Digital Preservation of Video Games

When I was an Junior Fellow for the Library of Congress in 2015, one of the best days of the summer was getting to tour the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia. At one point during our visit, our guide showed us a small stack of games – they looked like PlayStation/Xbox games – and described their preservation activities for videogames. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt the Library of Congress (or any other major institutions) thought about collecting and preserving games back in, say, the 1980s. It took archivists a while to realize that this new kind of media would be culturally valuable, and by then, obsolescence had already set in.  McDonough et al. (2010) emphasize the importance of early intervention from preservationists before the game’s software and/or hardware becomes obsolete (p. 5). I wonder what “new media” the archival community is neglecting as we speak? I bet we could be doing more to preserve memes. Just saying!

I am wildly impressed by (and intimidated by) the digital preservation of videogames because they are complex audio-visual artifacts with specific hosting requirements. McDonough (2010), Dawson (2017), and Sköld (2018) talk about the unique challenges of providing access to games.

Here are some of the many obstacles:

  • Obsolescence: The software and hardware supporting videogames quickly becomes obsolete (McDonough, 5). Have a look at Wikipedia’s list of home video game consoles. Acquiring consoles can be expensive, and it takes a lot of expert knowledge to maintain and repair them. This point reminds me of the video we watched for class, “Preserving digital art: How will it survive?” and its description of the labor involved in constantly migrating and updating software to make sure digital files don’t rot.
  • Preserving interactivity: Because modern games are playable on a variety of platforms/in multiple formats, archives must be able to host a variety of platforms. Moreover, games are increasingly released online with no physical component (Lee et al.). The lazy approach would be to archive videos of streamed games, but then the game’s interactivity wouldn’t be preserved (Dawson). Games are meant to be played!
  • Copyright: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits the copying of videogames, so archivists must approach companies to secure rights to make preservation copies (McDonough, 6). I would venture to guess that companies who make money from selling videogames aren’t in a hurry to make them universally accessible.
  • Metadata: A brave new world of metadata. The Seattle Interactive Media Museum and the University of Washington Information School GAMER (GAme MEtadata Research) Group made a metadata schema for video games contains more than forty-six elements (Lee et al.). Some of the more unique ones include: franchise/universe, special hardware, controls, and number of players. Some of this information can be hard to find for digital games, especially indie games by smaller creators.
  • Preserving gamer culture: Sköld (2018) discusses the concept of an “expanded notion” of a video game which includes “its game culture, experiences, play, and community activity” (p. 134). These aspects of games are especially relevant in the competitive gaming scene, in which games like Dota, Rocket League, and League of Legends which have their own esports organizations, attract huge fanbases, and host a multitude of recorded events relevant to the game.

Videogames, whether vintage or modern, are meaningful to our society and culture and of great technological value. It is important to fight obsolescence of videogames because preserved games serve as important educational tools for game developers and are important pieces of cultural memory (Sköld, p. 137). McDonough outlines strategies for the long-term digital preservation of games. I think the most impactful strategy archivists can take is to seek out collaboration with the gaming community in crowdsourcing initiatives and to develop relationships with gaming companies to overcome legal obstacles to preservation (McDonough, p. 7). As an archivist, I would love to be make it possible for someone decades from now to play a game they haven’t played in years and feel like a kid again.

References

Dawson, George (30 November 2017). “Digital Preservation: Video Games.” University of North Texas Libraries: Digital Humanities. https://blogs.library.unt.edu/digital-humanities/2017/11/30/digital-preservation-video-games/

Google (30 May 2017). Preserving Digital Art: How Will it Survive?. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkSG7XaKoAs&feature=youtu.be

Lee, Jin Ha, Rachel Ivy Clarke, and Andrew Perti (15 January 2014). “Metadata for Digitally Distributed Video Games at the Seattle Interactive Media Museum.” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. https://mw2014.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/metadata-for-digital-video-games-at-the-seattle-interactive-media-museum/

McDonough, Jerome P. et al. (31 August 2010). “Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report.” Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/17097

Owens, Trevor (26 September 2012). “Yes, The Library of Congress Has Video Games: An Interview with David Gibson.” Library of Congress: The Signal. https://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2012/09/yes-the-library-of-congress-has-video-games-an-interview-with-david-gibson/

Sköld, Olle (January 2018). “Understanding the “Expanded Notion” of Videogames as Archival Objects: A Review of Priorities, Methods, and Conceptions.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology vol. 69, issue 1, pp. 134-145. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/asi.23875

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