Back to the future: Preserving the history of video games

In an industry constantly focused on where it's going, one group set out to preserve where it's been.

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Video games aren't made to last.

The vast majority of floppy disks aren't readable by today's computers. Hardly a year goes by before another online game disconnects its servers, closing its doors to faithful players. Small teams of independent developers release their titles on digital marketplaces without any physical copies to accompany them.

In a digital age where data erodes faster than it can be stored, the collected creativity of thousands of developers could someday be lost for good — unless we find a way to preserve it.

To most people, history means looking to the past. But to the researchers and archivists at the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, history means opening their eyes to watch it unfold all around them.

They're analyzing. Researching. Taking it all in. They're recording it as they go. They're creating a library — half physical, half digital — to chronicle the ongoing evolution of video games.

The men and women of the ICHEG are hard at work. The process is anything but stable. But they're learning as they go, adapting with the project, going with the flow.

And it's a lot harder than they thought it would be.

Source material

Jon-Paul Dyson is a historian. If a different career suits him better, it's hard to imagine what that would be.

His speech is meticulous. He rarely utters a word that wasn't necessary in the first place. Every other sentence is a comparison or an analogy, connecting disparate ideas and past events with concepts relevant to the current conversation.

So it's no surprise when, in an attempt to explain what he's doing with his life right now, Dyson uses the past to provide clarity.

He was in Italy during the 1990 World Cup. The country was alive with culture, with teams from across the world converging in the race for the titular trophy. Dyson wasn't there to watch soccer, though. While the rest of the country was fixated on West Germany's tournament-winning penalty kick in Rome, Dyson was 280 miles away, across the Mediterranean Sea, on an island called Sardinia. He was digging.

Dyson's father is an archaeologist. His profession — nothing as sexy as Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, Dyson says — pulled him to Italy more than once, as well as French towns such as Soissons, in search of Roman artifacts.

An aspiring historian, Dyson was eager to see the world. His only other distractions from school were video games and programming on his first computer, the portable Osborne 1. So he accompanied his father on his trips to Europe. But there was a hitch. Not much of the written information they found was original source material; the Romans had a tendency to write on papyrus, a paper produced from the stem of its namesake plant. If it wasn't stored in an arid environment, papyrus was likely to decay.


"We don't have a lot of information on the Roman world," Dyson says. "The written information we do have was, in a sense, emulated. It was copied from original papyrus scrolls onto another medium. Then copied again, copied again, copied again. Oftentimes in the process, errors would creep in. But that's how things have been preserved.

"When you get to the Middle Ages, they're not writing on papyrus anymore; they're writing on parchment. It's much more durable to record things on. It had a good chance of surviving until today."

Not being one to ignore history, Dyson vowed to learn from it. He set out to find video games' parchment. He set out to build a modern Library of Alexandria where the papyrus wouldn't erode — a place where future researchers and game designers could come to find that the information they'd need would be intact.

In 1998, three years before earning his PhD in American cultural history, Dyson found just the place.

If you build it, they will come

Situated in downtown Rochester, the Strong National Museum of Play is an anomaly in an otherwise conventional cityscape.

The museum is flanked by cookie-cutter office buildings and high-rise apartment complexes. Nearby streets are lined with the obligatory coffee shops, packed with commuters on the way to their desk jobs. Traffic flows around the museum just as it does anywhere else in the city.

The Strong itself stands out, though. A sculpture of primary colors and distorted polygons marks the rear entrance. On the opposing side, the main hall protrudes from the glass building in a tubular, cornucopia-like shape; there's even a butterfly arboretum overlooking one of the visitors' parking lots.

"[The Strong has] a very loose definition of the word 'play,'" Dyson says as he walks through the museum's series of exhibits dedicated to the word.

A group of private school kids runs through the National Toy Hall of Fame, stopping to gaze at a collection of Star Wars action figures and plastic vehicles. Nearby, a mother and her son peer through a glass case at the very first talking doll, designed by none other than Thomas Edison.

"Technological breakthrough, but didn't sell very well," Dyson laughs as he points to the doll's metal torso, which may or may not have been too heavy for its intended 8-year-old demographic.

The Strong began when a local heiress, Margaret Strong, died and left her collection of more than 27,000 American household objects to the city, stating in her will that she wanted a museum dedicated to the items. At first, it was an exhibit on the impact of industrialization on society. Exciting as that was for historians, Dyson says, it didn't draw the crowds the organization had hoped. Soon after, experts realized that the massive number of dolls and toys in the collection made it a microcosm of all things related to play.

The museum is now the umbrella organization for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. Dyson is the director of the ICHEG.

"In the broad scheme of things, video games have recently transformed the way we play, but also the way we learn and relate to each other," Dyson says. "So we began studying and collecting games in 2006."

With fewer than 100 games in the collection in 2006, the archive was nothing to marvel at. It was comprised of an Atari 2600, related cartridges and a few other stray objects.

