The first panel was a bit more technical. This focused more on the archiving, historical preservation aspect of the work. In other words, you can skip down to Part II if the museum/history aspect does not appeal to you. The speakers had backgrounds in archiving digital/moving images. They helped to understand the scope and undertaking of any project to archive every game that has come out. Of all the games in the exhibit, each one's license needed to be hunted down and permission received. Finding this information isn't easy. I could tell you that from some of the work with government I've done; the people doing things at the time often don't keep particularly good records.*
Georgina Goodland, the opening speaker and coordinator for The Art of Video Games exhibit, confirmed my suspicion that this is true for the gaming industry as well. "Gaming companies," she said, "didn't have records. ... It was not something the gaming companies really cared about."
"Institutions (like the Smithsonian and Library of Congress) rely on private collectors," said Tiarna Doherty, chief conservator at the museum. Which makes sense and is true with lots of artifacts. Video games preservation is such a new endeavor, that there just is not a lot of ground covered.
The first thing you need to know is that the Library of Congress is already on the project of preservation. They're fairly far behind, with only about 4,000 games archived, per David Gibson, Library of Congress Moving Image technician. They're working on it though! "Video games were not a priority until very recently, sort of like TV," Gibson explained, mentioning that only recently they acquired the full run of "I Love Lucy." "The Library of Congress only recently decided video games were a viable medium worth preserving."
Remember, if you include apps for mobile devices, dozens (if not hundreds) of games can be released a day. How do you decide what is worth preserving? For now, Gibson assured the audience that the Library of Congress was hoping to preserve everything. As we move to a purer digital distribution model with fewer physical feelies, I think that might even be possible. I almost want to buy a new, unopened box of Ultima 4, 5 and 6 and donate it to the museum, so that other people forever can see the sort of bonus items that used to come with games.
The next big part of the discussion that stood out to me was talking about hardware. I remember discussing that cathode ray tube (or, CRT) TVs were going the way of the dodo. Now, imagine the sort of damage that's being done to consoles, cartridges and arcade cabinets. Not only that, some of the older machines may not be compatible with more modern technology. "Bringing the (game) code to life was a big challenge for us," Michael Mansfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum associate curator of film and media arts, said about the games on display at the exhibit. "The gamer is just as much a part of the art as the game designer." So, part of the aesthetic that you want to capture is the original hardware and experience. Imagine an N64 game without the ugliest controller ever. It just isn't the same.
Another point that was brought up is that some glitches are smoothed over or disappear when the game is ported. That's why speed runs are different when using emulated or original cartridge versions. Not only that, but Rachel Donahue, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland iSchool, explained that while a game may look the same, the coding could be radically different. The example she gave was "Doom." Preserving the shareware version of Doom may give you an accurate idea of the level design and game play, but the coding is different, and simply having that one copy is inadequate for a history that involves coding or software. A point that, as a non-programmer, I had not considered before.
Ultimately, the best question raised was: "Why are we preserving games?" Are we preserving them for use or as artifacts to look at? The fairly universal answer was for use. Donahue put it best: "If you don't preserve a game for use, it is like only preserving stills from a film." Yes, she explained, you understand the gist of the art, but you miss out on the heart.
Panel II: History and Culture of Gaming
Another thing Goodland said, that bridges us to the second part, is that "The player is a critical component of the artwork. ... (The player) is a part of the entire experience."
Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels and curator for the Art of Video Games exhibit, moderated the second panel. One aside by another speaker, Chris Grant, editor of Polygon, is that people want to put people back into gaming journalism stories. I agree with that; people are more interesting. But, what people say and do is most interesting. Either way, people. We'll come back to this point at the end.
Grant expressed the same feeling I had, calling it "strange and surreal" to be sitting in a Smithsonian museum talking video games. Just a decade or so ago, such a thing was probably impossible to really fathom. Jon Gibson, another speaker and founder of iam8Bit, reminded us of the interesting fact that Mario is more recognizable than Mickey Mouse.
"Imagination is always the most important thing to me (in gaming)," Gibson said. Nintendo, in his opinion, has been doing the best to capture that imagination. I can see the argument in that. They have symphonies for their intellectual properties. Can you readily grasp how far the gaming world has come from the 1980s to when the Smithsonian is hosting a discussion on video games and symphonies are playing their music?
Melissinos used the term "hyper-evolution" to describe this growth. In the mid to late 90s, I took some CDs over to a friend's house to show them Quest for Glory I. We really didn't identify ourselves as gamers then, but that might just be because most of the people I knew also were gamers. But, we knew something big was happening, even if we didn't know exactly what. In about 10 years, gaming was taking the world by storm. Now? Almost everyone has at least secretly thrown a bird at a pig.
"A lot of people identify as a gamer," Grant said. "But I'm not a booker, or a movier." Now, we do call people movie goers, but that's less a part of their identity so much as a description of their current action. Gaming has become the default for most people. Even if it is just casual social games, most people have been exposed to the basic ideas of jumping on turtles for points.
The best point from the second part of the discussion came from Jon-Paul Dyson, vice president for exhibit research and development at The Strong National Museum of Play. With the ever growing technical capabilities (what the panel called "horsepower") in gaming engines, we're starting to see a drift back to simpler, less photo realistic games. They cited games like Limbo, where we are no longer trying to be as human as possible but to be more artistic.
In doing so, Dyson pointed out that we're also mirroring the earlier development of text-based adventure games, simpler sorts of games that capture a small market. Dust, another example they gave, is a 2D platformer, a kind of game that could not have been made a few years ago because of the technological and financial limitations on development. Much like in early game design, you're starting to get personalities in game design again. I remember Lori and Corey Cole and Richard Garriot. I couldn't tell you the name of the developers for Mass Effect. I know Ragnar Tornquist from The Longest Journey (now of The Secret World); I have no idea the designers of World War II.
Yet, see my point about the volume of games being released. Individual developers are now able to take the field and succeed, much more readily than they could in the console age. This is something that I, in my head, knew to be true, but it took someone like Dyson spelling it out for it to click.
This "democritization of design," as Melissinos described it, really is the way of the future in gaming. The question is whether we're going to be able to preserve it all. Which brings us back to the Library of Congress' limited shelf space. Digitization is how we can preserve game content, but I doubt we can possibly truly preserve everything.
The Art of Video Games will be on tour over the next few years, but for now, it is in Washington, DC. If you're in the area, visit it. And tweet @CMelissinos if you do. He loves to hear people's reactions.
Interested in helping grow the preserved collection? Contact these folks.
Note: Quotes are based on my hastily written notes and may not be exact. Any error is entirely my fault, and if anyone points out an error, I'll correct and note where the error was originally. In addition, to get this post out before Sunday, I have rushed it. Therefore, only a marginal proofing has happened. Forgive me.
|Moved to bottom for space reasons|