Caylin Smith

Caylin Smith

Last updated on 20 March 2020

Caylin Smith is the Digital Preservation Manager at Cambridge University Library. 

If you were to think about the scale of complexity for preserving digital content, videogames would probably be at the higher end. This is exactly the challenge given to a group of UK-based collecting organisations: figuring out how to preserve and provide access to UK videogame history for current and future generations of researchers.  

In January 2019, representatives from the British Film Institute, the V&A, the Science Museum Group, the British Library and the UK Legal Deposit Libraries, the Museum of London, and the National Videogame Museum met to discuss the first steps. 

All of the collecting organisations around the table either had videogames explicitly within their collecting policies, or could make the case to collect videogames or works that were game-like in nature (an interactive eBook publication, for example). 

Having the remit to collect is the first step; scoping out what that actually means is another. The medium of videogames stretches back decades, and over this time, a multitude of technology has been used to create, store, and access these works. Collecting, preserving, and providing access to videogames is also about collecting, preserving, and providing access to the history of technology.

Source: Videogame Heritage Society 

The discussion about collecting policies led to the following observation: even if more than one collecting organisation were interested in collecting the same game, this does not mean they would take the same approach—or be interested in collecting the same components.  

For example, one organisation could be interested in the physical console used for playback; another could be interested in collecting the digital bits and exploring emulation to make that content accessible; another might wish to collect discussions by online fan communities. 

This makes sense: collecting organisations have different remits, motivators for collection development, in-house preservation and technical capabilities, amongst other factors. If the organisations in the room were going to try to preserve the UK’s contributions to videogame history, they would need to take a more collaborative, strategic approach to maximise their combined skills and resources.

Challenges of Collecting Videogames 

When acquiring any digital work, the collecting organisation should endeavour to learn as much as possible about it to inform preservation and access decisions.

Depending on the videogame and how it was created, gaining enough knowledge to confidently inform preservation and access decisions might not always be possible straight away. Determining a preservation approach now, as well as identifying and responding to risks over time, becomes more challenging with the complexity of a work. It might also be the case that an organisation cannot devote the time and resources when it also needs to preserve and provide access to other, less complex digital works—and those better suited to scalable workflows. 

A good place to start is to ask how to define a videogame: what components would an organisation need to acquire to consider the game collected? 

Any object can be broken down into individual components. In regards to videogames, there’s the content, as well as any hardware and software needed to facilitate playback. Other components include software updates or patches with bug fixes or supplemental content, physical or digital materials to market the game to potential players, as well as community-produced ephemera, to just name a few. 

Community-produced ephemera touches upon the materiality of videogames and the importance of preserving and providing access to other types of primary sources. Such materials will provide researchers with a richer understanding of how a game was played and how the gaming communities interacted with each other. 

A Matrix for Videogame Collecting  

To think through how to collect components of a videogame, a smaller subset of the group came up with the idea of a collecting matrix. The matrix is videogame agnostic and could be applied to any type of game from any period that has any number of components. It could also be applied to games that exist in multiple versions; for example, ones produced for home videogame consoles as well as arcade machines. 

Still a work in progress, the matrix includes the following components, but we’re aware this list could grow as we continue our work: 

  • Hardware

  • Controllers

  • Source code

  • Release code

  • Patch notes 

  • Downloadable content 

  • Packaging

  • Gameplay accessories

  • Enhancement devices 

  • Marketing materials

  • Collectables and ephemera 

  • Design documentation 

  • Fan produced materials 

  • Walkthroughs and guides

  • Gameplay video 

The thought is that a collecting organisation could gain a more informed understanding of what components it would need to collect by completing the matrix and checking this result against its collecting policy. 

Going back to the earlier point about collecting organisations being interested in different components, the matrix could also be used in discussions about a distributed approach where components are held by different collections. If a component doesn’t naturally belong in one organisation’s collection, it could be collected by another. This approach would allow for more components of a game to be preserved and made accessible, and provide a richer, more complete picture of its history.

This idea of a distributed approach to collecting prompts really interesting ideas of how these components could be linked and searched across multiple organisations, which is why a longer term goal is to create a data model for videogames. 

What’s next?  

On February 25th 2020, Before It’s Too Late, an event held at the BFI, brought together those involved in the videogame preservation group to present their research to other collecting organisations and game enthusiasts. A presentation on the videogame matrix was given by myself, Stephen McConnachie, and Stuart Burnside. Our slides are here if you want to know about how the matrix could be applied to Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

This day was made all the more exciting by a keynote from Masayuki Uemura, formerly manager of Nintendo Research & Development 2, who oversaw the development of the Nintendo Entertainment System and other Nintendo classics, and later became an academic of videogames at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

Source: Caylin Smith

This event also marked the launch of the Videogame Heritage Society, a Subject Specialist Network led by the National Videogame Museum. The SSN will continue and expand upon the work started by the earlier group of UK collecting organisations. 

Iain Simons from the National Videogame Museum and James Newman from Bath Spa University also launched their whitepaper “TIME EXTEND! The future of curating, preserving and exhibiting videogames”, which can be seen as a call to arms to preserve the nation’s videogame heritage and the consequences of not taking action: 

  • “future generations will permanently lose access to their cultural heritage
  • the next generation of developers will be robbed of their ability to access and learn from historical reference material
  • the distinctive histories of regional game development and the cultures of play will remain untold.” (Source: Videogame Heritage Society)

Get involved! 

The VHS is actively seeking new members, so get in touch through their website if you would like to get involved. Even if you don’t have any videogames in your collection, it might still be worthwhile following this group’s research. The creation of digital works is only going to get more complex. As-a-service models and streaming platforms have already thrown ownership of digital content into question, prompting preservationists to ask: how do you acquire a digital work that exists as a file—or files—but not one that can be collected? 

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