Onward Through the Fog: Computer Game Collection and the Play of Obsolescence





obsolete, obsoletia, obsolescence, computer games, play

How to Cite

Thompson, J., McAllister, K. S., & Ruggill, J. E. (2009). Onward Through the Fog: Computer Game Collection and the Play of Obsolescence. M/C Journal, 12(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.155
Vol. 12 No. 3 (2009): obsolete
Published 2009-07-15

In Mardi and a Voyage Thither, novelist Herman Melville writes of the peculiar and startling confluence of memory, objects, valuation, and disfigurement that mark the collector of obsoletia. The story’s antiquary is the picture of perverse depletion, with a body “crooked, and dwarfed, and surmounted by a hump, that sat on his back like a burden” (328), his hut in shambles, and “the precious antiques, and curios, and obsoletes”—the objects of his collection—“strewn about, all dusty and disordered” (329). This unkempt display cum impromptu museum turns out to present a mere fraction of the curator’s collection, the rest of which is host to countless subtle molds and ravenous worms in a vast catacomb below ground. Traversing this darkened vault, one visitor says, is “like going down to posterity” (332).

As inveterate accumulators ourselves, we can certainly relate to Mardi’s "extraordinary antiquarian": pursuing obsolete things has transformed us too (though hopefully not quite so hideously), as well as the work we do and the spaces we do it in. Since 1999, we have been collecting—and subsequently lending out to scholars the world over—computer games, systems, and game-related paraphernalia. By recent estimates, our Learning Games Initiative Archive contains more than 20,000 artifacts, from Venezuelan Pong clones to Mario-themed lollipops. Archival work at this scale and with this diversity is not easy, and it constantly butts up against a host of intractable questions. For example, what does it mean to isolate a thing that no longer has its original value but has taken on a new one? When researchers hold such transmuted artifacts up for inspection, what are they looking for and how might archivists help them to find it? Is the primary work of computer game archivists (and indeed archivists of all types) to protect artifacts from the elements, to enjoin them upon their kin, and to guard over the collection for the sake of some abstract posterity, or is it something more collaborative and communal? Finally, is it possible for research-oriented collectors to engage the process of collection without suffering the deformations of skin and soul (not to mention pocketbook) that often plague the more solipsistic acquirer?

We offer this article as an entrée to these questions, as a way to begin to attend to some of the theoretical and practical complexities of obsolescence and its negotiation. We do so primarily by focusing on where those complexities intersect with computer games, the new media we collect and study.

Circuitous Obsolescence

Melville finished Mardi in 1849, almost fifty years after Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the programmable loom and twelve years after Charles Babbage theorised the possibility of a programmable mechanical computer. The subsequent history of the development of the modern computer and its applications (including computer games) typically gets told as a narrative of technological novelty followed by ineluctable obsolescence—Herman Hollerith’s tabulator to Konrad Zuse’s Z3 to the US Army’s Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) and so on. This kind of monumentalised and narrativised history exemplifies an onward march much fetishised by the marketplace: once introduced, a given technology will be developed then updated, upgraded, and improved, inevitably producing a staggering wake of tired-and-true archaeological assemblages.

These cast-offs, however, are only useless to those who prefer to consume at the cutting edge, and even that is an illusory experience. Like a well-designed knife whose business end is supported by the stout spine behind it, the edgiest of today’s computer games and peripherals—from the most non-directive sandbox titles to the most obscene add-ons—are merely vanguards to a half-century of industrial history. In etymological terms, “obsolete” captures the conundrum well. A combination of ob (away) and solere (to be used to, accustomed), the word “obsolete” has at least four distinct meanings: “no longer used or practiced”; “worn away, dilapidated, atrophied”; “indistinct, hardly perceptible, vestigial”; and as a noun, “A thing which is out of date or has fallen into disuse.” In each usage, present and past are both integral and palpable. As archivists, we appreciate this temporal distillation because it illustrates how seamless yet discernable is the paradoxical binding between old and new. “Obsolescence” thus functions like a rhetorical ouroboros, ensuring that reflection on the antique reveals the avant-garde and vice-versa.

