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M/C Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2009) - 'obsolete'


Save the Videogame! The National Videogame Archive: Preservation, Supersession and Obsolescence


Introduction

In October 2008, the UK’s National Videogame Archive became a reality and after years of negotiation, preparation and planning, this partnership between Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Contemporary Play research group and The National Media Museum, accepted its first public donations to the collection. These first donations came from Sony’s Computer Entertainment Europe’s London Studios who presented the original, pre-production PlayStation 2 EyeToy camera (complete with its hand-written #1 sticker) and Harmonix who crossed the Atlantic to deliver prototypes of the Rock Band drum kit and guitar controllers along with a slew of games. Since then, we have been inundated with donations, enquiries and volunteers offering their services and it is clear that we have exciting and challenging times ahead of us at the NVA as we seek to continue our collecting programme and preserve, conserve, display and interpret these vital parts of popular culture. This essay, however, is not so much a document of these possible futures for our research or the challenges we face in moving forward as it is a discussion of some of the issues that make game preservation a vital and timely undertaking.

In briefly telling the story of the genesis of the NVA, I hope to draw attention to some of the peculiarities (in both senses) of the situation in which videogames currently exist. While considerable attention has been paid to the preservation and curation of new media arts (e.g. Cook et al.), comparatively little work has been undertaken in relation to games. Surprisingly, the games industry has been similarly neglectful of the histories of gameplay and gamemaking. Throughout our research, it has became abundantly clear that even those individuals and companies most intimately associated with the development of this form, do not hold their corporate and personal histories in the high esteem we expected (see also Lowood et al.). And so, despite the well-worn bluster of an industry that proclaims itself as culturally significant as Hollywood, it is surprisingly difficult to find a definitive copy of the boxart of the final release of a Triple-A title let alone any of the pre-production materials. Through our journeys in the past couple of years, we have encountered shoeboxes under CEOs’ desks and proud parents’ collections of tapes and press cuttings. These are the closest things to a formalised archive that we currently have for many of the biggest British game development and publishing companies. Not only is this problematic in and of itself as we run the risk of losing titles and documents forever as well as the stories locked up in the memories of key individuals who grow ever older, but also it is symptomatic of an industry that, despite its public proclamations, neither places a high value on its products as popular culture nor truly recognises their impact on that culture. While a few valorised, still-ongoing, franchises like the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series are repackaged and (digitally) re-released so as to provide continuity with current releases, a huge number of games simply disappear from view once their short period of retail limelight passes.

Indeed, my argument in this essay rests to some extent on the admittedly polemical, and maybe even antagonistic, assertion that the past business and marketing practices of the videogames industry are partly to blame for the comparatively underdeveloped state of game preservation and the seemingly low cultural value placed on old games within the mainstream marketplace. Small wonder, then, that archives and formalised collections are not widespread. However antagonistic this point may seem, this essay does not set out merely to criticise the games industry. Indeed, it is important to recognise that the success and viability of projects such as the NVA is derived partly from close collaboration with industry partners. As such, it is my hope that in addition to contributing to the conversation about the importance and need for formalised strategies of game preservation, this essay goes some way to demonstrating the necessity of universities, museums, developers, publishers, advertisers and retailers tackling these issues in partnership.

The Best Game Is the Next Game

As will be clear from these opening paragraphs, this essay is primarily concerned with ‘old’ games. Perhaps surprisingly, however, we shall see that ‘old’ games are frequently not that old at all as even the shiniest, and newest of interactive experiences soon slip from view under the pressure of a relentless industrial and institutional push towards the forthcoming release and the ‘next generation’. More surprising still is that ‘old’ games are often difficult to come by as they occupy, at best, a marginalised position in the contemporary marketplace, assuming they are even visible at all.

