Museums stabilize artifacts by storing them at proper temperatures and humidity and away from damaging light. Objects properly preserved—like an old doll or board game—will last, for all practical purposes, for perpetuity.
Video games present more of a challenge. They exist on inherently unstable media. Magnetic decay, or “bit rot,” destroys information on floppy disks, optical CD-ROMs, and even ROM game cartridges. Furthermore, games rely on hardware and operating software that often become obsolete. The shift to digital publication of games makes the task of preservation even more challenging. How do archivists preserve a browser-based game hosted on a website that’s disappeared or an alternate reality game whose host servers have gone offline?
In 2007, the Library of Congress funded a project called “Preserving Virtual Worlds” to explore the problems inherent in preserving video games and to propose solutions. The participants have now released a lengthy report detailing their findings. Ultimately, the results prove that these problems have no perfect solution.
The complexity of this problem helps inform ICHEG’s approach to collecting video games. ICHEG takes a five-pronged approach to collecting in order to best preserve video game collections:
1. Original Software and Hardware – ICHEG collects original console and home computer games and their systems, as well as other platforms of electronic play, such as arcade cabinets, dedicated handhelds, and electronic toys. ICHEG also collects copies of newer games that exist in purely digital form. These won’t last forever, so it is imperative to gather them now.
2. Marketing Materials and Publications – ICHEG also collects game packages and instructions that introduce the play of games. Press releases, publicity swag, and advertisements document the marketing and selling of games. Publications, such as game magazines, contain information about game play, critics’ comments, and the history of the industry. For example, the more than 1,000 game guides in ICHEG’s collection provide crucial overviews and images of game play.
3. Production Records – ICHEG brings together design documents, concept art, drafts of code, business records, and other materials that show the processes by which ideas become games. Archival materials, such as Ralph Baer’s records of his creation of Simon, Will Wright’s notepads from his development of The Sims and Spore, and Don Daglow’s papers related to his creation of Utopia and Neverwinter Nights, are among ICHEG’s significant holdings. ICHEG also collects oral histories from key industry figures commenting on their careers and the games they made.
4. Play Capture – Recording game play is a critical adjunct to preserving the games themselves. ICHEG has launched a systematic program of video and screen capture of game play to ensure that a record will exist if the original game should become unplayable. ICHEG also collects physical artifacts players produce, such as maps and notes made during game play. In addition, ICHEG is participating in a Strong-wide grant-funded program to collect oral and video histories of players’ personal stories about all sorts of game-play experiences and memories.
5. Source Code – Finally, ICHEG collects the original program instructions for games, because part of any comprehensive preservation strategy must include plans to migrate programs to new platforms or to emulate games. Original source code makes this possible, though the process is complicated by the need to work with industry partners to preserve the rights of intellectual property owners.
ICHEG is aided significantly in its preservation efforts by being housed in an institution that holds many stabilized artifacts in other areas of play and has an experienced curatorial team. However, the extent to which ICHEG ultimately succeeds in this work will depend in large measure upon its’ ability to partner with others. And so ICHEG is exceedingly grateful to all who contribute historical materials to its collections and collaborate with us in various ways. Successful preservation of video games and their history requires the work of many individuals and organizations across the globe.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits