Game Preservation SIG/White Paper/Before It's Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper

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2008 White Paper answering the "Why should we preserve videogames?" for developers / studios, containing information on the "Why" as well as a little practical advice on "How" at the end.

Final Information

Title: Before It's Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper
Lead and Editor: Henry Lowood
Section Writers: Andrew Armstrong, Devin Monnens, Zach Vowell, Judd Ruggill, Ken McAllister, Rachel Donahue
Additional Editor: Jon-Paul Dyson
Proofreaders: Stuart Feldhamer, Jo Barwick
Downloads: DOC, ODT, PDF, Lulu Copies, Front Cover
ISBN: 978-0-557-05322-3
Released: March 2009


The Game Preservation Special Interest Group was founded in 2004, only five years ago. Even in that short time, however, interest in the preservation of digital games and virtual worlds has intensified remarkably. Today, cultural institutions such as universities, libraries, and museums have begun to collect, display, and make available artifacts of game culture, and opportunities for the practical or critical study of game content and technology are increasing rapidly. Game studies, a field that barely existed ten years ago, now boasts of annual conferences, journals, and organizations dedicated to it.
All of these developments are fine and good. In this white paper, however, we address a threat not just to academic game studies and the historical appreciation of game culture, but also to game developers and the industry itself: the potential disappearance of original game content and intellectual property through media decay, obsolescence, and loss.
We wish to be very clear about one point, so at the risk of repetition, allow us to say it again in other words: if we fail to address the problems of game preservation, the games you are making will disappear, perhaps within a few decades. You will lose access to your own intellectual property, you will be unable to show new developers the games you designed or that inspired you, and you may even find it necessary to re-invent a bunch of wheels.
The intended readership of this white paper, therefore, is primarily the members of the IGDA. Our intention in this document is to present the problems that you face, before it's too late. We want to get your attention. We hope that we can achieve this goal by distributing this white paper at the Game Developers' Conference in 2009. Once we have your attention, the next step will be the preparation and distribution of a second white paper on best practices and solutions at GDC 2010. In the meantime, please consider joining the Game Preservation SIG and helping us in our work.


(ARCHIVE) Important Information

Brainstorm Page: 2008 brainstorm
Final Draft Deadline: Sunday 18th January 2009 (Aim to publish for GDC 2009 23-27 March with proofreading time)
Title: Before It's Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper


Lead and Editor: Henry Lowood
Section Writers: Andrew Armstrong, Henry Lowood, Devin Monnens, Zach Vowell, Judd Ruggill, Ken McAllister
Additional Editor: Jon-Paul Dyson
Proofreaders: - Provisional, might be SIG wide - Chris Lepine, Tom Woolley, Stuart Feldhamer, Jo Barwick, Stephen Webley. (+Possibly Benj Edwards)
Other possibles: Dr. James Newman (National Videogame Archive/University of Bath Spa)

Publisher: IGDA
Corporate Author: IGDA Game Preservation SIG
Authors: See above.

Content and Style Notes

  • Concentrating on the preservation of videogames (the more physical side), not recording the history of them in the entirety (which is a much broader topic).
  • Title gives urgency to the issue. The title could be changed if something better (and videogame related!) is thought of (email around if think of one).
  • "Digital games" - two words, main term to use in the paper. Not well defined, but basically something involving electronic hardware to play a game.
  • "Videogame" - if used, is one word. Less encompassing of the medium (some early boxes were not video based games at all. Some games don't use video)
  • "White paper" - if used, is two words.
  • Glossary will be included at the end once the sections are written, so leave out technical explanations
  • Will include bibliography hopefully


  • Page limit suggestion: 20-30 Pages
  • Section limit suggestion: 1500 Words (3-4 pages, depending)

0. Introduction

Writer(s): Henry Lowood

Content: Introduction to the paper.

1. Loss [Dire need to archive/Why we are losing history]

Writer(s): Devin Monnens


  • a. Digital Decay (bit rot, data loss)
  • b. Obsolescence (platforms, OS)
  • c. Business practices (DRM, digital platforms, publishers turning off things, marketing)
    • Examples for all 3, more from the community too, and can be used in the Case Study section.

