On January 1 of this year, a project designed to preserve digital games and their related materials was launched by four universities, funded by the Library of Congress' Preserving Creative America program.
Henry Lowood, curator and professor at Stanford University, spoke about this vital effort at GDC last week and conducted a roundtable discussion to "explore ways to rescue and preserve the endangered titles of digital gaming's history." The discussion focused on preservation of older games, fast becoming extinct, as well as identifying the best ways to archive new games produced today.
Wisely, the project aims at more than simply archiving data. We must be able to access and play these games as they were designed to be experienced. From the project's proposal document:
Electronic literature, video games and computer games must be understood as creative, born digital works with distinctive aesthetic qualities that not only take advantage of digital technologies but also push the limits of digital media. These works are typically more experimental and diverse than other kinds of born-digital artifacts more familiar to libraries at this point—for example, digital documents. Electronic literature and digital games provide new kinds of test-beds for digital preservation. Addressing the problem of their preservation means preparing for a future in which an increasing proportion of what we create will be born-digital and will take fuller advantage of networked, new-media environments.
These virtual worlds are actualized in user experiences that are sometimes unique, often social, and always necessary for understanding these worlds. Just as an archived book is of limited use if researchers cannot open its cover and read it, an archived world will be of limited use if researchers cannot visit it. Unless we also develop solutions for preserving user experiences, future generations will have no way to understand how these experiences became such an important part of our culture.
Furthermore, the project aims to develop a system of "wrapping" these games in an "information package" designed to provide future users with vital materials and requisite technology to access and play these games. It's important to archive a piece of interactive fiction, for example, but without the proper interpreter and accompanying box materials future users may be unable to access the game or understand it in its full context.
History teaches hard lessons. Approximately 50-75% of all films made during the silent era have been lost forever. This sad reality stems from two conditions, both of which could have been addressed with intervention : 1) Early motion pictures were shot on nitrate film, which was extremely unstable and flammable. 2) Many films were destroyed because they were perceived to have little or no value.
There are obvious analogs between the dangers faced by silent films and the situation we face today with early video games. The media these games relied on is fast disappearing or obsolete, the hardware required to run them may no longer be functional, and many of the original developers are gone. The low value our culture places on these early games only exacerbates the problem, as does IP ownership conflicts that emerge with various titles and franchises.
Lowood and his team are to be commended for their work on this vital project. You can find out more about the game preservation initiative here.