By Alexander Edelson
The Sarnoff Collection is known for hosting innovative and original exhibitions. As part of a temporary exhibit the collection has been hosting called “Playing with Innovation: The Games of Joseph Weisbecker,” usable works and games were featured as part of “Board Games Day” on Saturday, March 24.
During the interactive event, students could play with some of the board games Weisbecker originally invented. The event ran from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the second floor of Roscoe West Hall.
Joseph Weisbecker was a computer scientist and a game designer who began his work in the 1950s. Most of Weisbecker’s inventions were simple educational aids intended to teach people unfamiliar with computers about the principles of computer science in an entertaining way.
Some of his inventions include a computer that plays tic-tac-toe and a plastic game structured around basic computer concepts. He also was involved in introducing the early personal computer as a recreational and educational tool, Flexible Recreational and Educational Device.
Weisbecker liked to refer to it as F.R.E.D. Some of his greatest contributions to computer science have spawned from F.R.E.D. and brought about prototype microcomputers.
“He thought that computers should get small so people could play games on them,” said Florencia Pierri, the curator of the Sarnoff Collection. “So we have this temporary exhibit about his computer games, but they aren’t computer games as we would think of them.”
Weisbecker made the board games out of traditional paper, plastic and pencils — an unusual approach to teach the general public about computers and programming logic.
A strategy game called “Psychedelic No. 9” and “The Amazing New Enigmatic Stack Puzzle” were among the games at the exhibit. Both of the games consist entirely out of paper cutouts and are intended to teach logical thinking.
“Psychedelic No. 9” is a two-player game in which each player has a card and takes turns picking one puzzle piece from the nine in a shared pot. The objective is to pick three pieces that will fit over the player’s card perfectly, or put back a piece in the pot before picking up another one.
“They are sort of board games with computer games,” Pierri said.
Although the games are true to the original design of Weisbecker, they are not Weisbecker’s original pieces.
“We recently had an artist in residence, Imin Yeh, from Carnegie Mellon who recreated some of these games,” Pierri said. “She is an artist who works with paper so she crafted a paper blue LED and also these games. She recreated them so they are playable because the original prototypes are museum pieces but she made them exactly the same so people could play with them today.”
The turnout was higher than workers at the Sarnoff Collection expected for a sunny Saturday.
“We’ve gotten a few people — we’re not very well trafficked but we got more people than usual,” Pierri said on the popularity of the event.
Students appreciated the chance to learn more about Weisbecker’s hybrids between computer games and board games.
“I’m very lucky to have this position. It relates to what I study and learn about,” said Leighton Heisey, a student worker for the Sarnoff Collection and a senior art history major.
Heisey found the exhibit both interesting and educational.
“I’ve haven’t had any good experience with computers or technology, but working here, I learned a lot about the field,” Heisey said. “A lot of computer science people actually come in for classes, and their professors often send them here to look at one of the exhibits, so I think that’s cool.”
The games built in the ’60s can still teach and intrigue people decades later in an exhibit that showcases the best of Weisbecker and his continuingly relevant contributions to education and computer science.