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Problems with Video Game Preservation

Updated on January 8, 2018

Presentation Video

In 2014, Rob Johnson of the Information Management and Practice Department at the National Archives wrote a blog post on "gamification" in information management. In this article, he explains, "gamification is about understanding behaviors, in order to design and implement techniques to incentivise 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 post creates scenarios based on common gaming terms. Outside of this, it has nothing to do with game preservation, but rather proves one interesting 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.

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 being no less significant. 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 museums and archives have begun to build spaces designed for video games, culminating in such institutions as the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, as well as GLAM (or GLAMR) sectors seen in countries such as the UK and Australia as becoming "involved in gaming, as a way of interpreting and presenting their collections."[2] Digital media is in every way a record; different but no less important than those of paper and ink. Therefore, it is just as important to preserve born-digital media as it is to preserve born-paper; and video games are equally as important as music, cinematography, and televised broadcasts. Yet, video game preservation faces more challenges than other moving image materials.

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.'"[3] A video game leaves behind more than a record of its existence, it can leave behind a record of culture. The video game industry has also had a significant impact on other forms of entertainment. As Dave Gibson points out, 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..."[4]

What exactly constitutes a record when considering video games? In a nutshell, the record of a video game includes everything about it from conception to fan reaction to gameplay. 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."[5] User experience is not something easily documented in a scientific, scholarly manner but it still adds to the cultural record.

Like with any archival record, whatever helps historians and other users understand the context of that record is valuable. If the aggregate is important, then so too is anything that helps define it. "In some cases, that context involves videos of gameplay, which some companies have included in their materials when registering games for copyright over the years. In others, it might also entail strategy guides or other supporting documentation that dates back to a title's original release...it might also involve more distant items- such as message board threads from around the date of a game's release."[6] Kate Carmody, who works directly with game designers in regards to preservation, says that six aspects should be requested and collected whenever possible: original hardware, original software, source code, commentary, interviews, and physical display.[7] Some of this, she says, is difficult to procure or is no longer stable.

Carmody’s argument includes ensuring that “game makers’ work is preserved as authentically as possible…farther than just saving the cartridge to make sure a game’s preserved.”[8] James Newman believes supplemental materials are one of the most important collectable media. He states that the source code and the game itself can always be collected later or added to the file afterwards, if the technology has not been rendered obsolete. "The problem of preservation extends beyond actual games- the culture itself is in jeopardy. Magazines, guidebooks, reviews, and merchandise help us understand a game's impact..."[9] Newman argues that video game preservation cannot be complete without the ‘paratextual’ supplemental materials which help make the game understandable, including immersive and comprehensive walkthroughs, artwork, and specialist publications. There is so much bundled together, encompassing all sorts of creative output and advancements in technology, music, and art.

Several people across the field of digital curation, preservation, and archives agree on what constitutes the context of a game’s history and creates the record. It is more than source code and the records which detail the course of a video game’s creation. In some cases, supplemental material could be more beneficial to the preservation of video game history. Newman writes, “sensitivity to the ways games are actually used and what, as a result, are deemed to be the important qualities and characteristics of that game to its players…must then be a key aspect of any preservation activity.”[10] More than that, it directly relates to the idea of experience aspect of video game culture as stated earlier. It is no easy achievement to have captured the “experience of actually playing these games and to have documented every twist and turn necessary to defeat and vanquish every foe…We can state with some certainty that it is inconceivable that any game preservation activity should proceed without consideration of the importance [of these materials].”[11] In the simplest of terms, walkthroughs and other player-created documents are “records of gameplay potential.” Such materials are not only beneficial to the documentation of a game’s history, they are themselves metaphors for the roles archivists play in preserving history.

