A whole generation of games are at risk of being lost forever. Physical media like floppy disks and optical discs have a limited lifespan, and their time is running out. The growing trend of digital games too, many of which don’t exist in any physical format, are also under threat of disappearing. While we can’t save everything, there is still hope. A global community of game historians and preservationists are working to save games history, one disk at a time.
ARIEH OFFMAN: Starting off with we have our infographic. So the infographic is kind of split up into four sections. You can see we go; initially look at the very early laboratory experiments of Alan Turing, right up to Computer Space that was designed at MIT in the 60s - or sorry, Space War that became Computer Space. We then look at how video games shifted from the seedy arcades of the middle to late 70s, into something that was pitched as a family affair. We talk about the fact that video games become part of wider pop culture, and we also look at the independent scene.
JAMES PARKINSON: If you want to learn about video game history, one of the best places to visit in Australia is ACMI in Melbourne, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It’s an engaging and interactive museum that’s entirely free, and they have a permanent exhibition called the Games Lab, dedicated to video games. I received a guided tour with its curator Arieh Offman and he’s one of the most passionate people I’ve met in the games community.
ARIEH OFFMAN: We've got our basketball arcade. Now the reason I like this is because it has a really interesting use of trackballs for movement, but also was the first arcade game, for a sports game, to actually utilise proper character sprites, as opposed to just squares or something, to represent the characters. And the gameplay itself, it’s a little on the average side.
James Parkinson: It’s no NBA Jam!
ARIEH OFFMAN: It is definitely no NBA Jam, okay! Things are not heating up. But that said, at the time, nothing had looked like this before.
JAMES PARKINSON: Walking through the ACMI Games Lab is a really wonderful experience. There’s a ton of games you can actually play, and lots of displays to check out, like an entire wall of controllers - just about every type you can imagine. And behind-the-scenes stuff, like work-in-progress artwork and notes from developers. Areih Offman and his colleagues have carefully selected every piece in the exhibition and gone to great lengths to track down and restore some classic games and hardware. There’s a bunch of museums like this around the world that cater to video games, and they’re still a relatively new thing. But this is exactly the kind of experience we should be supporting, because a lot of games are actually under threat to being lost forever.
ARIEH OFFMAN: What people don't tend to realise is that we are facing a real time concern. Because the truth is that a lot of the old media that we developed, so if we look back to film, like silver nitrate film and stuff on reels, people think that's really, really fragile. But in fact, it holds up a lot better than, for example, optical media and CDs do of the 90s. They literally have a 30-year lifespan. And the truth is that day by day, we are losing things.
JAMES PARKINSON: Today on the show, game preservation, and the race against time to save gaming history.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: We kind of take it for granted that some of the oldest art forms in human history, like painting or sculpture have always been respected for their place in cultures and societies around the world. Great works of art are protected and preserved because they hold such importance. That’s extended to traditional forms of media like music and film that are so prominent in our everyday lives. So when you consider the impact of games on our modern society, why should they be treated any differently?
ARIEH OFFMAN: What it comes down to is, it's about preserving the artwork and preserving the media so that future generations can enjoy what we currently do. And the strange thing is, is that what a lot of people don't realise is that games preservation, and some of the most current media, is actually some of the hardest to preserve, because there are so many intricacies that inform their development, there are so many interconnecting factors that need to be taken into account. So for us, games preservation is about ensuring that these artworks, that these important assets of screen culture are available for future generations and they aren't being lost.
JAMES PARKINSON: Preservationists and historians face numerous challenges in their effort to preserve video games, and the big one is the degradation of physical media. As Arieh mentioned earlier, optical media like CDs and DVDs have a lifespan of around 30 years. So time is already running low for a whole generation of games. Cartridges and floppy disks have even shorter lifespans, so if they haven’t failed yet, they’re not far off.
CYNDE MOYA: The floppy disks are coming to the end of their lifespan, we don't have a whole lot more time to scrape off their bits before they start shedding the oxide that is on there.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Cynde Moya, a postdoctoral researcher at Swinburne University in Melbourne.
CYNDE MOYA: They're surprisingly more robust than you would think. Like, if they have been stored carefully, they're probably going to work for a while still, but you know they get mouldy, you can do things, like, you cut open the case, and there's special cleaning jigs that you can use to clean off both sides. And there's recommended ways of what kind of liquid you should use, and then you put it back in a new case. It’s sort of amazing how much abuse they can take. But still, they are subject to bit rot, magnets, gamma rays.
