Preserving Our Playable Past

The Game Room
When my parents started hearing the theme from Super Mario Bros. so often that my father began humming it over dinner or while he was shaving, they decided that “the Nintendo” needed a room to itself. That way, it could occupy me without driving anyone else further towards madness. They set it up on an aged, nine-inch TV and gave me a decrepit armchair that looked like Archie Bunker’s – that is, if Archie had ever shot and skinned Oscar the Grouch to use as a slipcover.

As the locus of all household gaming activity, the room attracted more systems and games than could be easily stored. Soon we were buying extra bookshelves to hold rows of gaming magazines, NES and SNES cartridges and bulky computer game boxes decorated with artwork that invariably promised more excitement than the games delivered.

It was the room to which I retreated when I wanted to be among games, and it was the room I was locked out of when I brought home a bad report card. My mother would tell me, “That’s it, no more Nintendos for you,” and, seeing the opportunity to strike a savage blow, I would say, “They’re not Nintendos, they’re videogames.” Then, leaving her crushed and mangled in the jaws of logic, I would march off to my bedroom like Sidney Carton to the scaffold.

Later, at night, I would soundlessly slip from my room to the game room, avoiding each squeaky floorboard and whipping the door open before the hinges could remember to whine. I jammed a towel under the door to block out the light from the screen and played until I could barely keep my eyes open, at which point I would restore everything to its original place and scuttle back to my bed.


The game room meant more to me than I knew at the time, and so I didn’t protest when my parents cleaned it out. I couldn’t articulate why I wanted to hang onto the boxes for all my old videogames, including ones I hated.

I helped them reorganize “the game room” until it became “the office,” and on some hot summer afternoon I walked down the driveway with a black Hefty bag full of the boxes, manuals and many of the discs and cartridges for games like Steel Panthers, Excitebike, F-15 Strike Eagle II, Fields of Glory, Links (my father’s), Rad Racer and the original box for the NES. I put it in a powder-blue trash can that smelled of compost, and that was that.

We kept most of the games, but piece by piece the collection evaporated, and after I went to college most of my old games disappeared or I simply forgot where I had placed them. Perhaps they were still somewhere around the house, and at the very least I still had my collection of PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World. But when our house was destroyed in a flood last September, among all the other irrecoverable losses to my family, I lost my last connections to the game room.

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The Searchers
“One thing always troubled us,” James Newman begins. “A couple of years ago, Iain Simons and I wrote a book called 100 Videogames for the [British Film Institute]. While we could easily pick 100 important, interesting and influential videogames … what we couldn’t do was easily show the reader these games.”

Dr. Newman is one of the key figures directing the U.K.’s National Videogame Archive, a wide-ranging preservation effort that aims to save not only videogames, but many of the artifacts and curios that have come to define gaming and what it means to be a gamer. He is endlessly interested in the topic, and in our discussion he answers each question with a flood of ideas, impressions, tangents, challenges and solutions.


“This isn’t a writerly problem of translating experiential gameplay and the sometimes apparently intangible feeling of the performance into words,” he continues. “This is an altogether more practical matter. Where do you go to buy these games? Walk into a brick-and-mortar retailer of film and music and you will without doubt find a slew of new releases competing for your attention as soon as you walk through the door. However, you will likely find countless shelves, in fact a greater number of shelves, heaving under the weight of ‘classic’ material. Walk into a videogame retailer and you are greeted by the same sight. New releases abound. But where are the old games?”

Lara Crigger captures the sense of displacement and even melancholy that is the lot of the lifelong gamer. “In a game store,” she writes, “the racks are in constant flux, inventory always shifting to accommodate the newest stock. And that’s okay, I suppose, or at least it’s natural; the commercial obsession with novelty is especially strong in a medium as young as videogames. But it means I have no gravestones to visit, no ghostly shades to offer comfort and inspiration.”

When it does have older titles, the videogame store is less a place of gravestones than it is of decomposition. If there are any old titles at all, Newman says, “they are doubtless branded as part of a special range of titles so old that even the most mercantile-minded publisher could not sell full-price, or are in a bargain bucket, or are in the pre-owned section. Played, enjoyed, but finished. Like the suit in the charity shop or the second-hand car parked out back behind the showroom of shiny new motors, the pre-owned game speaks of the good times somebody once had.”

