Report from Game On! The challenges of digital games preservation and why it matters

About 30 interested people from a variety of backgrounds met on April 2nd at the University of Sydney to hear Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell from Flinders University speak at The Recordkeeping Roundtable event ‘Game On! The Challenges of digital game preservation and why it matters’.

Melanie spoke of the distinct Australasian voice to be heard in early games, noting the game onimportance of early initiatives using games as educational resources, and the importance of the games in how individual computing and programing skills were developed.  Focussed on 1980s microcomputer games, Play it Again, supported by an ARC Linkage Grant, is the project currently driving much of Melanie’s work.  Play it Again is a  game history/preservation project focused on Australian and New Zealand digital games of the 1980s, the project has dual cultural and technical ‘streams’.  It  will be both uncovering the history of local production and consumption of local games, and developing techniques for preserving the complex digital artefacts that games are. Over 700 individual titles have been identified to date.  Melanie also talked about another project, the Australasian Heritage Software Database which is collecting documentation from the public – and, where feasible, source code – in order to create a picture of the software written locally, and presenting this online.

Melanie spoke of the need to, and the challenges of, putting together a cross disciplinary (and international) community of interest needed to address the issues of games preservation; the role of the engaged end user community who are really responsible for the continuing existence of many games to date; problems with copyright and intellectual property, particularly where ownership is not known (the orphan work issue); the need for multiple perspectives in the area. The requirement that games should be preserved so they can be played and remain playable into the future presents a significant challenge to much of our institutional practice. Also challenging is the  control and description for items of software and games within archives/library holdings  where they may not be adequately identified in our essentially paper-based cataloguing/descriptive techniques.

Melanie noted with enthusiasm the inclusion of digital culture in the recent National Cultural Policy ‘Creative Australia’ and the opportunities that this opens and noted the National Film and Sound Archive’s innovative suggestion (not yet implemented) to include a portion of any government funding to the digital games industry for long term archiving of their work.

Melanie regularly tweets about her work at @AgainPlay and @ourdigiheritage

So much of Melanie’s research is of relevance to the recordkeeping community.

In a practical sense, games preservation can teach us more about complex forms of digital preservation and keeping data executable.

In terms of recordkeeping theory, Melanie’s work focuses on the key point that software matters. In our terminology, we need a broader awareness that software too is an integral part of the record.

As discussed above, Melanie’s work is also addressing challenging issues like authenticity and originality. How valid are these notions in a digital world? What is critical to sustain within them and what, if we are to be pragmatic about preservation, are we going to have to let go?

Melanie is also effectively performing business system appraisal. In assessing early games and their platforms, software, source code, systems documentation, player memories, experiences images etc she is essentially identifying core components of business systems that will be needed to understand and interpret these systems into the future. We can use this research in active business environments to try and work out what we require from the technologies of today to sustain the records they support into the future.

The broader purpose of the Play it again and the Australasian Heritage Software Database projects is also to build capacity in the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the born digital, and to build awareness of the many and complex issues associated with maintaining born digital content through time. This too is obviously an issue close to the heart of our community.

Due to the nature of gaming technologies, Melanie’s research is also necessarily assessing the legal copyright and licensing frameworks that impact on games preservation. Again, this is of key relevance to recordkeepers as software licensing issues will become more and more critical to us as we look to maintain accessibility to the business systems of today.

So Melanie provided a huge amount of food for thought and we will actively maintain an interest in the work that Melanie and her team produce.

Melanie was a great speaker and we would like to warmly thank her for sharing her innovative research and fascinating ideas with us.

– Report by Kate Cumming

View a Storify of tweets from Game on!

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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