Video games represent one of the most difficult challenges for digital preservationists. Created for a diverse array of hardware and software platforms, rife with rights issues, and as expressive creative works objects which one hopes to attend to the highest levels of artifactual qualities. Despite being one of the most challenging forms of content, there is little doubt that games have become one of the biggest parts of American and global culture. I was excited to have the opportunity to chat with David Gibson a Moving Image technician here at The Library of Congress who is working on the acquisition and preservation of games. David recently participated in a panel called Playing Pong in 2100: How to Preserve Old Video Games at The Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Trevor: First up, can you tell us a bit about the extent of the collection. Roughly, how many games are in the collection? What range of dates are they from?
David: The collection as it now stands consists of about 3,000 games for a wide variety of platforms and 1,500 strategy guides, in addition to descriptive documentation that comes through Copyright with the games and about 50 examples of gameplay footage on VHS or DVD. The collection can be broken down into two major chunks: newer games that we have been receiving through the copyright process since 2006 and a large number of “older” games, roughly ranging from the early 1990s to 2005, that were held in the stacks of the Jefferson Building to serve the Main Reading Room, though this collection was accessed infrequently. With the help of my colleague, Brian Taves, who works as a cataloger in the Moving Image Section, we were able to bring these games into our custody upon the decision that the Moving Image Section would take on the responsibility of storing, cataloging, and ultimately providing preservation and access services for video games at the Library of Congress.
At the same time we were also able to slightly modify Copyright deposit requirements for video games so that we would actually receive a copy of the game itself. Prior to this the only requirements for Copyright were printed copies of the first and last 25 pages of source code for the game and a video example of 10 – 15 minutes of gameplay. We still receive these from time to time but for the most part the game companies now furnish us with a copy of the game, many times one copy for each platform for which the game is available. We now receive games for a variety of platforms including PlayStation 3, XBOX, Wii, DS, PSP and PC. The games that we brought over from the Main Reading Room were primarily CD ROM format for PC or Mac.
Trevor: What kinds of items do you have, is it just the games themselves or various systems and platforms as well?
David: We do not currently have much hardware in our collection, though we do have plans to purchase some modern gaming systems this year that we will hopefully be able to use for research and access purposes in the very near future. And of course donations of any older game systems are encouraged and would be much appreciated!
Trevor: Are there any games in the collection that you think are particularly important or unique? I’m sure we all have our favorite games we could list off, but I’m more curious to know what of the Library’s collection you think is particularly rare?
David: There are a few titles in our collection that I think may be of particular interest to researchers. We have a collection of games made for the Philips CD-i system, many of which are European imports, and are unique for that reason alone. We also receive quite a few games through Copyright from Japan, complete with Japanese packaging. Some of these games are only available as downloads here in the U.S. or in slightly modified form so it’s nice to have a copy of the “original” unaltered game in these cases.
The collection of games that we retrieved from the Main Reading Room can be split into two basic categories: educational games that support the Library’s educational initiatives and controversial games that were most likely collected to support legislation related to sex and violence in video games and the effects of these games on the nation’s youth. I actually think there are quite a few treasures to be found among the educational games, primarily because few institutions are doing much to preserve these, focusing instead on the “games as entertainment” model. One of the games I am particularly interested in from the educational collection is a game called Chop Suey which was designed by artist Theresa Duncan and features voice over narration from David Sedaris, long before he became a best selling author and NPR staple. The game was marketed to girls as an alternative to the violent titles that have always proliferated in the gaming market but it does not talk down to anyone and in some ways plays like a mid-90s independent film. It’s just one of the unique and interesting titles that you don’t hear much about but that could potentially be a fascinating topic of study for some future researcher.
Trevor: How can anyone find out what games the Library of Congress has? Are they mostly cataloged and listed in the Library’s general search system? Are there any tricks to how they are cataloged and are they all out in the The Packard Campus A/V Conservation facility?
David: All of the strategy guides are currently listed in the Library’s Voyager cataloging system, which can be searched by anyone over the web through the Library OPAC. Back when the games were housed in the Main Reading Room, records for those were all also made in Voyager, but those are gradually becoming outdated and phased out. We’re currently creating records for all the video games in the Moving Image Section’s MAVIS database which users will be able to access in the Moving Image reading room in the Madison Building on Capitol Hill. Additionally, we plan to create collection level records in Voyager that will give researchers a broader overview of the types of game related materials held, for instance by a specific company or series. During this transitional phase, we welcome your questions, and don’t hesitate to address holdings queries to myself (firstname.lastname@example.org) or my colleague in the Moving Image Section, Brian Taves (email@example.com).
Another ongoing project to which we hope to contribute is the formation of specific genre terms to be used in the cataloging of video games. We have found that the current established headings are rather limited and do not take into account the full breadth of video game genres, and hope that we can help establish more specific and recognized game genres that will ultimately aid scholars and researchers who are looking for a specific type of game or games. Perhaps, too, with a collection that encompasses all types of games, our terminology will reflect types of games not widely recognized. It’’s all still very much a work in progress but we’re excited about what the future holds.
Trevor: How are the games and systems being taken care of? How are they stored? Are you currently doing much to preserve them?
David: One of our primary goals from the beginning of the project was to find a way to properly house the materials while also keeping the game and any related paper based descriptive or advertising materials together. The packaging of the games that we retrieved from the Jefferson Building stacks were not in the best of shape; many of the boxes were falling apart and we were in danger of losing the contents. We ultimately decided that it would be best to collapse and folder the original boxes along with the game discs and any other paper material that was packaged with the game. These folders are then placed in archival document boxes and stored on compact shelving here at the Packard Campus facility.
