Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games, The Strong
Over the past half century, video games have transformed our society. Museums and libraries struggle with the challenges of ever-changing technology to preserve that cultural legacy.
Consider an example. The Apple II introduced millions of Americans to personal computers and to games like Oregon Trail, Lode Runner, and Zork. Now imagine you wanted to play those games today. The original copies probably came on a 5 ¼-inch disk, but few modern computers have disk drives, let alone that size! Furthermore, modern operating systems don’t support Apple II games. Lastly, even if the game could be loaded there’s a good chance it wouldn’t run because the magnetic information on the disk has likely decayed, a process preservationists call “bit rot.” In short, museums and libraries must overcome monumental obstacles to preserving video games.
This is the challenge that The Strong, home of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games), faces as it curates a collection of approximately 50,000 video games and related artifacts, the world’s most extensive public collection of video game-related materials.
A grant from IMLS has enabled us to test the functionality of approximately 7,000 games in the collection and ensure that we have all the necessary hardware and software to run the programs. When we test the games we also capture 10-20 minutes of video of the game play for each game. This program of video capture has emerged as an important preservation tool for a couple of reasons.
First, video of game play captures aspects of the game the physical artifact can’t reveal. The play in video games happens virtually, and to understand a game people must see game play, not just the game’s physical shape or packaging. Even if the original game stops working, a video preserves a record of what it was like to play.
Second, today’s video games are increasingly born digital, with no physical artifact for museums and libraries to collect and preserve. Many games are created and sold online, with no evidence of a physical object. For example, the leading game maker Electronic Arts, recently announced quarterly sales showing that Apple provides them more revenue than any other source, including brick and mortar retailers like Wal-Mart. And games such as Massively Multiplayer Online games use servers in the cloud to aggregate thousands of players. Once those servers go down these communities of players will disappear, and it will be impossible to play these games as players originally experienced them. Again, video of the game play preserves a record of what these games were like.
This IMLS conservation grant, by helping The Strong solve the numerous technical challenges of testing and video recording old games, has enabled us to pioneer methods that other institutions can use to preserve video games and record their impact on society. But we must act now, and thanks to IMLS we are.