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We're Losing Video Game History Every Day

How much more will we lose before we start trying harder to save it?

On October 27th, 1980, a really beautiful thing happened. The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, released a statement regarding the preservation of film. After more than 80 years, the film industry was finally being given significant historical status. Films were to be treated with far more respect than they had in the past, as they were now considered “an expression of the cultural identity of peoples, and because of their educational, cultural, artistic, scientific and historical value, form an integral part of a nation’s cultural heritage” that “have an increasingly important role to play as a means of communication and mutual understanding among all the peoples of the world.”

However, in the years it took for UNESCO to realize the full importance of film, so much had been lost. Silent movies were treated as disposable entertainment in the same way most of us view video games now; they were used, loved, then tossed aside when something new came along. Eighty percent of the films made in the 1920s are forever lost, and only ten percent remain completely intact. Fifty percent of the films made before 1950 are gone, never to be seen and loved ever again.

Video games are headed down a similar road.

Despite places like the National Video Game Museum, Lost Levels, and the National Video Game History Museum working hard to make sure that the history of video games is properly preserved, some of the games inevitably have fallen through the cracks. But there is more to the preservation of video games and their history than keeping consoles and cartridges intact and working.

A Brief History of Video Games, and What’s Been Lost

The first video game was invented by a man named Ralph Baer in the 1960s. During his work on electronics in the 1950s, he had the idea to play games on television sets inside of your home. The idea was rejected at the time, but was revisited again in 1966. Baer became the known as the Father of Video Games. He earned a National Metal of Technology for his work on the medium in 2006. He invented what would later become the Magnavox Odyssey, selling to the public in 1972. The prototypes of Baer’s work live at the Smithsonian.

From there, video games and consoles grew in depth, memory, and graphics, becoming more advanced than anyone could have imagined. From the ColecoVision to the XBox One, video games have grown, adapted, branched out, and become a part of our everyday lives. So how much of that 50-year history has been lost?

The answer, frighteningly enough, is that no one really knows.

While people like Frank Cifaldi and other video game historians are finding copies of games thought to be lost to the ages, there isn’t enough funding and time in the world to keep some of our games from disappearing into the nether forever, no matter how hard these individuals work.

The Elements Are Against Us

Much like the easily damaged and flammable film of the early and mid-1900s, video games cartridges aren’t designed for the long haul. Everything from the plastic Atari cartridge to the Playstation 2 CD is susceptible to dust, sunlight, air, and water damage. Some even have internal batteries that, once depleted, can erase the games they contain.

Most old school video game data can be lost without much effort, making working consoles and games rarer every single day. But what about more modern games?

What About Digital?

“The very nature of digital is that it’s both inherently easy to save and inherently easy to utterly destroy forever,” says Jason Scott of Internet Archive. And he is absolutely correct. Between digital rights management and the ease of destroying digital files with no real physical cartridge to contain it, digital data is lost forever every day. Everything from your grandmother accidentally deleting her Christmas photos to that now broken laptop containing the only copy of your half-finished novel, data can disappear from just a momentary hiccough.

Video game data, being closely guarded, proprietary things that make developers all of their bread and butter, can also be hard to archive. Digital rights can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially for those who work to preserve digital copies of non-physical games. Making sure data doesn’t become corrupted, hacked, thrown away, or lost is even more difficult than it is with physical cartridges.

Also, that doesn’t even begin to cover the trials and tribulations associated with purely online games. Frank Cifaldi’s favorite example of this is the Facebook game FarmVille. “Keeping an offline game safe is pretty easy, but what do you do for FarmVille, a game that is constantly updated, to the point where Zynga manipulates it server-side? Do you try to take one daily snapshot of it? Is the FarmVille you can play right now actually FarmVille? What about the FarmVille that existed a month ago? What about the very first build of it? Is it even possible to preserve enough playable code to say that the entire experience that was FarmVille is safe?”

But Wait, There’s More!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are other problems that plague video game historians, too. One of the most troubling, however, is how to preserve games that require the community to exist.

“It’s impossible to save the culture of a game, which is really the most important part,” Henry Lowood said at Pressing Restart, a video game preservation community gathering.

Coming back to our FarmVille example, what would it be without the community? A game like FarmVille, or EverQuest, or World of Warcraft would not work without the other players that exist inside of the world with you. Once the servers are no longer live, once no other players exist inside of the space, the video game no longer survives in the same way as it did when it was popular.

Since culture is impossible to collect along with the CDs and cartridges, keeping tabs on how the games influenced culture is important, too. Documentation, therefore, is even more important than we’ve ever realized. And how much culture data has been lost over the years?

So What Can I Do to Help?

There are loads of things you can do to help your video game preservation specialists. Here are just three things that will help to ensure the future of video game’s history.

  1. Make a donation: Donate to your favorite video game historiacal societies, like the museums, Lost Level, or Pressing Restart. Even if you don’t have much money, every little bit saves thousands of bits of information.
  2. Donate your historical stuff: Do you have a rare video game in great condition? A signed copy of a cartridge that might be important to the history of video games? Consider donating it to a historical society.
  3. Write UNESCO: It’s time that the world realized how important video games is to the history of our society. Unlike movies, UNESCO can save hundreds of games by taking action now rather than later.

Although video games might seem like a waste of time, a silly hobby, or a useless pastime to many people, video games will have cultural and historical significance to our world. Starting to protect the past now will go a long way to making sure more games aren’t lost for good. And next time you pick up a PS4 or WiiU game, remember that one day, it will be a goldmine of historical and cultural information, allowing future generations to glimpse into our past.

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