Digital preservation

Reading time: 12 mins

Whilst skimming through my Twitter feed a while ago, I dropped out of the stream quickly to read a post that had been tweeted by Kotaku, the well-known gaming blog. The post caught my eye because it was about Mass Effect, one of my all-time favourite gaming series, but it ended up prompting a deeper thought.

The blog post covered the story of some free DLC that had been released a couple of years ago for the final game in the series. The terms and conditions around the DLC actually stated that the offer of the free content was due to expire on April 12th 2014, leading some to worry that this content would simply cease to exist. Bioware, the developers, have stated that there are no plans to retire the DLC, but the idea of the terms themselves, and the comments on the Kotaku article, were particularly interesting.

With PC gaming in particular, piracy has been rife over the years. This can obviously cause some huge problems for game studios, but does mean that games often extend their lifespan beyond the norm. Sites like MyAbandonware offer up free downloads of games released from 1980 to 2002, providing instructions for how to run then using modern-day equipment, via appropriate emulators. As someone who grew up playing a variety of these, including the wonderful Lost Secret of the Rainforest, it’s great that these games aren’t resigned to the bottom of a drawer, in 5 1/4” floppy disk format.

Bloaty Head disease

I came back to this thought again recently, when I was down in Kent to visit family, and was staying at my mum’s house. Unfortunately when I woke up that morning, I realised I was having a rather dangerously bad allergic reaction to my hair being dyed a couple of days previously. I’ll spare you the photos of my huge moonface, but trust me, it was ridiculous.

Mum rushed me over to the doctor, only to be told what I already knew (I’m a veteran of bad reactions), which is that 1) I should stop being stubborn and stupid and not dye my hair 2) take Piriton until my head is normal sized. I took issue with this – everyone knows that the correct medical response to a bloaty head is to pop it and inflate a new one!

If I wasn’t thinking about it already, one of the responses to this tweet was to link me through to a download of Theme Hospital. But I didn’t want to play it on my Mac. On getting back to Mum’s, I tried, and failed to find my old Playstation console and the associated games. I did however find my NES, an N64, and gadgets including my first MP3 player, a Palm Pilot, and an old GPS tracker that we’d use when biking in Jakarta.


Experience matters

Even though the content of Theme Hospital was accessible to me, there was something about the experience that was lacking without the original console. Theme Hospital, along with many other Playstation games, has an association of playing them when I was off school sick. It was about finding the disc, making sure it was spinning ok, and playing with that classic pad. It wasn’t just about the game itself; it was about the experience. I wanted that as much as the game itself. Whilst it’s fantastic that old games are being preserved through emulators, we need to ensure that something doesn’t get lost in translation to our modern devices.

Whilst PC games are readily available, other console games are less so. With the introduction of more rigorous DRM into games, and a move to a download-focused model, we’re more likely to lose content to the kind of scenarios outlined in some of the Kotaku article’s comments:

“You know, this actually happened for Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. The contracts ran out, and didn’t get renewed, so if you don’t have the games DLC, including 2 full characters, you literally *can’t* get them ever again. I picked up all the costumes the day before they got pulled, and if I ever delete them, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get them again, because they were 100% removed from the store.”

– Kyosai7

“It’s definitely a worry for preservation efforts. Digital-only games, DLCs, DRM protected content, MMOs without private servers (be they running with server-side actual, reverse-engineered or emulated software) and store-specific pre-order content all run the risk of being lost to time.

For console gaming it was the 6th generation where this became a worry. It becomes even more of an issue if games are authenticated by a server. For all the complaints Nintendo’s digital content gets (being tied to devices rather than accounts) at least if you turn your Wii U on in ten years time the game will still be there and be playable as it doesn’t have to check in with something that might not exist any more.

When it comes to digital obsolescence things have been lost already. Obscure file formats missing the programs to use them, failing hardware and degrading storage mediums.

Emulation for hardware, software ripping and the work of crackers breaking copy-protection, DRM and always-online connectivity may be the best hope for preserving games. Even then, the state of original Xbox emulation is incredibly dire and there are some fantastic console exclusives on that system.”

– Ellen J Miller

Indeed, one of the games I have sunk most time into recently, Titanfall, is entirely at risk of extinction. Whilst it comes on a disc (unless you download it directly), even the ‘Campaign’ mode (if you can even call it that…) is entirely reliant on multiplayer matchmaking, as well as Xbox Live services if you’re playing on a One like me. As soon as EA or Microsoft take away the servers, the game will cease being accessible in any format. It’s not only the future too – as Ellen points out, a lot has already been lost. As someone who has procrastinated about converting some Sony Hi8 tapes for around 20 years because I don’t have the relevant hardware any more, and where the tape itself has probably now degraded, it’s clear that I’ve waited too long to start my preservation.

Device preservation

Even if we are able to capture the content, we go back to my point about the experience. When talking to a friend of mine on this subject, he stated:

“We have museums and grade listing for physical things in life, for those historic buildings, but who and what is going to show the next gen, or even this one, what 16 bit looked like; what it played like? I was showing my little brother a YouTube video of the Super Monaco Grand Prix game I adored on Megadrive and he couldn’t believe that I “had to put up with that!”. I didn’t ‘put up with it’ – I loved it! Thats all there was and at the time it was amazing. (Video)”

Darren Ware

Being able to keep the context of our digital records is equally as important as the content itself.

