really are able to, again, tap into this rich desire for play that we have instinctively, and that brings such enjoyment and richness to life. So then in turn, they in turn -- for us, they bring that enjoyment and richness into our own life, both personally and also together, as we play them together. Whether that's online, or on the couch next to each other. So they make life richer, I think, is the bottom line. I would say this is true of most videogames and toys. They make life richer because they appeal to, and allow us to do more along certain basic play channels that we have. They magnify how we can play, and the ways we can play, and the places that play can take us. Again, I think that's true of both videogames and toys.
Chris Bensch: I'm thinking of the ways that maybe videogames extend play later in life, in a way that didn't occur in generations before ours. One of the iconic legends in my personal family history -- I love toy cars, and playing with them. I played later with toy cars than lots of kids do. I don't know whether I was 11 or what, but I came to my mom with my toy car and I said, "It's no fun anymore, because I know how it's going to come out!" I was framing this whole story and it was all linear, and it wasn't the thrill of discovery, that kind of flow state that the best play cultivates in us.
I think maybe videogames help bridge that age drop-off when you can pretend, and it gives you a pretend world to be in that you don't have to imagine what's next. There are all these branching options within the software that takes you places you can't necessarily predict, in a way that my flow play as a kid with my toy cars did when I was eight. That's an achievement, and it's a fascinating dimension to our lives today.