[In this article, first published in the October 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield examines the importance of preserving the history of video games, pondering the ways in which we can catalog the history of the medium for future generations.
I think history is important. As George Santayana famously wrote in The Life of Reason, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If you look around you, it's clear that we are actually doing a lot of repeating nowadays. As the game industry prepares for 3D in the browsers, and we watch the increase in quality of games on smartphones, and even as one looks at the increasing complexity of indie games, we can also see a lot of people making mistakes that were solved during the 32 bit console era, or earlier.
While we can't stop everyone from re-learning all these lessons -- there are tons of pitfalls in game development, after all -- helping more people to understand the origins of games and game development is a worthwhile endeavor. Postmortems go a long way, but aside from those on Game Developer and Gamasutra, not that many are public. There are technical manuals and theory books, but when you come down to it, most of the game industry's collective knowledge is stored up in the thoughts and discussions of those who lived it.
Ever since my first GDC I have been privy to panels, discussions, and proposals suggesting how to preserve games. Should we keep the physical media? Do we try to find all the source code? Should we emulate everything? What do we do for game consoles that no longer exist in the world, or of which there are very few? How do we present this content? There are more questions than answers, to be sure.
Many preservation efforts are happening on the hobbyist level, scattered according to the interests of the person undertaking them. The folks at www.visual6502.org
are a great example. They've taken the venerable 6502 chip, which was used in the Apple IIe, the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, and many others, and burned down each layer of the chip with acid, mapped the silicon die and its substrate, then created polygon vector models of the chip's physical components. This allows chip-level accuracy in emulation, and at the very least enables the chip to be recreated if necessary. And this is fantastic, but this is just one chip! The group is working to save more chips, especially the rarer ones, but they can only do so much.
The Living Canvas
As the preservation movement picks up speed, so too does the desire to show off these collections, or at least make them available to the right people. This, of course, leads to museums. One of the largest is the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at the Strong Museum of Play, which has a huge library of games, but also has a trove of documents and artifacts from persons like Ralph Baer, Dani Bunten Berry, Don Daglow, Ken and Roberta Williams, and Will Wright. These documents are priceless windows into the thought processes of the time, and it's fantastic that they're being preserved.
Then there's the Video Game History Museum, put together by a few collectors from the DigitalPress forums. Their collection includes full runs for multiple consoles, collections that truly could not exist again without the help of extreme investments. There are several other minor museums cropping up here and there, and even the Smithsonian has an upcoming exhibition on the art of video games.
These collections are all laudable, but once they're established, a new problem emerges. How do people get to see this stuff? The ICHEG is off in Rochester, NY, and the Video Game History Museum is setting up in Silicon Valley, which is convenient for Californians, but not rest of the world. And even if these objects are on display, how do people interact with them? You don't want someone touching that sealed copy of Stadium Events for NES (one recently sold for $41,300), or rifling through Ralph Baer's papers with their taco hands. And just looking at these things from afar is not very engaging. To that end, they really need what amounts to a community manager. Preservation is only half the battle. What good is a gorgeous collection that nobody can play with?
Face The Masses
Museums can often be static and sterile, but games are vibrant and interactive. There needs to be some care put into their presentation. In the case of game collections, rare artifacts can be presented with videos, screenshots, and most importantly context. There's no easy solution that would allow people to play them, but putting a game in the context of its time period (i.e. it influenced this, popularized this graphical technique, broke this unspoken rule) would help preserve its legacy, or perhaps introduce it to those who didn't know the game in the first place.
In the case of documentation, it can be scanned and retyped, but to really make it resonate with people, the important elements need to be highlighted. The Nth assembly code revision is likely going to be less exciting than a breakthrough design revelation or critical algorithm. Key creator interviews would be an added bonus to any of these scenarios.
Without context, these collections are just anonymous piles of stuff. We don't have scads of critics and curators out there to illuminate why such and such a work is important, like we have in the art world. So in order to popularize and continue the momentum of the preservation, these organizations need spokespersons; arbiters of quality and content for the rest of the world.
If that person does their job well, more collections will be donated, there will be more awareness of preservation efforts in general, and more people will be able to experience our deep and important history.