When we usually talk about libraries and video games, it's generally a very formulaic story in which Small Town Library A is battling Parent Group B or Religious Group C to offer [fill in M rated game of choice]for the public to play. The conclusion is often that video games are probably suitable for libraries but there's controversy...yada yada yada.
But today we have a different story for you with a very different ending. The fact of the matter is, according to The Library of Congress, video games are just as important to our historical past as literature, movies and music. And at the moment, the LoC is teaming up with major universities across the country to begin a 2-year initiative with the sole intent of figuring out just how institutions can preserve video games for years to come, while making the content accessible for use and study.
So our story today doesn't present some artificial controversy ending in a sad, bleak future of debate and wasted efforts. Our story today is about the very real victory for game developers, enthusiasts and scholars, in which the top library in the nation has said they're part of this video game fad for the count. Press Start Loading...
"We're taking baby steps here," confessed Beth Dulabahn. She's the Director for Integration Management at the LoC. "No sense on making it harder on yourself that you have to."
In truth, the Library of Congress has been collecting games since the 1980s. Due to their advantageous position—the Copyright Office is part of their organisation— they've come across various collections just by receiving copies of published materials as mandated by copyright law.
"Many people would probably be surprised at the kinds of things we have here," Dulabahn explained. "For example, we have probably the US's largest comic book collection, over 100,000 comic book issues that have come in through copyright."
While their collection is currently small, only encompassing around 2,000 titles that are 100% the result of copyright deposits (as opposed to formal acquisitions or donations), they aren't yet ready to collect more. What? But we just said that the Library was crazy about video games! This brings us to the initiative and what's going on now.
The Initiative At the moment, there are a few forces affiliated with the Library to answer a fundamental question before they can begin serious acquisition: How does one build a video game archive in the digital age?
Within the Library itself, you have the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. One can decipher their responsibility from their apt title. Now relocated to a new facility in Culpeper, VA, the division has pulled those 2,000 games out of temporary warehouse storage, and specialists are using their new lab space to examine hardware preservation while doing R&D for future solutions of game archiving. "One of the facets we want to document with videogames [as we did with film]is not only having the actual games themselves, but many of the associated material to have the real sense of the full gamut of what videogames and the industry meant in cultural terms," said Senior Cataloger Brian Taves. Yes, he means the sweatshirts, the posters and the shoes. They want all the cultural materials they can find.
These specialists aren't just film and audio buffs who were roped into video game preservation for grant and funding purposes. On the contrary, the two members of the division I spoke with were extremely enthusiastic about the prospects of a video game archive, likening the challenges to those already faced in film and broadcast, and the cultural importance to that of any other artistic medium they archive.
"It is one way, a bit like the fabled discovery of the library's paper print collection back in the 1940s. When they found, in a closet, films that had been deposited for copyright of otherwise lost films in the very early days of filmmaking that proved to be a real treasure," said Taves. "And for us, that's what this has turned out to be and we're really excited to see this collection growing.... The Library's been collecting films for almost 70 years now on an active basis, so we see videogames now as part of that whole body of acquisitions."
So that's one aspect of Library game preservation, but at the moment, it's the smaller part of what the Library is working on. The larger initiative is called the "Preserving Virtual Worlds" project.
The National Digital Information Infrastruction Preservation Program is a huge initiative interested in digital preservation. This encompasses basically everything imaginable on Earth. Under that, there is the Preserving Creative America initiative. Here is where you see the Library's interest in preserving all sorts of creative works, like film or books, into digital formats. Then, one of the eight grants under this Creative America umbrella is the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project.
Preserving Virtual Worlds
Spearheaded by the University of Illinois, the Preserving Virtual Worlds project is a 2-year program starting in 2008 that will hopefully build a model of game and interactive fiction archiving. In a partnership with Stanford University, University of Maryland, Rochester Institute of Technology, and one commercial institution—Second Life makers Linden Lab— University of Illinois hopes to create metadata standards to make content manageable before moving forward to create case studies (ie test examples) of actual video game archiving.