2. Significance [Why we need to keep our history/Why is our history important]

Writer(s): Devin Monnens (+ Possibly Dr. James Newman)


  • a. Significance of game culture
    • Just give us lots of reasons why this is important! Make us care!
  • b. Importance to the industry of solving the problem

3. What constitutes history [What we need to save/What is important for history]

Writer(s): Zach Vowell


  • a. What is important? More than you think!
    • Be positive, it's not that game developers have too much to archive, but instead don't realise how important their materials of many times are.
    • Consider the person might know nothing about what constitutes the physical and digital side of digital game history. Examples might be a good idea.
  • Some examples of documentation types [feel free to add/edit]:
    • Design documents of all kinds
    • Development-related correspondence
    • Artwork, such as conceptual art, sketches and storyboards
    • Prototype versions of games
    • Game development source code, assets, tools, and the resulting binary executables
    • Machinima and other recordings of gameplay
    • Development-related maps (shadow maps, influence maps, texture maps, etc.)
    • Scheduling/planning documents
    • Devoloper/Publisher budgets, forecasting, market research, and other business-related documentation
    • Other documentation related to the developer/publisher relationship
    • Company newsletters and circulars
    • Advertising and marketing materials, especially pieces used for unique, one-time purposes
    • Press kits and demos
    • Legal documentation
    • Books on game design, development, and game theory
    • Source materials (i.e., writings, film, art, etc. that inspired a game)
    • Powerpoint presentations for conferences and meetings
    • Game magazines, including clippings files
    • Records from groups, organizations, and individuals who are associated with the videogame industry, but are not involved in game development

4. Case Study: "What If We Do Nothing?"

Whenever archivists and collectors assemble, their conversation inevitably turns to a question that always proves self-congratulatorily vexatious: "What if nothing is done to identify, locate, catalog, and preserve this material?" Among such confederacies, "this material" could be anything from Khmer folkware or Scottish incunabula to antique jack planes and back issues of Penthouse. In any case, the anxiety at the heart of this question--"What if we do nothing?--is simultaneously an expression of value, a fear of regret, and a condemnation of the short-sighted masses.

At a certain level, though, the question at hand--"What if we do nothing to archive and preserve digital games?"--is spurious: collectively, we (i.e., publishers, players, pundits, and scholars as well as developers) do nothing every day. Rather than collaborate systemically and systematically to conserve the cultural and material heritage of our medium, we go about the process of preservation idiosyncratically and haphazardly, if at all. We carefully preserve some things (e.g., limited edition consoles, games, and memorabilia), casually discard others (e.g., poorly rated games, game packaging and documentation), and generally think more about present and future titles than past ones. Occasionally, fortune smiles and a case of well-preserved games or consoles is discovered in a long-neglected back room or storage closet. More often, though, tastes and technologies change and "old" games (i.e., titles more than ninety days old) simply--and perhaps naturally--fade from view. The art and practice of digital game preservation is left to hobbyists and collectors, whose interests, archival sensibilities, and preservational expertise vary greatly and are often less about the importance of art, labor, organization, and memory than the exchange value of rare goods.

The question "What if we do nothing to archive and preserve digital games?" is misleading too because in calling for an answer it obscures the fact that ultimately there cannot be one. Once a game is lost (and not merely misplaced or forgotten), it is gone forever. One cannot suddenly produce a copy and then contrast the state of the art--to answer "what if"--pre- and post-discovery.

And yet, the question of inactivity, of doing nothing formal and concerted in the way of game conservation is at the heart of this white paper. Indeed, it is at the heart of the digital game medium itself, for whatever development, play, and study of games takes place now and in the future is always done in the context of its antecedents, in the context of all of the games that have already been developed, played, and studied. In this sense, conservation is a part of every gamic act, from design and development to marketing and play to analysis and storage. Each of these actions, alone and collectively, forms a part of the logic by which people understand what a digital game is, how and why it works, what it takes to bring one from concept to completion, and the pleasures and problematics a game, its development, and play are capable of producing.

Unfortunately, this logic is impoverished by the vagaries of memory. The human mind is as porous as it is prodigious, allowing some things to escape just as others are retained in intricate detail. One might well recall the fun of Time Pilot (1982, Konami) or Boogerman: A Pick and Flick Adventure (1994, Interplay Entertainment), for example, but perhaps not the specific mechanics underpinning that fun. Yet, it is precisely these specifics where, so to speak, the finger meets the nostril because they provide the context for and the inner windings of the fun those games afford. Game preservation is thus both a mnemonic (i.e., it spurs researchers to remember details that would otherwise be forgotten) and creative (i.e., it leads to the generation of new historical knowledge) act, one that works to combat the leakiness of memory as well as provide the kind of functional detail key to spurring growth and development of the medium.

