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.


  1. Really enjoyed your article. I've an avid gamer and a big fan of old school gaming. I'm a supporter of digital preservation but more in favour of the preservation of the original hardware (owning dreamcasts, gamecubes, snes n such). For me the real experience of these games comes through the clacking of cartridges, tuning of channels and fun of local co-op which I feel we're losing. That's where the social aspect comes in for me and is something I seek to pass on to my young cousins and kids one day.

    1. Thanks Murray!

      I'm glad you're still using your consoles, and 'preserving' them for the future generations. I agree - there's nothing quite like playing a game in its original 'environment'. Preserving hardware is an important part of preserving videogames, but from an archivist's point of view it is risky because there is no knowing how long that hardware will last, or whether they will be fixable once they break down somewhere down the line. It seems migration and/or emulation will be inevitable at some point. But as long as the hardware exists, even when unusable, I believe it's important to keep them in order to give the accompanying software context - and vice versa.

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