Retro video games invade space at university libraries

Pac-Man is back. Universities across Canada are turning to video games to enhance their research. Several Canadian schools are studying the games and the consoles they were played on.

From Donkey Kong to Q*bert, the stars of the past are shining again in academia

Braydon Beaulieu plays Super Mario Bros. on the classic Nintendo Entertainment System inside the University of Calgary's digital library. (Erin Collins/CBC)

On the third floor of a University of Calgary building, a classic composition echoes through the halls, not Beethoven or Bach but Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. circa 1985.

Old video games are disrupting the university's ultramodern digital library.

At universities across Canada, Super Mario Bros. and other games are infringing on Shakespeare's turf, as games from the past begin to be studied as well as played.

Braydon Beaulieu stares intently at a screen as he plays a game on the Nintendo Entertainment System inside the U of C library. The 27-year-old PhD student wasn't even born when the system was released in 1983.

"These things are like ancient artifacts to me, something I would expect to see in a museum, so it is really fun to play them." 

Dylan Tetrault shows off some of the 100 vintage gaming consoles housed in the University of Calgary digital library's archives. (Erin Collins/CBC)

But Beaulieu isn't just playing. Video games have a central role in the English student's doctoral research — something made easy at the University of Calgary, where students and researchers can easily access dozens of retro consoles and hundreds of games. Beaulieu says studying the video games of the past is essential. 

"You know, you look at something like Super Mario Bros., that kind of is the Shakespeare or the Chaucer of gaming."

Beaulieu says he studies academic issues like gender, sexuality and race as they emerge in video games because they serve as an important insight into the people who played them.

"Games, like any text, are historical objects and they also tell us something about who we are as people and how we function as cultures."

That's a big reason why the U of C and many other universities now have a dedicated space to archive and study video games.

About 2,000 vintage games and 100 retro consoles make up the University of Calgary's video game archive, which is used for research and recreation. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Dylan Tetrault is in charge of the University of Calgary's collection, which includes more than 100 vintage consoles and 2,000 games. It's one of the biggest academic collections in Canada. 

"We have got a lot of retro consoles that we take a lot of pride in, going all the way back to Pong systems, we have got a very interesting Coleco Telstar system from back in the late '70s."

Tetrault says that as video games have become more important in society, it is only natural that they would find a home in university libraries.

"Games and playing games is such a huge aspect of culture nowadays, just like movies were at the turn of the last century, becoming a huge aspect of everybody's life. Games are that way now and so it is important to study them."

The re-emergence of these games isn't affecting only the library, Tetrault says video games are now being used in teaching at the university, changing the way students learn. 

"The way that we are looking for knowledge, the way that we are looking for new knowledge from our cultural resources, is changing."

Of course, serious as the business of academia often is, Beaulieu points out that there is a unique upside to his research.

"It is definitely a lot of fun."


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?