Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Preserving Our Playable Past

Rob Zacny | 24 Feb 2009 13:21
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Although gaming has been erasing its history for as long as it's been creating it, there has been a very recent awakening in various sectors of the gaming press, academia and the industry itself that this is actually a problem and an opportunity. Within the last year, two new preservation and revival efforts have launched in response to the situation. The National Videogame Archive approaches all of gaming with an eye towards preservation and study, while Good Old Games focuses on PC gaming of the 1990s (although quite a few more recent titles have made their way onto the service).

While they take very different approaches to curatorship of gaming history, they represent a growing movement to slow, and even partially reverse, the disappearance of our shared gaming past.

Changing the Conversation
Gaming's misfortune is that it is inevitably connected to, and confused with, technological progress. Measuring the medium by the technology that supports it, Newman argues, gamers devalue and misunderstand their past.

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"We need a language and a way of thinking that does not bracket off 16-bit graphics as 'retro' but rather sees them as a means of representation - a means that is inexorably linked with specific hardware / technology but an artistic and representational practice that deserves to have its creativity appreciated on its own terms rather than as 'primitive precursors' or poor facsimiles of the present. We need to remember that, much like film and music, videogames are a form that finds technology and creativity in balance."

Reframing the discussion of old games requires a new approach to the topic, one that does not get hung up on nostalgia nor indulges in kitsch. Newman explains that the NVA "isn't an 'Olde World Gift Shoppe' or a videogames theme park ride, and we have very specific stories to tell about games as technologies, as media, as industries." To that end, the National Videogame Archive makes what is probably the broadest effort at videogame preservation to date by going far beyond games themselves.

"In fact, our collecting and research is based around three broad themes: production, text, audiences," Newman says. "In other words, that means the processes of making games, the games themselves and the meanings that they have for their players. We have projects and areas of activity that address each of these."

"In terms of production, we launched a series of 'Director's Commentaries.' At last year's GameCity Three festival, Martin Hollis and Dave Doak talked about their work on the seminal GoldenEye 007 while playing through the game on a massive screen. This kind of thing gives us a really valuable insight into the actuality of game production, the design decisions, the compromises, the minutiae as well as the inter-office politics and corridor conversations that informed and shaped this game that so many of us know and love so well."

"In terms of the games themselves, we're obviously very concerned with preserving and conserving games, as they are fragile things. Our decision to not only focus on code but to recognize the importance of box art, instruction manuals and the original hardware upon which these titles were played means that we have some additional challenges here from an archival perspective as the materials are impermanent and deteriorate over time. Nobody within the museums and conservation field really knows how to address the problems of plastic deterioration, so working with the National Media Museum ensures that The National Videogame Archive benefits from the cutting edge of research into materials conservation.

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