Archives aim to save games
Gaming may be seen as frivolous fun but some serious thought is being given to preserving old games to ensure that they will never be lost or forgotten
The plastic is yellowing and the memories are fading. Cassette games gather dust in the attic; old controllers lay battered on the floor. Attention today may be focused on the likes of Call of Duty and FIFA 12 but, in a few years' time, they too will be largely forgotten. Gaming, it's fair to say, can be a fickle business.
Even though you can play retro titles on the current crop of consoles, thanks to services such as Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and WiiWare, videogamers are given mixed messages. On one hand, they are encouraged to indulge their nostalgia; on the other, they are invited to trade in their games, titles they may have only just bought, for something shiny and new. For the most part, however, old games, consoles and peripherals go somewhere else: straight into the bin.
This poses a problem. The more games that are thrown away, the greater the chance they will be lost to history. There is a fear that gaming will lose a life if it doesn't keep better stock of its wares, which could lead it down the same path as film, television or music; these media have major holes in their back catalogues, whether it be 108 missing Doctor Who episodes or the stereo soundtrack to the original The War of the Worlds.
Attempts have been made to prevent this from happening. There are online resources dedicated to keeping digital copies of old games, making them available to download and play for anyone who owns the right emulator. One of the most comprehensive of these is World of Spectrum, to be found at worldofspectrum.org, the official, legal archive for the British-made ZX Spectrum home computer, which offers a much larger number of games than any console download service ever would.
There are also huge gaming databases that try to catalogue every game for every platform. The largest, and oldest, of them is Mobygames.com, with an archive that details thousands of games from 1979 to the present, complete with screenshots, packshots and credit lists. There is even a British magazine dedicated to old games, Retro Gamer, which is set to celebrate its 100th issue in a few months time.
"Old videogames not only mark an important part of our gaming heritage but also allow developers to avoid mistakes from the past," says Darran Jones, Retro Gamer's editor. "While modern day consoles allow access to past classics in the form of digital downloads, more can be done by publishers to ensure that games, classic or otherwise, can be stored for future generations to enjoy."
But online backups of games don't address the issue of keeping an archive of physical items, an issue that will become less problematic the more the industry moves towards digital distribution. For that reason, the National Media Museum in Bradford and Nottingham Trent University have joined forces to form the National Videogame Archive. Its aim is to preserve, analyse and display the products of the global videogame industry and it has gathered a sizeable bank of items, among them a rare prototype EyeToy camera developed by Sony.
The archive aims to make games and the culture that surrounds them as easily accessible as possible. The physical archive and gallery enables visitors to experience games on their original hardware using authentic controllers and it is not limited to hardware and software. Magazines, literature, design sketches and concept art are also gathered up for the purposes of collection, preservation and exhibition.
"The archive is steadily growing through a combination of public and industry donations," explains Tom Woolley, curator of new media at the National Media Museum. "This year we've been working with the British Film Institute (BFI) to acquire their videogames collection, which has been a great boost for the archive."
The museum is big on gaming. It has a games lounge next to its animation gallery and among the games on display is Prince of Persia from 1989, which is used to demonstrate early rotoscoping animation in games, a technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame. The game's creator, Jordan Mechner, has handed the archive some of his original sketches and notebooks.
The idea is that the archive is not just a depository but something that can be used to educate. Actua Soccer, released in 1995, is flagged up as an example of motion capture, for instance; such contextualisation and display can't be easily done online.
"The online emulation scene is a fantastic resource and there are also a lot of digital studio archives within the games industry," says Woolley. "But these are privately owned collections that could disappear at any moment."
One of the museum's initiatives has been the Save The Videogame campaign, urging people to scour their lofts and spare bedrooms for games and machines they could donate.
"The simple fact is that videogames are disappearing," says Prof James Newman, who used to work at Nottingham Trent University but is now professor of digital media and director of the Media Futures Research Centre at Bath Spa University. "Although we are used to thinking about how big the games industry is, how many titles studios and publishers create each year and how much time players spend playing them, it is a surprising truth that unless we do something about it, all of these games will eventually disappear forever."
He says controllers, consoles, keyboards, mice and joysticks, cartridges, discs and memory sticks, will inevitably become unusable. Plastics degrade over time, electrical contacts fail and power supplies give up the ghost and he believes the industry needs to act fast. "There is a hugely complex set of issues at work in relation to games preservation, our valuing of old games and gaming history, and this is what we as academic researchers are interested in tackling."
The idea for the archive came when Prof Newman was writing a book for the BFI called 100 Videogames. "I noticed that little was being done to preserve the games, the stories of developers, the design documents, the players' performances, the products of fan cultures and so on," he says. "There was no concerted, national-level effort co-ordinating the preservation of games so the archive fills that gap. It's the nation's collection of games and the material of gaming culture."
Last year, the British Library discussed lending support to the National Videogame Archive. Paul Wheatley, a specialist in digital preservation at the library believes games and related documents from the 1970s through to the 1990s are already being lost. His concerns mirrored those of the library's chief executive, Lynne Brindley, who said the country faced a "black hole" of lost information as more records are moved digitally online.
Some industry watchers believe the government should consider making it compulsory for publishers to hand over a copy of any game they produce and such a requirement would mirror a law passed in 1662 that forces publishers of the printed word to deposit a single copy with the British Library.
Mr Wheatley said: "The games publishing industry recognises the value in preserving their computer games and many in the industry that I've talked to could relay horror stories about old material disappearing or being left to gradually decay in a box under someone's desk."
A major issue, however, is one of space. In 2009, the British Library spent £26 million on storage space, large enough for seven million archived items, in Yorkshire. In strict economic times, it is unlikely that any public body would be granted the money to build more storage space for videogames. For this reason, some level of digitisation is necessary.
"Storage space and environmental conditions are obviously important for physical objects but we've also been working towards a robust and dependable digital storage solution," says Woolley. "Portable media such as cartridges, cassettes and CDs are unreliable and can be easily damaged or wiped, so a secure, backed-up digital vault that can be easily accessed in the future is currently in the works."
But that tells only half of the story. Iain Simons, who organised the annual GameCity festival in Nottingham on behalf of Nottingham Trent University, says translation is just as important as preservation, making physical collections vital.
"Just putting someone in front of a Spectrum emulator on a monitor and letting them play Horace goes Skiing isn't going to tell them anything about CRT displays, homes with one television, tape loading times or computers having rubber keyboards," he says. "A proper physical archive will go some way to resolving this issue and that's why we have to act."
You can see some treasures from the National Videogame Archive at www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Collection/NewMedia/NationalVideogameArchive.aspx
Tom Woolley, curator of New Media at the National Media Museum, on three recent games that must be archived.
The latest blockbuster by Rockstar Games, publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series, is a startling technological accomplishment using cutting-edge facial animation. "It stands out for its advancements in character animation and narrative," says Woolley.
As the sequel to a game that proved to be a surprise hit in 2007, Portal 2, released this year, has won numerous awards for the finest execution of physics-based action adventure puzzling of its generation. "It has ingenious level design and voice acting."
An independent game with 15 million registered users, Minecraft has attained cult status and is so well regarded that it has won the inaugural GameCity Prize this year in Nottingham. It allows gamers to build their own 3D words out of textured cubes. "For community collaboration and cult status, it's very important."
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