JAMES PARKINSON: And as anyone who’s ever owned a CD or DVD will know, a few scratches can easily make an optical disc unreadable. As older physical media deteriorates the next challenge is trying to digitise that media.
MELANIE SWALWELL: So there is an urgency there, with getting content off storage media, particularly floppy disks, and optical media. You know, the promises that were made for optical media, when we first had CD ROMs introduced about, you know, “oh, 100 years!”. We all know that's not true. And so, quite shockingly in one case, success rates of imaging optical media were 8%, which is terrifying. So, that's one of the big challenges.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Melanie Swalwell, also from Swinburne.
MELANIE SWALWELL: My name is Melanie Swalwell. I'm a Professor of Digital Media Heritage at Swinburne University of Technology.
JAMES PARKINSON: When Cynde is working with floppy disks, even with all the tools at her disposal, it can still be a slow and difficult process.
CYNDE MOYA: There's always trouble with that. It's a skilled, technical practice that takes time to learn. And a lot of reading and working together with other people in the community. You know, there's listservs of archivists who work together to help each other figure out how to do this. And it tends to be, you know right now, some institutions like say, the British Library have got a real machine going, a real workflow. And they’re just digitising everything that is in their entire library, that's on a CD-ROM, or a floppy drive, and they can just do it like that. But most of the stuff that you see coming out right now, like, at the case study level, where one person at one archive figures out how to digitise one set of disks out of their collection, and then they write a report about it. And about how hard it was and how long it took and how they figured out how to do it. And each one is their own individual mountain to climb. And it seems like, you know, we're at that stage right now, where there's no mass doing it. It's all very bespoke, you know, very tailored to the individual instance.
James Parkinson: So when you get your hands on an old game, likely on floppy disk, and you’re looking to preserve that, talk me through your process.
CYNDE MOYA: Well, first, you have to look at the floppy disk and say, “what system is this for?”, right? So, you know, is it an Apple? Is it an IBM? Is it a CPM? Is it something else, something weird, something even weirder than that? And you can tell in some ways by just by looking at it, by looking at the label, by looking at the kind of tracking holes that the disk has in it. If it's like a five and a quarter inch disk, there's different kinds of holes, and then that determines the type of tool I would be using to image the disk. And based on what you might be able to glean from looking at the disk itself, you can try a couple of different settings and see, you know, does it read it, or not? And so some of it is a lot of trial and error. Then you read it, then you have the image, you name it, according to your local naming system, put it in your digital archive, possibly make a catalog record for it, and then link the catalog record to the real image. Make a backup of it someplace else. So the archiving and saving of it is really, and the metadata about it, the type of data that you collect can get very detailed.
JAMES PARKINSON: This process varies widely, depending on the type of disk, and the operating system and hardware the game was designed to run on. But the challenges of preservation aren’t limited to old games. Every time a digital storefront is closed, there are a range of games that are no longer accessible, that may not exist in physical media, making them harder or impossible to retrieve. This is the case for PC and console games, and particularly, for mobile games as well. Here’s Areih.
ARIEH OFFMAN: Even stuff that is created recently, even mobile games that were created five to seven years ago, were created on platforms and using software that has now been updated 50,000 times. And so it's not just about - like, how do you collect a game? Let's say for example, I'm just going to pull one out - Crossy Road. It's an iconic game that's developed here in Melbourne, that has taken the world by storm, that has made millions and millions of dollars. Now, what does it mean to collect that game? Does it mean that we have a copy of that game installed on an iPhone from that era, and we don't update it? And then what happens when the batteries on that iPhone start to run out? So then we get down to the next layer. So the fact that the game of that era, specifically, needs that version of iOS to run? So does that mean that we then actually have to collect the operating system? There are just a lot of complexities involved, particularly with software and because technology moves so quickly.
JAMES PARKINSON: Another challenge, Arieh says, is a general lack of funding for games preservation. Globally, the preservation community for games is pretty small, and it’s a constant battle to convince institutions that games are worthy of saving.
ARIEH OFFMAN: First of all, it's the lack of visibility within the public eye. And it's the lack of understanding around what's involved, in order to preserve a video game. But mostly it is the lack of funding. So the truth is, every day, we have to make critical choices here at ACMI and other organisations who are collecting and preserving games. And it means choosing one game over another because we have only a limited amount of funding, which means we have a limited capacity to be able to do all of the steps involved. Without more funding, that is the biggest threat.
