Keeping Our Games Alive: Video Game Archiving and Preservation

Today’s guest post is by Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber who is a video game archivist. In her writing, she focuses on media archaeology, digital preservation, and gaming history. Follow her on Twitter @ArchivistBecks.

Overworld Map: On the Defensive

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock and roll.”

–Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo

When a visitor enters a historical or cultural museum, there is no disclaimer poster awaiting their initial inspection. No statement attempting to validate the importance of historical artifacts greets the casual visitor, no valiant defense for the maintenance of such objects. It is taken for granted that artifacts of historical or artistic value therefore have value to future generations, and that is the entirety of the matter.

This acceptance of the normalcy of preservation is not limited to museums or cultural institutions. Pick up any written work devoted to preservation, whether that be a magazine or academic journal, and defenses of the concept of preservation are altogether rare. It seems that wherever we turn, society has more or less decided that caring for objects from our past matters. They may disagree on just how much such a thing matters, or who is responsible for paying for it, but one is hard-pressed to discover individuals who would sneer at Tutankhamun’s Mask or the Mona Lisa as silly objects unworthy of preservation.

It is therefore all the more bizarre that disclaimers and defenses of the very act of video game preservation are so common. For example, when the Museum of Modern Art announced its upcoming acquisition of video games, the public reaction was vitriolic:

Headline Courtesy of Wired Magazine

Headline Courtesy of Wired Magazine

Headline Courtesy of The New Republic

Headline Courtesy of The New Republic

Headline Courtesy of The Guardian

Headline Courtesy of The Guardian

It is slightly ironic that such a reaction seemed appropriate in response to a museum that routinely hangs a suit off a wall and nonchalantly labels it art. As a response, cultural institutions remain on the defensive.

“Video games matter!” their disclaimers tell us, attempting to convince skeptics that a media form enjoyed by over half of most modernized countries might possibly be culturally significant. The sheer absurdity of it is laughable.

Tutorial: Why Video Games Matter

Sometimes we need to step back and understand the power of video games.”

–Rob Manuel, b3ta.com

As an archivist, my ethical duty is to maintain those objects of intrinsic value to future generations. I’ve often found that others assume my profession is focused on facts and figures, the hard data from which a census or otherwise lifeless historical record can be drawn. Such data will inform one on how a people survived. As important as this data is, it cannot tell you how a people dreamed.

The stuff of humanity is comprised of what we aspire to, how we relate to the world, the forms of expression we utilize and interact with. If the purpose of the archival profession is to ensure an accurate record of a people exists in the future, then it follows that a focus on cultural or artistic expression is a natural portion of the archival calling.

Consider this: fifty years ago, when film was the dominant media that formed the dreams of countless individuals, Mickey Mouse was the most recognized character among children. This is no longer the case. Who is now the world’s most recognized mascot? That would be Pikachu, lovable mascot of the Pokémon video game franchise.

Let’s consider the figures. According to Newzoo’s 2014 Global Game Markets Report, the number of video game players in 2014 was approximately 1.7 billion individuals. That same year, the top 100 countries in the world by game revenue (comprising 99.8% of those purchasing games) spent twice as much on video games than on cinema.

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

If we had any doubt of the sheer numbers invested in this artistic form, Newzoo’s 2013 Global Game Markets Report is a stark reminder.

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Video games have quickly become the dominant cultural and artistic form of expression of the 21st century. This is no passing fad. What we are witnessing is the growth of a new medium, akin to the birth of cinema in the 19th century and television in the 20th. For better or worse, video games have infiltrated the world. They have become both cultural artifacts and reflections of our hopes and dreams. It is no longer a question of whether video games matter but of when those refusing to acknowledge this fact finally wake up.

If video games matter, if they are such culturally important artifacts, it stands to reason that an argument can be made for ensuring continued access to such materials in the future. Yet not only are we losing these objects more quickly than society is learning to value them, we aren’t particularly sure how to preserve them in the first place.

Level 1: What’s Our Mission?

“There are big lines between those who play video games and those who do not. For those who don’t, video games are irrelevant.”

–Shigeru Miyamoto

Audiovisual and digital artifacts such as video games require a complex set of interrelated hardware, software, and peripheral devices to continue to function. Placing a video game cartridge on a lovely shelf is insufficient; digital preservation is required. As defined by the Library of Congress, digital preservation is the “active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access.” Such a simplified definition underscores the challenges inherent in any task that involves technical, creative, and legal efforts. Digital preservation is difficult, but if we wish to continue access to video games as cultural artifacts, that is the mission.

Like all missions, however, the preservation of video games is not a single goal. Instead, two related but slightly different missions are required for video game preservation. First, video game preservation requires continued access to the video games as cultural artifacts in their own right. This would include access to video games as technical and/or artistic works within a particular historical context. Secondly, video game preservation requires continued access to video games as significant objects for particular subcultures. This would include access to video games as objects with specific ritualistic value to their cultures.

It is a subtle difference between video games studied for their own merits and video games as representative of other cultural processes. These two missions have a great deal of crossover, but they require a more complex view into the preservation of these objects. This difference is best illustrated through an example, such as the video game Pokémon Red and Blue.

