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.

Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards

I am happy to announce that my book is finally available! Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards, was released by NewSouth Books at the end of October. Nancy DuPree, my co-author and curator of the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection, and I worked for roughly a year and a half on the book. The postcards come from the Wade Hall Postcard Collection, which includes slightly under 2,000 prints from the first half of the twentieth century.

1588383202Nancy and I first selected 900 postcards from this collection based on their significance to the social, cultural, and economic history of Alabama. We then worked with NewSouth Books to choose approximately 400 postcards that would represent the entire state. Nancy and I proceeded to research each of these postcards and wrote captions that reflect how and why Alabamians represented themselves through these locations. The postcards capture the state as it embraced tourism, industrialization, and leisure.

Although he did not live to see its publication, we honored Wade Hall by listing him as an author. Dr. Hall was a fervent supporter of Special Collections at The University of Alabama and always wanted the postcards to be published. He understood that postcards capture sites at a specific moment in time and reveal what people found important within their community.

I am proud of my work on this project and I hope that people will have a chance to check it out. If you’d like to know more, Alabama Living interviewed Nancy and I about the project here: http://alabamaliving.coop/article/new-book-chronicles-alabamas-past-through-vintage-postcards/

Teaching Special Collections with TeachArchives.org

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of welcoming one of Dr. Hilary Green’s class into the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection. While I have worked with Dr. Green in the past for a class on African American History, this one is titled “Civil War Still Lives!: Race, Memory, and Politics of Reunion.” The course focuses on Civil War memory and specifically asks students to examine the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction at The University of Alabama.

I was particularly excited to work with Dr. Green’s class for two reasons. The first is that the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection is rich in sources regarding the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. We have an extensive collection of regimental histories, biographies and memoirs, published speeches, and photographs from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the turn of the twentieth century. These sources provide valuable insight into which aspects of the Civil War would be remembered and promoted and which would be silenced in the pursuit of national reunification. Given our collection’s concentration on the Civil War, I was happy to expose Dr. Green’s class to this material and explain its historical importance.

Secondly, the instruction session allowed me to implement some of the advice I had learned from attending the American Historical Association conference in January. I attended a panel where Julie Golia, the Director of Public History at the Brooklyn Historical Society, explained the project that gave rise to TeachArchives.org. The Brooklyn Historical Society received a three-year grant in 2011 that allowed them to bring in 1,110 students from Long Island University Brooklyn, New York City College of Technology, and Saint Francis College and teach them to analyze original documents. The BHS sought to improve understanding of special collections research and effectively demystify the process of conducting primary source research. TeachArchives.org is the culmination of this project and provides invaluable guidance for teaching methods and instruction.

After attending the session, I decided that I would bring some of the strategies discussed on TeachArchives.org into my own instruction and outreach. For Dr. Green’s class, I expanded my explanation of the rules and regulations of a special collections library, explained the challenges that different materials like newspapers and photographs present, and provided a thorough list of examples of what can be used within the Williams Collection and UA’s Division of Special Collections as a whole. Instead of simply lecturing, I sat with the students and let the conversation flow to questions and concerns that they had. Overall, the session was much more relaxed than in previous classes and it seemed as though the students felt more prepared for their research. In the future I’ll continue to pull from TeachArchives.org as we expand our outreach and encourage students to visit and conduct research within our collections.