So why have video games lagged behind their teammates in the digital world, and why are there still so many problems facing the preservation and study of this particular medium? Part of it could be attributed to the age of the genre. "Admittedly, video games haven't been around long compared to traditional forms...at least not enough for there to be a widespread representation of the medium."[12] This article, written in 2012, was after the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment and Stanford University's Preserving Virtual Worlds II were begun, hints at larger issues facing preservation. Perhaps the youth of the industry has caused it to remain in a perpetual tutorial mode when it comes to true archival work, but the real challenges are the level bosses that refuse to be beaten.

The first boss in a video game is always the easiest. Despite the initial challenge, it is meant to be overcome with relative ease, enticing the player to continue. Much in the same way, 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.[13] 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.

Data degradation is considered by Heather Alexandra to be its greatest threat, "game data and features literally die. Solid state media used in game cartridges naturally lose their electrical charge, and the ability to store any data."[14] Magnetic media as well, from the floppy discs to hard discs eventually cease to be readable, or are damaged physical disrupting their data. One way to counter all this is through creating virtual emulators and having access to source code; this is where it becomes tricky for archivists, because the issue is twofold: cost and legality. Fortunately, the creation of emulators is still within legal boundaries. It comes down to the actual collecting of source code and other highly classified pieces of information which causes so many problems under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as will be discussed later.

Cost of preservation and digitization is often another major obstacle. 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."[15] 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.”[16]

Level two in game preservation includes issues such as having no standard for catalog records, and the problem of abandoned games. 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?”[17] Still confronting the second boss, preservationists must also deal with lost games. "Some of this is a cultural problem...Even now, games are treated largely as consumable goods."[18] For example, determining a definitive version of a game to preserve- many games contain multiple versions, so which one should have a save point in an archive? If one version is chosen over another, do the supplemental materials for the other versions also get tossed?

The need to determine how to preserve video games, and this includes the issue of creating a standardized cataloging system for this type of media, will help control what is lost. Many of the ethical issues faced by ‘traditional’ archivists apply to video games. It becomes the archivists’ job to determine which aspects of this history are selected for continued play. 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, but that cannot happen until level three has been unlocked.

So, video game preservation must deal with many of the same issues as other digital media. Progress has been made, achievements have been awarded. The final boss looms. Do we save what we can, or do we push forward? By far the most difficult obstacle archives, libraries, and related institutions face is copyright. 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”[19] 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.”[20] 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.”[21] The ESA claims restoration and preservation of older videogames “is hacking, and all hacking is associated with piracy.”[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] The EFF has requested the “reconfiguration of video games that are no longer supported by their publisher,”[25] but thus far little more progress seems to have been made.

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 second-best world for preserving the complete and unabridged history of video games would rest with records managers within the companies themselves- of course, they are less likely to be interested in anything fan-made or unofficial. In addition to this, except for some early developers in the 1980s,[26] developers and designers do not think on the side of preservation. They will create something, and scrap it weeks later in favor of something different, without giving thought to how that scrap might be necessary to understanding the game's history. This could be years' worth of work lost when projects are thrown out.[27] Historian of technology Jason Scott said, "I have zero faith in the industry to preserve its own history...best I could hope for is a somewhat lax attitude at others doing it for them, and providing things when asked."[28] Unfortunately given Nintendo's (among others) long history of exclusive rights and "quality control" over software developers, the likelihood of them allowing anyone else to legally preserve their game data is low. The task falls then to those untrained but ever enthusiastic gamers themselves. The irony is inescapable: gamers, fans, homebrewers often have at their disposal a limitless ability to hack games and preserve their data, archivists cannot say the same.

The video game industry has never been the best at preserving old games. Software companies die or merge, new technology is created, old technology becomes obsolete. Frederick Stielow poses the question of how we can preserve digital memory, and offers his answer: "Manufacturers and technologists must keep preservation in mind...Ultimately, information managers will have the basic responsibility for deciding what will be preserved, and here it may be well to call on the expertise and traditional mission of archivists."[29] Even with so many academic circles taking strides to keep video game history accessible, including Stanford University’s Preserving Virtual Worlds I and II, and the Cabrinety Collection, preservationists and researchers continue to face the improbable and uncertain future of video game collections. "The Library of Congress counts among the institutions attempting to push back against that threat, though its own collection of games- close to 3,500 titles in all- pales before the tens of millions of other items held on its shelves."[30] The question remains, are these institutions capable of setting the standard and helping usher in an age of thorough, archival digital preservation of video games and video game culture, or are they merely fighting the inevitability of the disappearance of video game history?

