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Unexpected alliance aids notable preservation of video game history

An unexpected alliance between Stanford and the National Institute of Standards and Technology means that a sizable portion of game history has been thoroughly archived.

Collecting and archiving video games’ early history has been a long-discussed and debated topic among game historians. The fact that games live at an intersection of art and computer science means that the Library of Congress isn’t cataloguing a copy of every game published the same way they do with books, and few other organizations have been able to take up the standard of documenting even a portion of the many pieces of software that make up the early history of the games business. 

However, there’s been an interesting new development in the games archiving world. According to a a press release from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the institute has finished a three-year digital forensic effort in partnership with Stanford University to catalogue a game and software collection formerly owned by one Stephen Cabrinety.

That collection, which the press release describes as being a "priceless snapshot" of its era, is filled with original releases of games such as Pong, Doom and SimCity.

Cabrinety passed away in 1995, and eventually Stanford acquired his collection of 1/4 inch floppy discs, magnetic tape, and game cartridges for archival purposes. To sufficiently preserve the decaying media however, it had to turn to an organization with the resources to store so many software versions—and that’s where, unusually, the NIST came in. 

What makes NIST’s involvement unique in this archival project is that NIST isn’t an institute dedicated to cultural preservation. It’s a scientific organization with an arm dedicated to preserving software of all kinds and of all versions for forensic purposes. If law enforcement agents seize a computer in an investigation, they can check its hard drive against the NIST database in order to filter out files not related to the case. 

If you’re wondering why NIST would go to such efforts to store game data for law enforcement purposes, it’s because some of that software still turns up in old hardware seized during criminal investigations. 

At this time, Cabrinety’s retro games collection isn’t playable by the public, since all NIST has done so far is functionally preserve the data, but Stanford says it intends to work on systems that will load the games and applications that will make them available for play. For now, you can view the collection in person at the Stanford University Library.

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