JAMES PARKINSON: The next challenge are the many legal issues involved, when an institution is trying to preserve a game. When developers and publishers of old games no longer exist, it can get pretty murky, as to who owns the rights to the game. And even with modern games, things like copyright and intellectual property can be pretty tricky to navigate, because the ideal way to preserve a game is actually to work with the code itself.
ARIEH OFFMAN: In order to actually preserve a game, we need to work with the companies themselves. Like I mean, having a physical copy of a game is one way of preserving it, but really, that isn't actually preserving the game. To preserve the game, we actually need access to the source code. There are multiple engines often that are specific and in house to those development studios. Often they have proprietary IPs, which means we actually - even if we wanted to collect the game, we can't actually collect those proprietary systems that help the game to run. And it's those kinds of things that we need in the future, in order to ensure that we can actually make games playable.
JAMES PARKINSON: Many indie studios are leading the way in this regard, working with organisations to help preserve their own work. There aren’t as many legal barriers as you might find with larger companies, and what indie developer doesn’t want their game showcased in a museum or digital archive?
JAMES PARKINSON: These kinds of legal issues can also be a problem when using one of the best tools and solutions we have in the preservation effort - emulation. Here’s Cynde.
CYNDE MOYA: Emulation is making your current computer pretend to be like an older computer. And it's really made possible because of the structure of computers, the way that computers are architected. They can always emulate another computer, if you want to write the program.
JAMES PARKINSON: Emulation is legal. But sections of the games industry have long tried to fight against it, in protection of their intellectual property.
ARIEH OFFMAN: Emulation, we believe in the preservation community, is one of the best ways for us to ensure that we can make games playable within the future. I mean, the controversy obviously stems from the fact that emulation has become a really easy way for people to be able to pirate and share games. The interesting point, I think, becomes when that game is no longer commercially available, where do those lines lie? I mean, Nintendo and Sega, they're very good examples. Because the truth is, they are very, very protective of their IP, as they should be, because they have created the icons within the gaming industry. They're the equivalent equivalent of, you know, the iconic film directors or the iconic film houses of the day. So I think the best step forward is for cultural institutions, particularly ones like us who are working in games preservation, to actually work with those companies. You know, how do you recreate a PC from 1995 with all the specific drivers and the sound blaster and everything in order to make that game work? The only way we can do it is by trying to have a digital recreation of that, which is what emulation is. So, from a preservation angle, all of us are very much behind changing the face of emulation, working with companies to ensure that we can use it in a responsible way, and actually showing them that it's not just beneficial from a cultural standpoint, because we're preserving these things, but actually, it's financially viable too.
JAMES PARKINSON: Arieh points to a great example of an old game that was previously unplayable, but revived thanks to emulation - 1997’s Blade Runner. The original source code and assets were lost by the developer, but using emulation software and the original CD-ROM, programmers were able to reverse engineer the game, creating a new digital version. A process that took eight years to complete.
ARIEH OFFMAN: And for the first time now in 20 years, even though I own the optical disc, I've actually been able to replay through Blade Runner, which is, you know, a brilliant experience, but also something that I think is my right, as a consumer to be able to do. I’ve purchased the game. So again, emulation is incredibly important, we just need to change the face of it. It's not a tool for piracy, it's a tool for preservation.
JAMES PARKINSON: And after the break, how emulation is being made easier and more accessible, through Emulation-as-a-Service.
Cynde Moya: Here, you can get this, this is what it sounds like…
James Parkinson: I forget how big the monitors used to be.
Cynde Moya: These things weigh a freakin’ ton! [laughs]
James Parkinson: It takes me back.
JAMES PARKINSON: If you’re into old computers and games, the Digital Heritage Lab at Swinburne University is the kind of place you can really geek out in.
CYNDE MOYA: Well, right now I'm setting up, I’m directing the Digital Heritage Lab, which is a collection of microcomputers from the 80s and 90s, 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, you're kind of Windows 95, Windows 98, old Macintosh’s.
JAMES PARKINSON: Again, this is Cynde Moya. And the lab is a small office space, tucked away in the campus’ Applied Science building. You ascend some stairs and are greeted by a narrow room, with a long bench lined with desktop computers. There are NES and Super Nintendo consoles as well, and shelves filled with old computer games in their original boxes.
