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Gaming: Preserving its Popular Roots

Time was, gaming was mainly a commercial venture aimed at males between the ages of tween and twenties. That generation aged, and so the demographic skewed up, as well as down, as games for younger markets developed. Educational and adult recreational games gained traction, as did girl games, with less combative and more social elements. But video games had yet, and by most accounts still have yet, to have moved beyond their popular roots to something cultural theorists and social reform advocates can take seriously or artistically as a force for individual or collective good.

But the medium need not be assigned to the dungeon of cultural despair, any more than film deserved to have been. As gaming is becoming a ubiquitous form of interactive entertainment, now with social connectivity as often as not (even on those mobile gaming systems), we have a significant opportunity to grow what gaming is and is capable of, that is to take gaming into serious and artistic territories that are, as yet, largely unexplored. The impulse in doing so may be to reject gaming’s popular past, to attempt to do things with a wholly different approach. Much of the best gaming theory is striving, however, to understand what about gaming as it has developed commercially has made it so popular an activity–and rightfully so. If those elements can be preserved in serious and art games of the future, we may well have achieved a formula that engages the masses in richer and more reflective modes of experience than are commonly found in pop culture. Moreover, there is much we can learn from the study of popular leisure activities for their own sake, for they have captured the mass imagination and express something of a culture or subculture’s ideology.

It is this understanding of the preservation and study of popular, commercial gaming that makes the University of Illinois’s Undergraduate Library’s investment in its Gaming Initiative, including its “Preserving Digital America: Preserving Virtual Worlds” program, such a valuable one. The program was started with a $590,000 grant from the Library of Congress‘s $2.15 million dollar program to preserve video games and set standards for their conservation. In the original press release announcing the Library of Congress Preserving Creative America gaming initiative, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “America’s creativity is unrivaled in the world, and it is among our most important exports.  The Library is pleased to be able to bring together creators of such diverse content for the sake of saving our nation’s heritage, which is increasingly being created only in digital formats.”  The University of Illinois was one of only eight organizations to receive an award from the program (others included ARTstor, the University Press Syndicate, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

The University of Illinois’s award was specifically meant to accomplish the following:  “Interactive media are highly complex and at high risk for loss as technologies rapidly become obsolete. The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game. Second Life content participants include Life to the Second Power, Democracy Island and the International Spaceflight Museum. Partners: University of Maryland, Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Linden Lab.”

Indeed, the obsolescence of media, a pervasive concern in the field of digital arts media in general, makes this preservation task a particularly tricky problem. When game platforms become outdated, they are often bricked in favor of new appliances. Typically, games in older formats are preserved only for one iteration of gaming platform upgrades, as a means of bridging old consumers to the new platform during a transitional period. So how are antique games to be preserved? Can the code simply be stripped and played on new hardware? Doesn’t this fundamentally change the original gaming experience?

David Ward, the associate professor and assistant undergraduate librarian for reference services who oversees the program, acknowledged in a recent Daily Illini interview (3/1/10) that “One of the fundamental tenants of digital preservation is if you really want to preserve digital material in the long term, you can’t just preserve the work itself…You’re going to need to preserve some additional information that allows you to decode the work and make sense of it in the future.” Some of that additional information at the University of Illinois Undergraduate Library comes in the form of historic gaming consoles, such as the Atari 2600 or the Sega Genesis.

We are fortunate at the University of Illinois to have a library system that supports the study of popular, commercial gaming–with all the difficulties in digital media preservation that entails. So, bravo! As we explore new forms of literacy in this digital age, and seek to enrich and extend them, we need such supports to our theory and our practice.

— Kelly Searsmith