Network: SuperMario and Aladdin meet Marlon Brando: The National Film and Television Archive, preserver of artistic heritage, is planning a collection of video games. Nick Wray reports
Monday 10 October 1994
So the news that Britain's National Film and Television Archive is thinking of collecting video games may make some cineastes recoil in horror. The mere idea that SuperMario - the mustachioed Italian Brooklyn plumber conceived as a video- game character by computer programmers in Japan - might receive the same attention as Marlon Brando may seem outrageous.
Yet the archive, which is part of the British Film Institute, seems set to do just that. In line with its remit to preserve the 'moving image heritage of the nation', the NFTVA has taken the first faltering steps towards a programme of preserving video games for posterity. A freelancer has been hired to begin the touchy process of making aesthetic choices between games.
The archive has a number of arguments for its initiative. First, video games are big business. Whatever his artistic limitations, Mario is a higher grosser than Marlon Brando - and better known among under-thirties. Computer games now generate dollars 1bn more revenue each year than US cinemas.
In years to come, when the convergence of video games, computers and television is taken for granted, our grandchildren may wish to know something of how video games started - just as the crackly music recordings of the 1900s are now prized museum pieces. Even the earliest and crudest games will be of historical interest. Unless the arch-
ivists move in now, it will be too late.
The underlying argument for an archiving programme is that the design of computer games offers as great a scope for human creativity as any other branch of the film business. It makes no more sense to say work performed on computers and stored in digital format cannot be creative than to say that films themselves are uncreative because they consist of images captured in the form of silver halide crystals on celluloid.
Whether today's video games are valuable enough to be preserved as works of art is a different matter. In the most recent products, such as Aladdin, a video game spin-off from the Disney film, the game is planned alongside the movie. But it will not be for some years - five rather than two or three - that video games become independent art forms in their own right.
The NFTVA's experts believe that their video-archiving initiative may be the first in the world. Since nobody has made a serious attempt to preserve games for posterity, the archive will have to find its own solutions to any problems that come up.
The first will be how to store the games. Until recently many video games have been available only in arcade versions running on dedicated machines whose job is only to play a single game. Potential archivists may therefore have to acquire a range of different machines, inconveniently big and impractical, and look after them - as the Science Museum looks after its antique steam engines.
Even with games that can be played equally well on different computers, there are challenges. Transferring the program for a video game from one format to another - perhaps from a floppy disk to a CD-rom - will be quicker and cheaper than copying an entire celluloid feature film. It is also safer to archive digital media than old-fashioned nitrate film, which has a worrying tendency to explode.
Yet such digital masters may not be archivally stable. Accelerated ageing tests on some types of digital tapes have shown that they are unlikely to remain inert over time. Most of us have personal experience of the effects of dirt and scratching on music CDs, a digital medium which was originally heralded as 'virtually indestructible'.
If these hurdles could be overcome, where would the money come from? To buy the games themselves, one option might be to establish a 'statutory deposit scheme' requiring those who sell video games in Britain to send free copies to the archive, just as publishers must send books to copyright libraries. Yet the archive would have to spend heavily on acquiring premises and maintaining a display space. Companies like Sega and Disney could be expected to sponsor special exhibitions, but not to pick up the entire bill.
Faced with a demand for taxpayers to step in, Tory nationalists may complain that there is little British content in most video games. But the British Library holds works by Balzac, Mark Twain and Homer. Anyway, partnership and coproductions often obscure the 'nationality' of entertainment software.
Whether the case for SuperMario will convince John Major remains to be seen. But the archive celebrates many Victorian values apparently close to the Government's heart: art, commerce, industry and science. If British taxpayers establish a video game archive, such games could become part of a show of moving images which is a box office smash in the next century - even if the black polo brigade still sniff at film festivals today.
The author helped to organise the recent conference at the Scientific Societies Lecture Theatre, 'Putting Movies on Computer'. He is studying for an MA in interactive multimedia at the Royal College of Art. E-mail: 100121.1152@compuserve. com
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