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!