How to Preserve Games as Cultural Assets

Zubon from Kill Ten Rats is getting all existential today:

And, behind the veil, this is our MMO gaming world. You will come and go, and nothing you do will have mattered except to the people who experienced it.

As some people have already pointed out in that post’s comments, you will arrive at this point of transience with everything you do, and with life itself, if you zoom out far enough, save for the minimal amount of people who will be remembered for exactly one thing they did in their life, for better or worse.

In fact, it reminded me of two powerful movie scenes. (Both movies are novel adaptations, but I think neither book contains the quote I’m going for.) The one is the famous replicant monologue from “Blade Runner”:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.

The other one is the epilogue to Stanley Kubrick’s not-so-famous “Barry Lyndon” (it is a shame it’s not more famous, it is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen):

It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor; they are all equal now.

So yes, in the long run, nothing you ever do in your life will matter. Deal with it.

But let’s not get all fatalistic, shall we?

Games as Cultural Assets

Now that we’ve established that nothing really matters anyway, why are some things perceived as more important than others? Specifically, why is our notion of “culture” so all-encompassing that basically everything that somebody perceives as culture is culture, but only a small subset is widely accepted as culturally significant enough to be preserved for posterity?

There is of course age. Things can be culturally significant just because they’re old enough that they’re the only surviving cultural expression of their type left from that age. That is why Beowulf or the Merseburg Incantations are part of our cultural canon. Computer games will have to wait for a long time until they’ll be eligible under this rule, except for Pong, maybe.

There is the sheer amount of collective expressive and engineering work funneled into a singular, awe-inspiring creation. We still admire the great (gothic and otherwise) cathedrals, or large palaces, that sometimes took decades to build. Of course, age helps here too, but even in our time, there are great works created that are almost immediately considered symbols of our contemporary culture.

Games have become more and more like the cathedrals and palaces of old. They started as modest huts that a single programmer scraped together from wood and mud, and are growing in scope year after year. A game like SW:TOR probably cost as much as a lavish earl’s palace in its time – maybe not quite Windsor Castle, but still. And Everquest has been constantly extended and refurbished for more than a decade now. Who knows, maybe in our lifetimes, we’ll see a game cathedral erected or two.

Finally, of course, significance is decided by a bunch of people often derided as uppity, snotty, or smug: the critics. These people get a lot of flak, and there sure are bad apples in the bunch, but you have to step back and admit that these people probably do know better than you, just because they spend most of their life looking at culture. They will have the experience to tell you what is just a weak rehash of things that have already been there, they will be able to tell the copycats apart from the real gems; at least in theory, and at least to a certain degree.

Of course, to reach that level of experience, you also need a certain age. I don’t think we’re at a point yet where the leading lights have grown up with the culture of computer games. Many of those people therefore lack experience with this medium – experience that is vital to their work as critics. This insecurity naturally leads to wariness and in some cases even hostility. Look at how long it took comics to become an accepted expression of art, and they’re still not 100% there yet.

So maybe it’s just a question of waiting long enough until computer games get accepted as cultural assets?

Preserving Online Games for Posterity

But this is where it gets complicated. Zubon already pointed it out in his post:

Within your lifetime, the computer environment that ran these games will need to be emulated, because no existing computer will run your MMO without more effort than goes into playing a game off a 5.25″ floppy on your laptop.

Computer games are a kind of interpretative art that is worth nothing without the interpreter. To preserve games, you will need to preserve the original hardware, or, if you’re not quite as purist, create emulators. Preferably emulators that aren’t hardware-dependent themselves, so you could “stack” them to run one in another in another in another, like Matryoshkas, so you don’t fight an uphill battle creating up-to-date emulators over and over again.

It gets even more complicated with online games. How do you preserve an MMO? There are two things that form an MMO, and both are worth archiving, in my opinion.

Preserve server and client software: You need to get your hands on the software to make sure that at any point in time, the game will be accessible by booting the servers, installing the clients, and playing the game. This is actually quite a hard problem. Not only do you now need emulators for both the client and server platforms. Luckily, they might both run the same computer architecture (x86 rules supreme these days), but as soon as you need to emulate a server cluster, because the servers were not designed to run a whole world on a single machine, you’re in a world of trouble. It would be possible, but very cumbersome.

There are projects that try to find out how to properly archive and preserve virtual worlds. I’m sure I read about a funded research project somewhere, but I can’t find the source any more. Maybe I should ask Michael Thomét a.k.a. incobalt, he might know. “Research project” means though that it will probably be years before we have a stable, off-the-shelf solution for archivists.

There is also the problem of intellectual property and patents. While the client side software is readily available, the server side is practically never published by the game company. The best we can do these days typically are emulation servers, like Project 1999 for Everquest and SWGEmu for Star Wars Galaxies. But these come with two problems. First, they’re never 100% the original. Second, they’re on shaky legal terrain. Today, a game company can simply shut down their servers, and if it was hellbent on it, probably still hunt emulation servers and get them taken down.

