Where do videogames go when they die?

If you’ve been involved with technology in some way over the past 20 years, you’ve probably saved files on now-extinct or endangered storage media. A Google search for dead media will find plenty of thoughtful speculation about the future of storage information. Prompted by Muckbeast’s pointer to the removal of the Threshold MUD entry on Wikipedia, I’ve started to wonder about the preservation (or lack thereof) of my own gaming history.

Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Well (one of my favorite haunts on the Internet) wrote about the promise and limitations of digital storage almost 11 years ago, and referenced many other opinions in his article. From the enthusiasm of Andy Grove, saying “Digital information is forever. It doesn’t deteriorate and requires little in the way of material media”, to the realism of RAND researcher Jeff Rothenberg, who said “digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first”, Brand’s article illustrates the difficulty of archiving digital information in a format that will be accessible “forever”.

Videogames are susceptible to the digital endangered species list. For many games and developers, the industry focus is on moving forward. We’re always looking ahead to new platforms and new games, and we’re at the mercy of advances in technology if we want to look backward at our individual gaming history, or the history of the industry. If you played games in the 80’s, it’s possible you still have your floppy disks (5 1/4 inch floppies, I’d guess?), but what are the chances of finding a computer that will load them? I joined the personal computing gaming community in the mid 90’s, when you loaded games on 3 1/2 inch floppies and played games through DOS on a Windows 3.1 machine. 15 years later, I’m basically unable to play those games on my current computer from their original format.

With a lot of room at home, and understanding wife, some searching on Ebay and Google, and careful preservation of your hardware, it would be possible to create a gaming museum of sorts, although that hardware is susceptible to eventual failure. I’d be surprised if there are any working Atari 2600 consoles 100 years from now.

Even more difficult to preserve may be the gaming communities that surrounded many of the games we played. Archives of comp.ibm.sys.pc.games are probably still around, but I know the Everquest communities that I frequented were on EZboards, and some of those forum conversations (The Druid’s Grove, for example) are long gone. Even more difficult to capture would be the spirit of the early Everquest days, when mmorpg gaming in 3D was so very new to all of us. Multiply Everquest by one thousand or more, for all notable games across all notable platforms, and you can imagine the amount of cultural history being lost.

I’m talking lost in the long term; there are still forums where impressions of games, and maybe more importantly, impressions of the communities surrounding the games, are available for perusal, but how ephemeral are those communities? The relative ease of setting up a web site for gaming communities is a double-edged sword; as interest in a game fades, it’s increasingly likely that the web site that hosted the community will disappear. Maybe not in five years, maybe not in ten, but one hundred years? What’s going to be left of the games and our communities?

An ominous answer might spring from Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project.

Think of it this way. How long will it be before the much-touted World Wide Web interface is itself a dead medium? And what will become of all those billions of thoughts, words, images and expressions poured onto the Internet? Won’t they vanish just like the vile lacquered smoke from a burning pile of junked Victrolas? As a net.person, doesn’t this stark realization fill you with a certain deep misgiving, a peculiarly postmodern remorse, an almost Heian Japanese sense of the pathos of lost things? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? It ought to.

Ya know, sometimes reading things a real author writes makes me not want to blog at all. I should probably just post “What’s going to happen to video games?” and the quote from Sterling and leave it alone, but I’ll leave my ramblings intact; deleting it would be a chickenshit attempt to protect my ego from comparison with Sterling’s skill. Anyway, if you’re interested in this in any way, check out the rest of the Dead Media Project. Amusingly, and probably predictably, some of the links on the site are already broken. That’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

Aside: Sterling’s “Modest Proposal” is co-signed by Richard Kadrey. If you’re a fan of Sterling’s work, Richard’s work might interest you as well. I don’t mean to imply that they’re similar, but they’re both fascinating thinkers.

To answer my own question, where videogames go to die, it’s almost like games become ghosts. Digital ghosts. I’m amused that the word “medium” can be defined as both

something (as a magnetic disk) on which information may be stored

and

an individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and a world of spirits

That’s exactly what we need, isn’t it? We need a digital medium for our medium, someone with the skills and tools to communicate with the spirits locked in dead media. It’s not terribly difficult to resurrect those ghosts today, but in fifty years, it may be simpler to have a psychic contact your great-great-great-Aunt-Isabel than to retrieve Fallout saved games from a 3 and a half inch floppy.

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4 Responses

  1. Emulators/Roms keep a fair chunk of gold games ticking over for the new masses.

    And having recently rediscovered some of the old classics via Gog.com (thanks to Pete @ Dragonchasers) i’m dipping myself back into the golden oldies.

    • I didn’t know about Gog.com, that’s a neat site. I get my old gaming done through Gametap, but I’m going to check and see how much crossover there is between the titles on both sites.

      I wonder, though, if emulators are in existence because the people who played the games originally are both skilled enough to write an emulator and interested enough to want to play them again. Will that be happening in a hundred years? What happens if Metacritic goes away in the next 50 years? What happens to all the accumulated player reviews? How will people a hundred years from now even know what games might be worth playing?

      From the Dead Media perspective, the only media that’s 100% likely to be around in a century might be books. There will be some form of digital content (assuming we still have electricity :) ), but will our games and our opinions about them make the transition from their current media to future formats?

  2. I finally had time to write up an article with the full details of the incident, from beginning to end (well, end at the time of the writing). You all might find it an interesting read:

    http://www.brighthub.com/computing/windows-platform/articles/22166.aspx

    Thanks again for lending attention to the issue.

  3. Nice post post Rick. The transience of information is a phenomenon of our age and it is good to be reminded that it also affects us gamers. As a gamer since the 1980’s I used to worry more about this than I do now. I religiously kept old floppy disk drives in case I need to hook one up to a new computer and for years I stored an image of my old hard drive in a remote folder of my new computer every time I upgraded. At one stage the biggest directory on my PC was an ever growing “Game Related Files” in which I kept a copy of every patch, every faq and every save game. A few years back however I just gave up. I think I finally realised that there was just too many games and too little time. I will never ever get around to playing those old classics again so why bother going to such efforts to keep them.

    I do worry that future generations of gamers may never get the chance to play some of the classics of years gone by. I have hope for emulation though. Given time and enough interest it seems that just about everything can be emulated. My computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and thanks to the miracle of emulation I can play any Spectrum game on my PC today. I must admit that there are no Spectrum games I actually still want to play (I looked honestly) but I do believe that the 1990’s were a golden age of PC gaming with many titles (particularly from the later half of the decade) that truly stand the test of time.

    On a related note I just realised that I have an ancient video camera that I can never ever throw out because it is the only machine that can read the tapes I made of my kids first few years. I have made digital copies but I still feel obliged to maintain the analog originals.

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