Lukasz Kukawski, who does PR & Marketing for CD Projekt’s Good Old Games, explains that older PC games struck CD Projekt as a problem in search of a solution. “Sometime around GDC 2007,” he says, “a few people from CD Projekt were talking about the games they used to play back in the day. The conversation flowed to the search for PC classics. They talked about how lots of the good, old games weren’t available in retail and were even hard to find on eBay. When they dusted off the games from the dark corners of their attics, another issue came up – the old games wouldn’t run on modern operating systems.”

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.


“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.

“Finally, in terms of audiences, we’re hugely interested in the meanings that videogames have for their players. One of the clearest expressions of this is found in the sheer dedication of gamers who produce speedruns, walkthroughs, FAQs and so on, or who mine the code of games for clues about un-developed levels or characters. In addition, we’re keen to find ways of recognizing the participatory culture and collective intelligence of gamers as expressed through the discussions, reviews and sharing of tactics that takes place on forums and websites. The overarching stance of the NVA is that each of these facets tells a vital part of the story of videogames, so we’re keen to ensure that they’re all represented and underpin our research and collecting.”

I ask Newman if he has identified any areas where there is an immediate crisis of preservation. “To be honest, and without sounding flippant, almost all of it,” he replies. “At least part of the reason we conceived and initiated the NVA was because there are no concerted efforts to preserve this material.”

The NVA has, to some extent, the unenviable task of deciding what makes it onto the lifeboats. Although Newman explains that the NVA, as a joint program by the Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Contemporary Play and National Media Museum, has access to a “movable feast” of resources (including “the same conservation facilities and the same storage arrangements and expertise that is lavished on the Royal Photographic Society‘s collection of early photographic images”), it suffers from the combination of an enormous, time-sensitive task and finite resources.

“One of the things that is important to note about the NVA is that it is not, indeed cannot, be a completist collection,” Newman say. “By that, I mean that it is not our aim to collect every game and gaming platform ever produced, every piece of fanart, every walkthrough, every example of box art or television advertisement. Rather, the NVA team have developed an approved collecting policy that identifies specific areas that we are currently concentrating on, and our intention is to build the collection so as to represent these field and address these question. Obviously this means collecting hardware and software, but as we also want to address fan cultures and the textual production of gamers – this also means considering fanart, fanfic [and] cosplay.”

When I heard about the National Videogame Archive, I tried to picture what it would be like to visit once it was up and running. Few of my ideas were promising. Perhaps some mannequins gathered around an NES, The Legend of Zelda playing itself on a TV screen, all behind ballistic glass, with a legend – “Nintendo gamers, circa 1988.” A videogame museum seemed a contradiction in terms, because gaming is noisy, casual and interactive while museums are subdued, introspective and fastidious. I was curious to hear how the NVA could square the circle.


“We start from what might sound like a vaguely heretical position,” Newman explains. “Videogames are not very good at describing themselves. The NVA has a remit to exhibit, display, and interpret videogames for a variety of audiences including game acolytes and non-adepts alike. This means sometimes taking games out of their ‘natural’ contexts of the living room or the arcade and placing them into the gallery or the museum, for instance. What you find, almost immediately, is that certain games work really well in these environments while others are quite tricky to deal with.”

Newman goes on to explain that coin-op games are ideal for the museum setting, since the museum is not far removed from the arcade. Arcades thrive on short encounters between player and game, and an arcade game must presume minimal foreknowledge on the part of the player. Just step right up and play.

But then there are RPG’s, just to use the most obviously difficult example. The gaming experience comes through scores of hours of play, often includes branching narratives and derives much of its impact from the story. It is as perfectly unsuitable for the museum as the arcade cabinet is ideal.


“What this means for us,” Newman says, “is that we have to find strategies of interpreting games. The game itself is not the only means of accessing what is interesting or important about that game, and certainly playing it can only tell a part of the total story. As a result, we wouldn’t rule out any means of interpreting a game, whether it be written in the form of a fan fiction or official story bible, a fan-produced walkthrough or game guide, a commentary from the developers drawn as visual artwork by passionate gamers or concept artists working on the game, or take the form of a recorded performance of play or the ability to play for oneself.

