Rerun Post: My Final Preservation Project
Table of Contents
Game studies is a new field. However, there are a good amount of annual conferences, journals and organizations devoted to the preservation of video games.
The Game Preservation Special Interest Group started as part of the International Game Developers Association in 2004. In 2009, they came out with a white paper titled “Before It’s Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper.” While originally intended for the developer industry as a whole as opposed to an archival or preservation audience, it addressed issues regarding born digital information. Most information presented on this page is from this white paper.
Video games hold historical value because the gaming industry rose to an artform during the 21rst century. Devin Monnens, the author of the white paper section “Why are Games Worth Preserving,” even cites the standard archival attitude of “the past as prologue to the future.” Also, as a young industry, it is all the more important to prevent loss of potentially valuable information.
Also, video games are valuable as intellectual property to companies that design, produce and distribute them. Other merchandise and printed materials like game guides tie into to the lucrativeness of games. Does anybody remember Super Mario Bros. cereal? Beyond monetary value, games are very much rising as an artform. Much like filmmakers honing their craft by watching older films by past filmmakers, game designers can learn a lot from a game, even if it is a bad game so that they can learn to avoid past mistakes. A game library or archive could provide pedagogical value to new developers.
Since we mourn the loss of film from its early age, would it not be surprising if a hundred years from now, we might mourn the loss of early video games? Even now, games are a large part of our contemporary culture, 65% of American homes have video games and is a multi-billion dollar international industry. Video game design also has an impact on other media such as film or photography.
Beyond the monetary, intellectual and historical reasons, many people would like to save games out of purely sentimental reasons. The games we play tell us as much about ourselves as the newspapers and books we read or the movies and television we watch. We enjoy sharing games that we like with others and game developers create games they think others will want to play. In other words, we should care if future generations won’t be able to play our video games anymore.
Like other “born digital” items, video games are susceptible to bit rot, or media decay. This is the natural decay that takes place over time for digital information on storage media resulting in unreadable information. Magnetic storage discs such as floppy discs, magnetic tape and hard drives are particularly vulnerable. The estimated lifespan of a floppy disk is between 10-30 years, yet thousands of games were published on 3.5″ and 5.25″ floppy disks until the mid-1990s. Likewise, optical discs like CDs are susceptible to laser rot, where the discoloration and natural chemical and physical destruction of the reflective layer results in unreadable information.
ROM cartridges are slightly less susceptible to this. However, their lifespan is not known despite some lasting longer than the copyrights attached to them. An exception to this is the EPOM (Erasable Programmable ROM) since it is more susceptible to bit rot from storing its information via charged electrons. The charges leak through the insulation layer over time, causing information loss. RAM chips lose information from battery failure, such as the Capcom CPS-2 arcade boards and security codes on staticRAM (SRAM) chip powered by battery. Capcom offers repair service for boards, but not guaranteed 10 years in future.
Console games are specifically made to only work on one system. Even if the hardware is preserved as long as possible, there is no guarantee that it can still read the game due to the hardware deteriorating from microchips undergoing chemical reactions over time.
Preservation for video games is haphazard and idiosyncratic despite or possibly because of the growing number of individuals and organizations devoted to it. Perhaps a potential solution is to follow the model of film preservation due to the similarly rapid rate of change both technologies have undergone in short periods of time as well as how film grew to be a basis of sustaining cultural, economic, educational and entertainment value over time.
As with other formats, video games have gaps in their historical records. Source code for unreleased games is often lost because hard drives were often damaged or lost in the process of companies either going out of business or being merged with other companies. However, organizations such as Games that Weren’t seek to find and preserve these incomplete games. Games that Weren’t focuses primarily on Commodore 64 games. Even published games can be lost over time due to industry focus on immediacy. While collectors may have secure copies, a lot of times, access to these games is restricted and does not aid future game development or game study.
There must be a long term strategy for preserving video game technology and content. Options include data migration and refreshing. However, these can be subject to copyright, restricting the creation of copies and thus requiring the full support of the video game industry. There are also fan-made emulators, which may also result in copyright issues. The Digital Game Archive (DiGA) aims to raise public awareness of the cultural significance of computer games and guarantee its long term preservation.
