Capstone Project – Literature Review

This week, I would like to share some results from my literature review of video game hardware preservation.

As I dove into the literature, I quickly experienced a source of frustration with respect to video game hardware preservation: much of the available literature speaks primarily to the preservation of the games themselves, i.e., the software. The preservation of consoles and associated peripherals is rarely discussed directly except as a temporary stop-gap measure in software preservation.

Described by Mark Guttenbrunner as the “Museum Approach,” technology preservation is listed by UNESCO’s Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage  as a “short term strategy” only. Software emulation and/or migration receive the most attention for maintaining access to the games. While important, this raises two challenges. First, concerns from proprietary formats and copyright protections (which emulation may or may not violate) argue in favor for hardware maintenance. Second, the focus on software often overlooks the need for archives like the UTVA and the Department of Special Collections at Stanford which houses the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing  to preserve the physical artifacts as objects of curation in and of themselves. In his 2004 talk at the Electronic Media Group annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Henry Lowood describes computer games as “software, as technology, and as performances.” Technology preservation can help to provide access to authentic performances by allowing one to play, for example, an original Vectrex, coupling the artifact to the activity.

The dearth of literature specific to console/hardware preservation is hardly surprising. Video game preservation must first overcome the same bias that once affected movies and television shows. Viewed by some as mere entertainment, a case must be made that video games are worth preserving at all. Another issue comes from the game industry itself. The newest console systems receive the lion’s share of attention from consumers. It makes little economic sense for companies like Nintendo to continually offer support for “obsolete” systems. With little to no official support and no new consoles being manufactured, the University of Michigan Computer & Video Game Archive (CVGA), for example, preserves its older systems by making in-house repairs, by replacing broken parts, or by acquiring new consoles through secondary markets or donations. One can quickly see why hardware preservation is labeled by UNESCO as short-term only. With time, both replacement items and the expertise necessary to effect repairs on legacy consoles will cease to be available.

At the same time, there exist avid fan communities for legacy game systems like the Atari 2600, and these groups are responsible for a great deal of information found online. While positioned outside of normal academic publishing circles, these experts can be valuable allies for cultural heritage institutions. And in Grand Theft Archive, Gooding and Terras utilized numerous sources of information including “Internet message boards, mailing lists, forums, Wikis, and blogs” (24) in their study of computer game preservation. All aspects of the knowing community likely have something to offer to collection curators.

Please check back next time for more on the literature review!

UT Video Game Hardware Conservation Capstone Project

This month, I am excited to report on my University of Texas School of Information capstone project that has grown out of work started last March at the University of Texas Videogame Archive by the then-UTVA intern, Matt Cepeda. My capstone focuses on both the preservation of and access to UTVA hardware, specifically gaming consoles and peripherals, such as controllers. It is hoped that the project’s components can be folded into future work regarding the entire archival life-cycle of video game collections, from accession to preservation and storage to labeling and cataloging to use by patrons.

Before describing my capstone, I must say a big “Thank You” to Matt for his work last semester that got my project off the ground. He provided numerous research leads that have served as spring boards for my literature review. Additionally, I was able to meet Matt in August for some last minute tips and advice. If you are reading this…Thank you very much Matt!

My project consists primarily of two major components. First, I have been conducting a literature review investigating preservation and conservation as related to video game hardware, including an in-depth look at the hardware materials, e.g. the plastics which comprise the hardware casing. The literature review also includes identifying other cultural heritage institutions that possess videogame materials as potential partners in this field and examining access policies and other ‘best practices’.

Second, I am working with Jessica Meyerson, Digital Archivist at the Brisoce Center, on creating a proof-of-concept check-out system/workflow to accommodate in-reading room research requests for UTVA hardware. We selected the Billy Cain Papers as the test collection because it contains videogame consoles that span many generations. Part thought experiment, part trial-and-error, we are brainstorming potential use cases for the UTVA and conducting stakeholder interviews with other members of the Briscoe including the reference and exhibition staff. For example, in the immediate future, I hope to shadow the reference staff as they serve researcher requests and retrieve items from holdings. With permission of course!

During the course of the semester, I will be providing updates about the project’s progress. I encourage you to check back with us!

Spring 2015 – UT iSchool Project: George Sanger Collection

This month we are excited to have a guest blog written by three University of Texas, School of Information students who had the chance to work with part of the George Sanger Collection. Their work focused on imaging a hard drive and outlining the process of their work.