The same is true for other media, and film in particular provides an excellent case study on the value of preservation. Despite the fragility of film stock--celluloid is in many ways far more delicate than most forms of digital media storage--films of all kinds and of all eras have been incredibly well preserved across a variety of institutions, from local collections (e.g., Fukuoka City Public Film Archive; Provincial Archives of New Brunswick) to university archives (e.g., University of the Witwatersrand Archive; UCLA Film and Television Archive) to national centers (e.g., Laos National Film Archive and Video Centre; National Film Archive of Iran). This widespread and deep conservation has sustained the cultural, economic, educational, and creative viability of the medium for more than a century and through a host of challenges from competing media such as television, the Internet, satellite radio, cellular telephony, and digital games. One need only look to the proliferation of film festivals around the world or to the remarkable and influential power of the Hollywood star system to see that the medium possesses a cachet distinct from other media, a cachet due in large part to the enduring record of the films of the past and the ways that record continues to influence film production, consumption, and study today.

Ultimately, then, despite the spuriousness of the question of "What if we do nothing?" we must attend to it directly. The fact of the matter is that materials do go missing, and virtually all of these materials would contribute to the historical understanding of the digital game were they to be found. We turn, then, to a very brief catalog of the problems of doing nothing for game preservation.


The number of known instances in which digital game material has been lost is quite large and fall into a variety of categories. We will not cover them all in this section of the white paper, but rather will treat three of the greatest locales of absence: (1) source code and unreleased games; (2) published games; and (3) ephemera. These sections are by no means comprehensive; rather, they are intended to outline the rough circumference of the major historical sinkpits for digital games as a way both to flag work yet to be done and to suggest the range of probably consequences should that work go undone.

Source Code and Unreleased Games

Daniel Bienvenu has documented nineteen games for the ColecoVision System that were advertised--including screenshots--but never released; the whereabouts of these games and their source code is unknown. The researchers at Games That Weren't, a web-based archive of information related to lost games for various platforms, has identified more than 75 games that made it into the alpha stage of development (at least), but then vanished. This issue plagues the latest consoles as well as older systems; researchers at, for instance, have documented at least sixteen titles for the PS3 that have been canceled since that system was released. Mothballed games are not necessarily permanently lost, of course, nor should such titles necessarily be released to the public--there are more than enough bad games on the shelves as it is. It is important for those committed to game preservation to recognize these stoppages, however, because such actions are often the first step in a game's complete disappearance: A well-funded game is canceled, the developer cut loose, the physical studio packed up and closed down, the hard drives stored, ruined, and lost.

Published Games

There are also many lost titles that made it through the development process and actually felt the cold steel of a store shelf. Calling these games "lost" might be a slight exaggeration; even in the rarest of cases there are usually few copies of the game in the hands of dedicated collectors somewhere. But even in these cases, such isolated copies do little for game studies because they cannot be accessed by researchers; they are thus functionally "lost." Some examples:

  • Mr. Boston was a Vectrex-based 1983 promotional adaptation Clean Sweep developed for the Mr. Boston distillery in Massachusetts. Considered ultra-rare by collectors with auction prices to match.
  • Shootout at Old Tucson for the 3DO is believed to be a one-of-a-kind game developed in 1994 by Amer Lasergames.
  • 3-D Rubik's Cube was designed by Peter Niday for the Atari 2600. Approximately three hundred copies are known to exist.
  • American Hero CD, designed for the Atari Jaguar system in 2003, was the first Jaguar game to extensively use full-motion video and is only one of two games for that system that used David Schwartz' Jaguar GameFilm technology.
  • Les Schtroumpfs Autour du Monde [The Smurfs Tour the World] was the last Sega Master System Game released in Europe. Since its release in 1996, fewer than one hundred copies have been located.

Each of these examples holds important details about the game industry that at present cannot be sussed out because these games are inaccessible. Mr. Boston is one of the earliest instances of a game "mod" as well as of a corporate digital game. Shootout at Old Tucson is remarkable for its tie-in not to movies--standard fare by 1994--but to an actual movie set that served as the location for dozens of classic western films. Peter Niday's 3-D Rubik's Cube not only demonstrated how frenzied the Rubic's Cube craze became (Atari had two versions of the puzzle for its VCS), but also broadly extended the game play boundaries of the 2600 hardware with some of that system's most brilliant programming. And American Hero CD and Les Schtroumpfs Autour du Monde were both swan song games for two marginally successfully and internationally distributed systems, which is to say that they are milestone games that only the tiniest fraction of game researchers today have been able to play.


