The Strong | National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York
What Is a Monster?
The word “monster” shares the same Latin root as “demonstrate.” And so, the examples of abnormal, hideous, imaginary creatures that haunt myths, ghost stories, and horror fiction and film mean to teach hearers, readers, and viewers a lesson. Something basic has gone wrong with the natural way of things; evil has broken loose. We humans are often to blame for the damage they do. The Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, describes Grendel the “demon grim,” as “unnatural,” “bigger than any,” and “warped in the shape of a man.” Mary Shelley brought Dr. Frankenstein’s hulking unhappy, taunted monster unnaturally to life in her 19th-century classic. And Godzilla was the product of strange, modern, manmade radiation. Science-fiction delivered up a wave of evil robots and malevolent androids, too—Terminators, Decepticons, Borgs, androids, and dysfunctional computers gone rogue. As authors and filmmakers played with these types, they discovered their antitypes—good robots, noble Transformers, reformed computers, and self-sacrificing giant atomic reptiles that turn into defenders by default. When humans join the good monsters in fantasy, battling the bad monsters, children and adults alike begin to conquer their own fears.
In dim bars, darkened arcades, college game rooms, and other small venues in the late 1990s, players of this pinball machine reveled in the clichés of the horror film genre. This machine attracted gamers with flashing lights; the ricocheting chrome ball drew their eyes to the playfield; and booming speakers rewarded them with spooky sound-effects, urgent guitar riffs, and bits of maniacal laughter and dialogue delivered in comic Transylvanian accents. The game invited devotees to recruit a rock band made up of movie familiars—Dr. Frankenstein’s monster on keyboard, Dracula on lead guitar, the Bride of Frankenstein singing backup, the Creature from the Black Lagoon on sax, and a reawakened Mummy, looking menacing, playing base. Today, pinball collectors and players regard the game as a masterpiece.
What's more immersive than playing a pinball game? If you're really at one with the game, if you're really in sync, if you're really in 'the zone,' you are the pinball machine. For that 10 seconds or 20 seconds or a minute, where everything is just kind of clicking, there's no difference between you and the game.
I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon … I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. His eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Orcs vs. Humans
In his novel The Hobbit (1937), and in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955), J.R.R. Tolkien drew from medieval tales to imagine a race of monstrous orcs—pallid underground dwellers ambitious for conquest and hungry for man-flesh. These goblins resurface in electronic role-playing games that feature titanic struggles between humans and the forces of darkness. They appear vividly in the Warcraft strategy-game series that requires players to gather armies, mine and manage resources, and plan tactics for extended combat between equally-matched enemies on land, air, and sea, and spread across continents on the planet Azeroth and then to other worlds. This game, Warcraft II, sold more than two million copies after its introduction in 1996.
Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, but they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well…. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything.
Dream Machines as Perfect Nightmares
Intricate wind-up automata and realistic dolls teeter at the boundary of a comfort zone. They sometimes feel creepy. At play we revel in balancing at the edge of the uncanny feeling that arises from an encounter with an object that moves and talks like it is alive, but is not. In fiction and film, artificial beings like robots and androids can be marvelous or monstrous, helpful or dreadful. Fritz Lang’s searing dystopian vision, Metropolis (1927), explored the frightful side with an evil maschinenmensch, a machine-human, a soulless robot version of the beautiful and innocent Maria. Real, human Maria, a gentle prophetess of industrial peace, had foretold an age of harmony between workers and owners. But bad, seductive, robot doppelganger Maria, devoid of a conscience and without a moral sense to guide her, roused the rabble and invited riot, destruction, and murder.
Atomic Monster of Awful Warning
Atomic radiation awakened (or created) a “gorilla/whale,” the mutated gojira that emerged from Tokyo Bay with devastating results in Ishirō Honda’s mournful 1954 film, Godzilla. In the 1956 version, aimed at the American market, the beast towered at 400 feet—tall enough to smash the built landscape and set it afire with his “atomic breath.” The monster seemed to arise both as a result of the American atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as an indiscriminant punishment for the Japanese militarists who started World War II in the Pacific. The film suggests that nature won’t tolerate such human outrages and so promises retribution. The original movie ends when a heroic Japanese scientist deploys a new, terrible weapon against the rampaging monster and takes the secret of his weapon with him to his death. Thus the movie’s second message: man is not meant to hold such power. Mechanical toys, like this one from 1977, sold well after a spate of new low-budget features refreshed the Godzilla character as Japan’s last defense against other, even worse monsters. Kids who played with these fantastic beings wielded them and vanquished them by turns, and so absorbed some of their strength.
