Saving video game history begins right now

At Game Developers Conference 2015, Jason Scott, archivist at the Internet Archive, urged developers to start preserving their history immediately.

At Game Developers Conference 2015, Jason Scott (pictured), archivist at the Internet Archive, urged developers to start preserving their history right now.

"Games have historical value,” said Scott, adding that apathy towards preserving games is a big reason the world is losing game history.

Scott gave some background on the Internet Archive, which is located in San Francisco and housed in a renovated Christian Science church. Not only does the Archive work to preserve games and software, but also books, film, websites, magazines, and other media, putting these artifacts on the internet for everyone to see.

Making these items available to anyone with an internet connection is key to Scott’s approach to preservation. "We believe that access drives preservation," he said. It's important to make these pieces of history accessible as soon as possible, he added. When people have access, they’re more easily able to recognize the value of the preservation work.

He put responsibility on game developers to preserve their own work for future generations to share and appreciate. He gave many examples throughout his talk of seemingly mundane items (e.g. memos, a list of employees), that, decades later, proved to be highly-interesting, valuable pieces of history.

"Older software is hard to get to,” Scott said. Today, game developers could very well be throwing away history. "The thing about game and computer history is that it's both adored and ignored," he added. People typically don’t recognize the historical value of things in the here and now.

Especially as so many games move to online, preservation continues to have emerging challenges. "Software half-life is ridiculous," Scott said, adding that the average multiplayer network game lasts about 18 months before the servers are turned off.

Part of the challenge of game preservation is also the way people see them. "Games are not just products, but they're also products,” he said. The drive to preserve these items isn’t so urgent. But, Scott said, games are artifacts and game history overall needs to be preserved.

One effective way that Scott and others preserve games is through emulation. Notably (and rather recently), Scott unveiled The Internet Arcade: 900 arcades games that are playable in a web browser – that’s Scott’s accessibility mantra in practice.

While not everyone can preserve game history by making an emulator, what developers can do is take a hint from other game makers such as id Software, which in its early days was meticulous about logging the development of the seminal first-person shooter Doom – from the game code itself, to pictures and videos of the team, to the music they were listening to while developing the game.

But even in such instances of meticulous preservation, there are still blurry areas of Doom's development history. Scott said that’s okay if history isn’t perfectly preserved, but the Doom example shows just how easy it is to lose history, even in the best circumstances.

What else can game developers do to preserve game history? "If there's one thing you should learn from this, it's steal from work!" Scott said, rousing laughter from the audience. He doesn’t mean “stealing” intellectual property or anything like that, but to remember that mundane things – the memos, the company Christmas cards – do have historic value, even if that value isn’t readily apparent right now. Developers can capture history simply by not throwing things away.

"You're going to go on to be part of great things,” Scott told the developer audience. “Please save your history … be a part of tomorrow, because tomorrow is going to learn from you."

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