Finally, there is the loss of all the peripheral material that surrounds game systems, from game documentation to memorabilia to tie-in products to corporate communications. Here again, the known losses are great and are likely dwarfed by the unknown losses. Hundreds of development studios have started and folded over the past half-century, most of them having made only small contributions to the history of the game medium. Considered individually, these studios and their creations may be relatively insignificant. Collectively, however, these numerous companies--their games, vision statements, financial structures, leadership, development models, and so on--add up to a highly detailed history of the industry and the medium it is built around. As a consequence, the loss of any material from these companies equates to missing pieces of the picture by which researchers are able to interpret their subject. This lack is not only a loss for designers interested in learning about the past in order to make better games in the future. It is also a loss to all the other people in the game industry who might benefit from knowing what has come before in their particular professions: legal papers, business plans, industrial designs, technical specifications, management strategies, marketing schemes, and innumerable other information sources.

What If We Do Something

In his essay "The System of Collecting," Jean Baudrillard writes:

What makes a collection transcend mere accumulation is not only the fact of its being culturally complex, but the fact of its incompleteness, the fact that it lacks something. Lack always means lack of something unequivocally defined: one needs such and such an absent object. (23)

From this perspective, the serious work of game preservation would be from the outset an unending commission. Were such a charge to be proffered, however, the results would be prolific and profound. Indeed, Baudrillard observes that collectible objects "constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together his world, his personal microcosm" (7). This intimate and microcosmic system of collecting has sustained digital game history for decades, but its limitations are now becoming painfully clear to researchers--academic and industry--whose vision of the future is increasingly hindered by their accidental ignorance of the past.

Historian of computing Kevin Schürer remarks in his essay "The Implication of Information Technology for the Future Study of History" that there are many countervailing forces acting upon the project of preserving electronic media but argues that the most fundamental of them is inherent in digital media themselves. Contrasting the work of archivists working with volumes of physical letters, notebooks, drawings, reports, memos and other documents that attest to a person's ideas and achievements, archivists of the digital age do not usually have access to such an historical record. As a result, says Schürer, "The practice of history itself will be subject to change" (159). The preservation of digital games is attendant with--and could even become the vanguard for--these coming changes in the practice of history, but only if we--publishers, developers, scholars, collectors, and all others interested in preserving the history of this medium--do something now, even in the face of what will always be the inevitable incompleteness of our collective project.

5 - Some Possible Solutions

Writer(s): Andrew Armstrong


  • How to Preserve things
  • a. What's going on now
    • Archives around!
  • b. how you can help
    • There are possibilities to do things on games people work on now - marking things for archiving later, for instance. Institutional repository, or trusted repository.
    • Allowing copies of digital media into archives is an easy route. Can be dark archives with limited access for copyright concerns.
  • c. preview of what 2d paper will cover - What More Do We Need To Do Yet? [should this be its own section?]
    • This is more the "How to preserve things" in a technical standpoint, possibly not aimed solely at developers.

Sources list

To Do List

From the November 14th Meeting, not all directly whitepaper related

  • Everyone
    • IGDA Funding, send email to Henry for suggestions of things to ask for.
    • Email around any paper sources that is relevant for this paper.
  • Henry - Email "Toy Museum" man from GDC Roundtable. Email Dr. James Newman to see if he can write section 2, or help with it. Check if the list of GDC roundtable people has anyone else on it worth emailing (to at least get on the mailing list).
  • Andrew - Check how things are going in one month. Check the IA once Videogame Patches section is approved for a digital archive of "Videogame Documents" (Henry knows Brewster Kahle, and something to do with Library of Congress project)
  • Devin - Contact Judd Ruggill (for relevant paper), Aki Nakamura (to see if he has input).
  • Zach - Check Brenda's involvement.
  • Someone - Email the group about the Case Study stuff. Some input has already happened on examples. A writer would be great, more examples would be great.

Additional notes from meeting:

  • IGDA Funding requests need to be put forward.
  • Restart the Digital Game Canon (can be bi-yearly perhaps, or web based).
  • SIG Projects (bring up on mailing list now/in the future):
    • Bibliography (list of papers, related to videogames, related to preservation, indexed etc.)
    • White Paper Case Study Input - also, might want to contact general IGDA mailing list for help here if general SIG can't help.

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