In addition to running the oldest game store in the Pacific Northwest, Lewin has volunteered as a VGHF press liaison and on large-scale archive projects, as well as special events. such as hosting a pop-up museum showcasing the 35-year history of the Nintendo Entertainment System at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo.
One such multiplayer preservation effort occurred during a frenetic week in 2019 when a dedicated team – including newly hired librarian Salvador, who was then serving as a volunteer curator – archived 25 terabytes of game informant the magazine’s history dates back to 1991. “We were just trying to ingest the data as quickly as possible, and Phil was ready to be there all week,” says Lewin.
“Nobody Saved This Thing”
Today, the foundation’s physical space has transformed into an approximately 1,000 square foot library that will eventually be open on a limited basis to scholars, although Cifaldi, Lewin and Salvador all stress that they strongly believe in remote research. Fittingly, VGHF has many public education outlets already available online, such as its podcast, The hour of video game history.
To get a sense of the challenges of preserving video games, the early film industry offers a powerful comparable example, when anything short of the final cut was discarded and often destroyed. “Consumer video games are the equivalent of a VHS-only movie,” Cifaldi explains. “Without the raw material, there’s no way to remaster the original to run on a modern platform, or to refine the visuals.”
Lewin added, “Games were toys. Nobody saved this stuff because there was no notion of a secondary market. A consumer product was released, and a game’s development story was often lost unless a few meticulous people backed up their data.
That’s to say nothing of the dated format that many early video games are kept in. “We get the original game code that was kept on a floppy disk, and we have to figure out what computer it was running on,” Cifaldi adds. Tape is even more difficult to process and save, as most of it was not cross-platform compatible even when it was produced.
Original press materials may also look different over time, especially when some developer-side details weren’t included in the news stories. The same goes for in-game artwork both in-game and in original press materials. Images may have been cropped or compressed for publication, and for true game geeks, these details add another rich layer to the story behind the game that has finally been made available to consumers.
Preserving source code remains a formidable challenge due not only to intellectual property issues, but also the fact that much of it remains a trade secret. Today, cloud storage enables sharing and retention that weren’t possible just a decade ago.
“A reciprocal relationship with the community”
“Often we’re more surprised by what survived than what didn’t,” Cifaldi says. Sometimes it depends on luck or someone stealing at work. Consider the illustrations recorded by a GamePro magazine’s art director, who wondered why no one put old records in binders, and ended up saving nearly 1,000 issues single-handedly. Tech enthusiasts recorded early trade show displays just for fun, with no intention of preserving highlights that might, say, one day be used as a History Channel B-roll.
What was considered disposable then is now, with the benefit of hindsight, important ephemera that inform the larger story of a cultural phenomenon. “No one cared about the original Grand Theft Autowhen it was released in 1997, Cifaldi notes as a significant example. “So little has been published, and it’s all gone in the trash.” This includes press releases and high resolution images in press kits.
Now, decades later, not only has the blockbuster franchise become a remarkable achievement; its history only exists thanks to a bit of luck and a few hardcore fans who kept the early marketing materials. When Danny O’Dwyer of video game documentary company Noclip was making a film about GTA, he was able to rely on press kits kept by the VGHF which contained character sketches and a photo of the entire development team posing together. Telling the story of video games creates a noble feedback loop, in which more individuals become interested in conservation. “This industry has always been treated as disposable,” says Salvador. “Now people are realizing that we can save this.”
Some of the rarest material was first gathered by fans who tirelessly collected and documented stats, stories, and historical imagery on personal blogs and gamer forums. Using infrastructure and technology popular at research institutes, the VGHF catalogs its holdings to make searchable what Salvador notes will be, “A better version of confederation loose PDFs that live tenuously all over the internet.” He adds: “I appreciate that we can have a reciprocal relationship with the community.”
Enthusiasts donate money, but more importantly, they also donate their time and materials to build the history of video games. “What we collect is information,” Cifaldi says. “It’s hard to tell people what we need,” he adds, because sometimes it’s not even clear that something is missing until an expert or collector points it out. . Fortunately, there are plenty of industry veterans who can help. “It’s still a young industry, and most of the pioneers are still around,” Lewin points out.