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Gaming Culture and Its Influence on Historical Presentation

Updated on December 19, 2019

Archivists and digital historians face a range of problems when it comes to the presentation of their chosen subject. Sometimes the presentation is as simple as what color text to use or what font setting looks best, but sometimes the presentation is much more than that. As technology and society blend more, public historians and information professionals need to rethink how they display history and how it can be better used. One such aspect which is becoming more common on historical websites is gameplay and interactivity. The purpose of this paper is to explore the intersectionality between historical presentation, digital preservation, and social gamification. This paper will argue the vital influence video games have had on presentation and the dissemination of information online. Rob Johnson of the Information Management and Practice Department at the National Archives wrote a blog post in 2014 on the idea of ‘gamification’ in information management. In this article, he explains, “gamification is about understanding behaviors, in order to design and implement techniques to incentivize people to follow certain processes. It draws upon the kind of dynamics that computer game developers have been grappling with for a long time…”[1] His statement and theory is important to keep in mind moving forward and proves at least one point: video games have permeated the world of information science and memory institutions in multiple ways. Since the 1960s, video game culture has flooded all levels of our society and everyone has been influenced by video game culture.

The interactivity of video games is focus of this important discussion, because video games more than any other audiovisual technology rely on interaction with the audience to be of any use. Music, television, film, even audiobooks as the growing trend continues, are static. They exist in a single form and will never change no matter how many times it is listened to or watched. Two people might interact in front of these visual forms, but no two people will ever play the exact same video game- because the game changes with each decision made by the player. This type of interactivity was uncommon in early historical websites, which existed mostly as text and links, perhaps some images and sound clips. As history becomes digitized, the tools which public historians use also change. According to Josh Howard’s essay, ‘Talk-Back Boards and Text Mining,’ “[s]ince the late 1970s, museums have deployed talk-back boards, an interactive exhibit that encourages anonymous public responses to question prompts, as a way to engage visitors.”[2] This happened to be around the time video games started becoming more accessible and noticed by a wider audience. While there is no proof to suggest video games are responsible for such an idea and it is likely the two concepts developed completely independently from one another, the mindset of exhibit interaction was already changing at this time, and video games have been a part of that changing interaction since their beginning.

Influence, though significant, is where the line is drawn for most public memory institutions. Video game history and culture is as important as any other aspect of history because it is a first-hand account of how technology and society have developed over the course of digitization. Some of the earliest advancements in computer technology have been in the video game sector. Archives collect, arrange, and make available various digital media with historical value. Music, television, interviews, oral histories, film, these have all long since been incorporated into libraries, museums, and archives. Video games, however, are lagging behind despite their impact. Since the beginnings of accessioning digital media, archives and museums have developed collections geared towards the unique needs of different technology and audiovisual materials. It makes sense that certain institutions have begun to build spaces designed for video games, culminating in such places as the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) as well as GLAM (or GLAMR) sectors of public history becoming "involved in gaming, as a way of interpreting and presenting their collections."[3] Yet video game preservation faces more challenges than other moving image materials.

[1] Rob Johnson, “Managing information: are you game?” The National Archives, May 14, 2014,

[2] Josh Howard, “Talk-Back Boards and Text Mining: New Digital Approaches in Museum Visitor Studies,” Current Research in Digital History 1 (2018),

[3] Simon Demissie, ”The Great Steampunk Game Jam,” The National Archives, July 4, 2016,

We can trace the history of film and draw conclusions on how the industry and technology has changed, making any film that uses new technology a record of that change. David Gibson, in an interview on the video game collection housed at the Library of Congress, argued for the accessioning of video game collections. He says it is a lot more than simply preserving the game itself, it's "preserving every aspect of it: message boards or fan art or a kid's Minecraft costume for Halloween...'This is what it was, and this was the impact that it had.'"[1] A video game leaves behind more than a record of its existence, it can leave behind a record of culture. Video games "have become one of the most important storytelling mediums of our last century...before it was kind of the other way around, where video games were borrowing so much visual language from film and other things..."[2] It is this storytelling aspect of video games which again calls to mind interactive aspects of historical websites. As websites become more detailed, different levels of interaction are made possible. Many historical websites make use of interactive activities for researchers and learners. The question is, if video game culture and development are so influential, why do we not have more museums and archives dedicated to the preservation of the very medium which has spurred change and development in technology and society?

