At Australia's recent Freeplay independent games conference, a panel titled "Indies, Academics and Institutions" examined the problems of cataloging and preserving digital games and media for the historical interest of future generations.
Hamish Curry, the Education and Onsite Learning Manager at the State Library of Victoria (where Freeplay is held), described how the library has engaged with the issue, though there were difficulties at first.
When he first started at the library, Curry said he discovered a hidden clause in his job description and "realized I was in fact responsible for the games collection at the library." With other collections demanding attention from entire teams of librarians, Curry was surprised to see games tucked away just for him. "I made a pitch to say that it needs to be somewhere else, it needs to be done properly."
But just what does "doing it properly" entail? Lubi Thomas, an art curator specializing in new media, says the gaming hardware itself is a major hurdle to getting games into museums, libraries and galleries. "It's ephemeral, it's this code stuff, and you stick it on a hard drive that's outdated in six months. How the hell are you supposed to collect that? Galleries buy a work today to be seen in 150 years."
Just as a print in a book doesn't give the viewer the same experience as the original painting, Thomas said that preserving a game through screenshots and video is a far cry from actually playing that game.
"I can appreciate the difference between seeing a picture of a Rothko, and seeing the real Rothko," said game developer and lecturer Conor O'Kane, "but I don't think there's much difference between playing an emulator of Mario 64
and actually keeping the Nintendo 64 in a gallery with a cartridge ... Then you've got to archive the next thousands of years of little plastic gadgets and all the software that runs [on] them."
One member of the audience cited Asteroids
as a counter-example for O'Kane's statement, saying the distinct look of the original arcade vector monitor is impossible to properly emulate on current hardware. "So the machine that runs it is part of the experience, part of the record," reflected panel chair Sean Fabri.
But maintaining such outdated hardware in the long-term is prohibitively expensive. "The cost associated with keeping a 286 [PC] working for the next few hundred years is enormous!" O'Kane pointed out.
There are other problems, such as the sheer volume of data storage required. "Not all data is valuable," O'Kane said, leading Curry to ask how we could presume to decide what future historians will find valuable.
And some games seem to entirely defy the concept of archiving. How is it possible to preserve the experience of playing a long-extinct MMO? Or a game with DRM? "Maybe libraries may have to archive the cracked copies of all the games," joked O'Kane.
Ultimately, only a portion of gaming hardware and software will be preserved for future museum-goers to gawk at, and what survives will likely be determined as much by historical accident as by design.
"Can you not just leave it up to the internet to manage itself?" O'Kane asked semi-seriously. And we probably will.