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.
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.