Feature

Into Digital Dust – The Fight To Save Gaming’s Past Before It Disappears Forever

by Ben Reeves on Sep 07, 2015 at 07:00 AM

Buried deep under the city of Culpeper, Virginia rests some of the oldest and most important film masters ever recorded. The Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center was converted out of a cold war bunker built to withstand a nuclear attack. Today, 90 miles of shelving spread across 35 climate-controlled vaults housing more than a century’s worth of recorded film history. It is an important record of human achievement and an invaluable resource for future generations. Video game preservation efforts pale in comparison.

In an age of Internet archiving and HD re-releases, one might think few nuggets of video game history are left undiscovered. The truth is, some of yesterday’s games still slip through the cracks and become lost to time. While the media age has made us better chroniclers, video game preservation still faces several challenges, and we are at risk of losing our gaming history almost as quickly as we can record it.

The Corrosion Of Time
Video games are a product of their time and place. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, is one of the best-known and most-played games of all time. The platformer is as precious to those who grew up humming its enduring tunes as it is inspirational to a legion of game developers who have created pop-culture juggernauts such as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto.

However, what would gamers 100 years from now playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time make of such a game? They might be charmed by its catchy tunes or enchanted by its archaic 8-bit design, but would they understand its legacy? Disconnected from any historical context, our descendants might not understand the impact Super Mario Bros. has had on the industry or our culture on the whole. Nintendo’s legendary platformer would seem like a curious relic.

This is one of the challenges facing game preservationists, because most people think preservation simply means ensuring that a game remains playable for future generations. However, in order to understand a game’s importance to the industry – and society as a whole – we must hold onto more than just the code. We need to place games into a larger context in history, document the oral and written history of their development, and even collect their promotional materials.

While the development of games like Super Mario Bros. has already been well documented, not every important game weathers the test of time as durably as Nintendo’s classic. Some aspects of our gaming history have already started to fade like 100-year-old film.


A small look at The Strong Museum of Play's massive video game collection

A Strong Start
The International Center for the History of Electronic Games inside The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York has amassed a staggering collection of more than 200 arcade and pinball machines, nearly 15,000 video game fanzines and consumer magazines, as well as tens of thousands of computer and console games. The Strong’s goal is to preserve our recreational history so that future generations can better understand why we play and why leisure is important.

Jon-Paul Dyson is the director of The Strong’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games. For the past six years, Dyson has worked with legendary developers such as Ken and Roberta Williams, Will Wright, and the late Ralph Baer to bolster the center’s collection of rare archival materials, documenting the development of some of the industry’s most important hallmarks. Dyson also helps curate several of The Strong’s specialty exhibitions throughout the year, which allow the public to access some of these rare pieces of video game history.

“There is no way to understand the history of play without exploring the impact of video games,” Dyson says. “Video games are having this transformative effect not only on how we play but on all facets of life – the way we learn, the way we communicate, the way we form relationships. They even help shape our identity. Video games are having this monumental impact not only on play, but on society in general.”

The Strong Museum of Play is one of the closest things we have to a national video game repository, but the museum still has a lot of holes to fill. One of the biggest problems institutions like The Strong face is big business’ need to meet the bottom line.  

“The industry by its nature is generally forward-looking, so preservation is not necessarily the highest priority for a company,” Dyson says. “There are a lot of business pressures. There’s the need to exceed this quarter’s expectations, or reach this project forecast, or meet payroll. No one is intentionally throwing things away. That almost never happens. What’s much more likely is that people move offices and things get lost.”

Even with the recent rise of HD remakes and digital rereleases, the video game industry isn’t always focused on saving every aspect of a game’s development. Modern publishers are more likely to go out of their way to preserve a game’s source code for future use than they were in previous decades, but this doesn’t constitute game preservation.

“I think there is an awareness that there is value in old titles,” Dyson says. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of pressure on new products, and that’s realistically where a company will probably make the most money. There’s no profit for companies in business records or design documents, so there’s less incentive for them to keep those things around. However, those are the very things that document how that product came to be and give us insight into the birth of a game.”

