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Saving Mementos from Virtual Worlds

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The United States Capitol on by rodgermourtagh2
The United States Capitol Replica on by rodgermourtagh2

My two young teenage daughters spend hours playing Minecraft, building elaborate virtual landscapes and structures. They are far from alone; the game has millions of fans around the world. Teachers are seizing on Minecraft’s popularity with kids as a tool to teach both abstract and concrete subjects. What’s unique about this situation is not so much the product as that a virtual world is functioning as both a fun, engaging activity and a viable teaching tool. We’re witnessing the birth of a new genre of tools and a new set of challenges for preserving the digital creations people build with those tools.

Like most parents, I save many of the things that my daughters create. From where I’m sitting in my home as I write this blog post, I can see their works dotting the room. On one wall is a framed pencil sketch one daughter drew of our family; on a shelf is a perfect clay replica she made of Moomintroll. Hanging above a window are drawings my other daughter did — a Sharpie drawing of tree houses and a pen doodle of kaleidoscopic patterns that disappear into a tunnel-like vanishing point. Huge snowflakes (no two alike) that they cut from paper dangle here and there around the room.

download.1pngI never gave much thought to their virtual gaming activities, aside from monitoring how much time they spend on their electronic devices. But I like that Minecraft lets my kids invent universes and play inside them together and I can tell that it feeds an important part of their intellectual growth as they make things, investigate things and solve problems. So I decided that I’d like to save what I can of the worlds they create, just as I save the rest of their crafts and artwork, which raised questions about what I can save, how I can save it and why I would even want to save it.

Over the last decade, the Library of Congress and its NDIIPP and NDSA partners have led the research into preserving virtual worlds, from military simulations to consumer games. Many of the questions – technological and philosophical – have long been asked and answered or at the least the challenges have been identified and defined. That’s fine for institutions that recognize the cultural value of virtual worlds and have the resources to archive them but what does it mean for a parent who just wants to save his or her kid’s virtual world creations?

laz_MinecraftInteriorA colleague at the Library of Congress, Trevor Owens, is part of the ongoing research on preserving digital worlds and preserving software. In fact, Owens is one of the organizers of the preserving software conference. He said that the solution to the question of saving something from virtual worlds depends on whether you want to save:

  • the virtual world that you or someone else built
  • testimony about what the virtual world meant to you or them at a particular time
  • or documentation of the virtual world.

Preserving the virtual world itself is the most difficult and challenging option. The complexities of preserving virtual worlds are too much to go into in this blog post. And when it comes to talking about networked virtual worlds inhabited by live human participants, the subject often gets downright esoteric, like defining where “here” actually is and what “here” means in a shared virtual world and how telepresence applies to the virtual world experience. But to illustrate the basic technological dilemma of preserving a virtual world, here’s a simple example .

balmycastleLet’s say I build an island, castle and estate in a virtual world and name it Balmy Island. If I want to save Balmy Island and be able to walk around it anytime I want to, I need all the digital files of which Balmy Island is constructed. I might need the exact version of the application or software that I used to build Balmy Island, as well as the exact operating system — and version of the OS — of the hardware device on which I built Balmy Island. And I might need the hardware device itself on which I created Balmy Island. So if I build Balmy Island on my computer, I have to preserve the computer, the software and the files just as they are. Never upgrade or modify anything. Just stick the whole computer in the closet, buy a new computer and pull out the old one whenever I wanted to revisit Balmy Island.

Another less-certain and less-authentic option is that I could save the Balmy Island files and hope that someday someone will build an emulator that will restore some approximate version of my original Balmy Island. It will not be exactly the same, but it might be close enough.

Saving the hardware and software for just this one purpose is unrealistic for the average person but for cultural institutions it makes perfect sense. Stanford University is the home of the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing and it is also building a Forensics Lab with a library of software and electronic devices for extracting software from original media, so that it can be run later in native or emulated environments. Similar labs at other institutions include the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong National Museum of Play and the UT Videogame Archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. The Briscoe Center was featured in the Signal post about video game music composer George Sanger. (Dene Grigar, who was the subject of another Signal blog post, created a similar lab devoted to her vintage electronic literature collection at Washington State University, Vancouver)

Henry Lowood. Photo from Stanford University.
Henry Lowood. Photo from Stanford University.

Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries, was a lead in the Preserving Virtual Worlds project. Lowood has a historical interest in games, virtual worlds and their role in society, and he makes a case for the option of recording testimony about what a virtual world means to its users and builders.

Lowood helped create the Machinima and Virtual Worlds collections, which are hosted by our NDIIP/NDSA partner, the Internet Archive. These collections host video recordings of activities and events in virtual worlds and immersive games. As the users perform actions and navigate through the worlds, they sometimes give a running commentary about what is happening and their thoughts and observations about its meaning to them.

A parent or teacher could use this same approach by shooting a video of a child giving you a tour of their virtual world. It’s an opportunity to capture the context around their creation of the worlds and for them to tell you how they felt about it and what choices they made. If they interact with others in a shared virtual world, the child can describe his or her interactions and maybe even relate anecdotes about certain events and experiences.

fridge_200The third option, saving a documentation of the virtual world, is by far the easiest. Take screenshots and motion capture videos and save those with your other digital mementos.

Screenshots are easy to take on computers and most hand-held devices. PCs have a “print screen” button on the keyboard; for Macs, hold down the Apple key ⌘ plus shift plus 3. For iPods, press and hold the main button below the screen and the power button on the top edge of the device at the same time. And so on. Search online for how to take screen shots or screen captures for your device.

