Video Game Preservation is Already Complicated

Since the dual announcements in the last month of Google Stadia and the Microsoft’s Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, many observers within the video game industry are rightfully concerned about what these new platforms mean for the long-term preservation of video games. As physical releases are gradually replaced by downloadable copies and streams from servers, preservationists fear that we are headed towards a world in which large swaths of video game history are restricted to re-released copies sold as remasters, accessed via streaming services like Nintendo Switch Online, or lost entirely as hard drives die and servers are shut down and repurposed. As Carly Kocurek states in her most recent piece, if games end up being preserved only in corporate archives, they will “exist at a remove from the public’s collective memory.”

While these articles draw attention to the future of preservation, archivists currently focused on digital preservation face serious obstacles. Many of the looming threats posed by streaming and digital-only access already exist in one form or another. As Trevor Owens explains in The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, preservation can be broken down into three broad frameworks: artifactual, informational, and folkloric. For the first few decades of their history, video games fell into the category of informational preservation. There could be multiple copies of a game printed and sold throughout the world, but as long as the data itself was identical, each copy was considered the game.

“Nostalgia” by Jo, CC BY-NC

The copy of Super Mario World bundled with the SNES console, for instance, is fundamentally the same game as what was later released independently in stores. For institutions like The Library of Congress or The Video Game History Foundation, preserving video games as informational objects poses significant challenges, but the process follows the standards established by other physical media like books, film, and music.

The difficulty with modern games, however, is that they present a moving target for preservation. Features are updated and removed, game-breaking bugs and exploits are fixed, and new content is readily added. The pressures of video game development are such that new releases purchased on discs often don’t even include the entire game. Release-day patches are commonplace and often clock in as downloads larger than the disc’s original content.

Online-multiplayer games complicate matters even further. These games keep players interested by providing constantly evolving worlds where users interact with one another to unlock new modes and milestones. The gameplay possibilities seen in Destiny 2 at launch, for instance, are radically different than what is now available two years later.

Taken together, patches, DLC, and online servers can divide a game between discs, hard drives, and corporate storage. No longer singular informational objects, modern video games create serious problems for archivists seeking to preserve not only the content of a game, but the experience as well.

While The Library of Congress can readily accession and preserve a retail copy of Destiny 2, for example, a researcher accessing the disc years later will not be able to understand or fully appreciate the game’s played experience. Owens suggests, then, that we may need to rethink of video game preservation as akin to recorded performances instead of informational objects. While imperfect, Let’s Plays, Twitch streams, and other gameplay recordings can provide valuable windows into a game’s played experience. Further scholars will be unable to complete a raid in Destiny or World of Warcraft, but they be able to watch players doing just that. Game streaming and digital-only distribution will continue to exacerbate old problems of preservation, but we can take steps to ensure researchers understand why the games of our era took hold in popular culture.

Likenesses Within the Reach of All: A Lesson in Digital Preservation

IMG_2926In the planning phase of every digital humanities project, the individual or team has to grapple with the issue of digital sustainability and preservation. When the project is finished, who is going to maintain it? How long will it be updated? Will it be hosted by a library, university, or publisher? Will the project be hosted in perpetuity or is there a plan to transition it to a digital repository?

For one of my own projects, I recently discovered that the answers to “who is going to maintain it?” and “how long will it be updated?” are “no one” and “under four years,” respectively. Likenesses Within the Reach of All, a project I completed as part of my CLIR Postdoc at The University of Alabama, has effectively ceased to function. Users can still access the 3,356 cartes de visite that formed the basis of the site, but the database, map, and visualizations that highlighted the significant aspects of the collection have broken.

As far as I can tell, Likenesses started to break as a result of a WordPress upgrade. As a result, the banner that sat beneath the title on the homepage had moved to the bottom of the page and was stretched much too wide. More distressingly, I recently discovered that the underlying database and the embedded maps and visualizations were no longer connected. As a result, there are essays explaining nonexistent visulaizations and a map showing the spread of southern photography without points.

To say that I am disappointed with the current state of Likenesses would be an understatement. After I accepted my current position at Emory University in the spring of 2017, I suspect Likenesses fell between the cracks of two different departments. Ultimately, the project now testifies to the importance of digital sustainability. When designing a project, it’s crucial for all parties to understand when a project is “complete” and what that means in the long-term. Otherwise, your project might end up as a digital ruin.


Back to the Blog

Recently, I’ve been feeling like I should post more on my blog in order to explore what’s going on in my work and my various fields of interest. This feeling has only been reinforced by Dan Cohen’s recent entry on his own site entitled “Back to the Blog.” I’ve been very vocal on Twitter recently about Facebook’s business model, the harvesting of personal data, and the Cambridge Analytica debacle, and it makes sense to take greater control over my own content. Like Cohen, I worry that the “psychological gravity” of sites like Facebook and Twitter ensures that neither will be compelled to change their data policies, but I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t personally try to take another approach.

Online Writing Roundup, Fall 2017

I’ve been busy! Fall semester has proven to be extremely productive, both with my department’s spatial art history projects and with these short pieces I’ve written for various online outlets:

I’m happy to have had the opportunity to write these pieces, since each is a reflection of my disparate but interrelated interests. The first draws on my past research on Connecticut to argue that we need a reexamination of the colony’s relationship with slavery. The second connects the Battle of Atlanta app I helped create in graduate school with the potential of ATL Maps as a digital platform. Last but not least, my response to Lucas Coyne’s Destory History granted me an opportunity to discuss the intersection of games and historical memory. I hope you enjoy them!


Visual Resources Librarian

I’m very happy to share that today was my first day as the Visual Resources Librarian in the Art History Department at Emory University. The position is largely split between data curation and project management and I will be supporting some phenomenal projects going forward. This will include contributing to existing projects like Samothrace, Mapping Senufo, and Views of Rome, as well as establishing new and exciting digital art history projects.

As the Visual Resources Librarian, I’ll be able to more fully commit myself to digital scholarship, which I have realized is my real academic passion over the last few years. It is also a bit of a homecoming, as I get to return to Emory University and Atlanta. I will miss my friends and colleagues at The University of Alabama, but I’m very excited for this new chapter in my career.