Sunday, November 23, 2008

Video Games as Cultural Artifacts

In their recently published article Collecting and Preserving Video games and Their Related Materials: A Review of Current Practice, Game-Related Archives and Research Projects, Megan A. Winget and Caitlin Murray[1] argue for the importance of collecting and coming to a better understanding of video game "artifacts of creation," which will help build a more detailed understanding of the essential qualities of these culturally significant artifacts.

Surprised? Don't! Digital Age has its own quirks, and preservation of its products [data] may have a lot more impact than you think. Compare it to what had happened in the Middle Ages, when people were using pergament:[2]

Some researchers have been formed, using special tools, methods and approaches, in order to study and teach a very specific and "weird" scientific field: "written history sources of the early middle ages" 600-987). This field is quite different from analogous "more ancient" or "more recent" historical font-digging activities: in that specific time-interval people used (at least in Europe) pergament, not paper and not clay. Pergament is a "funny" media: it is in fact re-writable! Yup! You can scratch it -with a stone- back to white, deleting (almost completely) the previous writings in the process.

Now, since pergament was also expensive, it has been used and used again. As a consequence very few original documents of the early middle ages have survived... imagine all those silly monks, that - later - have happily re-cycled valuable ancient sources in order to write down for the thousandth time one of their boring holy-lives (Acta sanctorum). The original source disappeared and survived only through small snippets of citation, hidden references, copycatted snippets elsewhere. The quellenforscher of the early years of last century had to re-construct them, in an extremely difficult and clever backward approach, reversing the snippets that have survived.

This happened ONLY in the early middle ages. For this reason that period can be considered the "black hole" of our past history... for whole centuries we know nothing but the NAMES of a couple of kings.[...]

A similar black hole is also possible for all digital media, not necessarily games, if we do not take action now. While it is still possible to look at unpreserved five-hundred-year-old paintings and sculptures, and in many cases, we can still look at preliminary studies and drawings for those works – there is a significant risk of losing a new media artifact as soon as ten years after its initial creation. Laura Campbell, Associate Librarian for Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, sums it up nicely in the article,

We are faced with the potential disappearance of our cultural heritage if we don't act soon and act together to preserve digital materials... We have learned from our experience that long-term preservation of digital content is dependent on influencing decisions of content providers from the moment of creation.

Winget and Murray gave a nearly comprehensive list of institutional archives and repositories some of which I would like to recite here:[3]

Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection at Stanford University
Ralph H. Baer Papers at Lemelson Center, Smithsonian Institute
Computer History Museum
Digital Game Archive
International Arcade Museum
Software Preservation Society
Archive.org
Videogame Music Archive
Slightly Dark

So, next time when you see a floppy disk or tape archive lying around, think twice before disposing it and check if it can be of value to the above institutions.

[1] School of Information, University of Texas at Austin; 1 University Station, D7000, Austin, TX 78712-0390.
[2] Sadly, Fravia's site is not updated any more due to his sickness. If you are interested in web searching, or rather seeking as he puts it, you will find a treasure there.
[3] The Authors also report the availability of an archive in Univ. of Texas at Austin.

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