The screenshot will save as a graphic file, usually a JPEG or PNG file. Transfer that JPEG to your computer, crop it and modify it with a photo processing program if you want. Maybe print the screen shots and put them on the refrigerator for you to admire. When you’re finished with the digital photo file, back it up with your other personal digital archives.

Recording a walk through of a virtual world can be a slightly more complex task than taking a screenshot but not terribly so. Search online for “screencast software,” “motion capture” or “screen recording” to find commercial and freeware screencast software. Even version 10 of the QuickTime player includes a screen recording function. They all pretty much operate the same way: click a “Record” button, do your action on the computer and click “Stop” when you are finished. Everything that was displayed on the screen will be captured into a video file.

With the different screen capture software programs, be aware of the video file type that the software generates. QuickTime saves the video as an MOV file, Jing saves the video as an SWF file and so on. Different file types require different digital video players, so if you have any difficulty playing the file back on your computer search online to find the software that will play your video file type. If you upload a copy of your video to YouTube, backup a master copy somewhere else. Don’t rely on the YouTube version as your master “archived” copy.

hawaii_300Although this story is about the challenges of saving mementos from digital virtual worlds, the essence of the challenge — trying to preserve an experience — is not new. If I go to Hawaii, snorkel, build sand castles and have the time of my life, I cannot capture or hold onto that experience. I can only document the experience with photos, video and maybe write in a journal about it. In a way, it even goes back to the dawn of humanity, where people recorded their experiences by means of cave paintings.

So you cannot capture the experience of a virtual world but you can document it. And virtual worlds are a lot more accessible in 2014 than they were in 1990. It’s a long way from Jaron Lanier‘s work, from VPL labs and data gloves and headsets and exclusive access in special labs. Kids now carry their personalized virtual worlds in their handheld devices. Minecraft is just the current cool tool. Who can tell what is yet to come?

Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold. Photo by Joi Ito.

It seems appropriate to let Howard Rheingold have the last word on the subject. Rheingold is a writer, teacher, social scientist and thought-leader about the cultural impacts of technology. He is also an authority on virtual reality and virtual communities, having written the definitive books about both topics over twenty years ago. His current book is titled NetSmart.

In addition to his professional expertise, Rheingold is a caring father who dotes on his daughter. While he was researching and writing the books Virtual Reality(1991) and Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier(1994), his office walls were filled with her childhood artwork (she is now in her 20s). He brings a unique and authoritative perspective to this story.

Rheingold said, “I’ve been closely observing and writing about innovations in digital media and learning in recent years – and experiencing/experimenting directly through the classes I teach at Stanford and Rheingold U. Among my activities in this sphere is a video blog for DMLcentral, a site sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. It was there that I delved into the educational uses – and students and teachers’ passion for – Minecraft.

“In my interviews with teachers Liam O’Donnell and Sara Kaviar, it became clear that Minecraft was about much more than using computers to build things. It was a way to engage with a diverse range of abstract subject matter in concrete ways, from comparative religion to mathematics, and more importantly, a way for students to exercise agency in a schooling environment in which so much learning is dependent on what the teacher or textbook says.

“Minecraft artifacts are also important contributions to student e-portfolios, which will become more important than resumes in the not too distant future. Given the growing enthusiasm over Minecraft by students, teachers, and parents, and the pedagogical value of seeing these creations as artifacts and instruments of learning, it only makes sense to make it easy and inexpensive to preserve virtual world creations.”

Comments (3)

  1. Thanks for this post Mike. My daughter has been an avid Minecraft player and I’ve often thought about wanting to keep her work so we we could look at it later. We go to a local programming meetup for kids called CoderDojoDC where there are lots of other kids who are into Minecraft…and geeky parents who would no doubt also be interested in keeping their kids creations around.

    I think saving the world files, the Balmy Island world files in your example, might actually be more of an option than it appears to be on the surface. Minecraft world files are relatively easy to give to other people when you want to share your creations without requiring you to set up a server to host them. Once you know what to look for you can copy a world file (or a set of files when you are using mods) and send them via email to another person, who can then drop them into the right place and you view or really play in the world. They don’t need an emulator to do it, they use minecraft itself.

    In fact there are sites like Minecraft World Share which is an archive (if you will) of worlds that registered people have uploaded, which anyone can download. Minecraft World Share saw 5.5 million downloads in 2011 and had 30,000 users per-day. It appears like it may be in maintenance mode at the moment. At any rate, functioning collections like this could probably use the digital preservation’s community’s help in capturing useful information (software versions, who created it, when, etc). Perhaps sites like it could be archived?

    I just wanted to add that building collections that are actually used is a great way to encourage digital preservation.

  2. Ed, thanks for the comment and for the links. I don’t know how I missed the Minecraft Library of Congress walk through. Wonderful! And thanks for the tip about saving the files. I’ll try it.

    As you know, Library of Congress employees can’t endorse any product in our public communications. It’s a matter of ethics and fairness — of being unbiased — more than anything. So the focus of this story isn’t so much Minecraft itself as it uses Minecraft as an example of larger issues, such as preserving stuff from digital worlds and about the effectiveness of some types of software for education.

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how software that is deliberately designed to educate kids bores the tears out of them. They’re perceptive and they quickly spot that there’s usually nothing more at the core of educational software than “drill and kill” lessons. But software like Minecraft is almost accidentally educational and it’s commendable how some teachers can spot the educational potential in something that a kid enjoys using.

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