On Videogame Preservation

If you’re reading this blog, I assume you like videogames. You like playing them, you like reading about them, you care about them. If you really do, you’re probably worried about some particular aspect of this medium. Maybe you worry about high prices on games and accessories. Perhaps it’s publishers’ greed that boils your blood. Development crunches, online toxicity, the lack of representation, DRM practices, etc.: there are lots of things for a passionate gamer to be worried about in this industry. All of them are totally legitimate. Unless you worry about ‘SJWs ruining your gamez’: in this case, just stop reading this and piss off.

One of the most worrying issues of videogames medium, though, doesn’t get enough attention. Videogame preservation is a critical issue for videogames as a medium and as an art form. Let’s be frank—we suck at it.

The importance of videogame preservation shouldn’t be debated. There may be some questions regarding its focus and means, but whether or not must we attempt to preserve games—shouldn’t be a question. We must. First of all, because it is morally right. Hard work of passionate people must not disappear in the tight fog of history. Especially in the videogames medium where developers, artists, designers, and writers often get screwed over by bigwigs and suffer through gruesome crunches. It is wrong to allow the fruits of their tough labor to lose their most important aspect—playability.

Discworld (scummvm.org)

Videogames’ history per se is not endangered, quite the opposite—memories, stories, articles, and even academic studies are aplenty. Games themselves, however, slowly become unplayable. We lose an option to experience and re-contextualize them, and along with it forfeit the critical part of understanding the medium we so much cherish. Preserving the playability of videogames is the only way to avoid their sanctification. While the fruits of developers’ labor must be preserved, it is crucial to re-evaluate them retrospectively, criticize, and analyze. When everything that is left for history is memories, it’s easy to succumb to bittersweet nostalgia, idealizing, and encapsulating games in time. Thus basically killing them.

Videogames, as well as other pop-culture products and works of art, showcase their time’s cultural tendencies. Preserving those cultural snapshots and availability to analyze them thoroughly gives us priceless tools to witness the evolution of the studied medium, learn from mistakes, and empower its strengths. In a broader sense, videogames preservation helps the medium retain its sense of place, showing a clear trail of how it became such as it is today.

Preserving the videogames’ playability is vital to keeping the whole medium alive and growing, minimizing the risks of it’s degradation to thoughtless limbo of self-repetition.

We, people who care and love videogames, are bad at preserving them. Astonishingly, painfully bad at it. We lose games every day in various ways with a common primary cause—the issue of control. Players, journalists, scholars, and even developers often lack control over the videogames medium. As with many other aspects of our lives, videogames are controlled by a bunch of capitalists, whose only interest is making money. As time passes, they accumulate more control over the industry, making the public more powerless.

Warhammer: Dark Omen (mobygames.com)

The crucial shift happened when we chose convenience over ownership. Steam gave us access to thousands of games that we can buy but cannot actually own. Even after paying the full price over the product, we are helpless to keep the games we bought in the same state we purchased.

Games changing after the release is the new norm: Paradox’s grand-strategies evolve and re-balance constantly, No Man’s Sky now is not the same game we’ve played when it got released. Don’t let me be misunderstood: fixes, patches, and overhauls are fine. Developers deserve the chance to improve their product, as well as players deserve better experiences for their paid money. But the medium also deserves preservation of its flaws as well as its triumphs—initial state of No Man’s Sky upon launch have taught this industry and players an important lesson about hype culture. Still, this lesson shall be forgotten without an option to play and experience the flawed game.

Moreover, publishers can change everything they want anytime they wish, or obliged by copyright laws. Alan Wake was removed from sale because of expired music licenses, and, luckily, the issue was resolved for now. But lots of games caught in copyright limbo are unavailable to digital purchases. Players try to fix this injustice in one way or another, but the sad truth is that most of those games will be lost.

Black & White (mobygames.com)

Yes, you can still find a physical copy of Black & White on eBay, but new CDs aren’t being made. Sooner or later, the last remaining copies would cost a small fortune and finally end up in some private collection as something to brag about online.

Earlier, I’ve stated that nostalgia is an enemy of preservation. Nostalgia focuses on selective memories and mummifies their context. Nostalgia embalms videogames in the past, preventing them from becoming relevant again. Nostalgia sanctifies games and kills discourse. Nostalgia sells. That’s why we have a continuous flow of remasters and remakes of older games.

There is nothing wrong with remastering old games. Making them more appealing to modern gamers, contemporizing graphics and gameplay, making them run on modern systems—how can this be bad? Double Fine did a great job with their remasters of first two Monkey Island games, modernizing them and simultaneously preserving the older versions—you may shift between modern and classic modes with a mere press of a button. But often, remastered versions tend to replace the original. Warcraft III: Reforged is one of the most extreme examples of such cynical erasure of the past.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (mobygames.com)

Console games suffer even more. Nintendo alone is guilty of endangering hundreds of NES and SNES games by conducting remorseless crusades against the emulation of those consoles. While the company wishes to capitalize on their classic games by selling fancier versions of emulators, it completely ignores hundreds of smaller games that risk drowning in oblivion without digital preservation.

Although the scariest thing is that there is no fully legal method of effective videogames preservation. Every attempt to make so can be jeopardized by intricacies of copyright laws. Internet Archive found itself under fire recently, and who knows how that situation would escalate in the future. In such a dire and seemingly hopeless situation, what an individual can do more than helplessly watching how the videogames medium sacrifices its heritage on the altar of profit?

Spreading awareness is the bare minimum. Each and everyone indifferent to the fate of videogames as a medium and an art form should at least be aware of the problem’s existence. Speak, write, ask, shout.

If you wish to go further, help current initiatives. Use Internet Archive, consider donating to ambitious projects like Video Game History Foundation or to the local museums like The Center of Computing History, support Digital Eclipse. Consider preferring non-DRM versions of videogames over the convenience of full-price ‘renting.’

There are more radical means, of course. I really hate advocating for piracy, but sometimes it is a victimless crime. Some games not being sold for ages, and if they are—they profit only resellers and grifters, not original creators. Those games sometimes need some help with seeding. Just saying…

Ecstatica II (mobygames.com)

Someday, when we through this crisis (’when’ and not ‘if,’ let’s stay positive), we’ll get to debate the priorities of videogame preservation. Should we really need to preserve everything? Probably not. Who knows? Here is a fascinating opinion that I mostly agree with. But when the whole system is utterly flawed, I think that we should try to save everything we can.

On the bright side, we always have indie games. Smaller in scale and in the budget than ‘triple-A’ colossi and far less popular, they ironically enough, have more chances for preservation. Because they don’t have feet of clay.

3 responses to “On Videogame Preservation”

    • Hi! Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Yes, The Center of Computing History does a great job. I linked to their site in the article.
      Nostalgia is not a supreme evil, of course, but more often than not it tends to be exploited in a harmful way for the medium.


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