Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Keep the Game Alive: Preserving Video Games For Art History

Image courtesy of Trevor Owens
Jeremy Parish has a new article up on 2-dimensions about preserving video games for the future, and it's a pretty interesting read.:
The fact that we even need to have a conversation about game preservation is just, like, the most pathetic thing ever. In a good world, it would be a no-brainer proposition. Of course the history of video games, and specifically the games involved, should be enshrined and preserved and presented in a clear and sensible fashion. Of course. And yet, here we are... the concept of video game preservation exists as an almost entirely grassroots movement, often skating at the edge of the law. That sounds so dramatic and important, which is silly; it’s just a matter of keeping old creations from vanishing into obscurity, which is really the furthest thing from going rogue. It shouldn’t have to be like that. And yet, here we are.

Video games and computer games are part of our shared cultural heritage and go back at least 50 years (and some would argue further back than that, depending on how you define "game"). The general public is very interested in early video games- as plenty of exhibitions on video game history, like the Smithsonian's show on the history of video games, and articles like Parish's show.

One problem faced by those looking to preserve classic console and arcade games is that the source code to video games is often proprietary. Other times, the original code has been lost to time, and the specific hardware used may be difficult to use later, as the team behind the Ms. Pac-Man & Galaga 20th Anniversary arcade cabinet found:

Galaga has three Z80 processors where Ms Pac-Man has one, Galaga has 64 sprites where Ms Pac-Man has six, Galaga's stamps are in front of the sprites while Ms Pac-Man's are behind, not to mention the additional complexity of switching between games in the attract mode and selecting which game to play... To make matters worse we would need to make some minor tweaks to the game code to enable the games to live together on the same hardware and Namco was unable to come up with the source code. So, we wound up disassembling and reverse-engineering pretty much all of both games.
As Parish notes, even documenting and compiling examples of game prototypes can be a daunting task :
...the effort, money, networking, and perseverance required to find code for a game that never made it past the unreleased sample stage is extraordinary. And that doesn’t even factor in the constant struggle to gain access to unreleased code that’s fallen into the hands of jealous collectors who are more concerned with being able to lord their possession of something truly unique over the rest of the collecting community than they are with making sure those one-of-a-kind rarities aren’t lost to time, magnetism, or bit rot… and so, here we are.
Hats off to those doing the hard work of curating video games, since as of yet they are not considered by mainstream sources to be an important part of our cultural history that should be carefully preserved like any other medium. However, if video games were ever to become considered culturally significant, or someday viewed in a different light, classic video games, (some of which are facing original & master copy data degradation, laser disc rot, bitrot etc) might meet the same fate as silent-era films that weren’t preserved because they were seen as cheap, disposable entertainment and have been lost to time forever.

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