In the spring of 2016, I took part in a rather unusual archaeological dig. There was no soil, no trowel – in fact, the excavation didn’t even take place outside. It was just me, in my childhood bedroom, rummaging through old copies of the Official Nintendo Magazine and realizing that I could map my childhood obsession with video games from the piles hidden in my bookshelf. Opening a February 2006 issue, I found an article praising the mysterious new ‘Nintendo Revolution’ console and a caption saying “Looks great and great to play with. Revolution sounds like our ideal girl.” It is a window to another era. 14 years later and some things have changed – we didn’t have a revolution, we had a Wii. I grew up. Gaming journalism (for the most part) has that too.
In 2016, someone else was also rummaging through old items in his house, but his discovery would attract more attention. Dan Tiebold found the last known existing Nintendo PlayStation prototype in his father Terry’s attic. The console represents a turning point for the games industry; Nintendo and Sony were to collaborate on an add-on for the SNES. Nintendo infamously snubbed Sony in 1991 when it announced it had struck a deal with Phillips instead. Sony would go on to release its own console, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Nintendo PlayStation was once again in the limelight as Terry Diebold put his up for auction. On March 6, Greg McLemore paid a total of $380,000 to get his hands on gear that had been touted as priceless. As an archaeologist, I know the buzz that can surround individual artifacts and the cognitive dissonance displayed at auction houses putting the hammer on “priceless” objects to the highest bidder. While I’ve been intrigued by the Nintendo PlayStation’s billing as a fable of fortune, I’ve wondered what video game historians and conservatives think of the fury surrounding it.
Frank Cifaldi, founder of the Videogame History Foundation, succinctly describes the piece as a “view into an alternate timeline”. Frank has worked in game preservation for almost twenty years and founded VHF after identifying gaps in the field that needed to be filled. “Things like working with game developers to preserve their original source code and a library of comprehensive video game magazines,” Cifaldi explained to me over Skype, reminding me that my treasure trove of magazines is tiny compared to the thousands which he carefully collected. When I ask him about the historical value of the Nintendo PlayStation, he understands that people want to see it preserved but says “I don’t think historians can extract any more stories from this physical object than they can. already have them.” The console was photographed and analyzed to the point that it was bled with new data. Given that Cifaldi describes his work on video game preservation as “stopping the bleeding rather than reinventing the wheel”, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t see the Nintendo PlayStation as a top priority for preservation.
Like Cifaldi, video game historian Carly A. Kocurek believes that “ephemera like magazines, flyers, promotional products are deeply important… Much of my work goes through tens of thousands of magazine pages It’s extremely glamorous, I assure you.” Kocurek is an associate professor of digital humanities and media studies at Illinois Tech, and author of the book Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. A key argument of the book is that the genre of video games as a male activity has never been inevitable, but has been shaped by greater access of young boys to public games in arcades, the video game association with male-dominated competitive sports, and the idea that technological proficiency was a male attribute. I wondered if the hype surrounding the Nintendo PlayStation auction, itself a public game for the price of influencing video game history, reflected the techno-male competitiveness discussed in Kocurek’s book. “On the one hand, I’m happy that people are excited about the history of video games,” she continues, “on the other hand, I think of what half a million dollars would be for one institutions that really do the hard work of preserving the Games.”
The Videogame History Foundation is one such institution. Cifaldi pointed out that the money spent on the Nintendo PlayStation amounts to a third of VHF’s annual revenue. Fundraising is his main priority for the future. “We digitized 10,000 optical discs and old press kits. By our own estimate, we need two years to catalog what we have now.” New projects are constantly emerging. Cifaldi recently worked with the family of a programmer who had sadly passed away and left behind boxes of degrading floppy disks that needed urgent attention. This type of work may involve collaboration with other gaming heritage institutions, such as the Strong Museum of Play.
While the Nintendo PlayStation may have dominated recent discourse on video game history, there’s a wide range of work being done that doesn’t just touch on the legacy of the big brands. “I’m really excited about the work that many researchers are doing,” Kocurek explained. “Whitney Pow’s research into the work of transgender game developers is simply magnificent. Adrienne Shaw’s LGBTQ game archives have revealed so many fascinating things that someone should donate half a million to this project.” Additionally, TreAndrea Russworm and Samantha Blackmon recently published an article in a special issue that discusses the history of video games as a black feminist mixtape. Hearing him and Cifaldi quote various collaborators and researchers makes it clear that the history of video games cannot and should not be reserved for a select group of people who can afford to invest in them.
While it’s easy to put prestige pieces like the Nintendo PlayStation on a pedestal, modest personal video game stories matter. When I asked Frank Cifaldi how he felt about making video game history himself, he admitted to not having recorded any articles from his time as a journalist at 1UP. . “I finally started a box in our archives which is our corporate archives. When we’ve handcrafted loot for a little retro show, I try to keep at least one or two examples.” When we make the effort to preserve something, it shows that we appreciate it and that we can expect it to be valued in the future.
Preserving video game hardware and software poses a host of problems in terms of proprietary software, obsolescence, forms of media prone to disk rot, and legal issues with emulation software. Analog recording of gaming culture has a key role to play in the history of video games because it is actually more durable. As Kocurek explained, “Our hope is that we get solid study and documentation before the games degrade beyond playability. But paper is much sturdier. We’ll have magazines and flyers during a very, very long time, and they are so important.”
This brings me back to those dusty magazines I talked about earlier. They’re important as a source on games in the mid-2000s. They’re also a memory of how I felt about games when I was 13. Austin Walker, co-founder of Waypoint and Friends at the Table, wrote an article for ROMChip titled “The History of Games Could Be a History of What Gaming Looked Like”. He argues that blogs, plays and guides are key to capturing what gambling really means to people, which is a crucial aspect of their story. After all, a game can have very different connotations in different contexts, as Carly explained to me: “Kids playing primary school chess tournaments in 1997, for example, have a very different and do something very different from the experience of Margaret of Anjou [Queen of England in the 15th century] played chess.”
I was intrigued to have had a very similar experience to Kocurek growing up with video games. In the introduction to Coin-Operated Americans, she laments that once she was a teenager, she didn’t feel so comfortable gambling. As a teenager, when I thought of myself as a young woman (I’ve since gone non-binary), I turned my back on games and posts that joked about “our ideal girl.” My gaming magazine collection ends in 2006 because I quit gaming. If the Nintendo PlayStation points to an alternate history in which Nintendo and Sony were not competitors, then my Official Nintendo Magazine collection represents an alternate personal history of gaming.
The history of video games is made of stories. As Frank Cifaldi says of the Videogame History Foundation, “I run a charity whose sole purpose is to make sure that people who want to tell the history of video games have access to the tools and materials they need. need to do so.” Researching video games has been my way of reconnecting with their history. You don’t have to be a cis middle class white man to get your turn. If you play games, make them, enjoy watching them or discussing them, you are part of their story. Who writes video game history? We do.