Page Not Found: Video Games' Vanishing History

by Matt Helgeson on Dec 10, 2014 at 10:35 AM

Thanks to the proliferation of blogs, websites, and videos on services like YouTube and Twitch, there is more content on video games being produced than ever before. However, we're also losing a significant portion of the industry's history on a daily basis.

Last weekend, we read the sad news that Ralph Baer, the creator of the Magnavox Odyssey and generally recognized as the "father of video games," had passed away. I had the opportunity to interview him for the May 2009 issue of Game Informer. However, outside of our own archives, loyal readers who save their magazines, or some libraries that (hopefully) keep Game Informer in their stacks, old magazine article are largely inaccessible.

Game Informer does keep digital archives – to a degree. Lots of it is hard to find on servers or, if it's older, on CD-Rs that are probably rapidly decaying. Thankfully, I'm terrible about cleaning out my hard drive, so I was able to find an old Word document containing an early edit that was actually longer than what we ran in print. I posted it on Monday and you can read it here. But that's just luck – it's just as likely that an interview with one of the men who invented games could have be lost forever.

The past 15 years have been tumultuous for the media business, both traditional and online. Just think back to all the once-popular game magazines and websites that are gone: GamePro, 1up.com, GameSpy, Nintendo Power – the list goes on. With each closure, an important part of game history disappears. Online servers are shut down, reducing thousands of interviews, news stories, and game reviews to 404 errors. I'd like to believe the archives of physical issues of old game magazines are preserved, but that's not often a priority when people are losing jobs and figuring out what to do next. In any case, even if a conscientious employee rescues the back issues, they will likely be locked away in someone's garage or basement.

Even currently operating publications and websites aren't immune to content loss. For instance, there are hundreds of news stories and game reviews that Game Informer published online that are now gone. When we created our current website, the differences in technology between the platforms meant it wasn't feasible to migrate content to our new site. So, with the exception of some content we re-entered manually into the new site, we blew it up and started over. I've found similar examples of this on other game websites that have redesigned or re-launched many times over the years.

As an experiment, I went to the Metacritic (a popular online review aggregator) website and looked at the page for the Xbox 360 version of BioShock. It's about seven years old, and generally regarded as one of the true artistic achievements of this past generation of games. Metacritic lists 88 review scores (with one- or two-sentence pull quotes) that were published when the game released in 2007. Guess how many of these reviews are still available online? A paltry 27. That means that 70 percent of the original reviews for BioShock – a historically significant game – are now gone forever.

It's not just reviews that are in jeopardy. Perhaps more important are the news stories, opinion columns, and interviews with game developers that make up the real history of games. Each time a video game website goes out of business, hundreds of original pieces of game journalism vanish. I'm particularly worried about the loss of interviews, which represent history as it happens in the words of the people who actually make games. If games are a significant art form, preserving the thoughts and observations of the men and women who created the art itself surely must be important. However, interviews are even less likely to be archived.

For example, I went to Ken Levine's Wikipedia page and looked at the citations at the bottom. Of 30 citation links, only 25 are still active (and most of these date from after Levine gained prominence with BioShock). However, five of those are from the official Irrational site, which is not guaranteed to be up forever, especially considering the studio has shut down.

I also checked Civilization creator and Firaxis head Sid Meier's page. He's been around longer than Ken, prominent since the '80s, and we see a great attrition of links on his page – only 15 of 25 still active. I then looked at Interplay, the publisher/developer behind games like Baldur's Gate and The Bard's Tale that was shuttered in 2004. Here only 18 of 30 links are active. However, of those 18, three are links to game pages on Steam/Good Old Games and four are saved on Archive.org's Wayback Machine.

Ironically, the best chronicle of game history can be found in one of the oldest mass mediums – books. Authors like Leonard Herman (Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Video Games), Steven L. Kent (The Ultimate History of Video Games), Dave Sheff (Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World), David Kushner (Masters of Doom, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto), Harold Goldberg (All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture), Blake J. Harris (Console Wars), and others have done crucial work in recording the history of the industry. Thankfully, books are a durable medium and immune to changes in technology. However, compared to the thousands of books devoted to the history of art, music, and film, the entire collection of reputable video game history books could easily fit on one shelf. Tellingly, in a world when even the bass player from the band Korn has an autobiography, I can't think of even one autobiography from a noteworthy video game designer or industry executive.

There isn't any easy solution to this problem. The Internet is volatile by nature. Technologies, sites, services, and companies quickly rise and fall. Archiving everything on the Internet would be a fearsome task in terms of time, money, technology, and logistics. However, we need to start thinking about solutions. We've always thought of video games as a "young medium," but it's been around for 40 or 50 years, depending on what you consider the beginning of video games. We're reaching the point where many of the men and women who helped building this industry, like Ralph Baer, are passing away. How many stories will they take with them?