Plastics: Identification

In my last post, I addressed the seeming lack of literature that speaks to the preservation of video game hardware. But not all is lost! A second topic of the literature review is an investigation of the materials which make up the hardware, namely the plastics.

The first component of the preservation of plastics is the identification of the specific plastic that comprises the casing of the console. Certain plastics can be more ‘problematic’ than others and require different preservation and conservation methods. My first suggestion is to examine the console thoroughly and see if any identifying marks are visible. If a visual inspection is inconclusive, I was able to find two resources that might help us in the identification process.

The first resource, the Plastics Historical Society, was identified by Matt in his March post and comes to us through Tulane University Libraries. Among other resources, the Society provides a table that correlates dates of manufacture with probable plastics used in the manufacturing process. Our test collection, the Billy Cain Collection, contains consoles that range from the 2nd to the 6th generations of video games (around 1976 to 2005). Our collection’s hardware likely falls entirely within the category “1965 Onwards” in the table provided by the Plastics Historical Society. This category mentions 12 different types of plastic commonly used. Another resource I located allows even further refinement.

Vintage Computing and Gaming, founded in 2005 and written by Benj Edwards, is a “blog about computer, video game, and technology history.” On January 7th, 2007, Mr. Edwards published a great post titled “Why Super Nintendos Lose Their Color: Plastic Discoloration in Classic Machines.” During his investigation, Mr. Edwards reached out to a plastics expert at the University of Massachusetts, the late Dr. Rudolph D. Deanin, who said this: “The plastics most commonly used to make the structural cases for electronic equipment are polypropylene, impact styrene, and ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene].” Each of these three plastics are indeed among the 12 listed by the Plastics Historical Society. This purported commonality among console casings is fortunate because institutions with consoles from multiple decades can likely store the collections together in the same environment.

Now I know what you are asking: What if I really really want to know the identity of a particular plastic in my collection? Is there a way to identify the plastic without harming the artifact? Why, yes, yes there is. And this allows me to introduce my greatest find during the entire literature review: POPART – Preservation of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections.

plastic-duck

This project was initiated in 2008 by the European Commission to develop a strategy for the preventive conservation and maintenance of modern material artefacts and most of their results were published in 2012. This is a fabulous resource for any cultural heritage institution that has plastic objects in its collections and I enthusiastically recommend investigating their site and resources. One priority for the group was finding techniques for the non-destructive identification/characterization of plastics.

One such technique is near-infrared (NIR) Spectroscopy, a spectroscopic method that uses the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to measure the absorption of materials. The resultant absorption spectra depend on the chemical composition of the samples. By comparing to a database of characterized materials, it is possible to identify positively the components in the hardware casing. Or at least have a really good guess!

Please check back next time for more on the preservation of plastics!

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!