Featured Blog | Why Doesn’t Everyone See the Importance of Preserving Our Past?

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An article appeared on gamedeveloper.com recently about game preservation obstacles. Specifically the problems associated with it. You can find that article here.

It’s a good article about recent events associated with preservation of our history and in no way is the upcoming rant a comment on the article itself. You should all go read it. Educate yourself. The two second summary is that the ESA is opposed to game preservation, at least in online form. And publishers – represented by the ESA – are equally loath to allow it.

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The preservation of games and game development materials is not a new problem. It’s been a problem since the medium was first created.

Practitioners of a craft rarely see their work as important. It’s “just” a “job of work,” as film director, John Ford, is reported to have said. Even when people start crowing about a medium as an art form, creators rarely see the significance of their work. The history of film and ballet (a current obsession of mine, believe it or not) as well as the history of other media is lost forever. Anyone who has read a book about those media is reading a partial report on the topic with historians filling in gaps with what can only be described as educated guesses.

The Game Developer article – and the supposed problems the writer describes – focuses exclusively on the preservation of games themselves, something of interest and importance, and I have a thing or two to say about that, but mostly I want to talk about the preservation of materials associated with game development. The history of how a game has been made is critical to academics and authors of the present and future. A medium’s history isn’t just in the work product – it’s in the work that went into making the product.

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I say this as someone whose academic training, from high school through a sadly incomplete PhD, has been as an historian. I wrote many film history papers, theses, and a sadly incomplete dissertation based largely on primary sources. What I discovered was how little of those sources still existed. It’s a tragedy that 80% of silent films are lost, presumably forever. But it’s as great a tragedy that the ways in which those films – and others up til today – were made is equally unfortunate.

What we do as game developers literally changes the world (something to ponder as you go about your daily work). We are a cultural forces unlike any other. How we became world-changers and culture-drivers makes a difference to future generations in a way non-enthusiasts and non-academics and non-writers can’t understand. Ignorance is a real problem here.

So what am I doing about addressing this problem? What am I doing to put my money where my mouth is? I’ve worked to create a Videogame Archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. You can explore the Archive’s holdings at https://briscoecenter.org/projects/videogame-archive/.  I’ve donated all of the materials associated with the games I’ve worked on to the Center. (As a packrat that’s not an insubstantial amount of material!) Other developers, including Richard Garriott have joined me. I’ve also literally dumpster dives to retrieve information other developers have simply thrown away, believing it to be worthless. That material is also in the Center.

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(In the spirit of openness, I have to tell you that I’ve frozen the collection of my materials until I have a chance to review everything because it contains sensitive information that shouldn’t be released yet. Someday, my day job will ease up enough to allow me to go through everything and it will be reopened for historians to access.)

The Center’s archive is not alone, several universities and private institutions have created videogame archives already. I’d list them all but it’d take longer than I want to take here and while I have my favorites I don’t want to downplay the contributions of others. Check this out for a partial list of folks already getting a handle on this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_preservation#Preservation_efforts

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As far as fears of people willy-nilly downloading games and game materials from videogame archives, there’s an obvious answer to this non-problem: Only allow people to access games and other materials on-site at a physical location. It’s a specious argument to say people can just set up a fake location to qualify. Research centers around the world deal with control of information issues every day and there are solutions in place. Collaboration with existing archives or with the Society of American Archivists (https://www2.archivists.org/) seems like a good starting point for this discussion.

Of course, none of this deals with the problem of digital communications. Every single day (truly) I lament the fact that electronic communication methods now dominate the development process. Virtually everything is virtual today, existing only in Slack threads, emails, Confluence pages, Google docs… and the list goes on. Paper lasts forever; digital storage is ephemeral and in most (if not all) cases lost forever when a project ends. What archivists and historians will do about this I don’t know, but in my more hopeful moments I believe they’ll find some way to solve this seemingly intractable problem. I dearly hope I’m right.

Historians unite!





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