A recent YouTube video that has done the rounds across all social networks (7.5mil views and counting…) shows children of varying ages reacting to a Sony Walkman. We shake our heads, or laugh, and talk about the youth of today as if they were a different species, but really, this video isn’t so surprising. Technology has moved on hugely in a short space of time, and it’s understandable that predecessor devices such as the Walkman are mocked by the kids of today. The introduction of sound in recorded form was a huge leap in itself, and in the same way that one child scoffed at the fact that headphones had to be used with the Walkman, perhaps at some point we won’t even play music through the air with sound waves any more. The same song could be played by an orchestra, a gramophone, a turntable, a cassette, even a Betamax tape, through to a Walkman, Discman, mp3 player, or any number of the music playing devices around now – but it’s the context that makes it special. How did people listen? Why did they chose to interact in that way? What was their experience like? This is what I hope we don’t lose with games.

Some places are doing some great work to maintain older formats. I visited (and lost a lot of quarters in – I blame the rum) Barcade in New York (see header image) earlier this year, which is a bar full of old arcade games. Places such as the Heart of Gaming in London are also focused on preservation, and there are many other places dotted around the world, including Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum, or the National Media Museum in the UK doing great work on this front.

Preserving the internet

Of course, this concept of digital degradation and extinction is not solely the problem of the gaming industry. With games, these are primarily a one way flow – they are created, and released to the general public as consumers. With the internet however, we are all creators, and are generating a huge amount of new content every minute of every day. The preservation of all of this is a huge task.

The Wayback Machine has been a long-time resource for those who wish to seek out early versions of sites, and has done a great job preserving what it can, however it can only do so much. Other projects, such as CERN’s attempt to restore the first URL, and to recreate the line mode browser, have helped to play a part with preservation. Individual organisations can do much to preserve, or to destroy content.

A recent post by the Brooklyn Museum gathered some praise for theoretically looking to engage better with users (Re Foursquare: “It was confusing to have the branded page (that most people didn’t know about) sitting alongside the venue page, which is created and maintained by site users“), however there was more criticism aimed at their strategy because of the destruction of content that it caused. There’s a good summary post by Jeremy Keith in which he explains that the changes didn’t just involve closing accounts – it meant that all contents, interactions, and associated user-generated data was now lost. Irritatingly I read another great post on the matter but now can’t find it – I’m hoping that it’s just misplaced and not gone!

We often talk about ‘breaking the internet’ with regards to the removal of content, and where people do not employ appropriate 301 (or other relevant) redirects. When we move to be deliberately destructive, we take bits of history with us.

Personal responsibility

Exactly how we can preserve everything is a tricky subject, especially when our data is being held by third parties, and is fundamentally linked to others. I suppose that a huge question to be answered is whether it should even be preserved and who should make these decisions – in the case of the Brooklyn Museum, it appears that they simply deemed that existing comments were less important than their content and ongoing engagement. How do we decide when something is worth saving, and has value? All of the huge volumes of data that we’re generating now simply won’t be sustainable to keep forever – as much as storage is ‘cheap’, most companies probably won’t want to keep data for 100 years, simply for sentimental and altruistic anthropological reasons.

We move into especially difficult areas when we start to discuss digital content created by, and ‘owned’ by people who have since died. I’m not aware of any ‘digital inheritance’ laws, but what happens to our blogs, our music and video collections, our tweets and accounts once we pass away? Should they be closed down, left as memorials as many do, and what happens if the service provider then disappears? As our lives become more and more entwined with digital, and the lines between our physical reality and the online world blend, this is something that will likely start to become more important.

For me, it comes down to whether data matters on a personal level. I collect a lot of data that means something to me, and me only. Things like Tea Tracker, my habit of taking photos of hotel room numbers or ’smoking areas of the world’, or my incessant documentation of everyday, mundane things that would never interest anyone else. I like that one day I’ll be able to look back on my life and see the little details, and hopefully have emotional responses, in the same way that I wouldn’t if I simply documented top-level facts. I’d like for these little things to be preserved for gaming, and with the internet too.

But what happens when that personal data becomes public interest? This article, covering art Andy Warhol created on an Amiga (credit Paul Swain), gives a fascinating insight into digital content that was never publicly released, yet has huge public interest. It was discovered by chance, and may never have been rescued from their obsolete formats otherwise.

Control your information; do what you can for general preservation

The easiest way to ensure that preservation happens, is to control it yourself. Services such as twitter offer a way to download your tweets, rather than relying on them to keep your history safe. If something matters to you, keep it, preserve it, and hope that everything you can’t control is preserved by someone else. This is exactly the reason why I will never get rid of my ancient gadgets, my numerous games consoles (including my amazing Asian multicarts and hacked/ripped off games), or my old mixtapes. I feel we should all try a bit harder to live by the following:

  • Keep your personal responsibility in mind, but also do what you can on a more general level to aid preservation.
  • Don’t destroy the internet.
  • Keep in mind what is meaningless to you may be incredibly important and sentimental to others.
  • Preserve experiences as much as content.