Archiving George Sanger’s Workstation

By Heather Hughes, Ali Dzienkowski, and Graham Austin

Within archives, hybrid collections containing both paper and digital materials pose challenges in terms of preservation and providing access to researchers. This past spring semester, as ischool students in Dr. Galloway’s Digital Archiving and Preservation class, our group was assigned the task of retrieving data from George Sanger’s Macintosh 8600/300 workstation. George Sanger, a notable video game composer and local personality, has donated an extensive portion of his papers and artifacts used to compose music to the Briscoe Center.

Opening the computer revealed that we had two hard drives to work with: Sanger had added the second hard drive to increase storage capacity. Since the computer we were working with had probably not been turned on for the past ten years, we were uncertain as to whether the hard drives would boot up, or whether the data would be corrupted. Although we were very eager to image the drives, we initially spent a lot of time researching to learn more about Sanger and the technology we were working with. Our computer was part of a MIDI workstation, so we assumed that we would encounter a significant amount of MIDI files on these hard drives.(More information about these MIDI Files can be found here). We also needed to be certain that we had the right tools to ensure that we could take images from the disks without altering any data.

An image of the Sanger HD.
An image of the Sanger HD.

Taking images of the hard drives involved the use of digital forensic software on the Forensic Recovery Evidence Device (FRED), a laptop preconfigured with write-blocking devices,  in the UT School of Information’s Digital Archaeology Laboratory (DAL). The write-blockers ensured that no data was overwritten, and that no dates were changed. Once everything was connected, we were all relieved to hear the disks spin up. As soon as the software detected the drives, we were able to take full images of the two hard drives.

After successfully obtaining the disk images for both hard drives in the Power Macintosh 8600/300, we now had a lot of data that we needed to make sense of in order to think about how future researchers could explore these materials. Visualization software allowed us to get a sense of file distribution on the drives and the quantity of the different kinds of files. As we had predicted, a significant portion of the files were MIDI files. Probably the most exciting part of this project and the potential for future access was through our forays into emulation strategies. Using SheepShaver, an open source software, we were able to access Sanger’s desktop as he had last opened it. This offered insight into Sanger’s workspace and composition process.

SheepShaver emulation of George Sanger's workspace.
SheepShaver emulation of George Sanger’s workspace.

While all the materials we obtained and created were uploaded into the UT Digital Repository, ethical and privacy concerns lead us to take a cautious approach in considering future access. We decided to restrict access to the disk images of the hard drive, as well as the visualizations and textual representations of each hard drive, until a further analysis of the contents of the hard drives was conducted.

Although we were unsuccessful in our attempts to ask Sanger specific questions related to his use of the Power Macintosh 8600/300, it is crucial to begin a dialogue with him so that issues of privacy and accessibility of the files on the hard drives can be adequately addressed.

Although developing an emulated workstation for accessing these materials was not in the scope of our project, we believe that a Salman Rushdie style workstation is certainly a viable option for the Briscoe Center to pursue as a way to provide access for researchers interested in Sanger’s work processes. However, our group recommends that future archivists avoid tampering with the materials on the Sanger workstation to ensure that the original order is maintained. Another option that could be utilized to provide access to materials on the Sanger workstation is Emulation-as-a-Service, which would allow remote users to view these materials.

Based on what we discovered and learned during the course of our project, emulation should not be completely ruled out as a way to provide access to born-digital materials for researchers.


Our complete, final report can be found at:

UTVA Exhibit Creation for the Fine Arts Library and Beyond

This month the UTVA welcomed Rachel Simone Weil, a lecturer in the Art and Art History department at UT, to the archive in preparation for an exhibit at the Fine Arts Library. Rachel curated a selection of items from the David Rosen collection, and the FEMICom Museum, for her exhibit: “Hardware Not Responding.” , a visual history of Sega videogame consoles and electronic toys in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The exhibit includes items such as the SEGA Pico, Sega WonderMega, SEGA Pocket Arcades, and SEGA Pods.

The creation of exhibits involving archival materials from the UTVA provides individuals with the opportunity to engage with items they might not otherwise know exist in a form of public history.  The National Council on Public History  believes that “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.” Exhibits bring together public history and curation to create a compelling narrative. The ability to weave in an element of storytelling bodes well for communicating with visitors and researchers. Connecting with more people is vital to the success and appreciation of archives. Due to the nature of the materials within the UTVA, exhibits represent one of the best ways to showcase the archive and its parts.

In an attempt to help create exhibits for the future, my capstone this Spring involved creating an exhibit for the UTVA.

The Experience Gained! exhibit for the UT Videogame Archive (UTVA) at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History seeks to portray a portion of the economic, societal, and creative growth of the video game industry spanning three decades by using selected materials from the archive:

  • Online and Internet Games Report published by Jupiter Communications in 1996.
    Online and Internet Games Report published by Jupiter Communications in 1996.

