How Do You Preserve A Video Game?

How Do You Preserve A Video Game?

If you often wonder how a video game gets preserved, I will let you know now that it has nothing to do with putting one of the many installation discs for Accountant Dating Sim 19 in a jar of jam.

The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) very recently appointed Chris Arneil as their Assistant Curator in Games, which is the first time they have had someone in a full-time role regarding video game curation in their archive.

This means they will be bringing in a stronger focus on preserving and archiving video games made in Australia, which was something that we saw when the NFSA worked with ACMI and Powerhouse to acquire Untitled Goose Game. This was done to assure that a classic like this would always be accessible as the years go by.

To learn a little more about what goes into the work of preserving games, as well as how the NFSA will go about archiving the history of the Australian video games industry, I decided to sit down and have a chat with Arneil.

What goes into archiving and preserving video games? How does it work?

Well, that is a huge question because there’s a lot that goes into it. You’ve probably seen that a few years ago now we did announce that we were starting to collect Australian games and announced eight Australian games that we were setting out to collect.

Since then, we chose those games not just for cultural significance, but also to make our job as hard for us as possible. We chose games that were released on cassette tape, data cassette, as well as a video game, Espire 1 at the time, that hadn’t been released yet. So we really wanted to go, “Okay, if we’re going to do this, let’s make this as hard for ourselves as possible.”

So we’ve spent the few years since upgrading our internal systems to be able to handle games, not just technically, but all the little things that you don’t think about, like how do you adjust a traditional library catalogue to be able to support things like PlayStation ISOs or particular fiddly bits and pieces like that, but also looking into the legal framework. So what are we allowed to do as a government institution to collect games, as well as the resourcing side?

I was very lucky to be appointed as the NFSA’s first video games archivist last month. It’s a three-way battle, I think, for institutions and games preservation from a legal framework perspective. We’re relatively lucky with our copyright law in Australia but still restricted in some areas when it comes to game preservation.

There are technical aspects. How are you migrating games onto other carriers? There are philosophical aspects, I suppose. How do you archive an unarchivable online game, an eSports match, or a server-based game where it’s been shut down? So are you looking at things like video recordings, trying to represent interactive material in non-interactive ways?

But then there are straight-up resourcing issues. So how much of your time can you afford to spend on the job of game preservation? Because worldwide, institutionally, it’s often a small part of people’s day jobs. They’ve got other things to do. They’re digital ingest managers, or they’re looking after all the digital material in a collection.

So when they get to work on games, it’s sort of a luxury. So we’re just pleased, I think, that we can afford to spend a lot of time on it now as it’s such a huge issue.

So what is an ‘at risk’ game in the archiving world, and how does a game become ‘at risk’?

Yeah, so that’s also a very layered question because I think we’re not just looking at the games as ‘at risk’, we’re also looking at their source materials, but also contextual information.

So information about who made a game, when was it released, and what are the behind-the-scenes stories that went into making a game. Sometimes a game might have been dumped and uploaded online somewhere, but we won’t necessarily know all of the details about the company that made it or who made it or if someone wasn’t credited.

The source code might not survive, so there might be at-risk elements underneath something that you can go on and play online in your browser within seconds. So digital material is all inherently at risk because it’s either going to be…

If you look at contemporary games, EA literally a couple of hours ago announcing that they were shutting down some of the servers for their server-based games, Stadia shutting down. So it’s not like newer games are at any less risk than older games.

But digital material I think is often thought of as being fine because someone’s put it on the internet somewhere, so it’ll be okay. But we know that that’s not always the case.

People’s prototypes and people’s business documentation and work documentation and unreleased, unpublished things sitting around on floppy drives in garages are hugely at risk because they’re sitting around on deteriorating carriers that may not work, may have already stopped working, that need special tools to take digital material off the carriers themselves.

And the material on YouTube can be at risk from copyright strikes and takedowns, and if something’s posted on someone’s personal cloud or a hard drive and their hard drive fails.

