Preserving video game history is about more than nostalgia
Archivists working to preserve old titles before they disappear forever
Compared to film, theatre or music, video games are a relative newbie in entertainment and popular culture.
But gaming's lineage does go back to the 1960s, with landmark titles such as Spacewar!, Pong and The Oregon Trail.
As the interest in gaming's impact on pop culture grows, historians and archivists are playing a real-life time trial to preserve parts of its history before it disappears forever.
The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., is one institution dedicated to doing that, and in December, it announced the latest donation to its growing collection of computer and video games: hundreds of documents, including concept art and handwritten scripts, submitted by Brian Fargo, co-founder of Interplay Entertainment.
To anyone who remembers booting up a game from a 5¼-inch floppy disk, the donation might set off a flood of childhood memories.
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Founded in 1983, Interplay is known for its work on classic games such as The Bard's Tale, Fallout, Baldur's Gate and Descent.
Jon-Paul Dyson, the collection's director, says these documents aren't just cool artifacts but open a window into the role computer games played in the growth of the personal computer market in the 1980s.
"Word processing and recipe collections were a favourite … but what pretty much everyone did as well was play games, and Interplay was a leader in making those games."
'Preserving the history of an art form'
Dyson began collecting items for the Strong Museum of Play's video game collection in 2006.
Starting with a few hundred items, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games now houses more than 60,000 computer and video games, the machines that run them and related materials, such as design documents and trade magazines.
It also features the Video Game Hall of Fame, which was founded in 2015 and recognizes titles that have had the greatest influence on the medium and popular culture at large, including Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros. and World of Warcraft.
"By preserving these games in a museum, we are preserving the history of an art form, just as a museum dedicated to art or film, for instance, might preserve the history of that medium and show how it has developed over time," says Dyson.
Other American institutions, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Museum of Modern Art, have also launched video game exhibitions in recent years.
Dyson sees many parallels between toys, board games and other forms of play with electronic ones. Will Wright's The Sims, for instance, is like a virtual version of playing with a dollhouse. Minecraft finds its origins in Lego.
"There's this very strong linkage between older forms of play and video games. So for us at the museum, it makes a lot of sense to look at both," says Dyson.
Games' history disappearing
The technology used to create games has changed significantly over the decades, and in many cases, those old formats can't be maintained.
Floppy disks and CD-ROMs decay. Old computers break down. File formats become obsolete and the games that used to run on them become unplayable.
Compounding the problem, according to some game architects and collectors, is that video game companies are typically more concerned with making their next game than keeping records of their past work.
"We can't rely on [games] companies to preserve their own history," says Frank Cifaldi, a games historian and preservationist.
"I've seen this happen over and over. When a company moves offices, or even closes down, tons of really valuable material gets tossed, forever, that they don't necessarily know is valuable."
Dumpster diving for artifacts
Archivists have resorted to digging through old, unused computers and even dumpster diving to recover slices of gaming history once thought to be lost forever.
The most notorious example is probably Atari, which disposed of hundreds of thousands of game cartridges after the games market crashed in 1983. Games historians discovered them in a New Mexico landfill in 2014.
Cifaldi has been interested in video game preservation since the late '90s, when he participated in online communities dedicated to preserving emulated versions of rare Nintendo games.
It took five years but I finally found it: the very first advertisement for what became the Nintendo Entertainment System, from late 1984! <a href="https://t.co/6r4sv7vSst">pic.twitter.com/6r4sv7vSst</a>—@frankcifaldi
Just got this amazing donation of mint vintage Mac software boxes from someone who took out the disks and stored the boxes in his attic. <a href="https://t.co/OlykMxHx1b">pic.twitter.com/OlykMxHx1b</a>—@frankcifaldi
Over the years, he's hunted down rare games and everything related to them, including magazines, posters and advertisements. His site Lost Levels specializes in documenting obscure screenshots, interviews and other materials about games that never saw a commercial release.
That work has led to some fascinating discoveries, such as a couple of old circuit boards from the Nintendo Famicom, the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It contained source code for Atari-created games that were intended to be converted to the Famicom in a Nintendo-Atari partnership that never came to pass.
One of the games, Joust, was translated from Atari to Famicom by a young Satoru Iwata, who would go on to become the president of Nintendo and a giant in the games industry. It was likely the first code Iwata had ever written for the company he would later control.
How to save games? Steal from work
At a Games Developers Conference talk in 2015, Jason Scott of the Internet Archive was blunt about what he thought was the best — maybe only — way to preserve the games.
Developers should grab the code and hardware themselves.
"Workplace theft is the future of game history," said Scott, alongside a PowerPoint slide that contained nothing but the words, "STEAL FROM WORK" (yes, in caps).
Cifaldi agrees wholeheartedly.
"It doesn't sound as insidious as it might seem at a glance. I steal from the garbage. I take things that no one's ever going to look at again that's just gonna get tossed. If you work on a game, just take the code and bring it home."
He recommends this not only because the work is worth preserving, but because it can sometimes be used to reboot decades-old favourites for a new generation.
Cifaldi cites Grim Fandango, a classic adventure game by Lucasarts, as evidence. Originally released in 1998, it was remastered in 2015 by Double Fine Productions, led by Tim Schafer, who worked on the original.
To complete the project, Schafer and his team conducted the equivalent of a digital archeology project, piecing together fragments of the original game to make a remaster possible.
One person who worked on the original game had walked away with a pile of tapes that contained the game's source code, while another held onto a seemingly obsolete disk drive. It was exactly the one needed to read said tapes.
"The remastering only happened because Tim Schafer [and his co-workers], whether intentionally or not, stole from work," says Cifaldi.
"That's the only reason that material survived."