“All of these things have merit and all shed some light onto aspects of the game, and all have their place. Depending on the context of the display and the nature of the game, all may have their place in combination.”

Hello, Old Friend
“Ultimately we want to become the best place for classic PC games fans,” Lukasz Kukawski explains. “Offering the games is part of that, but we also want to provide our users with anything that they find interesting; we want them to keep coming back and interacting with other fans in one big classic-games community. That’s what we want to be.”

Kukawski is explaining why Good Old Games is making an effort to expand the additional content that it includes with each purchase. While some of the “extras” included with a purchase from Good Old Games are basically filler, there are a few gems like The Fallout Bible, an impressive and terrifying compendium of knowledge that includes far more information about Fallout, its development, its lore and the game itself than most rational people would ever want to know. I love it.

In some ways Good Old Games represents some of the same ghettoization of vintage gaming that Newman finds at the videogame retailer. The games are sold at bargain-bin prices, and just the name “Good Old Games” smacks of nostalgia. However, the key difference is one of attitude. The bargain bin at a retailer is a sad place full of battered boxes and cracked jewel cases, overpopulated with games that nobody wanted in the first place. Good Old Games is more about second chances, for games and gamers.

While the service’s claims of offering “classic” PC games are in many cases debatable, GOG does boast a lot of cult classics that may have been unjustly overlooked in their own time. It can be a place of rediscovery and renewed debate, as is the case with games like Stonekeep or Hostile Waters, or an unadulterated trip down memory lane such as I had when I found Castles and Castles 2, two very old games that I never thought I would see again. There are also members of the PC gaming pantheon, like Fallout and Freespace 2.

Perhaps unavoidably, Good Old Games is also a place of conspicuous absence. Developers like Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios or LucasArts are not present on the service and, given how thoroughly many of those classics have disappeared, it seems unlikely that the rights holders are about to jump on the GOG bandwagon.

Kukawski explains that acquisition is one of the most complicated aspects of GOG. “First of all, it’s not so easy to find the rights holders for some of the games, especially the really old ones, so it’s a long road from the very beginning,” he says. “When we finally make contact with the right person from the right company, our business development team just inquires about the availability of back-catalog titles because, in the end, most of these titles are games that are essentially abandonware – games you just can’t buy in stores anymore. It’s a matter of, on a publisher-by-publisher basis, trying to figure out who’s receptive to the idea of monetizing their back catalogs – seeing what’s available. If they’re interested in it, then we just go through the process of getting them an agreement, and getting master copies of the games, which might be tricky sometimes.”

Getting a hold of the rights is only part of the battle. GOG faces the recurring challenge of hitting a moving target as it tries to ensure that its games work properly in spite of an always changing technological landscape.


“This is hard because there are millions of different hardware configurations and we want our games to run on all of them smoothly and without any problems,” Kukawski says. “Then new OSs will appear, like Windows 7, that we’d love to support, too; it seems like some of the games run on the beta version, but this all needs to be tested. The compatibility with modern operating systems is as important for us as the lack of DRM in our games.”

I asked whether Good Old Games has been successful at reviving old games for a new generation, or if it’s mostly selling to nostalgic gamers looking to recapture the glory days. “Lots of people who are regular users are nostalgic gamers who just want to spend time playing their favorite games of days gone by,” Kukawski admits. “But there are also lots of young gamers who just didn’t get the chance to play games like Fallout, Freespace 2, MDK or Simon the Sorcerer. They heard about those great games, but just couldn’t find them anywhere or couldn’t run them on their computers. We have a pretty good mix of both types of customers on the site.”

There is one detail on that I particularly appreciate, however. When I go to my collection, I see my games laid out on a bookshelf not unlike the IKEA units that have popped up around my apartment like mushrooms after a rainstorm. I scroll over the box art and a pop-out menu unfurls a list of the items “inside.” Game manuals (which really were better back then), soundtracks, art and wallpapers, and of course the games themselves.

It’s a reassuring and even promising sign to see these old games staring at me from a shelf once again, as they did so long ago, in a room such as this.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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