CYNDE MOYA: This collection that you're seeing, this collection of boxes is really kind of a random set of things that were given to Melanie or given to Denise, who used to run the lab, Denise de Vries, from random people who were trying to find someplace to give their games to, instead of throwing them away, which is really nice.
JAMES PARKINSON: Part of the preservation process is not only digitising the games themselves, but scanning the box art and manuals to add to the archive, because every aspect of a game is important in documenting its history. One of the projects the team at Swinburne is working on, in collaboration with ACMI, is called Play It Again, which is focused on preserving old Australian computer games. Here’s Melanie Swalwell.
MELANIE SWALWELL: So we had a project in 2012, where we were looking at games written for microcomputers in the 80s in Australia and New Zealand called Play It Again. And we collected them and learned how to get the contents of the disks, how to image the disks, how to dump the tapes, often, you know, largely with the help and and guidance of some really fabulous game fans and computer - retro computer enthusiasts - who have really been the ones who have pioneered this knowledge, in many cases, for the very many varieties of obscure microcomputer systems that, you know, weren't compatible and aren't compatible from the 80s. So that's where it started. And now we're at the beginning of the project, which is the sequel to that Play It Again project, which we're calling Play It Again 2, which is focused on the 90s.
CYNDE MOYA: So the games that we're working with is a very specific set that has been chosen for this project. So they're all Australian video games of the 90s. So once they chose a set of about 50 games, then we went out to eBay and just started trying to find really nice boxed copies of them, so we can use the para-textual material as well as the discs themselves.
CYNDE MOYA: So getting this equipment up and running and set up, so that we can run the Media Arts and Video Games from the 80s and 90s on the original equipment. And then also, getting a bunch of emulators set up of these computers so that we can also run the Media Arts and Games in emulation. So eventually, they will be able to be placed in museums and archives and stuff, so that other people can access them. So that's, in a nutshell, what I'm doing, you know, comparing the performance of the games in emulation to the ones on the real computer is a really important part of this project as well.
Cynde Moya: "So here I’ve got a game and I’m running it on an emulator called DOSBox on my Windows 10 laptop. So this game, called The Dame Was Loaded is what they call a full motion video. So it takes live video clips of real actors and stitches them together into a game. So instead of being animated or pixelated or something, it’s real video clips."
JAMES PARKINSON: Emulation is crucial for game preservation, and it’s increasingly being used by more and more institutions around the world. But the problem is, they’re not easy to get up and running.
CYNDE MOYA: Setting up these emulators is difficult. It's fiddly, and it's hard, and it takes a really long time. And a lot of people don't want to do it, right? They don't have the skills to do it, they don't want to learn how to do it. And so what Emulation-as-a-Service does, is it's a tool that gathers together a bunch of open source emulators.
ARIEH OFFMAN: So Emulation-as-a-Service is a project that is being worked on by several different organisations worldwide. By pooling our expertise, we can actually use the technologies and the pipelines that we have available today, to basically be able to make games that are currently unplayable, almost playable at any kind of museum or cultural institution.
CYNDE MOYA: And on the back end, the expert can configure environments specific to the sort of thing that you want to display. Like, you want a Windows 98 computer that has Word 5, so that you can render your old Word 5 documents. So what Emulation-as-a-Service does is it allows you to collect a whole bunch of different configured environments that can then be used by less technical people to render their collection items. So it's kind of like a Napster for configured environments, right? It's a distributed network, and if somebody else in the network has already made the environment of, you know, whatever it is they need, right? Windows 98 with Symphony on it, you can go you can search the database and say, “oh, somebody has already made that”, and I can just download that into my Emulation-as-a-Service place, and then rejigger it according to my local requirements, and save an awful lot of time. So when we're working together to share these environments, it’s going to be really great when it works. And right now it's of course in beta, and we're just all testing it and trying to figure it out. So it’s a lot like that, it’s a big time saver. And it will, I believe, build into something very large and interesting as time goes on.
JAMES PARKINSON: Being able to boot up and play a game in the future is an important aspect of preservation, but if you don’t have the additional information and context about a game, like its development and cultural impact, you’re losing a significant part of its history.
MELANIE SWALWELL: Sometimes people think, “oh, well game history means getting the game and preserving it”, and yes, that's part of it. Game history benefits by having the game and it being preserved and accessible. But what people will make of a game, and how they'll approach it in 50 years is very different from what we think, and the way we approach a game these days.
