Preservationists Are Saving Video Game History, One Upload at a Time

Games are key to understanding modern culture, but archiving them can be surprisingly challenging

Credit: The Strong

How much is history worth? In May, the video game world got an answer of sorts: $14,000.

That was the winning bid for a prototype of a cancelled game developed for the original Famicom — the Japanese name for the Nintendo Entertainment System from the 1980s, with its pixelated graphics. Indy: The Magical Kid was based on a series of Japanese choose-your-own-adventure books. The game had some early previews in magazines but was ultimately scrapped, making its reemergence on the auction block — a notable event for a community of preservationists working to save video game history.

But there was a problem. That community, led in part by Nintendo preservation group Forest of Illusion, hoped to win the game with $7,000 they had raised together — yet that winning bid came unexpectedly from a private collector who has no intention of preserving Indy for posterity.

Forest of Illusion co-founder togemet2, who asked not to use his real name because the process of preserving games is sometimes a legal gray area due to copyrights and other issues, tells OneZero that the loss came suddenly. (Archivists and historians are not necessarily looking to sell or even distribute versions of games they’ve saved online, but creating an unauthorized reproduction often technically violates copyright law.)

“This is culture. If we lose the pieces that brought us here, then we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes.”

“Unfortunately, we were outbid in the last few minutes of the auction,” togemet2 says. According to togemet2, the buyer said in an anonymous message sent to a Japanese fan site that “he had bought it to stop reproductions getting out, and that he would protect it as a Japanese treasure.” Togemet2 added that if this is, indeed, the case, the likelihood of the game being lost forever is high.

The preservationist movement is about documenting the past and keeping the video game art form alive for future generations. Gaming historians constantly need to find new ways to preserve the history of games, adapting the medium as they go. In a way, it’s far more difficult than preserving books or artwork. Older games might require a painstaking digitization process to convert the information stored on a cartridge to files readable by a modern computer; newer games on platforms like Steam may not have physical versions at all.

“We’ve finally figured it out that video games aren’t just passive entertainment projects,” says Frank Cifaldi, founder of the Video Game History Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to cataloging and digitizing games. “This is culture. If we lose the pieces that brought us here, then we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. If we lack an understanding of how we got here and why, then we’re missing out.”

Jon-Paul Dyson, director of The Strong Nation Museum of Play’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games in Rochester, New York, explains that this archival work is a way to track the fundamental act of play. He believes that studying and preserving the way humans play is an important path to understanding the development of a culture.

“Play is something that’s universal and continues throughout our life cycle,” Dyson says. “The result is that play pervades almost every aspect of our lives. Video games are, in some sense, the most recent form of play.”

Of course, unlike with a painting, say, video games archives demand the preservation of a full and interactive experience — generally, pressing buttons to initiate certain actions on a screen, which the game then reacts to. It’s not always a matter of locking away an old cartridge with a Super Nintendo and a TV, either. We may think of electronic data as permanent, but certain forms of physical media “literally rot,” Cifaldi explains, as the materials and chemicals used to write the data deteriorate, which will wipe out chunks of information stored on the discs. Archiving these sorts of files, by copying data into easily readable and playable formats, is essential in keeping these titles around.

The process is different depending on what they’re hoping to save. There are devices and systems that can digitally back up games for you. “Typically, we’re taking data from one format to another,” Cifaldi says. “A typical easy process would not surprise you. This is a DVD that has data on it. I’m going to put it in a DVD drive on a computer, and I’m going to make an image of that disc so it’s on a hard drive instead of that disc.”

Cifaldi’s work involves a lot of physical media, including old cartridges and magazines. Credit: Frank Cifaldi

Byuu, a Tokyo-based software developer and preservationist of retro games who asked to go by his online alias due to privacy concerns, uses specially built programs to dissect and “reverse engineer” retro gaming machines so that old games can be played on new computers. (Again: Legal gray area.) Byuu is working on documenting circuit boards for Super Nintendo game cartridges; he tells OneZero he’s documented 1,200 so far, with a backlog of 1,500 more to go.

He uses a special hardware device that allows him to “analyze the entire circuit board memory layouts of SNES games” to save as much detail as possible. By doing this, Byuu is able to discover interesting bits of history that have otherwise been unexplored, like a critical detail embedded into the Rockman X cartridge. (You might recognize this by its American title, 1993’s Mega Man X.)

