When thinking of the term ‘preservation’, the first images in your mind are likely something related to the preservation of flora and fauna, or the preservation of cultural artifacts, like texts, art pieces, etc. These are physical cultural artifacts, to be precise. These are very natural things to think about when considering the term ‘preservation’, but I would like to, if only for a moment, turn your attention to the preservation of a different type of phenomena. The preservation of digital cultural artifacts, as opposed to physical ones. This can of course apply to any form of software, but I would like to focus on video games for a bit.
Technology advances very rapidly, meaning that new machines and computers are quickly overtaken and eventually abandoned all. The. Time. As the technology itself advances, the software that is made for the abandoned systems becomes obsolete and abandoned too. Companies drop support for one type of platform, one type of software, one type of digital whatever, and move on to the next one that they deem profitable. As such, software for older systems, as well as the older systems themselves, become harder to maintain, and become less widespread as people throw out their old systems and software in favor of newer stuff. This is not at all illogical of course, but it does mean that it becomes harder and harder to see and experience the older pieces of digital phenomena. This is where digital preservation, and video games, come in.
Take Nintendo for example; They might deem it worth the time and effort to bring back one of their older titles, perhaps in a physical form, or otherwise as a digital download for a newer system. But equally they might not. And for a lot of their older games, they have not. The systems they could be played on are no longer available for first-hand purchase, and neither are a lot of the titles themselves. This then means that the only way of playing these older titles is either through second-hand purchases from collectors, or owners who simply want to get rid of their old stuff. Alternatively, one could also illegally download these older titles through digital piracy, but this presents a number of dangers and is notorious for being a bit of a hassle. The previously mentioned collectors, more so than any of the other methods, showcase how digital preservation is already a concern of certain individuals. The problem is that these individuals are usually alone in their efforts rather than existing as a large group or even an institution that concerns itself with this form of preservation. Their collections are also pretty much always private, meaning not accessible by the general public. I’m not saying that private collections don’t exist when examining more traditional preservation efforts, such as the ones I mentioned at the start of this blog post, but simply that when it comes to software and software-related hardware, the collections are, again, pretty much always private.
But even they cannot usually prevent the decay of the physical way in which these digital phenomena, such as old video games, are stored. Floppy disks rot, systems break down over time, computers containing valuable files such as source-code for games are wiped, etc. Sometimes when a company goes under or is bought up, their games enter a sort of limbo state, where they still exist but cannot be bought or sold, and the company that owns the IP doesn’t seem interested in doing anything with it.
These are all reasons for why digital preservation should be taken more seriously and should be more organized. Video games, like any other form of entertainment, are cultural artifacts which, to a certain degree, reflect the cultural zeitgeist of the time they were created in. They should already be preserved for this reason alone, and the fact that they are interactive experiences that later generations could still enjoy is the special cherry on top. Why not preserve digital artifacts?