This is Tokyo. Once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of Man's imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown, an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could at any time lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could've told of what they saw... now there are only a few.
Steve Martin, Narrator
Godzilla: King of Monsters
We Aren’t Monsters
At least we hope we aren’t. Saying who we are isn’t easy, as the effort entwines us in complicated questions of morality, history, nationality, region, neighborhood, ethnicity, gender, class, political affiliation, family size, and dozens of other factors. It’s much easier in the end to say who we aren’t. So who aren’t we? Science fiction has gratifying answers. We aren’t multi-limbed, bulbous-eyed, bloodthirsty Martian invaders who would overwhelm a defenseless civilization. We aren’t creatures whose overdeveloped brains and withered bodies make for soul-less calculation. We aren’t co-dependent on machines and connected to a hive-mind like Star Trek’s Borg Queen. Neither are we a species driven by blind passion and boundless greed toward warfare, like Star Trek’s Ferengi or Klingons. And we aren’t little green kidnappers, who transport their victims across space for scientific and other immoral purposes. All these antitypes add up to reassuring checklists of bad inhuman qualities that we hope don’t belong to us, or, at least, that we wish may no longer belong to us.
Are Monsters from Mars?
Monsters from Mars bring earthlings’ fears to life. We imagine a desolate Mars: its canals filling with red dust, its ecology collapsing, and a desperate species on the brink of extinction. And further, we picture these parched Martians seething with jealousy at the sight of the verdant Earth, hanging so tantalizingly nearby. The fantasy of alien attack arises from our own aggressive impulses. Our planet’s own violent history makes it easy for our thoughts to travel the prospect of a defenseless Earth left scorched and burned. Most famously, H. G. Wells told of a Martian invasion in his novel from 1897, The War of the Worlds. For more than a century, radio dramatists, moviemakers, and comic book artists have retold the compelling tale. As the story usually goes, alien invaders succumb to unexpected resistance and basic resilience—whether from simple bacteria or a computer virus—along with humble earthly faith and fortitude.
They were huge, round bodies, or rather heads, about four feet in diameter; each body had in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell--but it has a pair of very large, dark-colored eyes, and just beneath this, a kind of fleshy beak....
H. G. Wells
War of the Worlds
All-American Immigrant Superhero
Superman grew up in the country’s heartland, on a family farm in Smallville. He moved to Metropolis to work as a reporter. A decent fellow with a strong sense of fairness, he’s so well assimilated that it’s easy to forget that he had emigrated to Kansas. In fact, he’s an undocumented alien. He brought industriousness with him from his home planet, Krypton, along with special strengths, the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” for example, and a gift for flying “faster than a speeding bullet.” These talents came in handy as he fought for “truth, justice, and ‘the American way’” against a staggering variety of bullies and villains—Nazis, criminal gangs, sociopathic geniuses, and rogue generals from the old extraterrestrial neighborhood. Like immigrants, kids spend their early lives as newcomers to often unsettling new experiences. This is why they assume the identities and personalize the tales of the superheroes that they encounter in comic books, television programs, and films, or on this long-playing record, from 1975. At play kids feel the power.
Ray Guns: Tools of the Imagination
Fanciful blasters and ray guns became the props of fantastic cosmic sagas. Fueled by comic strips, radio serials, and books, and armed with toy weapons, American kids imagined themselves as heroes of their own space adventures. The backyard became a Marsscape, the picnic table an alien fortress. As Americans considered future travel and exploration in space, they often looked backward. Rocketry, developed during World War II, opened up a new, near-earth future frontier in the 1950s and 1960s; but as minds traveled to exploration and then to conquest, space-toy design partook of forms familiar in the Wild West. Spacemen and later spacewomen toted hand-held energyweapons that blasted out electron beams, radiated focused heat, or emitted atomic particle waves that disintegrated menacing aliens. The weapons could also paralyze rather than kill; a sub-lethal option that preserved fictional opponents and playmates for the plot twists of prolonged pretend play. A playmate merely stunned could revive to play some more.
Playing an Unwinnable Game against Aliens
In 1978, the Japanese arcade game Space Invaders took the U.S. market by storm. This first version of the game set up a dramatic, schematic, suspenseful, no-win scenario. The player, a defender of Earth, wielded a laser-cannon emplaced in fortified bunkers at the base of the screen and moved it back-and-forth, firing upward. Return bolts from above eroded the ground fortifications. Rank upon rank of alien spacecrafts continued to descend, relentlessly. Destroy the invaders, and the game only replaces them more rapidly. The object of the contest? Holding out as long as possible. Note how Japan’s history from 40 years earlier echoes in the background of Space Invaders; after invading their neighbors at the outset of World War II, defenders of that besieged island went down to defeat after decisive, aerial attack.