Times have changed.

"By 2009, we got a much better handle on the industry and the history of the industry," Dyson says with a smile. "We had over 10,000 artifacts. Now, the collection is over 40,000 games and related artifacts, as well as significant archival collections."

Dyson and his team aren't content just to collect these things. They record every step of the preservation process in digital form. They create instructions, manuals and techniques on code emulation and electrical repair. They're creating a self-maintaining system, one they can pass on to future historians, so that the ICHEG won't become merely a part of the history it's trying to save.


Paying tribute

John Villard is finishing his workday before many of us have had our morning coffee. Today, he clocked in around 3:30 a.m. He comes in early so there are fewer distractions while he works.

He's quiet, collected. He loves his job. He's wearing a long white lab coat. Underneath are a polo shirt, jeans and a pair of DC skater shoes.

Villard is the "old school" side of the ICHEG. He has a degree in electrical engineering and 25 years of experience with arcade cabinets. He began by working on pinball machines and cabinets from pizza parlors and movie theaters, but when the ICHEG acquired Videotopia — a traveling arcade exhibit — Villard offered his skills to the museum. Now, he's in charge of repairing and maintaining the growing collection, and recording his progress at every turn.

The temperature drops as Villard opens the door to one of the ICHEG's vaults. The electronic beeps and chimes of dozens of games accompany the blast of cool air. Defender lights up alongside 3 Jokers; Villard is in his element.

"People think they're preserving their machines by keeping them in their basements," he says. "But they're not." He runs his hand down the sideboard of Whirlwind, a pinball machine with chipping paint. "A lot of times they'll keep [the machines] next to their laundry machines. The moisture destroys the wood."

That's why the vault is cooler than the rest of the ICHEG; the lower temperatures prevent moisture from building up in the cracks and crannies of the collection.


Structural damage and electronic disrepair are cause for concern, but Villard is focused on respecting the originality of each new acquisition as well. Cigarette burns and chipping present him with a choice: keep them and risk more damage, or fix them outright and avoid any complications?

"As a museum, we have a responsibility to treat these items a certain way," Villard says. "But these little marks here and there, they're part of the original thing. So sometimes we keep them."

Villard's hand leaves the chipped side of Whirlwind, and he shrugs his shoulders.

"We've fallen away from that [arcade] mentality," Villard says. "People love their phones. Now those are their games. They don't need these anymore." He waves his hands in a sweeping gesture over the nearby cabinets.


If he believes his own words, he doesn't show it. Villard handles the electronic switchboards of Mario Bros. and Gran Trak with the care of an archaeologist dusting off fossil remains. He traces the wires of an old raster-style monitor — a screen operating with a glass tube — with a child's adulation of a brand-new toy.

In addition to the machines of the Videotopia collection, the ICHEG has since acquired numerous others through donations and acquisitions. Villard's current project is the Boardwalk Arcade exhibit. It's a tribute to the great arcades like Coney Island and Venice Beach, the exact setting where Villard would have found himself in his younger years, reserving a spot in the next game by laying a quarter down on the cabinet. It's a tribute to the past, maintained by someone who, however good he is at hiding it, is always looking to the future.

When Villard is no longer the ICHEG's conservation engineer, his work won't leave with him. Just like Dyson and his co-workers, Villard archives everything he does. The next person to don the white lab coat will have years of documents on how to install coin mechanisms in Pac-Man, or what voltage light bulbs Old Coney Island needs. They'll have precise instructions, left behind by someone whose work shows that he really does believe people will always appreciate the pizza parlor rejects and boardwalk relics of video games' past.

And when Villard's successors receive pinball machines with broken light bulbs, absent flippers and maybe a cigarette burn or two, they'll know just what to do.

Flashes of genius

Three floors above the ICHEG vault, Dyson opens a three-ring binder. Inside are nine graph-paper notebooks. Scrawled across the surface of every page are sketches, bar graphs and notes connected by interlacing lines. Phrases like "complex systems" and "behavior not realistic, but emergence is" — all in Will Wright's handwriting.

The ICHEG contacted the developer in 2010, asking if he would be interested in contributing to the project. It wasn't long before Wright responded with his notes on The Sims and Spore, saying that he knew of "no other institution that is covering this topic as comprehensively as [the ICHEG is]."

From there, Dyson and his team continued to reach out to game design veterans in the hopes of acquiring new materials, in any form possible.

"This is part of our larger mission," Dyson says. "We want to preserve design materials and media, as well as the physical products. We have Will Wright's notes on The Sims and Spore, we have Roberta and Ken Williams' notes on Phantasmagoria, we have a decade's worth of notes from Ralph Baer."

Dyson says all of these materials serve a larger purpose, to not only have a digital archive of games and related media, but the design and theory behind the entire medium as well. The ICHEG is working to have all of the notes, schematics and design documents available online to the public.

