Who is protecting gaming’s most valuable artifacts?
As video gaming reaches an age when it can be said to have a past, questions are being asked about how we curate and care for the important artifacts that tell the story of this art form.
Earlier this week, Pong creator Al Alcorn told Gamesindustry of his concerns about how we tend for the past. “A lot of the real artifacts are getting spread thin, in places that aren’t real museums,” he said. “In some sense, I think the industry’s doing too much, where everybody thinks they’re a historian. And they can damage the field by doing that, by not really curating properly what they’ve got, by not making it available for others to look at. So there are places where I think it could do better.”
He argued that gaming entrepreneurs should be donating more to ensure that gaming’s history is preserved, and drew a comparison with The Computer History Museum, created by the likes of Gordon Bell, with donations from leaders in the tech industry.
“They were willing to put their money behind what they thought was important,” Alcorn said. “So they created it. That’s been done for the computer world, and that’s what it would take for somebody in the video game business. And it’s getting kind of late. They’d better get off their ass and hurry.”
Mike Mika is a game developer and head of Other Ocean, which recently released IDARB for Xbox One. He is a keen preserver of gaming artifacts.
He recalls the day he first decided to help safeguard gaming history. “I remember sitting in one of my film classes in college and we had a guest speaker discussing the near misses and total losses in film preservation He talked about films like Wings and Metropolis nearly lost forever, and how Cleopatra may never be found. No one took movies seriously as an art form until it was almost too late.
“I remember having a panic attack, and from that day forward, I grabbed any gaming artifacts I could get my hands on like source code and unreleased games. Word got out that I was doing this, and I would have people call me up and drop off boxes of artifacts.
“When I started there was no one interested in these items, and I was of the mindset that I was alone in it. I figured at some point people would wake up to the need to preserve this stuff and I could finally find a good home for it all. I’ve provided items to the Smithsonian, the Video Game History Museum and others. I plan to organize and distribute the more important items of my collection in the next few years.”
The Video Game History Museum is a collection of items that has been in existence for a quarter of a century. Last year plans were approved for a permanent residence for the exhibits, in the town of Frisco in Texas.
The Strong in Rochester, NY is dedicated to gaming and play in general. It holds 55,000 video games and related artifacts including archival collections from gaming leaders such as Ralph Baer, Bill Budge, Jordan Mechner, Ken and Roberta Williams and Will Wright as well as corporate collections from companies such as Broderbund, Microsoft, Sierra and Atari.
“While the Computer History Museum is often cited as a model, The Strong is actually much larger,” said Jon-Paul Dyson, the museum’s games director, in a Games4Life interview. “For example, the Computer History Museum’s annual attendance is under 100,000 and annual attendance at The Strong is more than 500,000.”
But The Strong is definitely in agreement with Alcorn when it comes to gaming’s elite putting their hands in their pockets. “The more support individuals and the industry provide to efforts to preserve video game history, the more effectively we can work to ensure that a record of the impact of video games on modern life is adequately preserved and interpreted,” he said, adding that companies and individuals who feel they can help, should contact the museum.
“Most [game industry] people shun the notion of investing in any kind of video game history,” added Mika. “It’s heartbreaking. The general attitude has been that somebody else will do it. To me, at times, it feels like we find ourselves talking to a lot of self-centered egotistical entrepreneurs who fail to value theirs and many other’s contributions to the history of gaming. Something I think they will regret later when they finally understand the value of this moment in history.”
He agrees with Alcorn that museums are the best curators of the past. “They have a mature system in place, a unified cataloging system that all museums attempt to follow. Many of the exhibits and artifacts are meant to travel and are shared across museums and without borders. Researchers can tap into a variety of tools to locate and visit artifacts.”
He would also like to see a centralized museum, well-funded and dedicated wholly to gaming. “With so many video game museums showing up, many are more hobbyist than professional, I fear we’re going to dilute gaming artifacts and encourage territorial behavior. I also fear that without standards of preservation, we may be doing more harm than good by not having a centralized organization by which all museums and artifacts can be standardized.”