Because good research needs good data

Video games: worth preserving?

A guest blog post by the winner of the DPC's Most Distinguished Student Work in Digital Preservation 2014 - Alastair John Bachell. Alastair writes about games archives and preservation, how he got interested in the subject, and finally if they are even worth preserving.  

Alasdair John Bachell | 15 December 2014

Last month I had the great honour of attending the Digital Preservation Coalition 2014 Awards as a finalist for the Most Distinguished Student Work in Digital Preservation, and the even greater honour of being the winner! The night was spent with some of the very best people in digital preservation, and the awards showcased some of the finest projects in the field. The webcast of the awards ceremony can be found here:

My paper looked at the attitudes of game developers in the UK towards preservation of games, and looked at the issues of preserving a medium that seems to rely on its own obsolescence to “progress”. I started the project out of a desire to research something I have a real enjoyment for. I have been playing games ever since I could hold a game boy, and my hobby has come a long way since. When I was studying for my degree at the University of Glasgow, I heard about all kinds of strange archives and how they came into being (there’s a LEGO archive? Amazing!). I then thought how video games might be archived, and whether there were any game archives in the world (there are as it turns out!). I decided to look at games archives and preservation for my dissertation.

Despite the industry being so young, we are seeing games disappearing or becoming unplayable for a variety of reasons. There is the usual, inevitable decay of the media in one form or another, but games have the added complications of copyright protection issues, required server connections and an indifferent attitude towards gaming history from the industry.

This isn’t true in all cases of course, companies like Nintendo take great pride in their history; Mario is probably the first game character that would come to mind if asked. Sony recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Playstation, one of the most successful and influential consoles in history. What about the smaller developers, the independents, and the games companies that no longer exist? Companies like Nintendo and Sony have a huge amount of resources that they can use to retain and redistribute their older games, whereas small developers rarely have the resources or indeed the lifespan to do the same, and it’s very often uncertain whether a games developer will be successful enough to stay afloat past its first year or two.

During the project I found that the developers I talked to were very enthusiastic about old games, and most had grown up playing the great classics as well as the more obscure titles that now influenced their work. However, the idea persisted that video games were somehow not worth preserving, at least not by developers. Some saw it as the responsibility of museums and other heritage institutions, and others the responsibility of fans. Some had simply never thought about it, historians, archaeologists and pirates are the ones who save history, right?

The technical aspects of saving a video game are challenging enough, but compounded with the web of copyright issues and the attitudes of some developers and publishers, it seems to become near insurmountable. The attitude and awareness problem is not specific to the games industry, many archivists, especially those working in business archives, must constantly defend their worth to their organisation. It’s my intention to continue this project to begin looking at how the benefits of preservation can be advocated to the industry and make a case for the industry to start taking a more active role in saving its own past. By combating the industry’s poor attitude to game conservation, it potentially makes the job of actually preserving games that much easier.

The field of game preservation is in its infancy, and there are numerous challenges to its success. It has been a real eye opener for me and I look forward to doing my part to overcoming these challenges and helping to keep games around for future generations to enjoy.