The record of a video game includes everything about it from conception to fan reaction to gameplay to books about video games.[3] It is important because it imprints on us through experience and memory, which makes video games relevant to archives and museums as cultural memory institutions. Cultural impact is important, but some aspects of memory are also intangible. Jacob Brogan writes, "Ask someone about their earliest memories of playing video games and they'll often tell you about the physical experience of play. They'll describe the frustrating pleasure of flipping through an almanac to figure out where Carmen Sandiego had gone...Because games are an uncommonly experiential medium, it's hard to know how best to preserve their past."[4] User experience is not something easily documented in a scientific, scholarly manner but it still adds to the cultural record. The Strong Museum, which will be visited later, is one such institution which truly seems to grasp this core idea of experience. In addition to the microsocial impact of experience, video games can provide levels of learning and understanding of historical events and places. Particularly relevant to recent events, the 2014 historical adventure game Assassins Creed Unity takes place in Paris during the French Revolution: and as such, following the Notre Dame fire in April of 2019, could possibly provide extensive 3D imaging for reconstruction efforts. But other games in this vein show the potential for immersive learning of geography and history.

Issues with digital preservation permeate public memory institutions, and video game preservation is no less problematic. Digital preservationists face similar problems with video games as with any digital media, but these are problems which are better understood. Bit rot and technology obsolescence are two such issues. Obsolescence is especially problematic within the video game industry, which is constantly creating new devices and consoles on which a new library of games will be created only for that system.[5] The heavy reliance of the video game industry on the creation of new technology directly opposes the work of digital preservationists trying to keep up. Dyson points out, “the first step is often to bring items into the collection, stabilize them, and then process them so that there is a clear record of what items there are. This is often a vast undertaking.”[6] This act of digitization presents one of the most basic difficulties with digital history; the cost. Cohen and Rosenzweig address this as one of the first issues facing digital historians. They write that despite the costs and difficulties of digitization, it “offers stunning advantages…Among the many benefits of digital history…digitization particularly highlights the advantages of access, in a number of senses.”[7] Because the video game industry itself is 'born-digital' most of it does not need digitization of paper records, and in this regard the preservation of video games is minimal. The cost of upkeep, however, is a different matter, as Stielow says, "the financial concerns of the computer industry do not necessarily serve the preservation of records."[8] Cost always causes trouble for public institutions. It includes, as Henry Gladney states, “preparation for preservation…for more complex digital objects, we create emulator programs that accompany today’s content to render it for our descendants. This uses current hardware and software to create rewrite routines whose outputs include all the essential information.”[9]

Yet overcoming the financial limitations is only the first step with video games. Because video games, with their software and hardware both needed to ensure playability, are often locked up tight in copyright, keeping the collection from the same accessibility most archives boast. Even in the case where copyright is not an issue, there is no standard for catalog records. Dave Gibson goes into detail on the issue of cataloging video games in any institution, admitting there “aren’t any standards or rules for cataloging games…it’s the same thing with moving images. If you apply book cataloging rules to a movie or to a videogame, are you actually describing what it really is?”[10] Because video games have not been allowed as much time and effort, there is so much more work to be done when considering their preservation status. It is a double-edged sword: a standard cannot be reached until video games become a standard, and video game preservation cannot become a standard until copyright issues are addressed.

[1] Dave Gibson, “Interview with Dave Gibson,” interview by David Wolinsky, No Don’t Die, March 18, 2016,

[2] Gibson, interview.

[3] For a good example of a brief history of video games and video game culture, check out Dustin Hansen, Game On! Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More (Feiwel Friends, 2016).

[4]Jacob Brogan, “Preserving the Art of Play,” Slate, February 22, 2017,

[5] This was a major issue in the war between Sega and Nintendo in the 90s; backwards compatibility was not common, but Sega briefly one-upped Nintendo by allowing older games to be playable on the Genesis
Blake J. Harris, Console Wars (Dey Street Books, 2015).

[6] Jon-Paul C. Dyson, interview by American Journal of Play, New York, 2017,

[7] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), chapter 1,

[8] Frederick J. Stielow, “Archival Theory and the Preservation of Electronic Media: Opportunities and Standards Below the Cutting Edge,” American Archivist vol. 55 (Spring 1992), 334.

[9] Henry M. Gladney, “Long-Term Preservation of Digital Records: Trustworthy Digital Objects,” American Archivist Vol. 72 (Fall/Winter 2009), 424.

[10] Gibson, interview.