That final boss is still there, taunting digital preservationists and keeping them busy with side quests. No matter how many times progress is saved, this issue of use and access and the restrictions handed down by the DMCA and ESA keep this culture locked down securely.

Endnotes

[1] Rob Johnson, “Managing information: are you game?” The National Archives, May 14, 2014, http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/information-management-gamification/#more-16594

[2] Simon Demissie, ”The Great Steampunk Game Jam,” The National Archives, July 4, 2016,
http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/great-steampunk-game-jam/#more-28738

[3] Dave Gibson, “Interview with Dave Gibson,” interview by David Wolinsky, No Don’t Die, March 18, 2016, https://nodontdie.com/dave-gibson/

[4] Gibson, interview.

[5]Jacob Brogan, “Preserving the Art of Play,” Slate, February 22, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2017/02/how_should_we_preserve_video_games.html

[6] Brogan, “Art of Play.”

[7] Anthony John Agnello, “Nothing Lasts Forever: Confronting the Problem of Video Game Preservation,” USGamer, February 19, 2014, http://www.usgamer.net/articles/nothing-lasts-forever-confronting-the-problem-of-video-game-preservation

[8] Agnello, “Nothing Lasts Forever.”

[9] Heather Alexandra, “Why Some Video Games Are In Danger of Disappearing Forever,” Kotaku, December 2, 2016, https://kotaku.com/why-some-video-games-are-in-danger-of-disappearing-fore-1789609791

[10] James Newman, “(Not) Playing Video Games: Player-Produced Walkthroughs as Archival Documents of Digital Gameplay,” International Journal of Digital Curation 6, no. 2 (2011): 116. http://www.ijdc.net/index.php/ijdc/article/view/186/266

[11] Newman, “(Not) Playing Video Games,” 122.

[12] T.C. Sottek, ” ‘The Art of Video Games’ at the Smithsonian: still in beta,” The Verge, April 26, 2012, https://www.theverge.com/2012/4/26/2972326/the-art-of-video-games-review

[13] 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).

[14] Alexandra, “Disappearing Forever.”

[15] 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. http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.55.2.441761203017172k

[16] Henry M. Gladney, “Long-Term Preservation of Digital Records: Trustworthy Digital Objects,” American Archivist Vol. 72 (Fall/Winter 2009), 424. http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.72.2.g513766100731832?code=same-site

[17] Gibson, interview.

[18] Alexandra, “Disappearing Forever.”

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

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/copyright/dmca

[20] ALA, “DMCA.”

[21] Jenna Pitcher, “ESA Says Preserving Old Games is Illegal Because It’s ‘Hacking,’” IGN April 9, 2015, http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/04/09/esa-says-preserving-old-games-is-illegal-because-its-hacking

[22] Mitch Stoltz, “Videogame Publishers: No Preserving Abandoned Games,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 8, 2015, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/04/videogame-publishers-no-preserving-abandoned-games-even-museums-and-archives

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

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

[25] Electronic Frontier Foundation. “2015 DMCA Rulemaking.”
https://www.eff.org/cases/2015-dmca-rulemaking

[26] Jason Scott, “Saving Game History Forever – Or Dooming It To Oblivion?” (presentation, Game Developers’ Conference, San Francisco, CA, March 2-5, 2015).

[27] Alexandra, “Disappearing Forever.”

[28] Alexandra, “Disappearing Forever.”

[29] Stielow, ”Preservation of Electronic Media.”

[30] Brogan, “Preserving the Art of Play.”

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