Preserving Video Game History

Illustration by Sahana Maheswaran

It's hard to imagine a time without video games. They've become a near-essential entertainment tool for the people of today.

In recent years though, with numerous changes in technology, people have wondered what can we do to preserve the games, and culture, of yesterday for future generations?

What Is Video Game Archival and Preservation?

Video game archival and preservation is the act of preserving video games to make sure that they remain accessible to a public audience.

Andrew Borman is the digital game curator at The Strong National Museum of Play. Video game preservation is an integral part of his job, and it includes both the games and hardware required to run them.

“Video game preservation has a lot of unique challenges that other forms of media don’t.”

Given how rapidly technology changes, the hardware that is used for these consoles is out-of-date and a lot of times unplayable on modern TVs.

There are solutions like adaptors, which allow you to plug a cable into a modern TV and run older hardware. But even with the hardware issue solved, there is still a whole other set of challenges that historians face.

One such challenge is the costs of older consoles and games. Since they are no longer being manufactured, the stock is low. This causes people to resell these pieces at very high prices.

Dr. Christopher Egert is an associate professor for the School of Interactive Games and Media, who, through his time in the industry, has seen these challenges arise.

“In the early years, when video game design and development started, we weren’t really thinking about this issue,” Egert said.

The perception of video games as a medium has changed drastically since the industry's inception. While they may have been seen as disposable toys originally, nowadays they are considered historical pieces of pop culture. Since no one knew how big video games would become, a lot of the technology wasn’t preserved.

While many video games have become lost to time, the gaming community has found ways to hold onto pieces of their history.

Emulators and ROMs

An emulator is hardware and/or software that allows a device to replicate a different computing system. This workaround has become a very common tool for video game archival and preservation.

“Emulators are important ... because a lot of the time, when we don’t have access to the original hardware, we need some sort of platform or system to recreate the experience as exact as possible,” Egert said.

Emulators allow older systems to be played on devices as simple as smartphones. This makes things a lot more accessible as old hardware does not need to be tracked down.

While emulators act as the console, in order to play any of the games you will need to download a ROM file. ROM stands for Read-Only Memory, and these files contain the necessary data to run an emulated game.

This is not to say that emulators are the end-all for video game archival and preservation, as they also come with a unique set of challenges. Sometimes they struggle to run games like they were intended.

A big part of what makes video games special is the player experience. Certain games are designed to be played on certain consoles, so trying to get the same experience on an emulator can be difficult. Sometimes emulators may have graphical issues or more input lag than the original copy.

“Trying to figure out exactly how [a game] worked and how we recreate it on a modern platform ... can be challenging,”  Egert said.

Emulators and ROMs are also considered legally sketchy. While running an emulator is perfectly fine, the ROMs fall into a grey area. There are lots of debates on where they fall on the piracy spectrum due to their unofficial nature.

Companies like Sonyand Nintendohave taken action against ROMs and emulators. In 2000, Sony filed a lawsuit against Connectix Corp for their software program "Virtual Game Station" because of it's ability to emulate PlayStation games. Sonyended up losing the lawsuit under the outcome of fair use.

Nintendo on the other hand, was able to successfully shut down various websites that provided resources for ROMs by threatening them with lawsuits.

A safer option would be to play a remake made by the original company. However, these also have problems of their own.

Some are considered worse in quality and ruin the original experience for players. There’s also the issue that not every game can be remade, as tons of companies lose the licenses to distribute games and are inevitably lost to time.

The Future

Technology will only continue to change, presenting a whole new set of challenges for video game preservation. Even the games of today might not be here tomorrow.

While in some ways it’s easier to back up data off modern games, just having that data isn’t enough.

"Because of the digital rights management software that's built into many of these games, it's probably not going to work," Borman said.

Even if you can back it up, you'll still have to go through lots of extra steps to run the game itself, especially if internet services are involved.

"If that server doesn't exist, even if you've been able to properly preserve the game, you're not gonna have the ability to communicate with the server," Egert said.

Losing access to online support may cause a game to stop working altogether.

Video games have gone through exponential changes. Compare the original "Super Mario Bros." to "Super Mario Odyssey," and you can clearly see how far the technology has shifted, even while keeping the core elements.

"We've come to realize that video games aren't just a passing fad — they are going to stick around for a long time," Borman said.

“We’ve come to realize that video games aren’t just a passing fad — they are going to stick around for a long time."

Video games are constantly evolving, and it's important to see where they started. While technology will continue to grow, video game preservation will change with it, and people will come up with new and innovative ways to preserve their favorite games for the next generation to experience.