In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and became law two years later. According to the ALA, this legislation “updated U.S. copyright law to meet the demands of the Digital Age,” however, “tilts strongly in favor of copyright holders”[1] and makes preservation efforts difficult. As Dave Gibson, and many others, argues, libraries and archives only want to ensure the continuation of video game history, but the DMCA largely keeps this from happening. The DMCA protects copyright holders’ ability to control access, which is in direct conflict with libraries and archives, and their desire to promote use and provide access. Attempts to preserve hardware and technology fall within section 1201, the ‘Anti-Circumvention Rule,’ which makes it “illegal to circumvent a technological protection measure employed to restrict access to or distribution of copyrighted material.”[2] With the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it seems cultural memory institutions will continue to find themselves in a stalemate with software and game industry companies. In a 2015 article by Jenna Pitcher, she states that the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) believes preservation of video games is illegal hacking. Thanks to the DMCA’s section 1201, it is almost impossible for “communities, museums, archives and researchers, to legally modify games to keep them playable.”[3] The ESA claims restoration and preservation of older videogames “is hacking, and all hacking is associated with piracy.”[4] The copyright law is in place to control markets and competition from other for-profit software companies. Archives, museums, and researchers are not-for-profit, and simply want to see that history is maintained and preserved. Anyone who studies the history of technology also understands most programmers learned by taking apart existing programs.[5] As earlier stated, the problem with lost and abandoned games is also prevalent within the video game industry itself, and DMCA 1201 directly opposes continued access to games abandoned by their own producers.[6] The EFF has requested the “reconfiguration of video games that are no longer supported by their publisher,”[7] but thus far little more progress seems to have been made.

[1] American Library Association. “DMCA: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” October 24, 2008.

[2] ALA, “DMCA.”

[3] Jenna Pitcher, “ESA Says Preserving Old Games is Illegal Because It’s ‘Hacking,’” IGN April 9, 2015,

[4] Mitch Stoltz, “Videogame Publishers: No Preserving Abandoned Games,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 8, 2015,

[5] Again, refer to the long battle between Sega and Nintendo in Console Wars

[6] Stoltz, “No Preserving Abandoned Games.”

[7] Electronic Frontier Foundation. “2015 DMCA Rulemaking.”

After establishing why video games are important to cultural memory, and the general problems preservationists face, one question has not been answered- in a perfectly rendered world, who should take charge of monitoring the records? Archives are the perfect place to take charge of their preservation because of how archives accession their collections as an aggregate of records. A video game is not only the final product, it is an entire history of notes, concepts, scripts, and code. An archive would not just collect the final product of a game if they could have more. The very nature of how archives arrange their collections would ensure the survival of a video game's entire history- not just what the public sees when they start it up on their console. Archives can provide a security for game preservation that museums and libraries would not, or could not. Yet, due to constraints involved with collecting game software and hardware, even the great Library of Congress has difficulty convincing the software developers and gaming companies to let them properly preserve their cherished product.

The number of public history settings in which video games make up a large portion of their collection is few. The Strong Museum of Play and the MADE are two of the best known; in the academic world, the University of Michigan’s Computer and Video Game Archive (CVGA) is one of the most extensive holdings of video game technology in the United States. What each of these has in common is this: none of them allow the exploration or usage of video game material from their website, in effect limiting access to their materials. Unlike many history websites, run by museums, archives, or even specific groups, the few archival collections for video games remains, ironically, restricted to physical access rather than digital. The Strong Museum has the largest online access, but even this is limited to exhibits which only explain the history of video games- not showcase it or allow visitors to interact with it. In an interview with Jon-Paul Dyson, the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG), he states how in the beginning of the museum’s shift towards video games, “the staff realized that, although video games were transforming the way people play, learn, and relate to each other, the museum’s collections were woefully inadequate when it came to video games…The Strong’s mission is to preserve and explore the cultural history of play and its impact on society.”[1]

The MADE takes a different approach than the Strong Museum. Located on the west coast in Oakland, California, the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment is a development-centric museum “dedicated to the preservation of video game history, and to educating the public on how video games are created.” Their online website, however, is minimal and provides no information on their collections nor do they offer any virtual exhibits such as available at the Strong Museum. The MADE is a focus on “playable exhibitions of historically significant works…dedicated to the heralding of video games as an artistic medium.” Their primary goal is to preserve the artistic value of digital media, whereas the Strong Museum, with a collection of video and digital games, examines, collects, and curates various types of play not just digital. Furthermore, the Strong Museum’s online exhibits are primarily concerned with non-video game exhibits, which would account for their online accessibility to many of their non-playable exhibits. Certainly most playable exhibits are still in the stage where visitors to the museums must be in person, but with the technology available, it is entirely conceivable that an entire video game collection could be made accessible online through these institutions, any copyright aside.

