Conservation in Games: An Introduction to the Problem

Note: This post was originally published for the Reboot Gamers in 2015.


Last year, I got my then-fiancée, now-husband a gaming console for his birthday. This slim, silver system was not the next gen console that might be expected, but a PlayStation 2 purchased at a local used gaming store. He had requested this system to replace his old one, which stopped working several years ago, and left many games that we owned unplayable. This is not the first time we experienced this issue; we both have been playing games for nearly twenty years, and have numerous games and systems on different platforms to reflect that. These games and consoles aren’t made to last forever, and many gamers are left with either unplayable games or broken consoles and need to upgrade, repair, or abandon their older systems in favor of newer, next gen consoles, which also have a limited lifespan. From a gamer standpoint, this reality is unfortunate, but from a museum and conservation standpoint, it is a disaster.

According to a recent post by the International Business Times, which adds to a larger dialogue about the conservation of video games in museum spaces to preserve the cultural heritage of games, “there is only a finite amount of time that video games remain supported by their creators, and to save money and help to pay for new products, all software and hardware companies eventually stop releasing updates and patches and offering support for older technology. Around the world, there are organisations and individuals that are keen to keep and preserve technology in the same way that the tools of man’s past have been preserved in museums for the last 200 years.”

In the past five years, we have seen a growing concern expressed by the museum community about the conservation of games and the issues conservationists face in preserving them. Not only do museums have to worry about copyright law (a legal issue that has since been addressed by gaming museums, such as the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment), there is also a concern for preserving the systems these games are played on and ensuring that these games remain playable because, unlike other artifacts, which generally only require physical preservation in order to maintain their integrity, video games need to be playable in order to be preserved. An image on a box does not convey the significance of a game, and much is lost if a game can only be viewed behind glass.

From a conservationist standpoint, video games deteriorate at a rate faster than most objects due to the hardware they are built off, which tends to lose data relatively easily and can render the game unplayable. My Crystal Version for the Gameboy Color, for example, no longer works and several of my other Pokemon games do not retain a save file, making it impossible to really play the game.

What’s worse, conservationists are now having to deal with a newer problem in gaming conservation due to digital releases of games, online-only games such as World of Warcraft, and patches which are automatically installed over previous versions of a game, erasing the previous version.

This issue in digital download gaming and online gaming is evident in the now unavailable Silent Hill game, P.T. This past year, Konami removed all access to the game on Sony servers and from the PS4’s online store, and so only those who downloaded the game to their system before its market removal can play it. Once it is deleted, it is gone, forever.

How can museums, who are increasingly becoming aware of the need to preserve video games as a huge contributor to cultural heritage and an influential part of our history, deal with such an issue and preserve these games, when they become unavailable, abandoned, or unplayable? How can a historian such as myself hope to study these games in the future when they are quickly being removed from stores and servers, when the games break, when the online servers are abandoned (rendering the game unplayable), or when patches are added to previous versions of games, which completely erase previous versions of a glitchy game? As much as we at The Reboot Gamers might gripe about broken and glitchy games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5, this terrible game is now a part of history and actually adds to a dialogue regarding the release of triple-A games which feature broken mechanics and some pretty freaky shit that can be indicative of an industry required to push out numerous games quickly without sufficient play-testing and time to fix errors.

Photo (c) to King_Anesty

There are numerous issues to consider in preserving video games, from the legal issues found in copyright law to the general preservation of these games to ensure they remain playable to maintaining a record of games that do not have a physical way to access its information. Over the course of November, I will be exploring these issues in detail as well as discuss the few, but fantastic, museums which are striving to tackle these issues and save the games we love to play. Stay tuned.

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