Space Invaders jammed gnarled, bug-like aliens into columns and rows, then set them two-stepping to a simple heartbeat rhythm. Your job? Lobbing wire-thin missiles from a movable ground-based turret and chipping away as they slowly descended like a parade of hellish line dancers.
November 15, 2012
Unidentified Flying Play Object
This home-made artifact, the idea of a flying saucer, came into The Strong’s collections in 2000, without provenance or background explanation. Its silhouette seems to belong to an earlier era. Aliens fly in black triangles now, or in silver spheres, or in boxy craft that look like beach condominium buildings. But this toy seems not too far from the pie-plates flung upward and photographed in the late 1940s and 1950s; hoaxes that purported to document the arrival of real extraterrestrial crafts. The United States Air Force coined the technical term “UFO” in 1952, prudently declining to speculate and identify the thing up there with any specific language. Conspiracy theorists made the most of ambiguity. Hollywood helped us imagine and picture them vividly, too. Thanks to the magic effects of animator Ray Harryhausen, flying disks devastated Washington, DC, in the B-movie classic, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), slicing off the Washington Monument at its base, smashing into the Capitol building, and, alas, making a wreck of the Library of Congress.
The film shows a formation of round, bright objects going like a bat out of hell. They're also maneuvering in the formation, and at the end one of the saucers reverses its course and leaves the rest. But it's what the analysis shows that counts. It proves the things were round machines of some kind, making speeds and turns no plane on earth could duplicate.
Flying Saucers from Outer Space
Playing Loose with the Truth
Hoaxes, often not especially nice, fun, or fair, lurk at the edge of play. And the scary thought of invading aliens have inspired clever pranksters. This game about invading aliens, for example, came at the end of a long line of fibs and frauds. The story began this way. In 1947, during the Cold War, American scientists from the top-secret “Project Mogul” that monitored Russian nuclear weapons tests launched a surveillance balloon carrying a disk-shaped instrument package for “listening” to far-off blast waves. It crashed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. At first, the U.S. Army Air Force information office admitted it had recovered a device. But soon they followed up the sketchy account with a fishy cover-story. Press officers insisted that this was merely a “weather balloon.” But the awkward fiction, a snow job if ever there were one, tempted the local press, always eager to sell newspapers, to claim that soldiers had “captured” a “flying saucer.” Conspiracy theorists revived “the Roswell Incident” in the late 1970s and drew in true believers. Then in 1995, a London-based video entrepreneur produced a fake documentary showing the dissection of a very dead buggy-eyed and apparently female “grey alien.” Advertising for the electric Alien Autopsy Game in UFO Magazine in 1996 promised that if you made “one wrong move … its screams will set you running!” Yikes!
We’re regularly bombarded with extravagant UFO claims, but only rarely do we get to hear about their comeuppance. This isn’t hard to understand. Which sells more newspapers or books? Which garners higher ratings? Which is more fun to believe? Which is more resonant with the torment of our times? Real, crashed alien ships, or con-men preying on the gullible?
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Alien vs. Predator
We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that aliens and monsters are always after us, in particular; sometimes they’re no fonder of each other. Such was the case with the horrible beasts from the Alien and Predator science-fiction/horror-film series. Inevitably, the two met, and when they did, nothing but trouble followed. Video games draw from fantasies about monsters and aliens to create an entirely new and vivid kind of play mediated by an artificial intelligence, the game console. Electronic games proved especially accommodating to the mutual bad feeling between these two extraterrestrial species. In this “first-person shooter” contest, players can choose their role in a complex storyline—playing the impervious Alien that drools acid from extendable mouthparts, the Predator, a hunter who can disappear, or the formidably armed Colonial Marines—all of whom are human, more or less. Players can play individually, or socially in the “multiplayer” mode, as they join teams of hunters and defenders.
Playful children tend to be less aggressive than children who don’t play. One of the important aspects of make-believe play is self-regulation and self-control. In make-believe play, children do a lot of smiling; they’re learning how to control some of their anger and aggression. Children learn that, in order to play, you have to be cooperative and helpful and share.