Museums collect software, hardware and other pieces of computer history, but general computer history museums are limited in scope regarding video games due to larger holdings elsewhere. Also, museums generally focus on public display, such as the American Classic Arcade Museum in Laconia, NH. Archives host documentation and other related materials either focusing on game material or its history. There are also libraries, such as the International Arcade Museum Library, Inc. in Pasadena, California, which is a member of ALA and OCLC. They are currently cataloging their holdings and working on making their information available online.
Unique projects such as the Preserving Virtual Worlds through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Behind the Screens exhibit at the Austin airport through the University of Texas at Austin Archives help bring visibility to video game preservation. The Internet Archive has its own section for video game videos. International institutions include the United Kingdom’s National Video Game Archive and as well as the State Library of Queensland, Australia.
Private groups relating to the preservation of video games include the Video Game Preservation Society (VAPS), operating under the web domain of the International Arcade Museum. VAPS was originally an informal list of collectors made by Rick Scheive before 1990. It was given official name by Steve Ozdemir, who became the first official VAPS Keeper and built up the organization’s size including more than 200 members and 1300 machines. VAPS has now grown to include members in all 50 states in America as well as 70 countries worldwide. The current Keeper of VAPS is Greg McLemore, who also maintains the “Killer List of Video Games (KLOV).” Members operate primarily online, exchanging information between collectors, and providing listings for games for sale at places like eBay.
As mentioned previously, the American Classic Arcade Museum is a museum focused on the public display and historical preservation of coin-operated arcade games. It is a 501c3 non-profit corporation registered with the State of New Hampshire. The directors of the organization have a combined 100 years of experience in the arcade industry.
- Create a museum to house current collection and future donations of antique and other coin-operated machines.
- Make all games available to public for play.
- Income from games used to offset operating expenses (water, electricity, spare parts, Curator, etc.)
Along with the games themselves, ACAM hosts the written, audio, video, electronic data as well as ephemera such as vintage publications and antique catalogs pertaining to the history of coin-operated games and the people who created them. They reach out to the public through educational displays, cut-away models of games, and guest lectures by prominent video game industry figures. Presently (as of April 2010), the organization presently has a large collection of vintage advertising materials and catalogs from the post WWII era that will also be displayed.
An upcoming event on June 3-June 6, 2010 is the 12th Annual International Classic Videogame Tournament. If you used up all your quarters for laundry, that’s all right because $40 at the door will get you 200 tokens and a commemorative poster. The first 200 registrants will receive a commemorative t-shirt and goody bag. Here, tournament-level classic arcade gamers will face off on 15 different games with 6 from the same manufacturer. First place in the video game tournament is $750, second place $300 and third place $100 with a $250 prize for the 1rst place winner of the Manufacturer’s Challenge. For more information about the tournament and its guidelines, please refer to the tournament page.
Gary Vincent, the President of the American Classic Arcade Museum, agreed to answer a few questions.
1. How many staff members work at ACAM? How many are specifically dedicated to preservation/maintenance of the machines and documentation?
We have one paid staff person and the rest are volunteers. The number of volunteers fluctuates over time and most are there to help preserve the games we have.
2. Regarding documentation, what sort of documentation do you keep? Do you have any items about game development or legal papers, technical specs? How difficult is it to find this sort of information?
Finding information on vintage coin-operated games is difficult since most of the companies that produced them are now out of business. The arcade crash of the mid 1980′s caused many companies to fail and sadly, much of their history was lost as well.
The Internet has made it possible for game collectors to share information that would otherwise be unattainable. Game manuals and schematics are being traded online which has given us the ability to start archiving this information.
One of our board members, Mike Stulir, was able to locate former employees of General Computer Corporation [note from author: the GCC now seems to only be in the business of making printers and other computer peripherals] to participate in a discussion panel at the PAX show in Boston this past March. Many of these people had not seen one another in years. Fortunately, they had saved much of their data from 20+ years ago and were able to share it with attendees during the discussion panel.
The Internet has really made this possible and we hope to find more and more former employees who held onto the history.