And if there's someone who knows the entire collection inside and out, it's Shannon Symonds.

She creates order out of what could be chaos. She archives every item, making them all easy to find at a later date. The items are also photographed to be viewable in the ICHEG's online collections database — one more step in the process of digital preservation.

"Researchers can look down the list and say, 'I want this, this, this and this,' for whatever they're doing."

Symonds uses a program called Argus to streamline the digital side of things. It's a virtual Dewey Decimal System for the ICHEG's databases, separating the tens of thousands of cataloged items into an organized digital library. When researchers make an appointment to use the ICHEG's resources, they'll use Argus to find everything they need.

"Researchers can look down the list and say, 'I want this, this, this and this,' for whatever they're doing," Symonds says.

There's a host of information on each acquisition, from related items to the item's very origin. Symonds says that, for as many times as someone is looking for one certain item, there are just as many when they're researching a certain person.

"Sometimes, games don't warrant a ton of research," she says. "But who donated or why [the item] was donated can be just as important."

With all of the games and related artifacts, with all of the illustrated reflections of renowned game visionaries, the ICHEG has a lot to offer researchers and game designers. But what good are these items merely as physical products, or as photos? What good is a collection of cartridges, discs and manuals in representing a medium based around interactivity?

To truly understand what each game is about, you need to see it being played, Dyson says. And preserving that in digital form is easier said than done.


The hard part

When Dyson needed a new assistant director in 2012, he put out a national call for experienced historians. As luck would have it, he found just the person in the ICHEG's backyard.

Jeremy Saucier is a Rochester native with a Ph.D. in American history. He's a laid-back kind of person, with a laugh always ready at the back of his throat. He's reactionary, often changing his approach on the fly. His personality suits his work.

Being in charge of digital game preservation means Saucier has to learn as he goes. He has to look at things from a different angle when they don't go according to plan. And in the ICHEG's research lab, things don't often go according to plan.

"There are all of these questions when it comes to the digital side of things. If we were to explore every single variable that could complicate things, it could be a story spanning several weeks," Saucier says.

Today, he's working on video capture; it's one-half of what he does in the lab.

"You can look up videos of game play on streaming sites [such as YouTube]," Saucier says. "But there's no telling how long those videos will remain up and accessible on those sites. There's no guarantee those captures will be preserved. We can systematically capture, save and back up these videos. We know they will remain preserved and protected by the museum."

To help Saucier, the ICHEG has a co-op program with game design students from the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology. Today, James Hoyt and Alex Williams are helping Saucier capture video.


"We have these 10-15 minute 'SparkNotes' videos that give people an idea of what each game is about," Hoyt says. "We really want to capture the essence of each game, what will be important to each one."

"We have to not only decide what parts of each game to save, but also what games we even have to capture," Saucier says. "There are more games now than ever before, so we probably won't capture all of them.

"Video capture is particularly valuable when it comes to games released on digital marketplaces. It's becoming increasingly challenging to document everything, but we're adapting along with the industry."

Saucier points to a small board of computer chips and processors, no bigger than the palm of his hand. It's connecting an old floppy disc drive to one of the lab's newer computers. This is Kryoflux, the tool that allows the ICHEG to adapt.

"With this, we can migrate the very source code of older games on floppy discs," Saucier says. "This lets you play these games, through emulators, on newer computers.

"In a few decades, almost no one will have a Commodore 64. So we can preserve the code and allow people without the resources we have to still play these titles down the road."

Saucier says that there isn't any hard evidence on how fast data in floppy discs and NES cartridges decays. Because of this, he and the RIT students are more focused on capturing older titles for the time being. They're in a race against time, and there is no definite finish line in sight.

"Just like the rest of the ICHEG, we're learning as we go," Saucier says as he rubs his neck. "We're creating guides and documenting how to do all of this. It's challenging, but it's exciting. And in 20 years, when more museums decide that video games are art, we'll have the resources they need."

Passing the torch

The digital preservation process the members of the ICHEG are exploring is anything but formulaic. There are complications at every turn. They're trying to preserve a medium that changes by the day. But they're working hard to figure it out.

"We're willing to carry a lot of the load, but we can't do it alone," Saucier says. "We're not the only ones doing this, but we need even more people to step up."

They're not just building something; they're also saving the blueprints. They're priming the project for future generations to take over, to keep breathing life into it as the decades pass.

"We want to help raise awareness inside and outside of the industry," Dyson says. "We want to stress the importance of video games and the need to preserve them. And we don't have an endgame, an end time in all of this."

The story of the ICHEG is a history lesson in the present tense. It's a story about change, and the people with enough foresight to see that it's worth preserving.

And if things go well, the digital library Dyson, Saucier, Villard and Symonds are creating will never be completed. Their project will keep evolving. It will adapt alongside the medium that brought them all together in the first place. Babykayak

Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis
Image credits: International Center for the History of Electronic Games