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Act now to preserve our disappearing videogame culture – or it’s ‘game over’

Videogames have been with us for just a few decades but the industry is already worth more than Hollywood. Hundreds of new games arrive each year, from AAA-rated titles with multi-million-dollar budgets to indie titles created by individual developers crowdfunding their efforts. Videogames are a vital part of our cultural heritage and creative economy, and it’s important we record and preserve them.

In recent years, academics and museum specialists, not to mention a legion of fans and enthusiasts, have dedicated themselves to the project of game preservation. While there are now more platforms on which to play games than ever before – from dedicated consoles to smartphones – videogames disappear all the time. Game systems go out of production, servers required for games played online are shut down, and even the digital data stored in chips, floppy disks and CDs begin to decay.

Playing games

Not unreasonably, much preservation work focuses on making old games playable again. Typically this is achieved through emulation, where software running on one platform – a modern PC, for example – reproduces the environment required to run software from another – such as 1980s-era 8-bit systems such as the Nintendo NES, and home computers like the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum. The power of modern computing platforms and sophistication of emulation software means that many early games can even be played in a web browser: the Internet Archive’s Internet Arcade holds over 900 games that are playable online.

The technical achievement here is obvious and emulation is often used “behind the scenes” by publishers wanting to re-release select titles from their back catalogues, but for preservation activities, the technique is not without issue. While the unofficial creation of videogame system emulators is generally considered allowable, the acquisition and sharing of copyrighted code remains unequivocally illegal. And as the games that we might want to play typically remain under copyright long after their commercial lifespan, such techniques often pose insurmountable legal issues and require navigating complex permissions and intellectual property rights.

More practically, while it’s possible to play arcade and console games on a modern laptop, the experience may be very different from the original. Many systems feature dedicated joysticks, as well as dancemats, lightguns, gloves, and even fishing rods. Playing the games without these controllers or on alternative types of TV screen can be profoundly different. As Foteini Aravani, Digital Curator at the Museum of London has noted, it’s as important to collect and preserve these physical components of videogames that are essential to the experience as it is to preserve the software code. That way, the experience of pressing the ZX Spectrum’s rubbery keys can be recreated.

Not playing games

However, there are other reasons for collecting videogame objects. Since the National Videogame Arcade, where I am part of the research and curatorial team, opened in Nottingham in March 2015, one of the most popular exhibits is the History of Videogames in 100 Objects. In a sense it’s like traditional gallery exhibits with a variety of unique and everyday items in glass cases – certainly a far cry from the interactive exhibits and games elsewhere in the building that explore different aspects of game design and structure. But the 100 Objects gallery tells the stories of videogames’ early days and provides context that cannot be found through the act of playing alone.

Here are two example objects.

The first is a hand-drawn cassette inlay for the 1985 Commodore 64 game Way of the Exploding Fist. This is not the original cover but rather a homemade creation for an illegally-copied version of the game. Like many players at the time, the (anonymous) donor of this piece had duplicated a friends’ copy of the game using nothing more than a domestic hi-fi. As the game was encoded as audio on cassette tape, copying the game was as straightforward (and as illegal) as copying a Top 40 album.

Handmade cassette cover for Way of the Exploding Fist. NVA, Author provided

In case we think media piracy is the preserve of the current generation of torrent and filesharing networks, this piece of amateur artwork shows it stretches farther back. We may not lament the 15-minute wait for a game to load from cassette, but we should not forget the culture of copying, tape sharing and bootlegging that are fundamental to the early days of videogaming – and indeed computing in general.

For a sense of the response to this bootlegging culture, which included industry taglines such as Don’t Copy That Floppy that mirrored the music industry’s line that Home Taping Is Killing Music, the second object looks like a cross between a television test card and an Ishihara test used for detecting colour blindness. Distributed with the 1984 game Jet Set Willy, created by British developer Matthew Smith, this innocuous-looking grid was designed to confound the efforts of pirates and is an example of an early copy protection scheme.

The copy protection code card released with the videogame Jet Set Willy. Software Projects/NVA, Author provided

Duplicating the game cassette is still a trivial undertaking. However, the game is designed so that once it is loaded and run, it asks the player for one of the 180 codes found on the card. Without the correct code, the game will not run any further and cannot be played. No code, no game. The system worked partly because while copying audio was easy, duplicating a full colour printed copy protection card was far harder to do at home.

Taken together these objects reveal a little of the back story of the battle between rights holders, publishers, pirates and players, as well as the interplay between the technologies of distribution and duplication available at the time and the sometimes surprising strategies deployed. Preserving game code allows us to appreciate the game’s design and aesthetic, but it doesn’t provide any insight into the cultural, political and economic context in which it appeared. The videogame culture of the time, from fan-made strategy guides and hand-drawn covers to fiendish copy-protection and luxurious manuals, is more difficult to preserve.

If we are to avoid the fate of early television programmes, the sole recordings of which were often wiped in order to re-use the tapes, and even more recent CGI that has been lost, we must recognise how fragile videogames are so we can take action now to preserve the data, paper and culture they represent – before it’s too late.

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