Images Courtesy of Bulbapedia

Images Courtesy of Bulbapedia

The first North American releases of the now world-famous Pokémon video game franchise, Pokémon Red and Blue are critically significant in the history of video games. This video game was developed for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy system. A unique feature of this handheld was a peripheral device known as the Link Cable that, unsurprisingly, linked two Game Boy systems to allow two players the chance to interact within their video games.

Image Courtesy of Eggplante!

Image Courtesy of Eggplante!

Prior to Pokémon Red and Blue, those video games that utilized the Link Cable did so to facilitate competitive matches. In contrast, developer Satoshi Tajiri invented a revolutionary new way of using the Link Cable: to facilitate communication. Each of the two Pokémon games contained a number of collectible creatures available only in that version. To acquire all possible creatures, players were forced to use the Link Cable to trade with one another. What had been a piece of hardware used for violence was transformed into one for communication and cooperation.

Preserving this video game requires slightly different actions in each of our two missions. If our mission is to preserve the video games Pokémon Red and Blue for their own merits due to their global popularity and the resulting controversy, preserving any version of the titles is sufficient. There would be no need to ensure original hardware, software, or other contextual items. As long as the video game is accessible and functions as it was supposed to, the mission is complete. But if our mission is to preserve Pokémon Red and Blue as representative of other cultural processes, such as the appropriation of violence into communication, or Tajiri’s commentary of the violence of video games, these titles are not enough. Our mission is expanded to include preservation of the Link Cable and, by necessity, the hardware that can access features found within the Link Cable.

Essentially, our two missions of video game preservation force us to look at multiple aspects of video games and consider various methods of preservation. There is no single goal or answer. It is certainly a complexity that challenges us. Unfortunately, it is only the start of the complexity of preserving this medium.

Level 2: I Choose You!

“Everything not saved will be lost.”

–Nintendo Quit Screen message

To determine what mission the preservation of a video game must meet, it is first necessary to select that video game for a collection. Archival appraisal is the process by which objects are examined to determine whether they are of sufficient value for preservation by an institution. Officially, archival appraisal is said to consider a wide range of factors such as uniqueness, importance, authenticity, completeness, or condition and preservation costs. In reality, determining the intrinsic value of any object is as much informed guessing as anything else.

It is far easier to decide what cultural objects have importance with the luxury of distance. History often uncovers the importance of a work long after its initial release. Stories abound in cinema of vilified, forgotten works brought to light by diligent historians and archivists decades after they were hounded from the public sphere. Without the luxury of time, selection is a far more difficult endeavor.

There are some who would argue that there are far too many video games to preserve in the first place, therefore some culling of the masses is required. Should you counter such arguments by stating that not all films or works of literature should be preserved, the same individuals would likely throw up their hands in terror. Films, literature, even sometimes television, those are important objects worthy of wholesale preservation. Video games are entirely different. We must separate the wheat from the chaff. And yet, considering the Library of Congress holds a copy of Justin Beiber’s Never Say Never yet has barely put a dent into video games, I’m not altogether convinced we are focusing our selection efforts on the correct medium.

Image: “Justin Bieber at Easter Egg roll – crop” by Daniel Ogren Photography – originally posted to Flickr as 100405_EasterEggRoll_217 by Daniel Ogren, Washington DC metro area. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At this moment in time, video games are barely recognized as objects of cultural importance. We are losing that heritage on a daily basis. When a war is ongoing is not the time to stop and consider which patient to remove from the line of fire. That is the time to grab those you can and run. Perhaps, one day, we will reach a state of selection. This is not that time. Too much of video game history has been lost, and too much will be lost before the endless cultural hand-wringing ceases.

I’d like to think we can all debate selection over a nice cup of tea after we’ve managed to save something we can select from. Until such a moment, selection sounds more like the usual depiction of only some video games as worthy of preservation of others; such opinions cannot be tolerated if this history is to remain accessible.

Final Boss: Where Do We Go From Here?

Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.

–Andy Serkis

To say video games have no value is to argue that the most critical artistic form of the last fifty years is meaningless. It is an untenable position. Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, video games are a significant interactive media form. They are a global force and a reflection of society’s hopes and fears. To look at video games is to look at society itself and understand what it values and what it does not. All art is reflective of the society it is a part of. That reflection is as central to video games as it has been to every media that has come before and every media that will come again.

King Botan (played by Andy Serkis) in Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007)

King Botan (played by Andy Serkis) in Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007) for Playstation 3. Image: MeriStation.com

Preserving video games within their technical and historical contexts, grasping the nuance of preservation, refusing to cull from what is saved until a respectful distance is achieved, these are no mere technical acts. These actions are ethical responsibilities to past and future generations who wish to understand what video games are but, most importantly, what they say about us.

There should never be a question about whether communication or art is saved, and so long as we must focus on this question, the actual preservation of video games becomes all the more precarious.

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2 thoughts on “Keeping Our Games Alive: Video Game Archiving and Preservation

  1. Pingback: September 22, 2017 – “Nostalgia Bomb” – The Archive of An Intern

  2. Pingback: From Start to Finish – Amateur Archivist

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