Quintessence: The Challenges of Digital Preservation (Part 1)

01 Sep 2016 5

As players, we sometimes lament the realization that our beloved games won’t work forever. I happen to live in Rochester, NY, home of the National Museum of Play, which houses the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. I recently had an email exchange with ICHEG’s Director, Jon-Paul Dyson, about how to confront that challenge as a historian. His answers are lightly edited for context and brevity.

—Begin Interview—

As a general overview, we recognize the importance and difficulty of preserving born-digital materials – so far we’ve only been in the exploration mode of doing this, but as we work at this more we’ll probably try to find solutions that fit with our basic five-fold approach to preserving video games in general. I outlined this multifaceted approach in a blog back in 2010. That approach generally means doing the following:

  1. Preserving the games themselves and the hardware to run them on (e.g. for a mobile game this might mean having an actual phone or tablet with the games loaded on it)
  2. Preserving a record of the game play through video capture. For more background on some of the work we’ve done with this see here. We’ve done exploratory work with both Apple and Android devices.
  3. Preserving source code and migrating copies of the games from one medium to another (this is not something we’ve really done yet for mobile games)
  4. Preserving published media about games and game developers (because mobile gaming has become so large, media covers it more and more so we have more materials in our collection covering this subject – in our experience people researching the history of games find published media an invaluable source for their research)
  5. Preserving unique archival materials that document games’ development, publication, marketing, play, etc. (while most of the hundreds of thousands of physical and electronic documents in our collection predate the rise of mobile gaming we expect more of these materials to deal with mobile gaming going forward and we have active plans to collect these materials)

Case

Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Kelsey: Are there any mobile games which you have already begun preserving, or any you have in mind to especially target for future preservation work?

Dyson: As noted above, at this point most of our work with video capture of game play on mobile devices has been experimental, but we expect to continue to grow our emphasis on this area of video game preservation in the future as part of our mandate to preserve the history of video games.

Kelsey: Is there a solution to preservation of games, like Chromehounds for the Xbox 360, which rely for their basic gameplay on servers which have already been shut down? Relatedly, what can one do with games like Hearthstone or MMOs, which continually update their versions?

Dyson: It will be impossible to preserve every variation of every game ever made, but where opportunities exist we try and use the techniques outlined above to preserve as much of a record as possible of the history of games. Interestingly for long-term preservation, a recent ruling related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act opens up some possibilities for preservation of items reliant on servers.

Kelsey: To what extent do Apple and Google (or other relevant groups) make preservation easier or harder? Is there anything you hope they might begin doing in the future to make the history of culture on their devices knowable to our descendants?

Dyson: So far we haven’t worked with either Apple or Google on this problem, but we would love to have conversations with them about partnering to preserve that history if anyone from those companies is reading this!

Kelsey: Is there anything that players can do to contribute to the preservation of this history?

Dyson: Certainly if players had materials documenting these games, from advertisements they might have picked up at conventions to older devices loaded with older games (or older versions of games) we would love for them to reach out to us. Similarly, we’d be very interested in talking to people who have made mobile games who would be interested in sharing materials that document their work. People can contact me at jpdyson@museumofplay.org if they have such materials.

Kelsey: Can you think of anything which is simply beyond the scope of any reasonable hope for preservation, which players ought to try to experience before the option disappears?

Dyson: I think any game that relies on a community of active players is in most danger, because even if a copy of the game is somehow preserved the game will lose its life and vibrancy without other players participating.

Kelsey: What have you been working on most recently?

Dyson: We’re currently working with a game publisher to complete video capture of game play of a title that will be shut down soon to preserve a record of it, though unfortunately I can’t share the title of the game.

Capture

Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Kelsey: Many of the games which were highly influential for middle-aged people like myself have been re-released for new systems. Do you have any expectations about the extent to which this constitutes a sustainable method of preserving video game history? I don’t have a good sense of whether this is an unusual feature of my generation propelling a nostalgia-driven search for media for our children, or whether it’s generationally independent.