3. What types of formats (analog and digital) are most of the games in (magnetic tape, hard drive, ROM cartridges… or are these just applicable to console games?)? Are there specific hardware/platform needs that are harder to fill if a manufacturing company no longer exists or makes a particular part?
The American Classic Arcade Museum concentrates most of its efforts in the coin-op sector of gaming up to and including the year 1987. Most of the games in the collection now are video games which use dedicated hardware to run. Unlike today’s computer programs that will all run on the same PC or Mac platform, back in the boom years of coin-operated video games, this was not the case. Each manufacturer made games to their standard and sometimes it wasn’t the same between other games they made. Standardization didn’t start to come on the scene until the JAMMA (Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association) wiring standard was introduced in 1985. Any game printed circuit board built to the JAMMA standard can be interchanged into another JAMMA standard cabinet.
Finding TTL integrated circuits is becoming harder but hasn’t reached the impossible stage yet although there are some blank ROM chips that are almost impossible to find. There will be a time when these items may likely vanish from the market.
4. Are the games backed up in any way? Is there a refreshing or migration schedule for any of the data? What is your opinion about emulators if the original platforms are no longer available?
We are in the process of downloading the ROMs from the games we have in the collection to preserve the data in the event of a hardware failure or a corruption of data on a ROM chip. Unlike today’s computers where you can purchase a software program to backup all your data, the old coin-operated video games require the removal of the ROM chips and having them physically plugged into a reader and the data copied.
All of the games in our museum are running original hardware with the exception of our Laser Disc games. Back in the early 1980′s it was difficult and expensive to build hardware that today we take for granted. Most video games were 2D and had basic graphics which limited the quality of the game and its realism. There were no high speed processors to create vivid, life-like images for games. Back then if a game’s processor was running at 4MHZ, that was fast!
At that time, Pioneer had developed the Laser Disc system which was primarily used for viewing movies in your home. It was an expensive format and didn’t catch on as well as the VHS tape which allowed you to record on it as well as playback pre-recorded tapes. In 1982, Sega mated the laser disc player with the coin-op arcade games and created Astron Belt. The laser disc provided the background images and the game play was computer generated and laid over the background images.
Although Astron Belt was debuted at the 1982 AMOA show, it was not the first to make it to market. That honor went to Dragon’s Lair by Cinematronics which had much more success than it’s predecessor, Astron Belt. When laser disc games first hit the arcades, they were thought as the savior of what was slowly becoming a dull market. There was only so much you could do with the materials of that time without making the game cost prohibitive. Laser disc players changed that and made it possible to have animation quality graphics.
Although the laser disc allowed a greater quality of image to be displayed, the technology had two major flaws; the laser disc player and the predictible game play. The laser disc players were never designed to run inside a game cabinet for 10-12 hours per day seven days per week and after a period of several months, they would fail. This created headaches for the arcade operator who had to deal with frequent breakdowns.
The game play was also predictable. Instead of playing against a randomly generated computer image, the laser disc based game only had so many scenes and the game was easy to master once you memorized the series of moves.
I had to provide some lengthy background to answer your question regarding emulators. We currently have 6 laser disc based games in the museum and all of them are running emulators. We feel it is more important to have visitors experience the game play of a laser game rather than the out of order sticker which would be on every one of them if we ran them with laser disc players.
5. Along with the donated machines, what is the source of most of your holdings? Do you go to eBay or other online sellers for relevant ephemera and documentation?
The museum gets most of its funding from the weekly bingo game we run. This provides us with money to purchase games and parts to maintain the machines that are donated to us. Ebay and Craigslist are two great sources for games, parts and most everything else game related. We also belong to several online game forums and have found games through members of those message boards.
6. What originally drew you to save these games? What was the first game you ever played and the first game you ever saved?
I have worked at Funspot in Weirs Beach, NH since the summer of 1981 so I grew up working on these games and playing them. In September 1998, I started to notice there were almost no arcades left and the ones that were still around really didn’t have any of the “classic” games that created the arcade boom of the late 1970′s through the mid 1980′s. It was then that I asked the owner of Funspot, Bob Lawton, if I could start arranging all the older classic games Funspot had into an area where I could start a museum of sorts. He agreed and that is where it started.
