Related product Collections Management

Archival Preservation 101: Preservation of Video Games in Libraries

Melina Avery, Senior Conservator, University of Chicago Library 

In many libraries, the Preservation staff is responsible for more than books. Occasionally, a video game cartridge from the 1980s or 90s comes through the conservation lab at the University of Chicago. They’re usually not damaged, but they do need protective housing to stay clean and safe. We put them in the same kind of pamphlet binder that we would use for a small book and return them to the stacks. I knew that these games could be checked out by our patrons, and that the consoles needed to play them were in the University’s Weston Game Lab at the Media Arts, Data and Design (MADD) Center. I was curious about how my university approached video game preservation, and I was also curious about how the history of game play can be preserved and taught. To learn about these issues, I spoke to staff at the MADD Center, and a faculty member in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies.

Preservation at the MADD Center:

I discussed the preservation of games and their associated equipment with two MADD Center staff members: Ashlyn Sparrow, Assistant Director of the Weston Game Lab; and Kent Lambert, Assistant Director of the Hack Arts Lab. 

The Weston Game Lab opened in 2019. The collection has been built for use in Cinema and Media Studies classes, with acquisitions guided by faculty. The MADD Center prioritizes having working consoles for the games the library holds, though this isn’t always possible because of availability and price. Most of the consoles are stored in locked cabinets organized by manufacturer; patrons can check out the consoles and hook them up to a modern flat screen TV in the Center for use on-site. Some older consoles are in the Retro Corner, which has Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) TVs and a Plasma TV; some systems work best on those types of televisions. The oldest working console in the collection is a 1977 Atari 2600; there is also a 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in working order. The MADD Center has a 1978 Magnavox Odyssey 2 and a 1982 ColecoVision, but they’re not currently in working order. 

There are no MADD Center staff specifically trained to repair the equipment. Some collections, like the Strong Museum of Play, do have staff to repair consoles, controllers and other accessories, but that level of staffing is not within UChicago’s budget, or the budgets of many other library and university collections. Some of the University of Chicago student workers hired by the MADD center for other jobs happen to be good at electronics repair; I talked to one student who told me about his repair work, mostly consisting of opening game controllers, carefully cleaning them, then putting them back together. Other students have also done more interventive repair work like soldering in new parts. Finding students with these skills is rare, so in general, when components in the consoles and controllers break, they have to be replaced. This could mean replacing equipment or buying new parts. Because the older equipment will last longer with limited use, and for convenience, many students use emulators to play older games. Emulators are software or hardware that allow players to play older games on new consoles or computers. The emulator may try to imitate original hardware and gameplay exactly, or include new features. 

Collecting physical games is a critical part of preservation and is more complex now that some games are only sold online. The online-only versions are often locked to accounts, which makes collecting and using them in a library context difficult. The MADD Center has user accounts to maintain a digital collection, but they prioritize buying physical copies of games when possible. For example, they will buy a more expensive special edition if it comes with a physical copy.

If no physical copy of the game has been collected, it may not be available to students at all. Some older games are archived online, like Old School RuneScape, but most companies don’t archive their older games for public use. Some companies may only make older games available in different formats, which affects gameplay. For example, the NES Classic is a console that can emulate thirty NES games from the 1980s, but the experience is significantly different, particularly because Nintendo has added save states. This means that a player no longer has to play through long stretches of the game over and over again; a player now can learn to beat the game much faster. Nintendo might have the same game title available on NES, NES Classic, Switch Online and on an online emulator, but gameplay on each version is a unique experience.

Preservation of Game Play: 

I interviewed Chris Carloy, Assistant Instructional Professor in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, with two prompts: How can we preserve the information about how games were played and interacted with in their own time? How can older games be best (and best/most realistically) played and experienced now?

Dr. Carloy teaches video game history classes and views these questions primarily from a pedagogical point of view. He’s interested in the history of the experience of play, and suggests several sources for researching in this area, and collecting in a library setting. Video game periodicals are an excellent source for records of games in their own time; we can find information about the history of game play in reviews, letters to the editor, interviews, and advertising. Online communities, fan art and fan fiction, recordings of play (for recent enough games), and oral histories are other ways of connecting with games as they were played in their own time. Game manuals are also a rich source of evidence, especially if the notes section has been used to work out puzzles, draw maps or otherwise record evidence of play. 

One way we can examine the history of game play through the preservation of original equipment is to physically analyze it; for example, how was the controller handled and treated? There are fewer traces on the game cartridges and discs themselves, though they may hold save files, which record alternate modes of play. Additionally, boxes and other materials that come with the games - ephemera, toys etc. - can help students connect with the physical experience of gameplay in its own time. 

Recreating the “correct” play experience is challenging, and recreating the social experience is impossible. Dr. Carloy’s classes typically play in-class using emulators, but they have weekly gameplay sessions in the Retro Corner, passing the controller around and trying to get a feeling for the original experience. Interaction with the controller is important to establish the games in context, and the students are using older TVs in part because older games work better and look more “correct” using technology from their own time. However, Dr. Carloy points out that the game might look different to us now, either because of imperfect memories or degraded older technology. A newer re-release played on a newer TV might actually look more “correct,” and an emulator version might be a better representation of the original experience. Dr. Carloy resists two popular ideas: that his students are getting access to an authentic experience, and that game designers have achieved steady progress in game design. His students are experiencing older games in part to examine their specific aesthetic, and the specific aesthetic possibilities of their time and technology. 

Dr. Carloy was also able to provide insight on the MADD Center and UChicago Library’s original collection priorities: they chose their core collection of consoles from the most popular options across a swath of history, including an older console (Atari 2600) and options from the 1980s-90s. The library, with faculty guidance, collects games that are often referenced in the students’ readings as well as games that were popular in their time, even if they weren’t written about as extensively. Dr. Carloy points out that inexpensive systems are also overlooked in the literature, and in the future, he hopes to collect low-cost games, such as single game consoles consumers could buy at the drugstore. There are rich possibilities for libraries to collect in this area, as well as challenges to the preservation of aging technology and the contextual materials required to teach students its history. 

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