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Preserving the Computer Canon

May 3rd, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

If you don’t read Game Politics, you should. Though Kotaku and Joystiq get more hits, Game Politics has become my most important source for information on how government and its citizens respond to gaming as a hobby or culture.

Today’s find is a newbyte on the Library of Congress’s push to preserve dying forms of digital information. Given the focus on the site, GP’s exaggerated focus on the single mention of “video games” in the LoC strategy summary is natural. It does raise an interesting question, though.

If we leave aside the technical emphasis of the LoC project (i.e., keeping old media forms legible and rescuing data from obsolete disks), what do you preserve, and why?

This is quite a different question from the Desert Island Disks question that Computer Games Magazine asks. Ye olde “What games do you take with you to a deserted island?” query is aimed at the individual gamer, and so largely depends on individual tastes. If the island has an internet connection, answers change dramatically.

But if the question is “Which games do you preserve for posterity?” the issue takes a completely different turn. Civilization IV is a much better game than the original Civilization but the original is one most likely to be preserved because of its seminal importance in the evolution of the strategy genre. Similarly, SimCity would be included in any list where Caesar III would likely not.

In its role as curator of America’s creative culture, the Library of Congress also maintains the National Film Registry, a list of movies considered central to the development of American society and the film art. There are now 425 protected movies, including material of historical interest like McKinley’s inauguration and the Zapruder film. So some of this stuff isn’t even entertaining.

What would a computer gaming canon look like? What types of technical and stylistic achievements should be noted for future generations?


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jozef

    Quite honestly, I don’t want to answer your question about what games should be protected. Such a discussion would quickly turn into a “Top 10 Games” thread, and that’s beyond the point.

    What interests me is something different: how the selected games will be preserved. Will they be preserved in their retail form, or will patches come along the selected games? Will the game install file or media be preserved, or will the source code become available and protected? If the former is the case, this effort will yield nothing, as the games wouldn’t be readable 20 years from now. Finally, since this is the LoC, I presume that American workd will be given priority. What will be the definition of the national origin of a game?

    It’s difficult enough to decide which games to select. Making sure that they are really preserved will take far more effort.

  • GregT

    The criteria should be simple:
    (a) games that have had a significant effect on the future development of games,
    (b) games that have had a significant effect on technological development as a whole,
    (c) games that have become a part of popular culture,
    (d) games that have exemplary and recognised artistic merit, and
    (e) games whose content and existence serves as a commentary on and/or representation of society at the time of their release, and
    (f) games that represent the pinnnacle of development in interactive media at the time of their release.

    I can’t immediately think of any category (b) games except maybe the early games that spawned military tech projects. Some people would say there are no category (d) games. Games like September 12 should be saved under category (e), as political cartoons and columns related to the same subject would also be saved.

    Of course, I would say that the main problem faced is less the matter of choice for selection than the matter of the actual difficulty of storing it. Various single workplaces have enough storage capacity to hold the entire output of the industry to date, and I think that’s only going to be less of a problem with time, rather than more.

    In fact, I may blog on this topic. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Casey

    “Top Ten” games are the least of our worries. Chances are that some people will have those on their harddrives for a long, long time. And with P2P technologies being what they are, as long as one person has something, there is the possibility of everyone having it.

    No, the ones we have to worry about are obscure, unpopular games which might, nevertheless, interest historians someday. Similarly, there are a lot of unpopular movies sitting on studio shelves, literally rotting, that lots of film studies-type people would love to see but the studios won’t release them because they can’t make enough money off of them. Meanwhile, hit movies take care of themselves as studios re-re-release them.

    But as for picking and choosing, there’s no need given the exponential rate by which storage capacities increase. There are hundreds of thousands of known Commodore 64 games, but they all fit on a couple of DVDs.

  • Stepping Towards the Canon

    […] moons ago, I posted about creating a canonical list of video games, using the National Film Registry as a […]