Consider, for example, the Atari 2600 paddle. Compared to a PlayStation 3 controller, with its variety of buttons, sticks, and pads—and the re-mapability of all these input elements—the single potentiometer and button of the paddle seem downright antiquated. Moreover, because Atari hardware in general has largely faded from mainstream use (though it has a remarkable half-life in collectible markets), the paddle is mostly neglected by contemporary players and pundits alike, in the process revealing another obsolescence: the static state that accompanies disuse—the waiting nonlife of discarded technology.

The paddle's first obsolescence—the supplantation of the state of the art—signifies a moment of loss. An obsolete computer game controller is one that no longer holds or is capable of provoking the novelty necessary to stake a claim on wonder, or at least that part of wonder engendered in the playing of the newest game on the newest console—the farthest distance from technological obsolescence. The paddle's second obsolescence—disuse—signifies potential: when a newer system (e.g., PlayStation 3) supersedes an older one (e.g., Atari 2600), the older one will often sit like a fact in benighted spaces such as attics, thrift stores, garages, and closets—all prime hunting grounds for computer game collectors. The ephemera that for most people drift toward oblivion get picked up by archivists and cleaned off, catalogued, stored, studied, used, and reused. Trash becomes treasure, obsolescence newness and utility.

And yet, obsolescence is not solely in the eye of the beholder, as it were; it is also in the hand, which further complicates the concept. Because obsolescence calls on the familiar in a pejorative sense—the obsolete thing has become too familiar (it now lacks novelty and surprise)—it is easy to overlook the necessity of familiarity (and thus obsolescence) to computer game development and play. After all, play demands familiarity as well as novelty; deeply complex and satisfying tasks—the kind the best play sets out and rewards generously—can only be accomplished with a level of mastery, of skill born of familiarity born of practice. Just as metaphors, in order to be successful, must merge the known with the unknown in an instantaneous insight that reveals fresh understanding, so too must computer games blend the tried and true with a twist to provoke profound and prolonged play. Computer games must always be the same, only different, familiar enough to be recognisable as forms, but new enough to create wonder as ludica. In the elegant prose of game scholar Roger Caillois,

[games] must be like the leaves on the trees which survive from one season to the next and remain identical. Games must be ever similar to animal skins, the design on butterfly wings, and the spiral curves of shell fish which are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation. However, games do not have this hereditary sameness. They are innumerable and changeable. They are clad in thousands of unequally distributed shapes, just as vegetable species are, but infinitely more adaptable, spreading and acclimating themselves with disconcerting ease. (81)

All this is what makes computer games so difficult to collect and study, to preserve and produce. They are always already both obsolete and pioneering.

Memory as the Arbiter of Obsolescence

Despite its plasticity, the concept of obsolescence offers a kind of security to its invoker: in theory, functionality and use follow a clean, linear progression. Accordingly, obsolescence can be seen not only as a thin pretext to justify a rabid consumerist desire for newness, but also as a brief memorial, a marker of passing, one that reaffirms an orderly universe and transfers a degree of security to those who witness its passing. As Aristotle explains, “the criterion of ‘security’ is the ownership of property in such places and under such conditions that the use of it is in our power; and it is ‘our own’ if it is in our power to dispose of it or keep it” (1341). Security is thus the power of alienation, and calling on the concept of obsolescence encourages the exercise of that power. Indeed, as theorist and collector Walter Benjamin argues, “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them” (62). This magic circle is really no different from the one play sociologist Johann Huizinga uses to describe the “temporary worlds” that can be carved out of the workaday one, worlds created and encapsulated by the rules and possibilities of play. There is, in fact, a powerful parallel between play and collecting, with each territorialising and deterritorialising the practice of materiality and its pleasures.

