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?
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
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.