Rachel Donahue


Archives grad student with a zombie preparedness plan.

  • Session Proposal: Preserving Videogames (and their genesis)


    Here we have an entire (un)conference devoted to games,  yet unlike most other materials commonly targeted by humanistic inquiry, games (specifically videogames) have very few cultural heritage resources (archives, museums, libraries) dedicated to their preservation and access.

    As part of the Preserving Virtual Worlds team, I’m interested in the so-called significant properties or essential characteristics of a videogame–those features that can’t be altered without affecting the authenticity of the work. The Society of American archivists defines authenticity as:

    n. ~ 1. The quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

    With additional notes that:

    Authenticity is closely associated with the creator (or creators) of a record. First and foremost, an authentic record must have been created by the individual represented as the creator. The presence of a signature serves as a fundamental test for authenticity; the signature identifies the creator and establishes the relationship between the creator and the record.

    Authenticity can be verified by testing physical and formal characteristics of a record. The ink used to write a document must be contemporaneous with the document’s purported date. The style and language of the document must be consistent with other, related documents that are accepted as authentic.

    Authenticity alone does not automatically imply that the content of a record is reliable.

    The authenticity of records and documents is usually presumed, rather than requiring affirmation. Federal rules of evidence stipulate that to be presumed authentic, records and documents must be created in the ‘regular practice’ of business and that there be no overt reason to suspect the trustworthiness of the record (Uniform Rules of Evidence, as approved July 1999).

    As an example, the US National Archives lists “Appearance – Layout” as a core significant property of a webpage.  By identifying certain features as significant, certain other features are necessarily considered optional. This becomes extra important with videogames, because feature loss or degradation is far more inevitable and noticeable with game emulation than , say, JPEG conversion.  I’d like to get a conversation going about how you, as gamers and game developers, would identify these properties.  For example:

    • How important is the hardware? Is a game fundamentally changed if it was originally played with a paddle, but is emulated using a joystick?
    • If the game was originally intended for a CRT display, is playing on an LCD or Plasma screen authentic?
    • How important is sound fidelity? Early games used sound very minimally, because they were limited to the harsh sounds of an internal PC-speaker. (Try playing the “PC beep” sound in your computer’s sound options. Now imagine an entire soundtrack of PC beeps).
    • How important is color fidelity? If the blood spatter in a first person shooter was originally PMS  186, do we lose something fundamental if it’s emulated as PMS 185 (Pantone Matching System)?


    If that doesn’t get you going, I’m also interested in the manuscript materials (concept art, version control repositories, in-house tools, design documents, etc) generated by game development. What are they? How do they differ (or not) from “traditional” personal papers or business records? To what use could we put them?