This is an odd situation. Videogames are, as any introductory primer on game studies will surely reveal, big business (see Kerr, for instance, as well as trade bodies such as ELSPA and The ESA for up-to-date sales figures). Given the videogame industry seems dedicated to growing its business and broadening its audiences (see Radd on Sony’s ‘Game 3.0’ strategy, for instance), it seems strange, from a commercial perspective if no other, that publishers’ and developers’ back catalogues are not being mercilessly plundered to wring the last pennies of profit from their IPs. Despite being cherished by players and fans, some of whom are actively engaged in their own private collecting and curation regimes (sometimes to apparently obsessive excess as Jones, among others, has noted), videogames have, nonetheless, been undervalued as part of our national popular cultural heritage by institutions of memory such as museums and archives which, I would suggest, have largely ignored and sometimes misunderstood or misrepresented them. Most of all, however, I wish to draw attention to the harm caused by the videogames industry itself. Consumers’ attentions are focused on ‘products’, on audiovisual (but mainly visual) technicalities and high-definition video specs rather than on the experiences of play and performance, or on games as artworks or artefact. Most damagingly, however, by constructing and contributing to an advertising, marketing and popular critical discourse that trades almost exclusively in the language of instant obsolescence, videogames have been robbed of their historical value and old platforms and titles are reduced to redundant, legacy systems and easily-marginalised ‘retro’ curiosities.

The vision of inevitable technological progress that the videogames industry trades in reminds us of Paul Duguid’s concept of ‘supersession’ (see also Giddings and Kennedy, on the ‘technological imaginary’). Duguid identifies supersession as one of the key tropes in discussions of new media. The reductive idea that each new form subsumes and replaces its predecessor means that videogames are, to some extent, bound up in the same set of tensions that undermine the longevity of all new media. Chun rightly notes that, in contrast with more open terms like multimedia, ‘new media’ has always been somewhat problematic. Unaccommodating, ‘it portrayed other media as old or dead; it converged rather than multiplied; it did not efface itself in favor of a happy if redundant plurality’ (1). The very newness of new media and of videogames as the apotheosis of the interactivity and multimodality they promise (Newman, "In Search"), their gleam and shine, is quickly tarnished as they are replaced by ever-newer, ever more exciting, capable and ‘revolutionary’ technologies whose promise and moment in the limelight is, in turn, equally fleeting. As Franzen has noted, obsolescence and the trail of abandoned, superseded systems is a natural, even planned-for, product of an infatuation with the newness of new media. For Kline et al., the obsession with obsolescence leads to the characterisation of the videogames industry as a ‘perpetual innovation economy’ whose institutions ‘devote a growing share of their resources to the continual alteration and upgrading of their products.

However, it is my contention here that the supersessionary tendency exerts a more serious impact on videogames than some other media partly because the apparently natural logic of obsolescence and technological progress goes largely unchecked and partly because there remain few institutions dedicated to considering and acting upon game preservation. The simple fact, as Lowood et al. have noted, is that material damage is being done as a result of this manufactured sense of continual progress and immediate, irrefutable obsolescence. By focusing on the upcoming new release and the preview of what is yet to come; by exciting gamers about what is in development and demonstrating the manifest ways in which the sheen of the new inevitably tarnishes the old. That which is replaced is fit only for the bargain bin or the budget-priced collection download, and as such, it is my position that we are systematically undermining and perhaps even eradicating the possibility of a thorough and well-documented history for videogames. This is a situation that we at the National Videogame Archive, along with colleagues in the emerging field of game preservation (e.g. the International Game Developers Association Game Preservation Special Interest Group, and the Keeping Emulation Environments Portable project) are, naturally, keen to address. Chief amongst our concerns is better understanding how it has come to be that, in 2009, game studies scholars and colleagues from across the memory and heritage sectors are still only at the beginning of the process of considering game preservation. The IGDA Game Preservation SIG was founded only five years ago and its ‘White Paper’ (Lowood et al.) is just published. Surprisingly, despite the importance of videogames within popular culture and the emergence and consolidation of the industry as a potent creative force, there remains comparatively little academic commentary or investigation into the specific situation and life-cycles of games or the demands that they place upon archivists and scholars of digital histories and cultural heritage. As I hope to demonstrate in this essay, one of the key tasks of the project of game preservation is to draw attention to the consequences of the concentration, even fetishisation, of the next generation, the new and the forthcoming. The focus on what I have termed ‘the lure of the imminent’ (e.g. Newman, Playing), the fixation on not only the present but also the as-yet-unreleased next generation, has contributed to the normalisation of the discourses of technological advancement and the inevitability and finality of obsolescence. The conflation of gameplay pleasure and cultural import with technological – and indeed, usually visual – sophistication gives rise to a context of endless newness, within which there appears to be little space for the ‘outdated’, the ‘superseded’ or the ‘old’. In a commercial and cultural space in which so little value is placed upon anything but the next game, we risk losing touch with the continuities of development and the practices of play while simultaneously robbing players and scholars of the critical tools and resources necessary for contextualised appreciation and analysis of game form and aesthetics, for instance (see Monnens, "Why", for more on the value of preserving ‘old’ games for analysis and scholarship). Moreover, we risk losing specific games, platforms, artefacts and products as they disappear into the bargain bucket or crumble to dust as media decay, deterioration and ‘bit rot’ (Monnens, "Losing") set in.