We ran the first classic game tournament in May 1999 and the reaction we received from that event convinced me that the museum was a valid idea.
7. What, to you, is the “holy grail” of games? Have you attained it at ACAM or are you still looking?
We have located several “grail” games that were on our list such as Computer Space, Pong and Death Race. We have found over the years that everyone has a different definition of “grail.” We look for historically significant games as well has rare titles. By the way, we still want a Discs of Tron [author's note: not to be confused with Tron].
8. Along with the preservation of games, ACAM aims to provide access to the public. How do you deal with the issues that come up like:
Having the games available for the public is very important to us since this was what they were designed for in the first place. It is challenging to make this possible especially with the “grail” type games but we do it anyway. The goal is to have an immersive environment where the player feels as if they have stepped back in time.
Climate-control (since machines usually prefer to be colder than people prefer)
Classic video games are much more tolerant to heat than a computer of today. We keep the museum area at 72 degrees year-round and haven’t had any significant heat related failures.
Pest management (in case people bring food and drink that attracts bugs)
This has never been an issue.
9. Do you have a disaster management plan in place? If so, what is it? Is it specific to the East Coast (winter storms, power outages, floods, possible hurricanes, etc.)?
We are far enough inland that a hurricane is not much of a concern. Being on the third floor of the building eliminates flooding problems.
10. Has there ever been a game you could not keep for reasons like not having adequate maintenance documentation or not being able to find a specific electronic component to make it work again?
Not yet! :)
11. How much does the public see at one time? Is there a rotation of games or document displays? If so, how often does the rotation take place?
We have reached the point where rotation has become a necessity. Each summer we can add about 40 machines into the museum because the indoor golf center next to us on the third floor is only open October to April. It is a tough decision to make but we look at popularity or demand when choosing which games go into storage.
It was really interesting to find out things about the older technology behind classic video games and how in some ways it is more stable than the data in modern video games. For one thing, it seems less sensitive to temperature. However, it is troubling to find out that a lot of the parts like the TTL Integrated Circuit or certain types of blank ROM might no longer be made in the future. I also had not realized that so many games were stored on Laserdisc, previously thinking it was just the failed transition format between VHS and DVD. It’s also amazing that so much of the game preservation world relies on volunteers and hobbyists. This could provide interesting opportunities for outreach for archivists and museum curators, particularly those involved in technological history like the Computer History Museum.
The outreach technique of ACAM is extensive, particularly with their overall focus on preservation for usage as opposed to long-term, isolated preservation. Games are made to be played. Even if an “emulator” doesn’t make for a “pure” gaming experience, the experience of actually playing the game is much better and much more important than the “authenticity” of the classic “out of order” sign, as Mr. Vincent had said. As a kid who lost many tokens and quarters to Galaga and the Jurassic Park Pinball game, it was pretty amazing to meet Mr. Vincent and correspond with him about something so many people are passionate about, but few have dedicated their lives to saving. If anyone’s up for a road trip this summer, keep in mind, the tournament’s coming up!
In the end, while Pong or Space Invaders might not be the Declaration of Independence, they are still worth saving. As long as there’s a kid with a pocket full of quarters or a grownup who can’t help but smile when they see the flashing lights and hear the din of electronic music, the games must be saved. More importantly, as long as those kids grow up with a love and passion for these games, the games will be saved.
Special thanks to Gary Vincent, ACAM and PAX East for making this interview possible.
The American Classic Arcade Museum. http://classicarcademuseum.org/
Arcade, Videogame, Slot Machine, Vending, and Coin-Operated Machine Library. http://www.arcade-museum.com/library/
Gary Vincent, email message to the author, April 22, 2010.
Monnens et al., “Before It’s Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper.” Game Preservation Interest Group, International Game Developers Association; March 2009. http://wiki.igda.org/images/8/83/IGDA_Game_Preservation_SIG_-_Before_It%27s_Too_Late_-_A_Digital_Game_Preservation_White_Paper.pdf
UT Video Game Archive. http://www.cah.utexas.edu/projects/videogamearchive/
VAPS: The Video Arcade Preservation Society. http://arcade-museum.com/vaps/