So it’s everything’s at risk, but I suppose some things are at more risk than other things. So when we’re designing preservation strategies of what to look after, we have to do that risk analysis and work out, “Okay, well if you can play the interactive games in your browser relatively easily, does that make them less at risk or should we still be pursuing those too?” These are the things that haunt me every day that I’m thinking a lot about at the moment.

What are some of the other challenges that video game preservationists face in attempting to archive games?

So I think there are the legal frameworks, which I mentioned earlier. So we, of course, being a government institution, have to follow the letter of the law in terms of what we’re able to do to preserve a game.

So thankfully we are able to migrate games off of their original carriers to preserve them on an ongoing basis. And we’re lucky that we have the support of the local industry to do that.

I know in the US, their peak bodies are fighting battles to stop game preservation from taking place. So I think the legal frameworks can’t be overlooked.

There’s the technical aspect, as I’ve said. So how are you getting the games off their original carriers? Are there people around to be able to get the material anymore?

Standardization is a huge issue as well – while game preservation has existed in the online sphere, in the enthusiast sphere for a long time, institutionally it’s a lot newer, even though video games are a half-century-old medium now. The standards that are in place for actually being able to preserve them in a systemic way are still quite new and being formed as well.

And some of that just comes down to the complexities of interactive media, and even things that we don’t tend to think about like peripherals. A game isn’t the game, it’s the hardware that it’s connected to, the controller that you’re using at a time, it’s the feeling of the controller and how it feels to play a game when you’re actually there as well. Some of which aren’t completely captured with tools like emulation.

And emulation is another big thing. So to provide access when we, as an archive, want to help somebody watch a film, if we’re providing access to a film, you can provide a video file of that film and it’ll be a good representation of what that is.

But in order to provide access to emulated titles, it becomes a mini project every time if somebody is wanting to access either published or unpublished materials. So yeah, that’s a few things. I can probably go on a lot more.

Why is preserving Australia’s video game development history so important?

Well, video games aren’t just entertainment culture. They’re a huge part of modern culture in general, and a huge part of not just industry in terms of dollars, but they bring communal well-being, they bring us connectedness, and they help us connect with each other.

They’re almost a communication tool for generations of people. They’re design, technology, and art. So when we talk about the preservation of culture and the preservation of the arts and cultural heritage, games are right there at the top for us on any playing field.

Last but not least, how will the NFSA go about preserving games from Australian studios that have long been dissolved, such as De Blob from Blue Tongue Entertainment?

So I think part of it is forming connections, and I’d love to do a call-out. We would love to preserve your games! People, if they’ve ever published games, we want to hear from those people if they’ve got material in their garages and sheds and prototypes and bits and pieces lying around or floppy disks that they have no idea what’s on them.

We would love to help with that. Things having messy rights doesn’t stop us from preserving them. It can complicate providing access to them or distributing them more widely, but it doesn’t stop us, thankfully, from being able to preserve them.

And as I was saying, I think things without messy rights, so games being published today, we’re working directly on strategies that will stop things from being lost in the first place.

So we’ve got a new program in place with Screen Australia for the upcoming games that they’re funding as part of the expansion pack, their expansion pack funding program. Those games will be deposited with us automatically.

So we will work with each of the developers who’ve had their games funded under the scheme to collect and preserve not just their games, but the publicity materials, video walkthroughs, soundtracks, and any physically published materials around those games as well.

So we stop the problem at the source when things are being produced too, so we don’t have to worry in the future about going back and trying to fill those gaps.

We’re also mentioned in the Digital Games Tax Offset legislation. For games taking advantage of any of the government’s tax offsets, games made costing over $500,000, will also have to come to us automatically.

So we’ll be able to select games that are relevant to Australian culture that are funded under that scheme to also come to us. So I’m hoping in the next couple of years, sort of like the National Library gets books deposited when they’re published automatically, that that type of scheme will work for us and games published in Australia.

Then we can focus our time on chasing down YouTube video essays or small games published online that aren’t funded, small, weird, unfunded art games and things, that we can spend more time on that than we do [collecting] published games too.

So it’s sort of like a multi-pronged approach. But yeah, I’m really keen to hear from people who have material that they want to see outlive them.

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