MELANIE SWALWELL: So one of the things that we're doing in the Play It Again, series of projects, is making sure that we are not just collecting and preserving the games, but also gathering documentation of what it was to play a game in the period. Sharing the results of our research into, say, the production of games.
MELANIE SWALWELL: And so the benefits of some of this documentary material that surrounds the game, it's really significant. It's immensely significant. And actually, when I present these photographs, at conferences, to colleagues in, you know, conservation or something like that, they think, “Oh, I didn't think I wanted to know anything about game history”. And they come up and they’re like, “Oh that was so interesting, I didn't think I was going to be at all interested in game history and preservation, but wow!”. And it just is a kind of portal for people to, I guess, open up and get curious about, “Oh yeah, how we became digital, it has changed, hasn't it? Over the decades?”. I guess, because it's been an incremental journey that we've all been on. It can be challenging for people to step back, and kind of look at our lives with digital objects, historically. But we must.
MELANIE SWALWELL: You know, increasingly, I think we're going - we are up against a situation where people are dying. And so that's a real risk. The need to go out and get these stories from people whilst they're still alive is really important.
JAMES PARKINSON: And the more obscure a game, the more likely it is to be under threat. But just because something wasn’t hugely popular doesn’t necessarily mean it holds less cultural importance. A lot of the games in the Play It Again project may not be known worldwide, or even to many people in the country. But their contribution to Australia’s early games industry is incredibly important.
JAMES PARKINSON: Hobbyists and enthusiasts have been at the forefront of games preservation for some time, and it’s reassuring to see more organisations and museums following in their footsteps, to ensure that game history doesn’t just remain in the hands of private collectors. The games industry itself hasn’t always been an ally of preservation. In many ways, some of the biggest companies remain on the sidelines. But what if you want to help? What can people like you and I do to assist in the preservation effort?
ARIEH OFFMAN: Depending on how engaged people want to get with it, there are ways to start to do it. For example, you know, you can make an ISO rip, like, you know, there are tools that are out there that allow you to make an ISO rip off your physical media. So I mean, what it comes down to is how engaged people want to be with this. This is why organisations like ACMI and others like us around the world exist, is to try and help preserve this cultural heritage. But people can be doing their own things, like, gamers can be doing their own stuff, as well. And not just as consumers, but honestly, as curators and holders of artworks and artefacts of cultural importance.
JAMES PARKINSON: If you own some old games that you think might hold some value in their historical importance, maybe do some research and consider donating them to a museum in your area. Or if you find that stack of old gaming magazines in storage, scan and upload them online or pass them onto someone who will. Because if we don’t take action now, we may not know what we’ve lost until it’s too late.
ARIEH OFFMAN: It's the risk of losing those personal experiences and being able to share them with future generations. And for future generations to look back and to see where the history came from.
ARIEH OFFMAN: And I guess, what it comes back to is we need people to be vocal. We need people to get out there and actually show that games are an art form worth preserving, that they're an art form as valid as any other. And the way that we can do that, I think - well, for me, I mean, we all do it in different ways. I mean, you're doing it in your way right now, by taking this podcast, and by sharing this and by talking to people like myself about it. My way of attacking it is by curation, by the fact that I try to change people's thoughts about games, with the stories that I tell and the exhibitions that I put together. And also in the events that I put on. It's changing people's minds about what games can be, and their importance.
JAMES PARKINSON: Many thanks to Areih Offman and the team at ACMI, and Melanie Swalwell and Cyndie Moya. As always, we have further reading and links for this story on our website, gameplay.co.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. And if you’d like to help us, in our mission to tell amazing stories about video games and games history and culture, there’s a couple things you can do. First of all, recommend Gameplay to your friends. Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective ways to help us grow the show. You can also leave a review on Apple Podcasts. I personally read every single one, and they let potential listeners know that Gameplay is a podcast they should check out. And if you’d like to go one step further, become a Gameplay member. For $5 USD a month, you’ll get an ad-free feed of the show, plus a bunch of other benefits. You’ll find all the details on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.
• Melbourne, VIC: ACMI Games Lab - The Story of the Moving Image
• Rochester, NY: The Strong - National Museum of Play
• Sheffield, UK: National Videogame Museum
• Frisco, TX: National Video Game Museum