Game archiving faces challenges as technology evolves, digital-only media prevails, say experts

Preserving video games presents an unique challenge: while physical products deteriorate over time, newer games are increasingly made digital-only and technology rapidly evolves, how do we archive them?

Speaking at the 2013 Game Developers Conference today, a panel of industry personnel, professors and museum curators spoke about these challenges. The panelists discussed what is currently being done to archive games and what can be done in the future to successfully preserve them.

Indie developer Loot Drop's CEO John Romero said we need to archive the creative process, citing older games including Chrono Trigger and early Final Fantasy titles as products the industry has been unable to replicate in past years. Recording interviews with developers and discussions on their work is key to leaving behind information for future developers to work with.

Jon-Paul Dyson, director for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at The Strong, oversees the preservation of video game hardware and software, as well as published media about games such as magazines, video captures and other archival materials.

"What happens when you don't have a physical product anymore? What happens when everything is born digital?"

"What happens when you don't have a physical product anymore?" he posed, noting that game elements such as World of Warcraft servers will one day no longer function. These servers themselves are difficulty to preserve, because they do not contain code or information that can easily be migrated or emulated. "What happens when everything is born digital?"

Stanford University Libraries' curator Henry Lowood said the biggest problem with archiving video games is keeping software "alive" and in a usable format. Once we figure out how to safely copy, move and archive functioning code, we will be able to keep more older games around. This has already worked well for RPG Chrono Trigger, originally published for Super Nintendo in 1995 and since ported to a variety of downloadable content platforms and handhelds, including mobile phones.

"There is already a pretty long tradition at this point of doing this kind of work."

John Sharp, associate professor of Games and Learning at Parsons The New School for Design, believes in preservation through curation, noting that exhibits like the Museum of Modern Art's game design installation has assisted in making games preservation mainstream.

"MOMA did not acquire these games as art, they acquired them as design — they are in the design and architecture department, which is also a very important point," he said. "I think this sort of work is a little bit more in the public eye, and we're giving it more exposure. There is already a pretty long tradition at this point of doing this kind of work."

Sharp said the industry needs more people who care about older games need to "put their money where their mouth is" and help preserve the "cultural heritage" of video games. He said more developers should think about preserving their, documenting their work as they go.

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