Jason Scott, archivist and software curator for The Internet Archive, even goes so far to say that game companies are unintentionally stifling preservation work by trying to protect them. “Games have such a thin mortality because they’re not perceived as something that needs to be saved,” he says. “Games are seen as important intellectual properties that need to be protected from pirates, and will eventually fade into history, but if we don’t preserve some parts of these games while we have them, they actually just disappear. We’re waiting for a hand-off that never happens.”

The Internet Archive is the San Francisco-based non-profit famous for building The Wayback Machine archive, whose snapshots of over 427 billion web pages let users browse the last couple decades of Internet history. Unlike The Strong, The Internet Archive is a digital collection of knowledge, entertainment, and software. For the last several years, Jason Scott has been swallowing up petabytes of gaming history, including old DOS games and other abandonware, such as Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which users can play directly from a web browser on The Internet Archive’s website. Scott believes efforts such as this are helping change the industry’s perspective on game preservation, but this change has been a long time coming.

“If you say to somebody, ‘I found a bunch of old books written by train engineers for other train engineers!’ Nobody would say, ‘Why you trying to save those? You’re not a train engineer.’” Scott says. “No one questions the worth of old books or maps or ledgers. Nobody says, ‘Why are we even looking at this garbage?’ But until four or five years ago, we had that mentality with software. I’m glad we’re over that hump now. We’re getting to the point where historians like to be, which is bickering over the process of what exactly constitutes saving software.”

Saving Software
Most game preservationists believe that video game preservation needs to be a collective effort – that no single institution is capable of preserving our video game heritage itself. Fortunately, the last decade has seen a flurry of preservation work from organizations across the globe.

In addition to the work being done at The Internet Archive and The Strong Museum of Play, other institutions such as The Smithsonian and The Library of Congress have started to amass their own collections of games. Documentaries such as Indie Game: The Movie, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and Double Fine’s development series on Broken Age have all helped popularized the history and development of games. Last September, The Videogame History Museum announced that it would soon break ground in Frisco, Texas, on a physical museum dedicated solely to the preservation of video game history.

Even national universities have taken an interest in video game preservation. Henry Lowood is the Curator for History of Science & Technology -Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. Lowood has been instrumental in developing Stanford’s video game collection, as well as spreading the message of game preservation to other universities across the country. Lowood understands the value of organizations like The Internet Archive, but he also believes there are many elements of video game history that can’t be uploaded to a server.

“There are activities around game preservation that don’t require running games,” Lowood says. “The best example of that are MMOs and virtual worlds. Think about Second Life or World of Warcraft. If you wanted to learn something about those games in 50 years, probably the least interesting thing you could do is fire up a working copy. The most interesting moments of those games happened at a particular time and place. That’s something you can’t preserve.”

You don’t have to wait 50 years for games to disappear from the landscape. Within the last year, we saw the announcement of a Silent Hill reboot followed by its quick cancellation. When Konami announced that it was pulling Silent Hill’s P.T. demo off the PS4 online store, fans went into an uproar. Instances like these are frustrating for preservationists as well. Unless Konami decides to release P.T.’s source code at a later date, it will be nearly impossible to reproduce the game for preservation on other platforms, and the few remaining PS4s that have -already installed the demo could remain this unique title’s only legacy.

Physical media such as CDs and Blu-ray discs slowly decay over decades, and computer programs themselves suffer from a phenomenon called bit rot, which means that their performance slowly deteriorates as electronic architecture evolves and changes. Anyone who’s tried to get an old DOS-based game working on a modern PC can speak to the frustrations inherent to game preservation. This is why many preservationists feel we should be shrink-wrapping more than just game code while it’s still fresh in our memory. After all, gaming history isn’t important only to gamers.

Video games have been a significant part of our cultural landscape during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The interactive entertainment industry has touched everything from the way we entertain ourselves and our study of science to the way we train our military. If we don’t figure out a way to preserve the documentation relating to these histories we will quietly lose them. In other words, it’s not merely game history on the line; it’s history period.