Pac Rat

The fight to preserve old video games from bit rot, obsolescence, and cultural oblivion

Matt Kirschenbaum slips a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk into his Apple IIe’s drive and flips the switch. The 26-year-old machine, which his family bought when he was a child, squeaks to life. A pixilated green dragon fills the screen, as a tinny synthesized voice, not unlike T-Pain’s, drones “sea dragon, Sea Dragon, SEA DRAGON!”

Kirschenbaum is an English professor at the University of Maryland and the associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the computer symbolizes his lifelong love of all things digital. But the ancient Apple is about more than novelty and nostalgia—it is one of the few ways to access games like Sea Dragon in their original format. Thousands of them are at risk of disappearing completely, stuck on decaying disks and locked behind a confusing hedgerow of copyrights and ownership disputes.

In response, two years ago Maryland, Stanford, Illinois, and the Rochester Institute of Technology teamed up with the Library of Congress and Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, in a $2.15 million program to develop standards for preserving video games and “virtual worlds”—that is, online multiplayer systems like EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

The consortium is just one part of a growing movement uniting academics, librarians, developers, and players around game preservation. The Video Game Archive at the University of Texas collects memos, beta versions, and other paraphernalia documenting the game-making process. Stanford, Michigan, and Berlin’s Computer Game Museum have amassed thousands of old games and consoles. And thousands of private collectors post source code online for so-called abandonware—games that no longer are published or supported by the companies that created them.

“The cultural history of our world is wrapped up in digital worlds, and in the future, if people want to understand our culture, they’re going to need documents and information,” says Henry Lowood, who leads the preservation effort at Stanford. “We’re in a position to do something about that for these synthetic worlds.”

Video-game preservation is tricky. First, a definitional question: Is a video game just lines of code, or does it include the disk, box, and console? “To preserve an Atari 2600, do you need a piece of shag carpet?” asks Kirschenbaum. He’s only half joking: this year a team at Georgia Tech made an emulator that lets old games be played on today’s computers, but makes them look fuzzy, as if they were on a TV circa 1977.

There’s also the problem of bit rot. As floppies, CDs, and cartridges age, holes show up in their data. But getting the games onto stable media is only half the battle. You still need to find devices that can access them. Even big firms are nervous about sharing codes and production details of complex games, which can involve scores of patents. Moreover, games for different consoles were sometimes written in different programming languages; how do you make them universally accessible? “It’s not just a matter of being able to understand the bits, in terms of decoding them. We also need a lot of documentation about the environment that the software is running in,” says the University of Illinois’s Jerome McDonough, who oversees the consortium. One of the movement’s goals is a sort of universal card catalog for software, which would allow any computer to access any game directly, no matter its origins.

The issue is time—funding for an effective preservation infrastructure is severely lacking, and it’s hard to convince cash-strapped agencies that saving video games is worthwhile. But Kari Kraus, a Maryland English professor and one of Kirschenbaum’s collaborators, says that could soon change, because people tend to value art forms only after they’ve reached maturity. “When you look at the public discourse around the novel in the 18th century,” she says, “it’s amazing. They thought of it as corrupting. There’s a long historical pattern of new media being seen as irrelevant or decadent, then finally getting legitimacy and being integrated into society.” Who knows? Two hundred years from now, Super Mario Bros. could be treated with as much respect as The Brothers Karamazov.