The University of Michigan’s Computer and Video Game Archive is the third of the major video game collections. Like the MADE, its primary purpose is the education of video game development, but they also, like the Strong Museum, consider “artistic and literary expression” and “social and cultural impact” as among their core values. The CVGA provides a clear Use Policy on their website but like the other two institutions, none of their materials can be viewed or accessed in any way online. This archive also keeps an active list of available systems, computers, and peripherals which are required for certain games and their hardware includes very early systems including Atari 2600 (1977), TRS-80 (1980), Commodore VIC-20 (1980) and TI-99 (1980) to more recent 2000s consoles. Due to its status as more of an academic library, the CVGA’s collection is searchable through the library website as well, something which neither the MADE nor the Strong Museum offer. Therefore, the CVGA offers a different level of visibility and accessibility necessary to archival work. In this endeavor, even if the materials themselves still are inaccessible, the information about those materials is readily available.

As if to reinforce their view of the importance of video games, the CVGA even provides a list of research examples. Though the Strong Museum and the MADE both argue and press for the importance of their collections, the CVGA defines possible topics of interest in a more academic light. The MADE’s premise is the education of future developers, the Strong’s focus is in preserving and understanding the concept of ‘play’ extending to all sorts of entertainment. The CVGA recognizes other aspects, such as culture, society, humanity, and race representations in video games, language studies, and even music.[2] Even the Library of Congress recognizes the importance: “Video games have become an established, popular medium of moving image entertainment which demand inclusion in the collections of MBRS…The collection will encompass a wide range of examples of video game culture, to allow historians decades hence to fully understand this as a popular phenomenon, and not have simply a few games which seemed significant at the moment of release.”[3]

With the digital era and digital culture growing exponentially, the push for purely digitized media is becoming prominent. Every day brings more born-digital materials, in the case of music, television, and film. Even many game companies are releasing games via digital download and the need for separate system hardware (consoles) is slowly succumbing to obsolescence. However, older games still face problems. Platforms such as Steam provide fully digital games, many of which were once accessible through old analog technology and University of Michigan’s Computer and Video Game Archive is an example of preserving the analog technology but lacks the digitization of those materials. The boost in restored and remastered analog games has pressured software companies and game developers to releasing old games. That is where platforms such as Steam come in handy; but also, this is the gateway through which archivists should be able to begin accessioning. Early video games, such as those released on magnetic media and laser discs, are in fact being digitized. Unfortunately, because of the for-profit gaming sector, the non-profit public historians often lose. A fully digital archive with the intention of preserving and providing access to video games as a means of education could look a lot like Steam, but with a completely different goal in mind.

[1] Dyson, interview.

[2] “CVGA Research Examples,” University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive,

[3] Library of Congress Collections Policy Statements, Moving Image Materials, November 2008,

Cohen and Rosenzweig sum up digital preservationists in a succinct observation, saying how “most historians worry more about someone stealing their work for credit rather than for money…They fret more about the sin of plagiarism than the crim of copyright infringement.”[1] Digital preservationists do not preserve materials for money. Far from it; but video game companies are in the business of making money, and so long as their monetary assets are in danger from their video games being given open access, they will do everything they can to keep well-meaning and public access-oriented historians from doing their job. “The most important goal for historians should be the circulation of ideas and expressions…We should focus more on getting others to pay attention to what we have to say rather than on ensuring that the proper individual gets the proper credit.”[2] Not that the developers, artists, composers, and actors used for video games should not get credit where credit is due. Simply, perhaps it is time to reevaluate what the DMCA means for the preservation of material with significant historical and social value.

Video game culture is a record of changing society. It is a record of changing technology. In its own way is as important to understand as literary movements, record sets in sports, and historical events, particularly because our society has already begun moving into such a digitized world, and video games are a microsocial representation of how that digital world evolved, how it is and was used, and how it influenced other aspects of society. The Strong Museum, the MADE, and Michigan’s CVGA are lone contenders in the world of video game archiving, and they are unable to provide the kind of digital access needed today. Even with the push from the Library of Congress’ Moving Images division, it is still difficult for smaller archives to become established as ‘moving images’ or ‘audiovisual’ archives- and even more so in regard to the accessioning of video games. After all, if video games have proven to preserve some of our own history within their codes, why can digital historians not provide the same service to video games?

[1] Cohen and Rosenzweig, ch 3.

[2] Cohen and Rosenzweig, ch 3.

Game On!: Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More (Game On, 1)
Game On!: Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More (Game On, 1)
This book is an excellent overview of the history of video games. It is written for a young reader audience but all ages can appreciate the depth of the research by Dustin Hansen, who is a wonderful author and very insightful. I had the pleasure of speaking with him through Twitter over questions about the book as I was writing this paper, though none of our conversation ended up in the final draft of my article.

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