Space does not here permit a discussion of the scope and extent of the preservation work required (for instance, the NVA sets its sights on preserving, documenting, interpreting and exhibiting ‘videogame culture’ in its broadest sense and recognises the importance of videogames as more than just code and as enmeshed within complex networks of productive, consumptive and performative practices). Neither is it my intention to discuss here the specific challenges and numerous issues associated with archival and exhibition tools such as emulation which seek to rebirth code on up-to-date, manageable, well-supported hardware platforms but which are frequently insensitive to the specificities and nuances of the played experience (see Newman, "On Emulation", for some further notes on videogame emulation, archiving and exhibition and Takeshita’s comments in Nutt on the technologies and aesthetics of glitches, for instance). Each of these issues is vitally important and will, doubtless become a part of the forthcoming research agenda for game preservation scholars. My focus here, however, is rather more straightforward and foundational and though it is deliberately controversial, it is my hope that its casts some light over some ingrained assumptions about videogames and the magnitude and urgency of the game preservation project.

Videogames Are Disappearing?

At a time when retailers’ shelves struggle under the weight of newly-released titles and digital distribution systems such as Steam, the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Marketplace, WiiWare, DSiWare et al bring new ways to purchase and consume playable content, it might seem strange to suggest that videogames are disappearing. In addition to what we have perhaps come to think of as the ‘usual suspects’ in the hardware and software publishing marketplace, over the past year or so Apple have, unexpectedly and perhaps even surprising themselves, carved out a new gaming platform with the iPhone/iPod Touch and have dramatically simplified the notoriously difficult process of distributing mobile content with the iTunes App Store. In the face of this apparent glut of games and the emergence and (re)discovery of new markets with the iPhone, Wii and Nintendo DS, videogames seem an ever more a vital and visible part of popular culture. Yet, for all their commercial success and seemingly penetration the simple fact is that they are disappearing. And at an alarming rate.

Addressing the IGDA community of game developers and producers, Henry Lowood makes the point with admirable clarity (see also Ruggill and McAllister):

If we fail to address the problems of game preservation, the games you are making will disappear, perhaps within a few decades. You will lose access to your own intellectual property, you will be unable to show new developers the games you designed or that inspired you, and you may even find it necessary to re-invent a bunch of wheels. (Lowood et al. 1)

For me, this point hit home most persuasively a few years ago when, along with Iain Simons, I was invited by the British Film Institute to contribute a book to their ‘Screen Guides’ series. 100 Videogames (Newman and Simons) was an intriguing prospect that provided us with the challenge and opportunity to explore some of the key moments in videogaming’s forty year history. However, although the research and writing processes proved to be an immensely pleasurable and rewarding experience that we hope culminated in an accessible, informative volume offering insight into some well-known (and some less-well known) games, the project was ultimately tinged with a more than a little disappointment and frustration. Assuming our book had successfully piqued the interest of our readers into rediscovering games previously played or perhaps investigating games for the first time, what could they then do? Where could they go to find these games in order to experience their delights (or their flaws and problems) at first hand? Had our volume been concerned with television or film, as most of the Screen Guides are, then online and offline retailers, libraries, and even archives for less widely-available materials, would have been obvious ports of call. For the student of videogames, however, the choices are not so much limited as practically non-existant.