    Economic: The economic theme speaks to the individual inventors and programmers who developed games on their own and the transition into larger companies developing and publishing their own games.

  • Societal: From individual disks passed around and single player games to mass production and
    Wing Commander "Bible" containing information about the WC universe.
    Wing Commander “Bible” containing information about the WC universe.

    multi-player elements. The societal and community growth portion of the exhibit will focus on the development of the impact video games have had on individuals and communities as a whole.

  • Creative: Simple shapes, colors, and objectives evolved into fully immersive worlds with compelling stories. The infusion of the
    2nd Edition Players Handbook of AD&D
    2nd Edition Players Handbook of AD&D

    tabletop element and high fantasy worlds pushed videogames into uncharted territories. The paradigm established during the early days remains even today and reveals itself in the continued success of high fantasy games.

Exhibits utilizing archival materials from the UTVA offers up the opportunity to reach individuals who visit the archive and tell an interesting story with the materials. By allowing access to these materials the archive can continue to to preserve and make available to researchers records documenting videogame history from developer, critic, artist, publisher, gamer and designer perspectives.

Check back with us in a couple of weeks for more information regarding the hardware cataloging and preservation project currently in the works.

Artifact Cataloging and Preservation

This month the UT Videogame Archive is planning to begin work on the labeling and cataloging of collection artifacts. We have two primary goals for this project:

  1. Put a system in place that gives Briscoe Center archivists an easy way to track UTVA artifacts for individual research requests, exhibits, and internal use; and
  2. 2) establish guidelines for the housing and preservation of the materials.

In preparation for this project we have conducted research into the possible methods of labeling the consoles and their peripherals. We approached this research with two main questions: How do we attach labels to the consoles, directly apply an archival tag to the console, hanging tag, or place the tag in a polypropylene bag with the console itself? and How do your institutions catalog/process the artifacts?

Our first step involved contacting archives and museums who possess and display videogame related materials. The two institutions we contacted were The Computer History Museum and the University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive.

The Computer History Museum recommended completely avoiding attaching a tag directly to the console or peripheral through the use of an adhesive. Without knowing the actual makeup of the plastics used during fabrication, using an adhesive on the console could potentially damage them over time. The Computer History Museum’s method of cataloging materials involves a homebrewed process wherein barcodes from a database are used to track items and their metadata.

The University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive spoke mostly about their cataloging efforts for the videogames themselves and the changes currently underway within their cataloging documentation. Documentation which is being updated in preparation for the Resource Description and Access(RDA) from the Library of Congress and the best practices guide from the Online Audiovisual Catalogers(OLAC).

One conclusion of our research is that there is no hardware-specific standard or set of descriptive elements around which LAMs have coalesced. In researching potential cataloging and metadata categories, we spent time looking at the Media Archaeology Lab(MAL) out of the University of Colorado, Boulder. The metadata they record for their hardware and software appears to be the most detailed and comprehensive we have discovered so far, and our plan to incorporate these elements into our new item-level MODS metadata profile.

Rehousing and storing the artifacts represents the other half of this entire project. We investigated current literature on the preservation of plastics and consulted with Karen Pavelka, a conservator and lecturer at the University of Texas School of Information. With Karen’s input and the research we have done in regards to plastics, we have devised a plan to protect and house all of the consoles and associated peripherals within the UTVA.

Resources regarding preservation and plastics:

Computer and Video Game Preservation, Tulane University

Minnesota Historical Society Artifact Information

For the consoles and peripherals not in their original packaging this plan involves protecting each piece through the use of acid free paper, polypropylene bags, plastazote foam, and conventional banker’s boxes for storage. Our plan currently is to wrap the consoles in acid free paper then place them in polypropylene bags as the first step. These materials will serve to prevent exposure to any light source while still allowing for any potential off-gassing that might occur with the multitude of parts within each console. The polypropylene bags, also, offer us a container in which to place the archival tags for cataloging purposes rather than directly attaching a tag to the console itself. The Plastazote will enable us to prevent any movement by the consoles during transport and provide a suitable base for the consoles to sit on within the bankers boxes.

Check back with us next month as we discuss how the project is coming along!

Enhanced Curation and the Brad Fregger Oral History

Last week, we at the UT Videogame Archive had the opportunity to sit down with Brad Fregger to discuss his entry into the videogame industry and the time he spent as a videogame producer at two of the biggest names in the budding videogame industry, Atari and Activision.

