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Our Rotting Video-Game Heritage

Diverse technologies, missing or secret documentation, and hostile copyright laws threaten video-game preservation.

Not long ago a film buff turned up a 90 year old film of Charlie Chaplin. It had not shown since 1914, and was utterly forgotten by film historians – yet because analog film technology has remained fundamentally unchanged since its invention, preservationists were able to re-debut the movie at a film festival in Virginia.

If the situation outlined in a new paper on the preservation of console video games does not change, decades from now similar rediscoveries–of the games many of us grew up with–will be impossible. And it won’t just be the obscure titles: Entire libraries face extinction the moment the last remaining working console of its kind–a Neo Geo, Atari 2600 or something more obscure, like the Fairchild Channel F–bites the dust.

To arrive at this startling conclusion, a trio of researchers at the University of Vienna conducted a systematic evaluation of the preservation methods available for console video games–the kind that run on cartridges that contain microchips that contain game data, as well as more recent types that are stored on DVDs or some other proprietary media.

Their work revealed that only video recordings of gameplay captured from original hardware satisfactorily preserved the look and feel of most vintage systems and games, with the major drawback that such recordings completely eliminated interactivity.

To preserve the playability of the games–so that they might be available in a future “museum of gaming,” such as the UK’s Games Lounge–the curators turned to emulation of original game hardware. In this strategy, code extracted from game cartridges and disks can be used on virtual machines running on contemporary hardware.

This approach has a number of drawbacks, beginning with the inability of most emulators to faithfully render all aspects of a game.

Most emulators are not developed commercially. Dedicated emulators tend to receive few updates and are frequently discontinued when the authors become distracted from development. Therefore, hardly any emulators exists in a final version that perfectly emulates all games for a system.

In addition, emulators are not Universal Virtual Computers (a strategy proposed in 2005 to enable the perpetual preservation of digital media). That is, the emulators are themselves in danger of becoming obsolete.

Most emulators for systems released after the third era use assembler language for time-critical parts of the software in order to achieve the speed of the original system. None of the emulators tested was using a virtual machine to ensure long-term availability of the emulator, which is a critical drawback for using them as digital preservation alternatives.

Even if preservationists had the resources to develop the kind of emulators that can stand the test of time, their task would be made all the more difficult by the tendency of game companies to worry more about piracy than preservation. This means that documentation on how their machines work is either non-existent (if the company goes out of business or fails to preserve it) or secret, so makers of emulators must laboriously reverse-engineer existing hardware.

Finally, there’s the copyright issue. Getting permission to preserve a game requires signoff by everyone with a stake in it–its creator, publisher, etc.

Given the current legal situation concerning emulation, it is not possible to preserve video games digitally using emulators and copy media to different physical layers without the manufacturer’s agreement. Establishing responsibility for the preservation of digital data must be seen as a priority. Awareness has to be raised among the manufacturers of console video game systems and console video games to reach agreements about how to preserve their work.

Requests to lawmakers to except video games from copyright laws making it illegal to extract their contents for preservation have so far been ignored.

Changes in the legal deposit legislation are necessary to allow exceptions for memory organizations to archive video games. Legal deposit laws should be extended to include digital data and the legal situation would have to be adjusted to enable legal deposits to perform the actions needed for digital preservation (e.g., copy protection mechanism circumvention).

The oldest home video-game console–the Magnavox Odyssey–is now almost 40 years old. In 1972, no one anticipated that any of these consoles could make it to 2011, and there’s no telling how much longer they’ll last.

Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter, or contact him via email.

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