Over the past few years, video games have become one of the biggest media industries in the world, reportedly toppling film and sports from their thrones in terms of overall revenue. The rise in popularity has led to an increased interest in preserving games, but this hasn’t always been the case. According to Dave Carter, video game archivist, comics librarian and reference services co-coordinator at the University of Michigan’s Computer and Video Game Archive, “40 years ago, people weren’t thinking about preserving this kind of stuff. Video games were a passing fad — a passing fad that’s lasted for 50 years.”
The Computer and Video Game Archive is an interactive archive for students, faculty and researchers that preserves video games, consoles, controllers and other gaming-related materials ranging from the 1970s to the most recent generation of consoles. Their focus has always been equal parts access and preservation, but over the course of the CVGA’s closure due to the pandemic, the focus shifted mainly to preservation.
Video game preservation is a complex undertaking. There are over 8,000 games in the CVGA, and archive manager Valerie Waldron has had to learn the ins and outs of each one of them. He worked on about 1,000 games over the summer. The process of game preservation varies, but the goal is simple — make sure a game is as accessible as possible. Whether that involves cleaning cartridges, restoring art or safely storing source code, game preservation is different depending on the individual item.
“There’s a different process for every game format, every game console, every computer,” Waldron said. “So it’s just a matter of being able to learn all of those processes.”
Not only is its complexity a challenge, but game preservation is also fairly uncharted territory in the world of archives. Unlike preserving books, there’s no standard procedure yet for games and few other game archives to work with. The CVGA being an interactive archive also differs from many other archives; rather than simply restoring and displaying games, interactive archives emphasize accessibility not just for researchers, but also for the public. Playability then becomes a vital part of preservation. As many early games deteriorate, it becomes more difficult each year to guarantee playability.
Games are not the only medium racing against time — there are countless early films that have been lost due to a lack of preservation efforts. Thankfully, much like early films, early video games are being rediscovered all the time, and with them, memories return. The joy of replaying a favorite childhood game would be impossible without preservation efforts, as would years of history that document the rapid evolution of this new medium.
According to Waldron, another significant hurdle is preserving virtual content. In the past 20 years, standard digitization procedures have been established for print materials, but for games, the procedure isn’t that simple. In particular, it’s difficult to preserve online-only MMOs, or Massive Multiplayer Online games, in their original state. Thousands, or even millions, of players in a world at once is nearly impossible to replicate.
There is a wide range of efforts to preserve these digital worlds, many of which have been spearheaded by fans. In the face of server shutdowns for online games, such as “Star Wars Galaxies,” fans have found ways to preserve these worlds as much as possible by creating their own servers. Although this is a positive for preservation purposes, the legality of this is up for debate.
While the ethics and legality of emulation are also a subject of debate, emulation has also become one of the most accessible ways to play old games. As more people become interested in preservation, developers are building up archives of their own and releasing more ports, remasters and official recreations of old games, such as “World of Warcraft Classic.” However, these efforts cannot preserve the physical, tactile aspects of gaming that the CVGA offers.
A significant part of Carter and Waldron’s work is bridging the gap between entertainment and academia. When asked about the importance of preservation, Carter emphasized a connection to society and history, stating that “the games and amusements that a society engages in are reflective of what’s going on in that society, and you can’t understand a society without looking at those sorts of things.”
Interest in games studies has increased dramatically over the past few years, and gaming is becoming integrated into the curriculum for classes ranging from sociology to architecture. “It’s certainly becoming much more acceptable to say in academia that games are worth studying,” Carter said. The University has begun offering games studies courses in order to encourage the pursuit of this field of study, and classes in a wide array of departments offer opportunities related to games (including a current architecture class with a project option to study “Minecraft”).
Demand for video games has grown rapidly since the 1990s, with a significant spike in 2020. The price of retro games skyrocketed during the beginning of the pandemic, so collections like the CVGA may be the only place people can access beloved childhood experiences.
The future of games, and those precious memories, lies in the hands of players. “The more demand there is from everyone who’s interested in video games, the more people will step up and collaborate, and develop these practices that can help preserve them as much as possible,” Waldron stated.
“And use the CVGA,” Carter said. “… The more students doing research projects and writing papers on video games, that helps us in our continuing mission, and shows a demand for something like the Computer and Video Game Archive to exist.”
Without continued interest, demand and donations, archives like the CVGA wouldn’t be able to save the past that lifelong gamers hold so dear.
The CVGA is currently accepting donations of games, consoles and accessories. To donate, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. One item the archive is in need of is more original Xboxes, as they are some of the quickest consoles to fail due to a faulty disc drive.
The Computer and Video Game Archive can be found in room B474 of the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library. Their hours of operation are 1 p.m.-7 p.m., Monday through Friday. Reservations are not required but are strongly encouraged.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at email@example.com.