Videogames as Cultural Heritage

videogamesAn engaging seminar at the Daiwa Foundation on 3/6/14, allowed games experts and enthusiasts James Newman and Iain Simons to treat us to an entertaining and thought provoking romp through the history of videogames. Their relaxed style kept our attention for around 90 minutes, which still wasn’t really enough time to cover all aspects of the questions ‘are videogames a part of cultural heritage, and if so, should they be preserved?’

The intuitive answer would seem to be ‘yes, of course’, but it is interesting to consider some of the evidence for why. A slide of Super Mario (1985) and Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) instantly transported many of the audience back in time; game imagery has the ability to evoke strong memories of place, music and feelings, perhaps akin to the power of smell. We could then, consider the preservation of out-dated games purely for nostalgia, but historic games also offer us a record of technology at a given point in time, an insight into what was considered a ‘game’ from a socio-cultural perspective, and material from which to predict future trends.

Irrespective of the reasons for preserving the games, there are problems with this. There is no legal deposit in the UK for videogames, and thus no systematic policy or funding (one consideration is that an archiving initiative should come from the industry rather than the state). Games archives require space for the accompanying technological platforms, which demand an increasing amount of conservation to combat the unavoidable decay (bitrot), as plastics become brittle and powdery, and circuit boards return, like all of us, to dust. Rewriting games into the current age so that they function on modern technology is a plausible solution, but not one appreciated by either games lovers or historians, as the authenticity experience of playing the game is lost.

Our speakers were both involved in setting up the National Videogame Archive, within the National Media Museum at Bradford.

A comparison of the videogames industry in the UK with that in Japan, showed us that serious game playing is very serious in Japan. Here, even the range of literature found in bookstores is wider than that found in the UK. Pictures from a six storey games emporium in Tokyo convinced us that historic games are fantastically popular, although interestingly, the players of archaic games were from the same youngish demographic as those of up-to-the-minute productions. The profitability of this type of venture clearly works out despite the outlay for space and maintenance.

I was left with the thought that games *are* part of our cultural heritage, and something very much worth preserving. From the perspective of library and information science, games can be regarded as documents; they can be studied from a variety of angles, in the same way books can within the context of ‘book history’.

Worth further thought is whether we are preserving the physical game alone, so that future players can have a go in a different time, or whether we are including the preservation of the experience of a player at a given moment. Watching a video clip of expert players in Japan, it was evident that understanding how it feels to play is a compelling quest, likewise we could explore the symbiotic movements of two or more people playing the same game. There is though, the question of how to record the feelings of the players, and what sort of measures we use to interpret any meaning to the record.

If we consider that future documents will embrace immersive, multisensory and participative experiences, then videogames are undoubtedly of concern to those of us within LIS. Serious leisure people, it has to be done.