It is only comparatively recently that videogame retailers have shifted away from an almost exclusive focus on new releases and the zeitgeist platforms towards a recognition of old games and systems through the creation of the ‘pre-owned’ marketplace. The ‘pre-owned’ transaction is one in which old titles may be traded in for cash or against the purchase of new releases of hardware or software. Surely, then, this represents the commercial viability of classic games and is a recognition on the part of retail that the new release is not the only game in town. Yet, if we consider more carefully the ‘pre-owned’ model, we find a few telling points. First, there is cold economic sense to the pre-owned business model. In their financial statements for FY08, ‘GAME revealed that the service isn’t just a key part of its offer to consumers, but its also represents an ‘attractive’ gross margin 39 per cent.’ (French). Second, and most important, the premise of the pre-owned business as it is communicated to consumers still offers nothing but primacy to the new release. That one would trade-in one’s old games in order to consume these putatively better new ones speaks eloquently in the language of obsolesce and what Dovey and Kennedy have called the ‘technological imaginary’. The wire mesh buckets of old, pre-owned games are not displayed or coded as treasure troves for the discerning or completist collector but rather are nothing more than bargain bins. These are not classic games. These are cheap games. Cheap because they are old. Cheap because they have had their day. This is a curious situation that affects videogames most unfairly.

Of course, my caricature of the videogame retailer is still incomplete as a good deal of the instantly visible shopfloor space is dedicated neither to pre-owned nor new releases but rather to displays of empty boxes often sporting unfinalised, sometimes mocked-up, boxart flaunting titles available for pre-order. Titles you cannot even buy yet. In the videogames marketplace, even the present is not exciting enough. The best game is always the next game.

Importantly, retail is not alone in manufacturing this sense of dissatisfaction with the past and even the present. The specialist videogames press plays at least as important a role in reinforcing and normalising the supersessionary discourse of instant obsolescence by fixing readers’ attentions and expectations on the just-visible horizon. Examining the pages of specialist gaming publications reveals them to be something akin to Futurist paeans dedicating anything from 70 to 90% of their non-advertising pages to previews, interviews with developers about still-in-development titles (see Newman, Playing, for more on the specialist gaming press’ love affair with the next generation and the NDA scoop). Though a small number of publications specifically address retro titles (e.g. Imagine Publishing’s Retro Gamer), most titles are essentially vehicles to promote current and future product lines with many magazines essentially operating as delivery devices for cover-mounted CDs/DVDs offering teaser videos or playable demos of forthcoming titles to further whet the appetite. Manufacturing a sense of excitement might seem wholly natural and perhaps even desirable in helping to maintain a keen interest in gaming culture but the effect of the imbalance of popular coverage has a potentially deleterious effect on the status of superseded titles. Xbox World 360’s magnificently-titled ‘Anticip–O–Meter’ ™ does more than simply build anticipation. Like regular features that run under headings such as ‘The Next Best Game in The World Ever is…’, it seeks to author not so much excitement about the imminent release but a dissatisfaction with the present with which unfavourable comparisons are inevitably drawn. The current or previous crop of (once new, let us not forget) titles are not simply superseded but rather are reinvented as yardsticks to judge the prowess of the even newer and unarguably ‘better’. As Ashton has noted, the continual promotion of the impressiveness of the next generation requires a delicate balancing act and a selective, institutionalised system of recall and forgetting that recovers the past as a suite of (often technical) benchmarks (twice as many polygons, higher resolution etc.) In the absence of formalised and systematic collecting, these obsoleted titles run the risk of being forgotten forever once they no longer serve the purpose of demonstrating the comparative advancement of the successors.

The Future of Videogaming’s Past

Even if we accept the myriad claims of game studies scholars that videogames are worthy of serious interrogation in and of themselves and as part of a multifaceted, transmedial supersystem, we might be tempted to think that the lack of formalised collections, archival resources and readily available ‘old/classic’ titles at retail is of no great significance. After all, as Jones has observed, the videogame player is almost primed to undertake this kind of activity as gaming can, at least partly, be understood as the act and art of collecting. Games such as Animal Crossing make this tendency most manifest by challenging their players to collect objects and artefacts – from natural history through to works of visual art – so as to fill the initially-empty in-game Museum’s cases. While almost all videogames from The Sims to Katamari Damacy can be considered to engage their players in collecting and collection management work to some extent, Animal Crossing is perhaps the most pertinent example of the indivisibility of the gamer/archivist. Moreover, the permeability of the boundary between the fan’s collection of toys, dolls, posters and the other treasured objects of merchandising and the manipulation of inventories, acquisitions and equipment lists that we see in the menus and gameplay imperatives of videogames ensures an extensiveness and scope of fan collecting and archival work. Similarly, the sociality of fan collecting and the value placed on private hoarding, public sharing and the processes of research ‘…bridges to new levels of the game’ (Jones 48). Perhaps we should be as unsurprised that their focus on collecting makes videogames similar to eBay as we are to the realisation that eBay with its competitiveness, its winning and losing states, and its inexorable countdown timer, is nothing if not a game?

