We have a memory problem


Video games have an issue with memory. Sometimes development and culture within the medium ends up locked in obeisance to nostalgia, an assumed audience of pixel art and chiptune fans who really just want a Final Fantasy VII remake or yet another Legend of Zelda. At other times it's like we can't remember the past five years of history, routinely hailing "firsts" that have certainly been done before, or treating well-trod debates as if they were new conversations each time they simmer to the surface again.

According to the Internet Archive's Jason Scott, much of games' history risks being lost to the winds. So does a lot of writing and criticism — a lot of us former contributors to storied magazine Edge just found out a lot of our online content has simply disappeared in the latest migration.

And as much as folks like me lament the lack of women's voices in games, or the absence of mainstream interest in games as a sophisticated form, the accomplished J.C. Herz was writing sophisticated game columns in the New York Times just 15 years ago, and I never even knew til recently. She also, like me, wrote a memoir of the 90s internet during the 1990s, not unlike my own recounting published just a couple years ago. We also have the same big curly hair. Anyone's time paradox gone missing?

"Older software is hard to get to," Scott said. Today, game developers could very well be throwing away history. "The thing about game and computer history is that it's both adored and ignored," he added. People typically don't recognize the historical value of things in the here and now.

Especially as so many games move to online, preservation continues to have emerging challenges. "Software half-life is ridiculous," Scott said, adding that the average multiplayer network game lasts about 18 months before the servers are turned off.

Part of the challenge of game preservation is also the way people see them. "Games are not just products, but they're also products," he said. The drive to preserve these items isn't so urgent. But, Scott said, games are artifacts and game history overall needs to be preserved.

The work of preserving game history can take shapes like The Internet Arcade — over 900 arcade games playable in-browser — or keeping collections of game magazines. It can even be as simple as keeping a copy of your own work, or even hanging onto your office Christmas cards, Scott says.