Preserving Play: Video Games as Digital Artefacts and the Status of Games Preservation

Archaeology and video games have been a hot topic in the past few years – not only is it a growing sub-discipline of its own (for more information, check out archaeogaming.com or the new Archaeogaming book that has come out of that website), but we also seem to talk about video games and archaeology a lot on this blog (see: Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon Age…plus many more in the near future!). However, this all utilises the video game as its own digital space, inside which archaeological theory can be applied. But what about the video game as an actual artefact?

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(Image Credit: Nintendo of Europe)

Like any artefact, video games have been the focus of preservation efforts for some time. Not only is preservation vital for digital academics and historians, but many game enthusiasts appreciate the ability to play games from their childhood that may be inaccessible any other way. Two of the main methods of preservation have been migration and emulation. Migration refers to the movement (also known as ‘porting’) of a game from an older and/or obsolete gaming system to another, more recent/active one. Emulation is arguably a more popular method, where a program is created to emulate both the game and the original software it ran on, creating a more “accurate”, preserved version of the game.

Video game preservationists include designated research groups, such as the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project. It has also become an industry in its own right, with new re-releases of classic games and systems and large scale conventions becoming more popular as “retro gaming” and nostalgia become extremely marketable to the general public. However, most preservationists consist of hobbyists and fans who seek to not only preserve video games, but to make them accessible to everyone, usually by making emulated games and emulators free to download online.

This latter group of video game preservationists have found themselves in hot water recently, as Nintendo, a popular video game company, is taking legal action against two major emulation websites for illegal distribution of their copyrighted games. While this may seem understandable, it should also be noted that many of these emulated games have not been in distribution for a long period of time and will most likely never been regularly distributed again in stores. So the situation is slightly more complex – how can we preserve these games if the game companies will not?

So, what is in the future for video game preservation? Some propositions for going forward with a more “formal” (read: without breaching copyright or including illegal downloading) preservation approach include utilising the museum approach and returning to more backwards compatible consoles (in other words, allow for newer consoles to play older games on them), as well as a more organised push towards migration/emulation of all games.  However, the heart of game preservation will arguably remain with the hobbyists and fans who will continue to produce downloadable versions of well-loved games online, regardless of the legal issues ahead.

Perhaps archaeologists and heritage specialists should consider video game preservation as part of our respective fields? After all, if we consider the video game as a historical/digital artefact, doesn’t that deserve saving as much as the more physical artefacts? With the growing popularity of “archaeogaming”, it seems like more archaeologists might find themselves looking more into preservation techniques of ATARI games instead of looking at pottery! And to be honest…that sounds awesome. Maybe I got into the wrong archaeological field?

References

Barwick, J. et al. (2011) Playing Games with Cultural Heritage: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the Current Status of Digital Game Preservation. Games and Culture. 6 (4). pp. 373-390.

Guttenbrunner, M. et al. (2010) Keeping the Game Alive: Evaluating Strategies for the Preservation of Console Video Games. The International Journal of Digital Curation. 1 (5). pp. 64-90.

McFerran, D. (2018) The Retro Gaming Industry Could Be Killing Game Preservation. Eurogamer. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-02-09-the-retro-gaming-industry-could-be-killing-video-game-preservation

McFerran, D. (2018) What Does Nintendo’s Shutdown of ROM-Sharing Sites Mean for Video Game Preservation? NintendoLife. http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2018/08/feature_what_does_nintendos_shutdown_of_rom-sharing_sites_mean_for_video_game_preservation 

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