How Will Historians Study Video Games?

Universities and museums recognize the cultural value of video games, but the question of whether to preserve the actual devices—and how—is more divisive.
Flickr / thisisbossi

Since their birth as a science-fair curiosity at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the late 1950s, video games have moved inexorably towards higher and more central cultural ground, much like film did in the first half of the 20th century.

Games were confined at first to the lowbrow carnival of the arcade, but they soon spread to the middlebrow sphere of the living room, overran this private space, and burst out and upwards into the public spheres of art and academia. With prestigious universities like NYU and USC now offering graduate-level programs in game design, and major museums like MoMA, MAD, and SF MoMA beginning to acquire games and curate game exhibitions, preserving the early history of the medium appears more important than ever. But what exactly does it mean to preserve a digital game?

The answer is surprisingly simple: It means, first and foremost, preserving a record of how it was played and what it meant to its player community. Ensuring continued access to a playable version of the game through maintenance of the original hardware or emulation is less important—if it matters at all.

That, at least, was the provocative argument Henry Lowood made at Pressing Restart, which recently brought preservationists, teachers, academics, and curators together at the NYU Poly MAGNET center for a day of "community discussions on video game preservation." Lowood is no contrarian whippersnapper; as a curator at the Stanford Libraries, he has been professionally involved in game preservation efforts for well over a decade.

In his talk, part of a panel on collection criteria for collecting institutions, Lowood decried the fallacy of the executable—the idea that game librarians in 2100 can sleep easy feeling they've done their job well so long as they can brainsync their patrons with fresh working copies of Diablo IIIBejeweled, or any other canonical game. The problem with this attitude, Lowood argued, is that a game is not simply a piece of software, but rather a historically specific site of shared experience.

Charles Pratt, who curates the annual No Quarter exhibition, is reluctant to take clear sides on a "really complicated" issue, but agrees with Lowood for blurbing purposes. "[When it comes to game preservation,] documentation is probably the most important thing,” he said. “We should preserve the apparatus of a game, but it's impossible to save the culture of a game, which is really the most important part. With this restriction in mind, we should just try and save as much of the memories and events surrounding the game as possible."

The value of this perspective comes into clearest focus when we think about massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). If we want our children to understand Everquest, should we make sure they can log onto an emulated server and kill some rats alongside a few other game history students? Or is it more important that they have access to footage of high-level play from the game's heyday, as well as records of the game's Internet fan communities, not to mention the Everquest Widow controversies the game produced?

It's not that the work we're more accustomed to think of as game preservation—middle-aged electrical engineer guys hunting down obsolete CRT monitors to replace the originals in old arcade machines, hackers reverse-engineering SNES games into ROMs for us to take for granted on our Ouya emulators—has fallen out of favor in the institutional world of game preservation. These more traditional perspectives were well-represented at Pressing Restart.

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Ilya Zarembsky writes for Kill Screen and is an MFA candidate at the NYU Game Center.

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