Interviewing Brad Fregger and compiling an oral history regarding his life within the videogame industry provided insight into the goings on of the early years of the video and computer game development. The opportunity to interview a donor represents an interesting facet of current archival practices, enhanced curation.

Enhanced curation involves gathering contextual information regarding materials of a collection to create a more complete picture about the elements within the collection and their creator. The contextual information can involve photographing work spaces, video and audio interviews with donors, or other components. These components then become part of the collection materials and can be made available to researchers.

The cover of Brad Fregger's book from 1998 detailing his experiences in the videogame industry.
The cover of Brad Fregger’s book from 1998 detailing his experiences in the videogame industry.

The Brad Fregger Oral History revealed the lasting impact of many of the experiences talked about in his book, Lucky That Way. The interview also provided a fuller picture of the videogame industry in its infancy – when building a company meant recruiting accomplished people from what we might think of today as unrelated domains.The skills Brad developed and the successes he had in retail employee training helped his success videogame industry and as an educator.

For UTVA collections that consist primarily of materials such as games and hardware, enhanced curation places the different elements of a collection in a relevant context which allows for researchers to immerse themselves in the story of the creator and the story they are crafting. The addition of enhanced curation to our practices helps to further the mission of the UT Videogame Archive, which seeks to preserve and make available to researchers records documenting videogame history from developer, critic, artist, publisher, gamer and designer perspectives.

Check back next month for information about our current project involving cataloging and preserving the artifacts(consoles, controllers, peripherals) within the archive.

New Finding Aids

Happy New Year from the UT Videogame Archive!

With a new year comes new and updated finding aids that have been added to the Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO) website courtesy of the UT Videogame Archive. Six all new finding aids as well as updated versions of the Warren Spector Papers and Brad Fregger Videogame Collection finding aids are now available on the TARO website.

The updated versions of the Warren Spector Papers and Brad Fregger Videogame Collection finding aids contain changes to the UT Digital Repository links and visible urls. This should allow for easier navigation and understanding about the nature of born digital items and how they relate to the collections within the UTVGA.

The newest finding aid additions include:

Avalon story treatment coverpage from the Gary Gattis collection.
Avalon story treatment coverpage from the Gary Gattis collection.

Barron (Chad) Videogame Collection

Bullard (Jennifer) Papers

Gattis (Gary) Papers

Goldenburg (Amy) Papers

Gamecock Videogame Collection

KingsIsle Videogame Collection


With the inclusion of these finding aids we are continuing to preserve and make available to researchers records documenting videogame history from developer, critic, artist, publisher, gamer and designer perspectives.

Check back in February for information about an upcoming interview with Brad Fregger.

We’re Back!


Continuous Play is back after a bit of a pause but we are excited to bring you news about the University of Texas Videogame Archive (UTVA), which seeks to preserve and make available to researchers records documenting videogame history from developer, critic, artist, publisher, gamer and designer perspectives.

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans Booklet from the Gary Slanga Collection.

This update is a timely one and gives us the chance to talk about one of our newer collections given to us by Gary Slanga. Twenty years and two weeks ago saw the advent of a unique and revolutionary real-time strategy game (RTS). A game which helped to spawn multiple intellectual properties (IPs) and pushed a fledgling videogame development company into the limelight. I speak, of course, about Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and Blizzard Entertainment. The Slanga (Gary) Videogame Collection, contains not only a copy of Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and its manual but a preview of Blizzard Entertainment’s future titles Starcraft and Diablo.

Blizzard Preview booklet from the Gary Slanga Collection.
Blizzard Preview booklet from the Gary Slanga Collection.

It is hard to believe twenty years have passed since the release of this game. In that time, itseffect on video games has been quite substantial. Warcraft changed the way RTS games handled multiplayer modes, created a world filled with lore that would spawn multiple sequels and a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), and paved the way for the Starcraft RTS franchise.

A screenshot from Warcraft orcs & Humans from Mobygames.
A screenshot from Warcraft orcs & Humans from Mobygames.

The Spector (Warren) Papers show the development of Ion Storm games and the Deus Ex franchise. A Guide to the Taylor Brown Videogame Collection presents videogame history through the perspectives of both gamer and producer. Brown’s gaming materials date from the 1980s and materials document his work at NCSoft date from the early 2000s. The rise and development of videogame production companies like NCSoft, Ion Storm Games, and Blizzard Entertainment is represented in each of the collections previously mentioned.  

Each of the UTVA collections and the history and information they contain provide valuable insight into the world of game development. And for The Slanga (Gary) Collection the materials do not just document the beginnings of a developer, they represent the emergence of the RTS and the beginnings of the world of Azeroth.

