“The nature of digital [history] is that it is both inherently easy to save and inherently easy to utterly destroy forever.”
Jason Scott knows his stuff when it comes to preserving digital software. At the Internet Archive, he has collected thousands of classic games, bits of software, and bits of digital ephemera. Its sole purpose is to make those things widely available through the magic of browser-based emulation.
Compared to other types of archaeology, this form of preservation is still relatively simple for now. While the magnetic and optical discs and ROM cartridges that hold classic games and software will eventually become unusable, it’s currently quite easy to copy their digital bits into a form that can be preserved and emulated well into the future.
But, paradoxically, an Atari 2600 cartridge that’s nearly 40 years old is much easier to keep right now than many games released in the last decade. Due to changes in how games are distributed, protected and played in the Internet age, large parts of what will become tomorrow’s video game history may be lost forever. If we’re not careful, that is.
Discard the layers
In an industry with a near-constant focus on the latest and greatest, it might seem silly to want to save old, outdated versions of today’s games for posterity. But the current nostalgic and research interest in games from the ’70s and ’80s shows the importance of trying to save a complete record of today’s titles, however ephemeral they may sometimes be.
“I totally understand people looking at this and saying all that stuff in gaming history is navel-gazing bullshit…an irrelevant, wasteful, trivial topic,” Scott told Ars. “[But] humanity is poorer if you don’t know your history, your whole history, and the culture is poorer for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s games or civil wars or highways or government machinations. If you don’t have that historical context, you’ll make worse decisions, make the same mistakes over and over, and end up with an eternal gift. You don’t understand where things are and where they’re going because you’re constantly in the now.”
And in today’s gaming industry, being “constantly in the now” often means throwing away masses of current history without a second thought. “I use Farm village often as my go-to example of this because whether you like it or not, that game is historically important and will be studied,” gaming historian and Lost Levels creator Frank Cifaldi told Ars. “An Offline Game Safe keeping is pretty easy, but what are you doing for Farm village, a game that is constantly updated, to the point where Zynga manipulates it on the server side? Do you try to take a snapshot of it daily? Is the Farm village you can actually play now Farm village? What about the Farm village that existed a month ago? What about the very first build of it? Is it even possible to keep enough playable code to say the whole experience was Farm village is safe?”
These days, it’s not just Facebook games whose internal history is slowly being peeled away. “I was just talking to someone about it Diablo, [and] he said how he stayed Diablo II going, how the original version is his favorite to play,” Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, told Ars. “With Diablo III the game is very different [now] than the first version with all the updates made to it. From a preservation point of view, do you collect every version that is made?”
“An analogy here might be a piece of architecture,” Dyson continued. “If you’re trying to preserve a historic home, there can be layers, it can have been lived in by many different people. Mount Vernon was inhabited by George Washington’s descendants, so they made a decision to restore it to George Washington’s time and erase this later history. Do you make the same kind of decision with games?”
The death of “accidental ambient archiving”
Such a historic restoration may not be easy with many modern titles. When updates are automatically pushed and applied over the web every time you log into a console or PC to play, those historical layers are erased en masse without a second thought. Where once patches could go out via FTP sites, where they could be archived and studied, the process is now hidden. That’s more convenient for the players, but it’s the equivalent of a constant digital purge from a historian’s point of view.
“For that convenience [of automatic updating]we lose a lot of what you might call accidental ambient archiving,” Scott said. That’s the kind of archiving that happens when players keep copies of old cartridges or discs in their attics, where they’re eventually recovered as a static record of the In in the near future it will be difficult to find people who have purely digital games on their hard drives, and even more difficult to find unmodified release day versions that have not been overwritten by these automatic patches.
As an example of why this kind of archiving of early versions might be necessary, Scott came up with a theoretical case of a game featuring an enemy group logo similar to that of an actual terrorist group. After an outcry, the developer releases an automatic patch to replace the original logo with something more benign. That would be a PR win in the present, but a great loss from the perspective of a future historian. “Now we have a review of what happened in the world, and [it becomes] It’s extremely difficult to point to this as an example of anything from cultural imperialism to the nature of politics,” Scott said.
That problem will only become more prevalent as games continue their seemingly unstoppable transition from static physical objects to ongoing services delivered through a centralized server. “Eventually it will be… Skyrim 10 as an environment and you pay $14 a month for everything, and then Skyrim changes slowly over a lifetime,” Scott said. “How do you record the earlier states? It’s going to be very hard to keep any idea of that.”
The original developers and publishers may keep copies of those “outdated” versions of games themselves, but most companies don’t have the means or resources to keep this kind of internal history in an exhaustive manner. “There’s no downside to destroying work products on the way to the next project,” Scott said. He’s heard stories at conferences of developers who, “when they finished the game, they just erased the working machine’s hard drive and got it ready for the next project. That’s all that intermediate work, gone.”
It can be difficult to convince companies that this material is worth preserving for posterity or sharing with an outside historian. “When working with companies, it often comes down to finding a passionate person in a company who wants to work with you,” said Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum. He recalled efforts to track down early versions and source code for Mac Paint within Apple. After hitting a dead end with the “official” channels, Spicer finally made his breakthrough when a friend of Steve Jobs put him in touch with the late Apple founder and CEO. “[Jobs] sent a one-line email saying it was a good idea, and it was done the next day,” Spicer recalled. “Having an in-house attorney is key.”
Beyond that, Spicer said we may depend on luck to save these bits of computing history from a “digital dark age.” Researchers have already come across old computers with original versions of Windows that were simply never updated and historically valuable prototypes that were taken home with engineers when companies went under. In a few decades, historians may be looking for someone with an old iPhone who never bothered to hit the “update” button on that launch version of Farm village.