I sat with the University of Illinois faculty/Project Coordinator Janet Eke and Principal Investigator Jerry McDonough recently and talked more about Preserving Virtual Worlds over lattes.
"This project is really about how do we begin to preserve this type of content, answering some fundamental questions of how will we even begin to do this," explained Eke. "And what we will begin to preserve is a huge question that will certainly come along...but we're really starting with how."
It may all seem like a load of bureaucracy - all these committees, initiatives, grants, 2-year chunks of time, etc. And then on top of it all, those running the study claim that they are nowhere near being ready to archive video games. But there really are a multitude of problems that need to be sorted out before archives can move forward on a mass scale.
Take copyright, for example. While the Library worries less about copyright due to their relationship with the Copyright Office, organizations like the University of Illinois aren't granted immunity with products that show up at their door, despite partnerships with the Library.
"... if I own a physical copy of a piece of IP, I can dispose of it as I wish," McDonough explains. Aptly, he'd been (legally) streaming the BBC in HD just moments before on his Mac. "I can sell it, I can give it to somebody, but I can't copy it. Copyright is just that, you're not allowed to make a copy without the permission of an IP owner unless it's gone out of copyright."
And to archive, McDonough thinks that copying is an absolute necessity. Because while consoles should and will be preserved (somewhere in the chain of archiving), they probably won't provide the most practical way for users to experience and research content.
"Things on five and a half inch quarter...hardware is getting scarce and the medium has almost no longevity. The only way we can make sure the stuff stays alive is getting it on an active computer system with demons monitoring it that make sure were not suffering bit corruption," says McDonough.
It's a frustrating situation to be in, but the irony is not lost on us: Copyright is meant to protect an IP, but ultimately, that copyright may prevent researchers from saving a work from extinction. Microsoft once explained to me the difficulty of tracking down IP owners to reproduce their games as XBLA titles. Protip: If Microsoft can't find the source of an IP, nobody can.
The only way to solve copyright issues moving into the future is to bring commercial partners on board. Whether or not you like Linden Lab and their game (?) Second Life, there's no doubt that it makes for an excellent archival model for the project. On one hand, we get a case study of a library teaming up with a commercial venture. On the other, we get a model for MMO archiving, if such a thing is even possible. Brenda Gunn can explain the significance of libraries partnering with commercial groups better than I, a mere blogger ever could. She's the Associate Director of Research & Collections at the UT Austin's Videogame Archive. She's not directly related to the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, but she's keeping an eye on the study because it's the hot topic right now in video game archiving.
"This is a significant point in that [LoC]is saying libraries and archives can't do this alone; the funding simply is not there...the level of ongoing support for this videogame archive will have a direct impact on the what level of access [we]can provide."
That's why at UT Austin they've teamed up with partners like NCSoft's Richard Garriot, FPS legend Warren Spector, or even "The Fat Man" himself, video game music legend George Sanger. According to Gunn, before such partners approached Austin, a game archive "wasn't on our radar at all."
Research libraries will absolutely need the support of commercial video game publishers to archive their work. Whether it's to help create metadata (companies provide information on everything from the engine they used to their plotline) or just supplying access to those precious IPs, the commercial aid is not an option, it's a necessity.
"If you're going to do any game preservation on a large scale, it has to happen with [commercial]help. If for no other reason, they control the IP. They don't give us the content, we can't preserve it," explains McDonough. "So the question is, do they have strong enough interest in preserving the content to contribute any of their own resources towards it. How much do they care about their own game alive?"
Shimmering Hope We opened this feature with a bang. We told you that the war was won, that the governmental and academic library community was on gamers' side. And then we went into a list of reasons why archiving still wasn't ready to happen and scared you with words like "copyright" and catchy Wall Street slogans like "IP."
But trust us. If nobody cared, they wouldn't have all these headaches. The freaking Library of Congress is onboard. And this is a major, major win.
"Perfection, we don't know what that is," says Project Coordinator Eke. "You're striving to succeed, and that striving will define what it means to succeed..."
Hmm...it sounds like they get MMOs, at the very least.