Saturday, 25 February 2012

Web Archiving + Videogame Archiving = Digital Preservation?

The Atari 2600.  The first games console I ever got my
grubby mitts on.
I was reading this article the other day, and it suddenly occurred to me just how much the two domains of web archiving and videogame preservation have in common.  In some ways it's a no-brainer, since I guess both come under the umbrella term of 'digital preservation', but when you think of digital preservation, preserving videogames doesn't seem to be on the radar.  Only recently there's been a huge scramble to make a concerted effort to archive the Web.  Archiving videogames isn't really on anyone's agenda.  Unless they're a hardcore gamers themselves.

And something about this really bothers me.

I mean, I totally get the need for priorities here.  The Web certainly has a lot more useful information (e.g. 'oral histories', online election campaigns, government portals etc.) that are useful resources and should be preserved for the future generations.  And videogames... well that's just what anti-social, nerdy guys stuck in their basements/bedrooms half their lives deal with right?

I think there's something of a perception that videogames lead to brain rot in our young.  Videogames have had so much bad press over the years, to talk about them in any serious forum is a bit of an anathema.  Why would anyone want to preserve anything that turns kids into zombies at best, killers at worst?

The fact is, videogames are an important part of our cultural heritage.  From the Lewis Chessmen to the Monopoly board, games have been an integral part of cultural life - why should videogames be treated any different?

I suspect that the aversion is not simply because of the bad connotations computer gaming conjures up in the minds of many; it's also the fact that preserving games is as difficult as preserving the web is.  Games are not called 'ephemera' for nothing.

There are two main ways of preserving digital content - migration and emulation.  Migration involves the conversion of files to formats supported by existing technologies, whilst emulation involves the recreation of obsolete technologies on existing computer platforms.  Now both exist in the world of videogaming.  Consider the most famous old games - games like PacMan and Tetris.  These games will always be 'ported' to new formats and consoles because they are so hugely popular on so many levels.  But what about games like 'The Perils of Rosella'?  And 'Everyone's a Wally'?  Such obscure titles are left to bite the dust because no one cares about them, and/or the hardware to actually play them died a couple of decades ago.  Now some hard-working peeps (or geeks, as some might call them) create emulators in order to play them again on a currently existing platform.  They even helpfully upload them to the web so others can play them.  Is that an archive there?  Yes, I think it is!

Having said all that, there is growing interest in the preservation of videogames, even if progress in the area has been slow and patchy.  The National Media Museum is now housing the National Videogame Archive, which as far as I can tell collects retro consoles and gaming hardware.  And the British Library is now starting its own videogame website archiving project, which aims not only to collect online gaming archives, but related gaming websites such as online walkthroughs, fanart, fanfic, and so on.  There is however a limitation in what the British Library can do, as permission has to be sought from rightholders before archiving can take place, a serious shortcoming when it comes to archiving actual gaming content.  Nevertheless, it's a step in the right direction, and I hope that fellow archivists across the pond and elsewhere (where licensing laws are more conducive to mass web archiving) are starting out on the same path too.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

From the Shelf: The Longer Long Tail by Chris Anderson

I picked up this book randomly in Waterstones the other day, trying to use up the points on the gift card my work colleagues had thoughtfully bought me as a leaving present.  I remembered hearing about the 'Long Tail' on the LISF module, and figured it would be relevant reading.

The idea of the Long Tail isn't new, and is probably old hat to most readers.  This book is an updated version of Chris Anderson's 2006 original, but to be honest, I don't think there was much added between the two editions.  Most of the information was pertinent to pre-2006, and this edition happens to be 2009, so it's still a little out of date.  For instance - no mention of Twitter, Spotify, and other newer social media.  Not even, come to think of it.  The thing is, you don't really need to have those sites mentioned.  Anderson gives you all the detail, and you just run with it.  Really, you could read 'Twitter' for 'Facebook' and you'd still get the same idea.  The theory of the Long Tail would still hold true.

And really, that's the only beef I have with this book.  Much as I enjoyed it (and I tell you true, I did), most of it was repetition.  After the first couple of chapters, you'd pretty much got the point and were ready to move on.  There is a Long Tail for just about anything you can think of - music, movies, coffee, chocolate, beer, clothes, prams, cars, advertising.  After finishing this book, you will be wondering what ISN'T affected by the Long Tail and finding yourself hard-pressed to find anything.

The thing is, once you know it, it's obvious.  We all have niche interests.  There's nothing amazing about that.  It's just that, with the internet, we have been spoiled by the expansion of opportunities to indulge in those interests.  Perhaps for the first time in history, people have had wide access to niche markets open up before them at the click of a mouse.  In the past traditional 'bricks and mortar' stores have only concentrated on the hits and the bestsellers because they had no space for the rare and the obscure, and the hits were sure to sell and make a profit.  Simple math.  Anderson's point is that this paradigm is dying - because of the World Wide Web.  Now the niche market constitutes a growing proportion of a company's overall profits - and it's continuing to grow.  If you have enough buyers in any one niche market, you are still going to make a hell of a lot of money, even if only one unit is sold per annum.

(Incidentally, this is one of the things I enjoyed most about being in Japan, specifically Tokyo.  Stores there heavily cater to Long Tail markets.  Yellow Submarine serves the long tail of roleplay gaming; Mandarake serves the long tail of self-published fan comics; Book Off serves the long tail of second hand books, CDs, DVD's and videogames).

Some people have criticised Anderson for not getting the economics right in this book; I don't know much about economics, but I know enough from what being a Long Tail consumer myself informs me.  There is no way I could've bought VS System cards a year after they'd been discontinued without access to specialist online stores such as the 13th Floor.  Neither could I have found the hard-to-find beads and findings I was looking for unless I went to great expense to get them specially shipped - or bought them cheaply and conveniently at The Bead Shop.  A whole new world has opened up for me and my interests through the internet; as has a whole new market been born for many businesses out there in the 'real world'.

So yeah.  It's worth a read.  Even if only to get your brain ticking over all the Long Tails it can possibly conceive of.