“It was discovered to contain bodge wiring” — a material used to quickly revise circuit boards — “to fix a last-minute production error caused by their copy protection,” Byuu says. In other words, developer Capcom fixed a problem by soldering in a wire. “Details like these were not well-known, and certainly not documented anywhere publicly in the SNES emulation space. Details like that affect our emulation of the game, and are critical to understand and re-create. They’re also interesting tidbits of history in their own right.”

That seems obsessive — and really, it is obsessive — but details count. You may have played modern updates of Mega Man X (on your iPhone, even), but they’re not necessarily fully representative of the original work. You might think of it like a high-quality print of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies — perhaps good enough to the average viewer, but missing the texture a discerning audience would notice.

Once a game is digitally preserved, archivists will scan in any additional game materials, like boxes, manuals, or even press materials. All of this is relevant to understand the cultural moment these games sprang from. For example, Carly Kocurek, a video game historian and associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, is researching the “games for girls moment,” a 1990s effort led by developers like Purple Moon and HeR Interactive to create games specifically for girls. Kocurek needs to dig into old gaming magazines to learn about how these titles were marketed.

“I go through page by page and scan headlines, and then I take pictures of any pages I want to keep a copy of,” Kocurek says. “I upload these to Dropbox, and then I spend time sorting them in a way that makes sense for me.”

Cifaldi, too, has been working with Game Informer, a video game magazine that’s been published since 1991, to archive the documents they’ve kept over the years. That means press releases, photos, and image slides.

“The archive part — keeping these in a physical location — is easy,” Cifaldi says. “But the digitizing part… We had to build a network area storage here at Game Informer. We have a network-attached storage box here with 20 TB of space that we’re actually in danger of filling.”

Video game archives housed at The Strong’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games in Rochester, New York. Credit: The Strong

The digital revolution

Painful as it can be, archiving physical material can be easier than some modern challenges. Many new video games are digital-only, which means there are no cartridges or discs to work with. They’re online only as long as a publisher says they should be, and they may have digital rights protections that check with a server before allowing a person to play. If a server goes down, a game could be permanently lost. Additionally, copyright law makes preserving these games a challenge.

“For more recent games where there are no physical copies, that’s a real mess,” Kocurek says. “There’s so many interdependencies and the companies have a lot more control. It’s going to be hard to work around.”

Dyson agrees. He didn’t expect the range of complicated issues that have arisen with online games. “A game on your phone has no physical form,” Dyson says. “It gets even more complicated if parts of the game rely on some sort of external server that the company is operating. What happens if the company chooses to shut down that server?”

“A lot of what we think of now as the digital archives came from the piracy scene.”

Sometimes, preservation is simply impossible. Because of the intellectual property issues involved in preserving games, there are plenty that aren’t available legally. Occasionally the International Center for the History of Electronic Games is able to work out a deal with a company to record and preserve gameplay, instead of the actual files of a game.

That’s where piracy comes in.

“A lot of what we think of now as the digital archives came from the piracy scene,” Cifaldi says. Before Blizzard announced its intention in November 2017 to develop World of Warcraft Classic, for example, some enterprising groups re-created the old, pre-expansion experience on private servers. “It’s people pirating the stuff and putting it online. As far as I know, we don’t have a very good piracy scene for smartphone games.”

Smartphones are particularly tricky. In 2017, Apple stopped supporting 32-bit applications on its App Store. Developers that didn’t upgrade their software to 64-bit would be left behind — and thousands were. This includes plenty of games that will no longer be accessible as cultural artifacts, creating what will be “a cultural black hole,” game designer Adam Ghahramani wrote in VentureBeat in June 2017.

New initiatives are trying to combat this, bringing the work of video game historians and archivists to the people, without dealing with copyright laws. Kocurek is creating a zine, Save Point, that covers the history of games and games research.

“While lots of people (including me!) research the history of video games, a lot of that work ends up in journal articles or books geared toward an academic audience,” Kocurek wrote on her Kickstarter, which is now fully funded. Her goal is to create something that’s easily accessible to anyone interested, offering an important look into the history of play.

“I don’t think history necessarily impacts the future, but it absolutely shapes the present,” she says. “The history of games can tell us a lot about daily life, about technological and economic history, and about shifting ideas of childhood and productivity.”

And rest assured: the words “game over” aren’t in the vocabulary.

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