In September last year, videogame publisher EA quietly removed several older titles from Apple’s App Store. One of these titles was Flight Control, created by Melbourne studio Firemint (now EA-owned studio Firemonkeys). At a time when Apple had no interest in what the iPhone’s functionality might mean for videogames – an almost unimaginable notion today – Flight Control took advantage of the new touchscreen technology to create a videogame that could not have existed on any previous platform.

It was a huge success, and alongside other early titles it paved the way forward for contemporary mobile gaming, and it remains one of the most successful Australian videogames ever made. If you previously purchased Flight Control from the App Store, you should still be able to download it. If you did not, you will now never be able to access the iPhone version of Flight Control.

The preservation issue

Videogames have a preservation issue. The perpetual and profitable march ‘forward’ by technology renders videogames obsolete within years of their release. People purchase a Sony PlayStation, and thus pack up the Super Nintendo and all its games. The Atari 2600 in the garage is full of dust and spiders. Even if it still works, trying to get it to function on a modern day high-definition television might not even be possible.

Videogame publishers then take advantage of this by rereleasing ‘high-definition’ versions of older games for people to purchase again and again. Console ‘generations’ bring the rhetoric home as each new Sony PlayStation is incrementally better than the last (PlayStation 4 is better than PlayStation 3). Microsoft take a different and even more ahistorical approach, as the third Xbox console is called the Xbox One: we have arrived; forget all those previous lesser games, this is it – for another five years, anyway. When preservation is left to the corporations that sell the games, then preservation is only at the service of profits.

The situation only becomes more dire as videogames are increasingly not purchased in physical stores but downloaded from online storefronts. This is convenient for the consumer who no longer has to travel to the local shops to buy a disc, and it allows the publishers to cut out the middlemen of distributors and retailers to sell a limitless number of copies at a far lower cost.

This is as true for small mobile titles purchased through Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store as it is for the massive summer blockbusters purchased through the online stores of Valve’s Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox Live, and Sony’s PlayStation Store. Access to a previously purchased game is no longer dependent on the individual’s ability to store their physical belongings responsibly, but on a corporation’s decision that it will keep the digital storefront available.

There have been moves to counter this constant and ongoing erasure of one of the most significant creative forms of the late twentieth century. Not bound by the same legal frameworks, the most significant archiving work is produced by everyday people digitising their old game collections to be (illegally) downloaded and played by anyone who also downloads the home-brew emulation software. Most of my personal experience of early Nintendo titles was obtained through such emulations.

The archival challenge

Archiving and sustaining history is a challenge for every art form that can never be fulfilled perfectly. Old paintings fade, books go mouldy, original copies of films are lost in warehouse fires. The perceived immateriality of digital forms such as videogames is often seen as a miracle solution, not susceptible to the degradation of mere material artefacts.

But the truth is far more dire: digital artefacts are no less dependent on their material grounding than non-digital artefacts. The only difference now is that the material grounding no longer leaves the possession of the corporations who sell the immaterial work, and when it is no longer financially profitable for them to maintain access the work, they will take it away again. It is curator-ship by capitalism, preservation by profit, and it is turning the history of videogames into a scorched earth.

The responsibility to preserve this cultural form, then, falls as it always does on public cultural institutions such as state galleries, museums, and libraries. Museums such as New York’s MOMA have begun to curate collections, while museums dedicated to the videogame form have emerged through the Computerspiel Museum in Berlin. Academic research projects, such as the Play It Again project in Australia and New Zealand, are working to not just salvage and render playable significant early videogames but the surrounding documentation and stories as well. Such a project is particularly important here in Australia and New Zealand where our early history of videogame development is often dwarfed by the better-knowns stories of North America and Japan.

Saving videogame history requires public institutions willing to tackle the problems that digital preservation brings up and, just as importantly, corporate entities willing to allow those institutions to preserve their ‘intellectual property’ in the first place. Otherwise, the history of videogames is doomed to be the history of profitable videogames.

This post is part of Born Digital 2016, the inaugural digital preservation week – an initiative of the National and State Libraries of Australasia raising awareness of the importance of preserving digital content for the public good.

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