These packaging issues are less of a concern with the newer games, which are by and large housed as a unit in more secure DVD or CD style jewel cases, though we do still receive copyright description or associated documents showing screen grabs or designs made for the game. We also sometimes receive the aforementioned DVDs featuring video excerpts of game play and we will strive to keep these materials along with the game in proper archival housing so that we can deliver the complete package to any researchers that we may service in the future.
Since we do not yet have any game systems on site, we have not had to deal with any questions related to upkeep or maintenance of equipment, though we do have several skilled technicians here at the Packard Campus whose responsibilities include upkeep and maintenance of the many archaic video playback devices that are used throughout the building. I foresee a time when the electrical know how of these technicians will be of great benefit as we work to ensure that these older game machines remain operational.
Trevor: Are the games accessible to researchers? If they are accessible, I would be curious to hear to what extent researchers are making use of the collection and what kinds of use they are engaged in?
David: We’re phasing in access as the material is housed and inventoried. Many strategy guides are already accessible, with more to come. Shortly we will be able to facilitate examination of packaging, advertising, and other documentation, followed by the videos of game play, then the games themselves, once we have the equipment. A major concern is not only access to the games, but ensuring that we are preserving the materials for the decades to come, and longer, and not endangering that goal through frequent handling of the materials. We also need to develop the logistics of how we can best provide access to these items, with our reading room in the Library on Capitol Hill, and the storage and preservation facilities in Culpeper.
I think it will benefit the Library tremendously to open up this world of born digital content to the academic and research community in order to see what they discover in the collection and how they utilize it.
Trevor: As work on various projects like Preserving Virtual Worlds devoted to preserving video games can speak to, it is really hard to preserve games. I would be curious to hear what kinds of work you are currently doing to preserve games in the collection and what kinds of work you would like to do to preserve the collection.
David: Beyond the archival housing and storage of the collection, we have not engaged in much active preservation but we have been discussing several options that we may explore. I am particularly interested in exploring disc imaging as a way of preserving some of our older CD ROM based games. I would very much like to reach the point where we are able to provide access to some digital surrogate of the game while keeping the original disc in storage in the same way that we provide access to digital surrogates of our film and video collection fiberoptically to terminals in the Moving Image reading room. Of course, we will also have to ensure that we have a structure migration policy in place to ensure that the files remain accessible into the future.
We are also still interested in establishing copyright requirements for games that will allow us to ensure the preservation of these important works, primarily through access to source codes for the games. I believe this will be a challenge, as most game companies view the source codes as trade secrets not to be distributed, but I believe that if we can store the source code for these games under lock and key here at the Packard Campus we stand a better chance at performing some sort of preservation work down the road. This will also be in the long-term corporate interest, to guarantee preservation of these creative works even as companies change hands, merge, and are sold.
The gaming community has been so key to the preservation work that has been done thus far, through emulation and raising awareness of the fragility of digital media, that it seems strange to think about how to situate game preservation within an institutional context, especially within an institution like the Library of Congress. I only hope that we can forge relationships with those members of the developer and collector community that are interested in preserving the nation’s gaming culture in order to find ways to work together for the common good.
Trevor: If someone is interested in learning more about video game preservation, or in participating in ongoing discussions about the topic, are there any organizations and projects that you would suggest that they follow? It would be ideal if you could spell out what you think is particularly useful or valuable about the different organizations or projects.
David: There are quite a few organizations and projects that I feel are doing a great job in getting the word out about video game preservation. I am involved in the Game Preservation SIG of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) and am an active follower of their listserv where many of the key players in game preservation go to share news and relate stories of game preservation projects. This group also organized a panel discussion at last year’s PAX East convention in Boston where many of us shared our views on game preservation with a large group of interested gamers and collectors.
You mentioned Preserving Virtual Worlds earlier and I believe that this project has been incredibly important and valuable in describing the challenges facing those who are interested in preserving video games and online virtual worlds, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. In establishing a set of best practices for video game preservation, the PVW project has allowed those of us working towards these ends to prioritize the steps that we will take to ensure that the highest possible standards for preservation will be met.
I am also very enthusiastic about the work being done with the BitCurator project and the contribution that digital forensics has made to the preservation of born digital objects, including video games, which are increasingly finding their way into archives and libraries. BitCurator is especially useful to those working in the archival profession in that it incorporates into the digital forensics workflow tools for collection management and public access to data. I am enthusiastic to see how this project develops, and I hope that as we continue to acquire born digital materials here in the Moving Image Section we can incorporate tools like BitCurator to assist with the preservation of and access to these tremendously valuable cultural and historical objects.
Trevor: Are there any ways for readers to get involved? Does the collection take gifts of games and hardware? If so, are there any particular areas that you would particularly appreciate gifts?
The Moving Image Section is actively seeking donations of video games, game related periodicals, and equipment to the collection. We are particularly interested in consoles and games from the 1970s through the 1990s, since these are underrepresented in our current holdings. I truly believe that we have the potential to amass a wonderful collection that reflects the creativity and ingenuity of the nation’s video game heritage here at the Library of Congress but this will only be possible with the cooperation of others who have a passion for this subject. If you would like to donate, please contact David Gibson (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Brian Taves (email@example.com) for more information.