We should be mindful, however, of overstating the positive effects of fandom on the fate of old games. Alongside eBay’s veneration of the original object, p2p and bittorrent sites reduce the videogame to its barest. Quite apart from the (il)legality of emulation and videogame ripping and sharing (see Conley et al.), the existence of ‘ROMs’ and the technicalities of their distribution reveals much about the peculiar tension between the interest in old games and their putative cultural and economic value. (St)ripped down to the barest of code, ROMs deny the gamer the paratextuality of the instruction manual or boxart. In fact, divorced from its context and robbed of its materiality, ROMs perhaps serve to make the original game even more distant. More tellingly, ROMs are typically distributed by the thousand in zipped files. And so, in just a few minutes, entire console back-catalogues – every game released in every territory – are available for browsing and playing on a PC or Mac. The completism of the collections allows detailed scrutiny of differences in Japanese versus European releases, for instance, and can be seen as a vital investigative resource. However, that these ROMs are packaged into collections of many thousands speaks implicitly of these games’ perceived value.

In a similar vein, the budget-priced retro re-release collection helps to diminish the value of each constituent game and serves to simultaneously manufacture and highlight the manifestly unfair comparison between these intriguingly retro curios and the legitimately full-priced games of now and next. Customer comments at Amazon.co.uk demonstrate the way in which historical and technological comparisons are now solidly embedded within the popular discourse (see also Newman 2009b). Leaving feedback on Sega’s PS3/Xbox 360 Sega MegaDrive Ultimate Collection customers berate the publisher for the apparently meagre selection of titles on offer. Interestingly, this charge seems based less around the quality, variety or range of the collection but rather centres on jarring technological schisms and a clear sense of these titles being of necessarily and inevitably diminished monetary value.

Comments range from outraged consternation, ‘Wtf, only 40 games?’, ‘I wont be getting this as one disc could hold the entire arsenal of consoles and games from commodore to sega saturn(Maybe even Dreamcast’ through to more detailed analyses that draw attention to the number of bits and bytes but that notably neglect any consideration of gameplay, experientiality, cultural significance or, heaven forbid, fun.

“Ultimate” Collection? 32Mb of games on a Blu-ray disc?…here are 40 Megadrive games at a total of 31 Megabytes of data. This was taking the Michael on a DVD release for the PS2 (or even on a UMD for the PSP), but for a format that can store 50 Gigabytes of data, it’s an insult. Sega’s entire back catalogue of Megadrive games only comes to around 800 Megabytes - they could fit that several times over on a DVD.

The ultimate consequence of these different but complementary attitudes to games that fix attentions on the future and package up decontextualised ROMs by the thousand or even collections of 40 titles on a single disc (selling for less than half the price of one of the original cartridges) is a disregard – perhaps even a disrespect – for ‘old’ games. Indeed, it is this tendency, this dominant discourse of inevitable, natural and unimpeachable obsolescence and supersession, that provided one of the prime motivators for establishing the NVA. As Lowood et al. note in the title of the IGDA Game Preservation SIG’s White Paper, we need to act to preserve and conserve videogames ‘before it’s too late’.

References

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———. ‘Losing Digital Game History: Bit by Bit.’ In Before It's Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper. IGDA, 2009. 13 June 2009 ‹http://www.igda.org/wiki/images/8/83/IGDA_Game_Preservation_SIG_-_Before_It%27s_Too_Late_-_A_Digital_Game_Preservation_White_Paper.pdf›.

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———. ‘On Emulation.’ The National Videogame Archive Research Diary, 2009. 13 June 2009 ‹http://www.nationalvideogamearchive.org/index.php/2009/04/on-emulation/›.

———. ‘Our Cultural Heritage – Available by the Bucketload.’ The National Videogame Archive Research Diary, 2009. 10 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.nationalvideogamearchive.org/index.php/2009/04/our-cultural-heritage-available-by-the-bucketload/›.

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