The Fate of Video Game Preservation Is in Your Hands

Niklas Nylund tells me this could become the norm for many institutions as we consider the ecological implications of ad hoc, mass digital storage. “In a world where the environmental impact of computer systems is increasingly under scrutiny,” he says, such storage of digital games “might not be a viable way to go forward.”

Rather, he proposes a long-term triage in which we “concentrate on preserving certain key games that help to understand the past.” This would not necessarily prioritize the most well-loved games, but games that “convey facts about the past.” But criteria for such a selection process remains uncertain, especially among disparate preservation efforts.

For Pennington, however, “emulation is the key to unlocking the future of preservation.” The power to present accurate facsimiles of games outside their original hardware is incredibly valuable, but as gaming hardware evolves and becomes more difficult to emulate, emulation may only be feasible for older hardware. As Nylund stresses, “We do need to make sure that the quality of the emulation is good enough so that it doesn’t paint a false picture of how games operate.”

Ultimately, the legal ramifications of emulation may prove insurmountable. As corporations try to preserve the value of their IPs, preservation can feel at odds with corporate interests. But it’s also an area in which Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft could get involved. That could take the form of lobbying for clearer legislation—fair use laws in many countries ostensibly allow academics to make copies of games, but it’s legally untested—allowing access to their own archives, or simply recognizing that without transparent preservation on their part the industry requires ad hoc (and maybe more buccaneering) solutions.

There is a possibility that the future of preservation isn’t playable and certain properties might not be saved. At that point, elements like video and other recordings become incredibly powerful tools for demonstrating what gaming looks like in 2022.

It’s something preservationists are considering. “We could say there is a documentary approach to game preservation,” Pennington says, one “that thinks about cultural meanings, or the social and economic aspects of games.”

Preservationists like Straka already collect physical and digital ephemera, like “trailers, advertisements, press kits, or magazine reviews,” all of which provide context and complement existing practices.

Niklas Nylund suggests these materials, be they game manuals or forum discussions, “might be the only sources available to shed light on how the games were understood when they came out.”

Many of us understand preservation solely as playing old games beyond their ostensible lifecycle, but Straka says that’s the “layperson’s understanding” of preservation. According to him, “the context and the story of the thing is as much, if not more, important.”

It’s difficult to pin down a specific shape for preservation in 10, 20, or 50 years. Preservationists remain cautious, fixed on the present, and pragmatic about what’s needed. More. More money, more legislative freedom, more resources—and more people. There have never been more people working in preservation, but it’s still not enough. “With more people getting involved,” Jonas Rosland, executive director of Hit Save!, says, “The more we can preserve for the future.”

Beyond the technical and legal challenges, video game preservation is a human endeavor concerned with capturing human stories.

“What I cherish is how there are efforts to make digital objects meaningful,” Straka says. “A lot of what I do may be important to someone in decades. But most of the stories of products, of technologies, they are ultimately human stories. Like all stories. They are products of hopes and ingenuity, and right now we are able to talk to those people and tie that story to the digital object that is, by itself, very shallow.”

Better legislation could help, along with greater collaboration and transparency from larger entities, and making preservation part of the development process. But what really represents the future of video game preservation is—the people.

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