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The future of games history is workplace theft

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Video games are being lost. Not just the ephemera that surrounds them and the documentation used to create them, but the games themselves. The solution, says Jason Scott, is workplace theft.

Scott is an archivist at the Internet Archive, a non-profit library including more than 20 petabytes of digital information, some of it scraped from the web for the Wayback Machine, and some of it gleaned from thousands of books, television shows and other historical documents.

It’s also home to one of the largest collections of games and game documentation in the world. The Internet Archive, and Scott in particular, helped digitize the GDC’s pre-2003 archives, an absolute treasure trove of first-hand accounts of how and why classic games were made.

Wolfenstein 3D, hosted by the Internet Archive

Why is the Internet Archive's games collection important? Because games are history, and history is important.

During his talk at this year's Game Developers Conference, Scott repeatedly told the audience about games' historical value, and if the game makers don't take measures to save their own history, few others can.

"Software half life is ridiculous," Scott said. "Not the game Half Life, the event. Having a few months between the release of a game and EA going, ‘What game?’ is insane. But that’s where we’re heading right now. The average multiplayer, network game is now nearing 18 months of total life before they turn the servers off.

"So you have a year and a half to understand if it’s even useful, and then it’s gone."

Also rapidly disappearing are the generation of scientists, engineers and programmers who made the first computer games. Right now, Scott said, you can go to the Computer History Museum to play Spacewar, one of the earliest video games. Sometimes, on Saturdays, the original programmer Steve "Slug" Russell himself will be there.

"Life is a lossy format"

"He will play you, and he will kick your ass," Scott said, "and you will feel humble. It's like a caveman showed up and took you out.

"But they will not be around forever, and I worry about that. ... Because life is a lossy format."

Scott, who himself worked at Psygnosis for a time early in his career, said that the only way to prevent video games from drifting into oblivion is to make a box, and start putting stuff in it. At one point you will run out of room in the box, or run out of stuff to put into it. It's at that point you should send the box to Scott.

Or, better yet, use the Internet Archive's own online tools to upload your information, and your games, today.

"Workplace theft is the future of game history," Scott said with a completely straight face. What games does Scott want? All of them. And so far, people in the industry have obliged.

"Some of this is not for us. Some of this is for the generation after us."

"One day I got a phone call," Scott says. "They said, 'Do you want the Infocom drive?' And I said yes. You always say yes.

"It’s the Infocom drive from their server from just before they were sent to California. It’s got all their old source code. It’s all their other major manuals. It’s all their employee email. It’s all of their coding tools.

"And so in one way this is amazing. I was able to give some of the code back to the original programmers. They were like, ‘Oh my god. I’m in tears. I never thought I’d see my own code again.’ But there’s also some pretty sad stories in the mail spool.

"I don’t know if anyone thought that was ever going to be anywhere. So, I’ve not really put it anywhere. I gave it to a group and said, ‘Not ever. Not for 20 years, at least. People must die if they’re mentioned in there.’ And we deal with that all the time. That’s why the Kennedy files were 50 years. That’s another part of it; some of this is not for us. Some of this is for the generation after us."


Scott hopes that more games and related data will start coming in soon, and that more archivists like him will give games and the people that make them the same care we would give to any other historical figure. But no, to answer your question, he doesn't need your copy of the original Pac-Man or Super Mario Brothers.

"Namco still really likes Pac-Man it turns out. Nintendo? Loves Mario," Scott said. "We’re not going to have any trouble preserving goddamn Mario. Mario is here, okay?

"The evolved aliens that land on this earth will find a monolith with Mario stitched into it with a laser in this molybdenum script that glows. Great. Awesome. I’m not worried so much about Mario. I’m worried about Great Giana Sisters, where it’s this Mario derivation that was done by a guy who has died. People have taken this stuff on, but why did that guy want to make that game?"

The answers to those kinds of questions, however obscure, will be lost if the games industry doesn't start to take its own history as seriously as Scott does.

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