Preserve the experience: But even if you have a server and clients available, what worth is a virtual world that you are in all by yourself? It’s like preserving an opera house without performing any operas. Ask yourself: what are the things that you remember from the time you played? It bet it isn’t the 10 million rats you killed over the course of 1 million quests. What we remember are those special moments, those attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, that we witnessed – and this is important – with others. You can’t capture these moments by emulating the server and client software, and playing the games years or decades after their death. Many of these moments are special because of their transience: Your guild’s first kill of Nefarian, that epic quest that you finally finished after weeks with help from your friends, the surprise attack in nullsec that annihilated a whole fleet of supercapitals. And even though it was plagued with lag and server overload, many people still speak fondly of the day their server opened the gates to Ahn’Qiraj.

I’m not sure it is technically possible to capture these events, even if you logged the state of the server and who is where and doing what at any given point in time. Just as computer games are interpretative in that they need a computer to run, these settings are interpretative in that they need the view point of those people who remember them to really matter.

In this respect, game videos become more than just a pastime. Those people that created them and uploaded them on youtube obviously considered them important enough to spend some of their free time on editing them to share them with others. I was overjoyed when I found two resources I had long searched for in the last week. The first one was a hard disk I had misplaced that contained some Fraps video I captured when I raided WotLK content with my guild. The second one was a website that contained videos of Curse-Guild raiding Old Naxxramas. I wouldn’t hesitate one second to suggest them as “culturally significant” in the context of WoW videos: they document a raid setting that has long been lost except in the source code repositories of Blizzard, and they do so in quite a good way, documenting both fight tactics (without being “strat vids”) and the overall experience. (We can discuss the choice of music, but at least it’s something else than cheese metal for once.)

In a way, even we bloggers can serve as a resource. Well, I’m not a good example myself, because I don’t have a lot of posts dedicated to a certain game, and my blog is still very young. But bloggers like Wilhelm Arcturus or bhagpuss often focus on their experience in specific games, and often very specific parts of one game (an instanced dungeon, a low-level zone, etc.)

All of these out-of-game resources are immensely important to preserving what a virtual world “was like”. They are similar to a time capsule, documenting all those peripheral bits and pieces that seem insignificant, but may prove invaluable for future historians. There is a reason many archaeologists love digging through kitchen dump. All these out-of-game resources form something akin to a midden for virtual worlds. (And no, I’m not implying either Wilhelm or bhagpuss produce rubbish! I love reading them!)

If we want to document for future generations the cultural significance that virtual worlds had for us, we will need to draw a broad picture. We will need to document why these games were more to us than “kill 10 rats” repeated 1000 times, then “kill the bad guy with 24 random strangers”. Or else all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in the rain.

4 thoughts on “How to Preserve Games as Cultural Assets

  1. Thanks for the kind words and the plug! I think there’s going to be a huge problem with archiving for the cultural historians of the future. The sheer volume of recorded material is already overwhelming, as this handy infographic demonstrates

    I don’t think it matters that there’s no real way of preserving the actual experience of playing WoW in 2005 or Everquest in 1999. There’s no way of preserving the experience of seeing the first night of Waiting For Godot or the premiere of Rite of Spring either. Performance is always temporal and transient. It’s important to preserve the records of performance, though, and we can all do that with our blogs and youtube videos. Best of luck to those who have to find some way of sorting through them to glean the examples they need though!

    I do hope that at least some people in the games industry are sufficiently historically aware to save the source code and the ancillary materials. I suspect, given the nature of geekdom, that probably happens more often than not.

    1. I think the main difference between the experience of the audience at a seminal theater premiere and the players in an MMO is that, in an MMO, other players are part of the content.It doesn’t matter much whether you’re in the theater alone or with 500 other people. Exceptions might be premieres like the Rite of Spring, that ended in scandal, and where the audience actually was part of the experience. That might be one of the reasons that F2P is so popular these days: it might be a good business model, but even those players that ride for free produce some kind of social “comfort noise”.

      That’s the main difference I see with MMOs. An offline computer game is sufficiently archived by having the shipped version and if necessary, an emulator (source code and secondary sources like reviews are nice to have, but not vital). A theater play is sufficiently archived by keeping a copy of the text, and a specific performance is sufficiently archived by recording it as video. But for an MMO, simply keeping the source is not enough, neither is recording cut scenes that are provided by the designers. Since their main goal (hopefully) is to provide a virtual world, you will want to archive how people “lived” and behaved in such a world. What was the everyday life like, what special events happened that shaped the community, etc?

      Of course, you are right, we are already doing our best to preserve our experiences in one way or another, in a form similar to classic diaries. The difference is the scope of data that is produced, and that we’re not sure yet how to extract meaningful information out of all that data. The visualization you linked is very nice to get a rough feeling of just how much data is being piled up day after day.

      I agree with your last point. Given the nature of code repositories, I would be appalled if somewhat-decently versioned and annotated source code wasn’t preserved for practically all eternity. I’m more worried about the ancillary information, though. One day nobody will remember how exactly you had configure server X to get a running setup of game Y; that’s the kind of information that gets lost much easier in my (granted, limited) experience.

  2. bhagpuss, that’s a great pic!

    flosch, I really have nothing to add to this post. Just stopping in to say I enjoyed it and agree.

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