My Interview with Stephen Jacobs, Scholar-in-Residence at the Strong National Museum of Play

Stephen Jacobs is a Professor of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Strong National Museum of Play. Stephen is a media theorist by training, who’s been working with The Strong in Video Game and Traditional Toy and Game Design and History for almost 15 years. His Global Toy News article, “The Strong: A Brief Jewish History of the Toy and Game Industry: Nuremberg, Germany,” was published on December 22, 2022.

Here is my interview:

Richard: You have some very interesting job titles. Can you describe what your job entails for each of these titles?  

Stephen:  At the Rochester Institute of Technology, I am a founding member of the faculty and one of three authors of the original degree proposal, writing some of the first college courses in game design and game writing in the US.

I have taught courses in addition to those topics I also teach courses in the international industry, taking students to Germany and Japan as part of those.   At The Strong, I have been part of the design teams for the first US permanent exhibit on video games in the US, eGameRevolutionRockets, Robots, and Rayguns, our temporary exhibit on the history of Science-Fiction toys and games, and on the upcoming Level-Up. The latter is one of two new permanent exhibits opening in the Museum’s new expansion on June 30thLevel Up is an interactive exhibit on the active components of video games that visitors will get an RFID bracelet to play through, track their scores, save an avatar, and more. I also help them make industry connections, acquire donations of material for the archives and attract and run conferences on-site.  

Richard: Despite your involvement with digital play, you seem to have a passion for physical toy play and its history. What draws you to physical toy play? Were you always interested in toys and play?  

Stephen: Yes!  I’ve always been a lover of toys.  The three categories are stuffed animals, etc, mechanical toys and electronic toys, and SF-themed ones.  The last two are probably not surprising; the first probably goes back to having bad allergies and asthma as a child and having an allergist recommend that mine be taken from me.  The first replacement was an inflatable plastic Mickey Mouse, which though well-intentioned, was not an adequate replacement 🙂  

Richard: You have written two articles which we have published on Global Toy News: The Strong: A Brief Jewish History of the Toy and Game Industry: Nuremberg, Germany, and A Brief Jewish History of the Toy and Game Industry: The United States. These are timely and important articles. Can you tell me what prompted you to write about the Jewish connection with toys?  

Stephen: In 2014, my former Rabbi and cherished friend Rob Morais was working with the Shalom Street Children’s Museum in the Detroit JCC and wanted to create the first museum exhibit on play and toys in Jewish secular and religious life. It was called Across the Board: From Dreidel to XBOX and it opened in 2015.  

When we started working on it together, I said, “Just like there were a handful of famous Jewish Major League ball players, there are a handful of successful Jewish-founded toy companies, Madame Alexander, Lionel Trains, Mattel, and Hasbro. We should do a mini “Hall of Fame as part of the exhibit.”

I had no idea how broad and deep a history I was about to learn about.   Doing my initial research, I hit the Toy Association’s Hall of Fame and quickly saw that roughly 1/3rd of those honored were from Jewish backgrounds.

The Strong includes Pinball in their collections, and I saw the significant Jewish leadership there. I looked at the Nuremberg story and saw the history there.    Soon I had a list of over 100 founders and companies over 200 years.  I asked my colleagues at The Strong, who knew of some, but nowhere near all the companies I’d listed, and they were surprised. They confirmed my initial research.  I then went to my high-school friend, Arthur Kiron, the archivist of the Jewish collections at the University of Pennsylvania. He told me he had seen nothing in the Jewish academic world covering this history.  

The blog posts for The Strong are a first step in telling the story as I know it now to a larger audience.  The Strong and I are discussing the possibility of a Google Arts and Culture virtual exhibit on the topic to go live in the fourth quarter of next year, and I’ve just completed a book proposal on the topic aimed at a mass market instead of a scholarly one to tell the story more broadly. On the academic/scholarly side, I’ll be speaking on this as part of the International Toy Research Association conference that will be held on-site at The Strong the second week of August.  

Richard: In doing your research for these articles, did anything surprise you, shock you, or amuse you?  

Stephen:  The major attraction was the individual stories of these people; they’re just amazing.  The whole German history, Gebruder Bing’s impact worldwide, the ingenuity of Ernst Paul Lehman’s mechanical toy designs, for example.  The early growth of the US industry pre-war with Lionel’s impact, Leo Schlesinger’s early participation and leadership in what would become the Toy Association, and his founding of the New York Hebrew Technical Institute to provide poor Jewish boys with early professional and employment skills, for example.

Then there’s the whole shift, post World War II, to US leadership. Big stories like Marvin Glass, his solidifying and expanding the role of the 3rd party toy and game designer, Louis Marx’s impact on the industry, and more.  But there are also the stories of returning US GIs like Eddy Goldfarb, the independent designer initially known for Yakitty Yak Teeth, and Charles Lazurus, creating Toys R Us and essentially the category of  “big box” retail at the same time. 

There are immigrants to the US like Ralph Baer, who left Germany with his family as a teenager, just before Kristallnacht, became a weapons expert for the US Army during World War II, and invented the home videogame console while working as an electronics engineer in the defense industry.

There’s  Ukranian-born Michael Kogan, a serial entrepreneur who founded the Taito Corporation that would become one of the leading Japanese video game companies. Similarly the merger of Jewish-American founded companies Rosen Enterprises and Service Games of Japan, would become today’s Japanese video game titan Sega Corporation.   

In many ways, the history of the toy and games industry in general, and the Jewish part of that history specifically, is a history of America’s rise as an industrial and commercial mover and shaker through a specific set of lenses.    Its media history, with the impact of television advertising, on toys and games and eventually toys and games, generated content on TV, starting with Mattel and Hasbro’s early success in sponsoring the Mickey Mouse Club and advertising Mister Potato Head, respectively. 

Its technology history, with the introduction of industrial plastics and rubber, lowered the barrier to entry of toy design and manufacturing as we moved away from steel, tin, and wood as the primary materials for products.   It’s a combination of the two, with the introduction of computer chips and Ralph Baer’s vision of “playing games on a TV” taking us from a simple tennis simulation to the largest media firm in the world.   And last, but entrepreneurs, and inventors went to the fringes, to new industries and technologies, where there weren’t established hierarchies to prevent them from using their talents to earn a living.    In early 2020 I talked with Gary Stern, a second-generation pinball entrepreneur and owner of the only major pinball company, Stern Pinball.  He told me he once asked his father, Sam, why he’d gotten into pinball, and Sam said, “What was I gonna do, go work for IBM?”  Industries like electronic media or toys weren’t founded exclusively by Jewish designers, entrepreneurs, and inventors. Still, they became a big part of those industries because they were sectors that didn’t bar them from participation, and that makes all the difference.        

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