Dyson: Generally, re-makes like these are driven by interest from the players that played the game when it was first released. I doubt there will be that level of enthusiasm 30 or 40 years down the road among those who played the game for the first time in the second-generation product.

Kelsey: To what extent do you attempt to capture the wide variety of devices people use to play various versions of the same game? It occurs to me that, just on the home computer side, there’s immense variability. I use a trackball and a touch-sensitive mouse with an ergonomic keyboard on an iMac, while my wife uses a Surface Pro 4 which can either be used as a touchscreen with a stylus or more like a laptop. Someone with a serious gaming rig would have an experience as different from mine as mine is from my wife’s. Has there been a game which merited capturing that variability?

Dyson: We’ve been focused on screen capture rather than videotaping the whole act of playing, so I can’t say we’ve done much with this. Certainly we have captured play of the same game on different systems, and especially with early home systems there was a huge difference in games from system to system.

Kelsey: What impact has the rise of esports had on your work? Do you anticipate that this will change in the future?

Dyson: It’s one of many new trends that we need to preserve a record of, just as we try and preserve a record of the history of mobile gaming, casual gaming, augmented reality, etc.

Kelsey: How can those involved in journalism about video games better serve your goals? Are there particular sorts of articles which you’ve found especially important (or, conversely, ones which you see endlessly and have no historical value)?

Dyson: In-depth articles (such as long-form journalism) tend to be the most useful for our purposes, and interviews that go in-depth with their subjects. And certainly when journalists are talking to someone who has a lot of materials from their career we would love it if they connected us with that person to discuss preserving those materials.

Kelsey: What makes a game high priority for preservation? Is it cultural penetration, influence on other designers, opportunity to collect unique artifacts, inherent quality, etc? Are the personal preferences of the people making these decisions allowed to play a role and, if so, is there a game you made a particular effort to focus on because of your experiences with it?

Dyson: I’d say the highest priority for us in terms of collecting has been the materials that document how games were made (e.g. design documents, business records from game companies, etc.), since those provide a good history of the industry and are often at most risk of being lost. In general, unique or rare items that represent games of broad cultural impact are most important. And, of course, our personal experiences and preferences bias our work, I’m sure though we try to work from a broad historical lens. I will say I’m most excited when we collect materials related to games that I really loved. For example, we’ve tried to collect materials related to the development of early games on mainframes. I think it’s very important for understanding the history of games, but I also am sure the fact that I cut my teeth playing and programming on a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer colors my perceptions of the history of electronic games.

Kelsey: Do you feel like your work on preservation has given you any surprising insights into gaming more generally? Is there any aspect of its role in the culture which you regard as underappreciated?

Dyson: I think I’m always most interested in the ways that fundamental game and play mechanics of video games are connected to older forms of play. When people play capture the flag on TF2, how is that different or similar to playing it in the backyard. And when people play computerbased RPGs, what are the ways that the specific forms of the game are descended from older forms of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons (which in turn descends from older forms of play).

—End Interview—

Some concluding thoughts: first, the ruling related to the DMCA is startlingly limited, largely due to the nature of the law itself. It only applies for the duration of the exception, which must be argued and granted during each rule-making period (as currently defined, that’s every two years); for this period, it only covers servers needed for a single-player game to work, not multiplayer servers; and it does not allow the dissemination of the software needed for these workarounds, even for preservation.

More broadly, I was struck by just how difficult this task is. As the first generation to broadly value electronic games gains cultural power, we’re gathering the objects which so influenced the childhoods of many of my fellow middle-aged folks. But those growing up now don’t have that power yet, nor the benefit of a market willing to take their nostalgia seriously, and the games they play don’t have boxes and cartridges which might sit in their parents’ attic until they’re in their forties. We can hope for the preservation of the source code and assets, and doubtless some of those attics will contain a still-functional iPhone 4 with Flappy Bird installed. But with historians working on methods to use with old computer and console games, and the sheer intractable volume of games released for mobile platforms, we have to accept that only a small proportion of gaming culture as we experience it will be available to the grandchildren of those playing their first game today.

In part II, Kelsey asks the team behind one of our early favorites for their thoughts on this topic.

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