Reflections on Pretend Play,
Imagination, and Child Development: An Interview with Dorothy G. and Jerome L. Singer
American Journal of Play
Volume 6 Number 1
Aliens Are from Mars and Venus
When toy manufacturers eyed a market for girls, they domesticated outer-space by downplaying the standard themes of combat and conquest and by playing up housekeeping and homemaking. Girls’ toys of the late 1960s made space less hostile and alien. These cute Mini-Martians, for example, could “take you to their world where make-believe is so much fun.” Described as “pinky-high” in advertising copy, they “dwelled at ease” in a carrying-case designed as a space-module, “a home so streamlined, and all their own.” This cozy Star House featured elevated sleeping bunks, closet space for space suits, a video screen to keep in touch with friends, and a transparent wall to observe (but not battle) the rockets or conquer the planets in the vacuum outside. Though transported off-world, this toy-set envisioned girls’ homey play that emphasized security over adventure and that promised friendly relationships rather than conflict.
Boys’ toys appear to encourage imaginary play that is at least somewhat removed from everyday life, for example, outer-space toys. Boys’ toys also involve more violence than girls’ toys do. Girls’ toys, on the other hand, encourage imagination of everyday domestic life and focus on appearance and relationships.
Judith Owen Blakemore
“We Shall be Waiting for Your Answer”
The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with a disastrous misunderstanding. A space ambassador, Klaatu, has landed his flying saucer in Washington, DC, intending to deliver a message of hope to all humankind. He has brought with him a miraculous gift, a gesture of good will, a device that is small enough to hold in one hand yet will nonetheless enable study of the technology of spacefaring civilizations. But the device looks suspiciously like a ray gun. A skittish soldier shoots the visitor. And the bodyguard, Gort, a menacing, silver, eight-foot-tall alien robot-monster armed with a death-ray, vaporizes the army’s weapons. After recovering, escaping, and then conspiring with Earth’s most famous scientist, the visitor arranges a stunning demonstration of extraterrestrial power, a pulse that instantly disables the world’s electrical systems. Klaatu then delivers an ultimatum: the Earth must cease its warlike ways or “be reduced to a burned-out cinder.” Kids in pretend battle, who overheard the prospects of nuclear war and felt its overtones, recruited this action figure to tip the field of battle in their favor.
I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Right Interceptor for the Age of Anxiety
Occasionally, fictional aliens wanted to meet us and civilize us. But mostly, science-fiction films in the 1950s thrilled audiences with personalized extra-planetary threats: “radar” moon-men, vengeful Martians, lost planet airmen, mole-men, a “man from Planet X,” cat-women of the moon, phantoms, robot-monsters, strangers from space, killers from space, gamma people, and teenagers from outer space. These fiends stood in for the real worry of the Cold War era, incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with “city-busting” hydrogen bombs. If Soviet missiles could not be intercepted, luckily space monsters and saucer-men could. That is: if you could pilot an interceptor like this one, from 1960, you could participate in the common defense of Earth.
Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot—it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking. Even riding a bicycle demands an acquired skill, very different from walking. As for a spaceship, oh brother! Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians.
Robert A. Heinlein
Forced to Colonize
It is not necessarily greed or thirst for conquest that propels Earthlings outward; in the game Alien Legacy, an intergalactic war has rendered life on Earth unsustainable. Humankind’s survival hangs in the balance as spacefarers seek to create a livable new home world in a new solar system. Rules of this game promote the player to captain a ship called the Calypso that launches on a mission to discover the fate of a lost colony and to establish a self-sufficient base. Gameplay unfolds in real time, immersing players in the complex, ongoing tasks of colonization. Players must simultaneously build cities and space stations, manage resources and transportation, and deal with alien races, sometimes in combat, sometimes through diplomacy. The warlike H'riak threaten the colonists, conventionally, but fiercely. The Empiants, longstanding enemies of the H'riak, could well become Earth’s allies, but they look like squids and communicate telepathically on wavelengths nearly incompatible with human brainwaves. Even these problems are solvable, but time can run out on the desperate adventure, lending urgency to playing this game.
Conclusion: Following Monsters and Aliens down Fantasy Pathways
The monsters of old and the aliens of the future hold much in common because wonder and play power the human imagination to travel along familiar channels. Fantastic beings shift their shapes and transmute their very matter. They travel at unimaginable speed. They communicate without speaking aloud. They fight with desperate strength. They brandish weapons of unthinkable power. When ill-intentioned, they are always outsiders, outcasts, exiles or invaders, vengeful creatures from the underworld or the ocean deep, or jealous beasts from outer space. Against these tormentors, the Earth offers up valiant heroes, sorcerers armed with mysterious wands of power, or space warriors equipped with particle beam weapons just out of range of current technology. It’s magic either way.
Aliens and Monsters: Playing with Creatures from the Deep is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Learn more at www.museumofplay.org.