Every time a game development studio closes its doors, moves to a new office or decides to finally clean out an old closet, Frank Cifaldi’s job gets a little bit harder.
Squirreled away in all those file folders and Bankers Boxes that get sent to the shredder when studios clean their spaces out are the pieces of history that Cifaldi and his newly-founded nonprofit are desperately trying to save; they’re called The Video Game History Foundation, and they want to make sure that the history of videogames is preserved in a way that will allow future historians to understand not only the games themselves, but the cultural context in which those games existed, and the curious details of their creation and release.
“Preserving videogames has all kinds of challenges that other mediums don't have,” Cifaldi says. “If we're talking about the notion of preserving a film, then it's — I'm simplifying, because there is expense involved in this — but it's really just finding the best print, scanning it and restoring it, and then you have a copy of the film.
“With a videogame, it's really not that easy. Like yeah, OK, for an old cartridge game, you can extract the binary data off of ROM chips and have an exact copy of that game. But actually being able to play that has its own challenges. You're either maintaining antique hardware or you're using an emulator, which comes with its own challenges.”
The dozens of different consoles, processor architectures and media storage formats that games have used over their 50-plus year history don’t lend themselves to easy preservation — and that’s just for the games themselves, which only make up a fraction of what Cifaldi and the VGHF are trying to preserve. Most of what they’re focusing on right now is what Cifaldi calls “ephemera” — the disposable materials that surround a game’s release.
What they’re looking for is often hard to define, but ranges from trade show brochures to promotional materials sent out to journalists, to studios’ internal design documents. Cifaldi believes that all of these things are crucial to the process of understanding the history of video games, and unlike commercially available items like game cartridges and CDs, these ephemeral items often exist in small, constantly shrinking quantities.
“The things that weren't generally for sale are kind of our biggest focus, because you just can't save everything, and I think you kind of have to define and prioritize what's most important,” Cifaldi explains. “I think the best use of us right now, with our limited resources, is to focus on what might be the most volatile, the things that might actually disappear. I'm not as worried about things that were sold in mass market quantities.”
For some people, it may be hard to understand what significance this type of material has to the larger history of videogames, but Cifaldi offers an example of how these things can contain information that would otherwise be completely lost to history.“I have a coworker whose dad was a salesman back in the NES era, and he still had some VHS tapes from back then that were made just for retailers. [He had] a Konami VHS tape that showed their upcoming titles, and it has the earliest known footage of Castlevania 4 on it.
“It's that kind of material that no one thinks to hold onto … but as a historian, you look at it and it's like … oh my god, this is the earliest known footage of Super Castlevania! We're able to see the development process of this game by picking apart this footage and seeing what the game looked like in its earliest days, and we can start putting together a narrative of some of the design decisions that went into the game, and things that were cut and things that were changed, and that only exists because someone happened to hold onto a VHS tape. I think that the greatest discoveries we're going to find are on materials that people don't know are important, like this VHS tape.”
In another example, he explains how an electronic press kit pulled from the recycling pile when 1UP.com closed one of its offices contained screenshots of an early version of Rayman 2. Curiously, the screenshots were all of a 2D game that looked similar to the original Rayman, while the actual version of Rayman 2 that was released was a fully 3D game. These are the types of quirks and oddities that can be gleaned from the material Cifaldi is trying to preserve, that could never be discovered by looking at the games themselves.
“We're just trying to find the things that have survived, but everything has a timeline on it; everything's got an expiration date,” Cifaldi says. “Unless people are holding onto them as collectibles, and a lot of these things just aren't seen as collectibles, then they're probably not going to be kept around.
“I was a journalist myself for many years, and I didn't keep any of this stuff. I either wrote a story or I didn't, based on what was sent, and then it would pile up on my desk, and then I'd throw it away. We all did.”
Doing this kind of work has been a passion of Cifaldi’s for almost two decades now, but it’s only recently that the notion of starting a serious organization to pursue his mission on a larger scale has come to fruition.
Explaining his reasoning for taking this big step, Cifaldi says, “The only way you do this is by approaching people and talking to them … and you can only get so far just being ‘this guy Frank that I know. He works in the industry and he really cares about this stuff.’ That only carries so much weight, I think, so for a long time I've wanted to be a nonprofit just for that sort of prestige. Because I just don't feel like individuals can accomplish as much.”
Now, armed with a formal name for the organization, and official 501(c)(3) status (the designation required for nonprofits to offer tax rebates for donations, among other things), the VGHF is ready to go public with its work. Launching on Feb. 27, 2017, the VGHF's website will make public a tiny fraction of what the team has accumulated so far.
“We've put together a collection of materials related to Nintendo of America launching the NES in 1985,” Cifaldi says of what the they're sharing at launch. “There's a lot of stuff there that people haven't seen before; we've got the brochure that they had at CES of the weird prototype version of the Nintendo, with wireless controllers and a keyboard and stuff. We've got photos of old displays that have been scanned in from magazines from the '80s. We have all the media coverage we could find from back then, which isn't much. We have some advertisements that Nintendo only ran in trade magazines for the toy industry. So we just put all this material together into a pretty browsable, chronological view of NES launch stuff.”
Eventually, Cifaldi wants to make as much of the material they collect as possible available to the public, but he says they want to make sure they do it right. Building an easily-searchable, browsable library of their content will be one of their many tasks over the coming months.
Beyond simply accumulating and distributing old videogame ephemera, Cifaldi has big plans for what the VGHF may one day become.
“I want to hire a grant writer,” Cifaldi says. “I want to hire librarians to actually catalog these things. There's a lot of ways we can grow, and I'm really excited to see where we can grow, but ... I just have no idea how much we can scale and how fast.
“One of the bigger, wilder things I want to see in my lifetime is I want the Library of Congress to become a resource for holding onto source code for games. The Library of Congress is a federally funded entity that holds a lot of American cinema in safety. A lot of the master nitrate cuts of films are stored at the Library of Congress because they're going to do a better job than any corporate entity is ever going to do of keeping that film safe,” he continues, hypothesizing about how it could do something similar for videogame preservation.
For now, Cifaldi and his team will continue prying things from the jaws of paper shredders across the globe, and try to preserve whatever information they can for the historians and archivists who will one day be tasked with documenting the history of some of humanity’s most transitory cultural works.