Video Game Preservation: Challenges

By TRobinson

Ray Bradbury, the sci fi author hailed as a major influence in the gaming community, is often quoted as having said, “Video Bradburygames are a waste of time for men with nothing else to do. Real brains don’t do that.” Of course, Bradbury also cursed cars, computers, the Internet, ATMs, and plenty of other commonplace technologies (Hibberd, 2001). While his point of view represents an ongoing debate concerning video games as time bandits, the effective use of interactive, digital games as revolutionary educational tools stands as one form of proof that they are important artifacts that express our culture, education, and play. It is problematic that appreciation for these artifacts is just beginning, as several generations of games have already been lost, and we still do not even have an elementary system of preservation in place. As Rosenzweig describes, “’preservation through neglect’ [may have been a system that worked in the past, but]…this ‘system’ will not work in the digital era because preservation cannot begin twenty-five years after the fact” (2003). If we wish to preserve this vast history, we have no time left to waste, and so, in exploration of the possibility of video game preservation, I have outlined some basic challenges associated with the effort:

  1. Bit Rot
  2. By far, bit rot is the most pressing issue when it comes to video game preservation. Video game storage mediums deteriorate over time; this is true for all of the familiar computer hardware (like CD, DVD, SDD, HDD, etc.), as well as cartridges. Remember blowing into old cartridges, to clear dust from connectors? Yeah, probably not the best preservation method.

    Beyond hardware, software also decays. As Jason Scott, archivist and historian at The Internet Archive, says, “Software halflife is ridiculous…having a few months between the release of a game and EA going, ‘What game?’ is insane. But that’s where we’re heading 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.” (Hall, 2015). This example expresses our current timeframe; Retrospective preservation is even more challenging. For example, many older PC games now require emulators (such as DOSBox) to operate on modern machines (due to changes in the technological environment, bugs emerged from unused code, etc), and emulation in itself is a bag of worms.

  3. Emulation
  4. Right now, efforts to preserve games, for the most part, are not based in the conservation of hardware like consoles and cartridges, but in software emulation for compatibility with modern hardware. Currently, computers are able to satisfactorily emulate an NES experience, for example, but as games become more technically complicated, necessary advancements in technology, and hardware, will struggle to keep up. At best, emulated games are inauthentic, but relatively intact, and playable. At worst, integral pieces of experience are lost, new bugs and glitches are created, and the game is unplayable. Additionally, sometimes, the format is simply essential. As Cloonan puts it, “A key issue in libraries and archives today is whether we need to preserve just the information in a document or the physical object itself. When is the object part of the information?” (2001). If you play Duck Hunt on a keyboard, are you extracting the same sensory information as someone who has access to the classic, orange gun? I doubt it. Thus, video games are often perfect examples of objects in which “form and substance are indistinguishable” (Cloonan, 2001).

    Furthermore, most of the current emulation efforts are not led by archivists, but by avid fans, which reveals a wealth of legal issues.

  5. Legality
  6. If a game is legally owned by anyone other than those attempting preservation, keeping the game functional poses many problems in regards to copyright law, especially when it comes to emulation. Each, individual game has a slew of copyrightable elements, including design, underlying code, artwork, and sound, just to name a few. For many institutions, this means that preservation is not possible. As Rosenzweig says, “…if libraries don’t own digital content, how can they preserve it?” (2003). Jason Scott responds to this issue in suggesting that “Workplace theft is the future of gaming history” (Hall, 2015). While this may sound like a joke, and certainly is not a realistic option for libraries, it represents a significant realization in the world of preservation; much of what must be to done to create a physical history of the gaming community will entail serious risk assessment.

  7. Metadata Schemas
  8. If we begin to preserve, and collect, video games, we must also begin to accurately describe the collections. As Cloonan says, “If new technologies present preservation riddles, cataloging issues are no less perplexing” (2001). In the case of video games, it is difficult to decide authorship, bibliographic relationships, ownership of intellectual property, and so on. Currently, records of video games come from OCLC (as the Library of Congress does not record video game metadata), and the systems used by OCLC were never really intended for the medium. For example, when trying to make video games fit into existing systems, they are popularly tagged with phrases like “Imaginary Places” and “Imaginary Battles,” which are ultimately meaningless. While new schemas have been explored, they often focus on either the narrative of the game or, its gameplay, and for any system to be useful, it must incorporate both. Also, at the most basic level, we lack a controlled vocabulary for these descriptions, and even though efforts are being made, the rapid changes in video game development make it difficult for cataloguers to catch up.


    Video game preservation is a race against time, and time got a big head start. Preservation efforts need to accelerate now, if any of the history is to be saved. A good starting point may be the rigorous development of an effective controlled vocabulary; No need to conquer legal battles in order to properly describe the objects. However, long term, legality will be a major focus; some possible solutions related to copyright may be reformation (but technology develops much faster than copyright law, so even a reformation could be obsolete before ever being relevant), a lean toward open source options by game developers (unlikely in a culture where code is treated like hidden treasure) or, possibly the most realistic option: game developers could begin taking larger strides toward their own, in-house preservation efforts. Finally, if we are going to continue with emulation as our primary solution, it is important to consider how emulation hardware must stay up-to-pace with the changes in gaming hardware or, a whole lot more energy will have to be put toward the exploration of options far beyond emulation.


    Cloonan, M. V. (2001). W(h)ither preservation?. The Library Quarterly, 71(2), 231-242. Retrieved from

    Hall, C. (2015). The future of games history is workplace theft. Polygon. Retrieved from

    Heick, T. (2012). A brief history of video games in education. te@chthought. Retrieved from

    Hibberd, J. (2001). Ray Bradbury is on fire!. Salon. Retrieved from

    Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762. Retrieved from

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