For the collector, the magic circle not only encompasses the library or archive, but potentially the world, harboring as it does the possibility of a "complete collection," however obscured or damaged such a collection might be. This magic circle can also be constructed anywhere, and out of anything because the collector is a playful, nearly absurd, hunter of things whose best work occurs on the road: “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere” (Benjamin 64). For computer game collectors especially, the circumference of the magic circle grows not with the size of a collection but with the imaginative ability to learn how to unsee what she or he has been taught to see as obsolete by industry and popular culture both: industrial, ludic, aesthetic, narratological, and ideological design. It is thus memory—in its alembic ability to make and unmake, to be made and unmade—that is the ultimate arbiter of obsolescence.

From this perspective, all that is obsolete fashions a kind of infinite immemorial compendium of “what has been” that makes “what is” possible. Benjamin calls this a “magic encyclopedia,” an expansive tome for the archivist that contains “The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item” that constitutes its being both in and beyond its present time and place (62).

Vivacious Obsolescence

Memory notwithstanding, the crux of computer game collection—the problematic that makes both body and mind “crooked and dwarfed”—is the timelessness of play itself. What is "old" play, for example? The kind found in Missile Command (Atari, 1980) or other golden age arcade game? Perhaps, but is this play still old when it is brought to a new platform and new audiences (e.g., http://macmost.com/iphonegames/MissileCommand.html)? What of the computer game consoles that facilitate play? Surely they grow obsolete, replaced every several years by newer, more advanced incarnations. And yet in the homebrew, retro, and collectible markets, it is the new things, the new playables that are strangely obsolete and undesirable. They are merely extant, whereas reconfigurations of old machines require imaginative new remediations in order to work and to satisfy. Older technologies and the play they enable are what are very much alive and on the cusp; these things, not their newer cousins, are the source of interest, value, experimentation, discourse, and play, that is, they are the cutting edge. So what, then, does it mean to collect and study obsoletia when the play intrinsic to them thwarts obsolescence at every turn?

For computer game collectors, the answer is that ultimately there can be no difference between fad and fashion, prototype and stereotype. Obsolescence is a dynamic and incomplete designation because computer games do not age in quite the same way as do other things. The power and potential of a game archive is therefore overwhelming as well as invigorating, offering the rare but challenging chance not only to tame something wild (temporarily at least), but also to perform resurrections, bringing the old dead into new life.

Computer game archivists thus trade daily in vivacious obsolescence, reveling in the defiance of moribundity in which their artifacts partake. Still, this liveliness creates other problems. How, for instance, does one organise the contents of an archive that can be categorised in so many ways (e.g., age, developer, play styles, content genres, system, audio-visual aesthetic, and so on)? What is the appropriate taxonomic way of seeing technological and ludic history when the artifacts that embody this history are constantly being made and remade, not only by scholars and historians, but also by subcultures, franchise agents, and myriad avenues of pop culture reappropriation? What does it mean for knowledge work when newness and obsolescence persist in equal measure in the same artifact? The answers to such questions are, of course, only ever temporary and never more than rickety. In the words of Benjamin, “[T]his or any other procedure is merely a dam against the springtide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions” (61). The art of collection itself is one of defiance in the face of insurmountable complexity and multiplying articulations, which in the end is perhaps the real pleasure of collecting. The trial before computer game collectors is to have a sturdy boat at the ready, one capable of enduring that surging springtide to which Benjamin refers, when the well-disciplined dam of categorical judgments and explanatory structures—itself always already obsolete—inevitably breaks apart.


Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. 1325-1451.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. London: Pimlico: 1999.

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2001.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Melville, Herbert. Mardi and a Voyage Thither. Ed. Nathalia Wright. Putney: Hendricks House, 1990.

Author Biographies

Jason Thompson, University of Wyoming

Assistant Professor, English

Ken S. McAllister, University of Arizona

Associate Professor, English

Judd Ethan Ruggill, Arizona State University

Assistant Professor, Communication Studies