404: Sorry, New Alexandria cannot be found

The burning the the Alexandrian Library stands throughout history as the symbol for lost knowledge and the need to make sure documents and works of art are protected. The many institutions responsible for preserving, archiving and digitising old literature attest to lessons learned from the Alexandrian parable. Naturally other mediums would have taken longer to attain the same standard of archival integrity as literature.

The U.S. Library of Congress has collected ‘historically or culturally significant’ works for preservation.

Film is now archived in countries all over the world and with the advent of the internet the odds are that new film is almost certainly cached somewhere. It wasn’t always that way however, and cinephiles get teary just thinking about the lost reels of footage from the late 1800s and early twentieth century. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo deals with this topic beautifully giving one example of a filmmaker’s work being melted down to make women’s shoes. Film was not viewed as culturally significant for a long time after its genesis and by the time it had embedded itself in the cultural consciousness it was too late for some of the primordial flicks.

When the Magnavox Odyssey was released in North America in 1972 it probably did not occur to anyone that this toy would require preserving as culturally significant. Now regarded as the first Computer Console, the simple but cleverly innovative design of Ralph H. Baer set in motion what would become the biggest entertainment industry in the world some thirty five years later. Preserving computer games is a tricky topic, not as simple as literature or even film. While not ideal, a PDF of a book accurately captures the essence of the author’s work. With film, the file format is too irrelevant, as so long as the full running time is replicable then you have succeeded in preserving the movie.

There are a growing number of institutes dedicated to preserving computer games, as the University of Michigan has helpfully collated. The problems of preserving games is indeed unique. A book is not tied to any other medium. If one were to write out Ulysses in full on a wall, essentially that is still Ulysses. Computer games are often tied to a now obsolete console or operating system which were often designed to discourage people tinkering with them. Luckily American legislation was passed by the Library of Congress that allows archivists to legally circumvent these technical constraints to preserve old games. The legislation also allowed archiving of games whereby one was required to be connected to a server from the game’s creators. In this scenario if the company simply pulls the plug, then the game is gone forever.

Literature archiving a computer game, we’ve gone full meta! Photo my own.

Also unique to preserving older games is the style and original copy being changed. Nintendo and their fellow companies will often release old classics on their new consoles but subtle changes may have occurred ultimately changing the original titles. Thus there are people attempting to archive whole libraries off old consoles. Recently a man attempting to archive all the original ROMs of the Super Nintendo System hit a snag when over 10,000 dollars worth of games were misplaced by UPS. Luckily they were recovered due to national media attention.

However, therein lies the problem. Individuals are left to pick up the slack not yet protected by similar institutions in film and literature. While there are non-profit companies looking to fill in the void, ultimately they are under financed for something which often requires serious capital. Until such time as a significant institution exists to preserve games, just hang on to your old cartridges and discs. At least old NES games were never melted down to make 1980s platform shoes.

Works Cited

Allegra, Frank. “Video game archivists celebrate new victory in preservation of abandoned games (update)”. Ploygon, 27 Oct 2015.

Grayson, Nathan. “One Month Later, Guy Recovers $10,000 Worth Of SNES Games That Were Lost In The Mail”. Kotaku, 23 Feb 2017.

Scorsese, Martin director. Hugo. Paramount Pictures, 2011.