Archiving, or the case for videogame history

 

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture today given by the videogame researcher, Melanie Swalwell. Melanie spoke on a variety of issues, but focused on the ideas of archiving videogames and the need to do so. It was absolutely fascinating, and gave rise to a few thoughts.

First, anyone who has given videogame archiving some thought is probably aware of the practical issues. Consoles are made obsolescent every five years or so, and new operating systems make running older PC games difficult as the years go on. This leaves archivers with the choice of trying to preserve deteriorating hardware, or entering into the legally murky world of emulating. Other, more tricky problems often come up – how would you go about archiving Spore, with all its DRM issues? How do you archive Wii Fit? These are questions well worth discussion, but the point that really interested me was a more basic one: why?

After all, why would anyone want to preserve videogames? It seems obvious to us, but to a non-gamer, it might seem like a bit of a mystery as to why all these researchers are spending huge amounts of time and money trying to preserve these early novelties. This question is, of course, linked to the larger and more standard, “Why study games at all?” However, Henry Lowood has an excellent starting point:

 

The broader social and cultural impact of computing will revolutionize 

(if it has not already) all cultural and scholarly production. It follows 

that historians (not just of software and computing) will need to 

consider the implications of this change, and they will not be able to do 

it without access to our software technology and what we did with it …

So, in order to figure out why we currently use technology in the ways we do, we need to be able to look back at the beginning. This will only get more important as time goes on.

Mainstream games seem to get more love and attention when it comes to archiving. Presently, official services like the Virtual Console do a good job of giving access to older games, but what happens when the Wii becomes outdated? Do Virtual Console purchases migrate to Nintendo’s next console, or are we again left with a problem of obsolescence? Additionally, is playing the game on the Wii anywhere close to the original experience? Certainly, it isn’t; but then again, watching The Great Dictator on my 32″ LCD TV probably isn’t what Chaplin had in mind either. Apart from any technical concerns, it’s just as difficult to appreciate what Space Invaders was like at the time as it is to fully appreciate Georges Méliès’ early films. Melanie spoke of a strategy guide for Space Invaders that was published in a New Zealand paper in the 80s that talked about sweaty palms and excitement. Speaking from the perspective of someone born in the late 80s, I find it almost impossible to imagine a moment where just seeing someone controlling a moving image by way of a joystick would make my palms sweaty.

By far the most thought-provoking aspect of the lecture was the discussion of New Zealand’s videogame industry history. This, as Melanie said, is the problem of what to archive. It turns out that New Zealand had, at one point, an amazing videogame production industry, where four or five companies apparently turned out a whole heap of games which were basically only played locally. There are few records of what these games were even called, let alone where to find them. Apparently, they crop up at car boot sales on occasion, or are recalled by aging men whose companies have long gone bankrupt.

This situation can’t be entirely uniform, but it does raise the very interesting question about videogame history. What if the myth that we all cling to, that videogames started in America, were rescued by Japan after the crash, and have since been revolving between these twin suns ever since? It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to really start thinking about how different the experiences of the early years of videogaming must have been across the globe. In New Zealand, for example, it was apparently difficult to import the arcade videogames that were very popular elsewhere, so locals turned to make their own. In Australia, even, there was the pioneering Melbourne House, which as the wonderful tsumea has outlined, pretty much birthed the Australian videogame industry. There’s also this terrific history of Australian game development over at ACMI.

When I wrote on Australian games a few months ago, I spoke to Tom Crago (GDAA President) and David Hewitt (Tantalus Creative Director), and the overwhelming impression I got was that they felt that Australian games were very competent and underackngowledged, but didn’t necessarily have an Australian twang to them. Regardless, however, it’s interesting to think that the history of Australian gaming is not the history of gaming in Japan or the United States. We can’t subsume all the world within this basic view of history.

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