Happy 20th Anniversary to Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and Happy 10th Anniversary to World of Warcraft!

Be sure to check back in for more highlights from the University of Texas Videogame Archive.

The Quest to Preserve Ultima II

As in years past, the end of May heralds the results of School of Information student projects related to the UT Videogame Archive. This year, one project held particular interest for the archive, as it sought to “preserve” Richard Garriott’s early RPG Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress.

Preserving a game with such a multiplicity of versions and platforms is an arduous task. Sierra On-Line originally published Ultima II in 1982 for the Apple II, but the publisher quickly ported it for Atari 8-bit computers, Commodore 64, and DOS. Furthermore, Origin Systems later re-issued Ultima II as part of the Ultima Trilogy (itself available in different ports) and Ultima I – VI Series titles. The students, Halley Grogan, Mark Cooper, and Anna Chen, chose to focus on the original Apple II version, the DOS Ultima Trilogy version, and the DOS Ultima I – VI Series version for their project.

Screenshot of an emulator running Ultima II during a significant property testing session. Click on the screenshot above to view a montage of clips taken from the significant property testing.

Then, soon enough, the students were confronted with the question of emulation regarding game preservation. Will creating disk images from the original 5.25″ floppy disks, and then packaging them with an appropriate emulator be sufficient enough to preserve an authentic experience of the game? To begin answering this question, the students conducted a small-scale user study which sought to uncover which, if any, “significant properties” are lost when playing Ultima II on an emulator.

The study included three different platforms for the game: 1) a working Apple II machine, 2) AppleWin, a free Apple II emulator for PC, and 3) Virtual ][, a commercial Apple II emulator for Mac. Without delving into the methodology of the study (the student’s full project report can be found here), it’s sufficient to say that each study participant initially played one of the emulators and the Apple II (not necessarily in that order), then discussed their impressions with project coordinators, and then finally played the second emulator.

After the gameplay ended, the project coordinators posed more questions to the study participants in an effort to gauge the participants’ impressions of their experience. To their slight surprise, the project coordinators found that their study participants preferred the original Apple II version! This finding contradicts one of the only other significant property studies conducted regarding videogames, which was published in the American Archivist in 2006 and focused on the game Chuckie Egg. In that 2006 study, participants preferred the emulated versions.

Reviewing their methodology, the Ultima II project coordinators noted that they specifically asked their participants to disregard the level of “fun” they experienced when evaluating each version of Ultima II. This aspect of their methodology and the discrepency of results with the 2006 study led the project coordinators to ask: is “fun” a significant property of videogames?

While you ponder that eternal question, rest assured that the products of the student’s work — disk images of Ultima II in several iterations, the emulators, patches, and study documentation — will soon be stored in the Briscoe Center’s digital repository. So, in some sense, we can say that the students completed their quest, and tackled many challenges that will help future work in this area.

Digitized Tidbits

With our focus on building the archive and promptly processing the donations we acquire, it is hard to make time for digitization and web access. But with the little spare time and the help of students from UT’s School of Information, we have managed to digitize several items. And now that these items are available online, we wanted to highlight them here.

Fax from Electronic Arts providing feedback for the first sketches Team Fat produced for the game Jane's Combat Simulations: Advanced Tactical Fighters, George Sanger Papers, e_gs_0058_01.

First, in 2009, a student group scanned a series of documents from George Sanger’s papers related to his work on Jane’s Combat Simulations: Advanced Tactical Fighters and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. Sanger stored the documents with the sound recordings he produced for these games, so their full meaning and significance is somewhat lost when divorced from those recordings, but they hold interest by themselves as well. In particular, they provide a glimpse into the relationship between Sanger and his clients Electronic Arts (Advanced Tactical Fighters) and Humongous Entertainment (Putt-Putt).

All of the items digitized from Sanger’s papers can be found here.

Secondly, we have recently made a few videos available online from the Warren Spector Papers. The VHS tapes contain demos and promotional clips for games produced by Origin Systems during Spector’s time there. One of the promotional clips, titled “Origin Systems: Works-In-Progress” features Spector talking about System Shock and Wings of Glory, Richard Garriott on Ultima VIII, and Ken Demarest on Bioforge.

Frame of a narrated video demo of Origin games scheduled for a Spring 1990 release, Warren Spector Papers, dv_00021.

The five videos currently available from Spector’s papers can be found on the Briscoe Center’s Rich Media website. The site allows for indexing and table of contents, which makes accessing the videos more user-friendly.

We intend for these items to be a few in a long series of digitized content from the UT Videogame Archive made available online.  As more become available, we’ll be sure to post updates here.