The vast majority of silent films are lost, because at the time they were popular they were seen as disposable entertainment and were often recycled or thrown away after they had been shown. Today most people would probably agree that this is a loss of our cultural heritage. Now, the same thing is about to happen with computer games.
You might think that computer games are a small part of our culture, and you may ask yourself if they are worth collecting and preserving. If so, then ponder that in 2010 the game World of Warcraft reached a peak of 12 million users, although it has lost a little popularity since then and will probably soon be replaced as number one by some other virtual world. And take into consideration that up until now, nearly 19 million people have bought the Swedish game Minecraft, but this figure is a few months old.
The National Library of Sweden collects, preserves and makes accessible computer games with a Swedish connection. Games published in 50 copies or more, also imported games, must be submitted to the National Library, in accordance with the Legal Deposit Act.
Risk loosing cultural heritage
In 2015, the Legal Deposit Act for Electronic Materials came into effect. However, online games, game apps and downloaded games are not covered by this law, which means that a large part of our cultural heritage might be lost forever.
To avoid this, the National Library has initiated a project addressed to game developers, asking them to voluntarily donate digitally distributed games. These games will not be made available to the public, only to researchers. However, it has been difficult to get developers to cooperate.
“Yes, it has been difficult; when we have sent out e-mails we haven’t received any replies, but if we make personal contact, for example when we meet game developers at trade fairs and such, then it works better,” says David Brodin, archivist, who works with games at the National Library of Sweden (KB).
His colleague, Bengt-Olof Ågetoft, explains that a lot of people have a vague idea of what KB is.
“And not many people know that we have games,” says David Brodin.
“Perhaps we should market that we have them,” says Camilla Johansson, who also works with games at KB.
“Right now we focus on preserving them, but making them accessible is also an important part of what we do,” says David Brodin.
Directly on the internet
KB has been collecting and preserving games and other multimedia since 1995. The collection contains around 6,000 items, but since one game can be made for different consoles they are not all unique.
In the 1990s and early 2000s educational programs, encyclopaedias, interactive stories or fairy tales and presentations were often published on CD-ROM, which is why this sort of material makes up a large part of the collection. “But this disappeared when broadbands became broader,” says Bengt-Olof Ågetoft.
Nowadays such material is published directly on the internet and thus not covered by the Legal Deposits Act for Electronic Material. Therefore it is almost not collected at all any more.
But will it be possible to play these old computer games in the future, or look at educational programs from the 1990s on CD-ROM?
“We must be able to migrate and copy them for preservation because if their file formats become obsolete the risk that data is destroyed is great. Old CD-ROM discs from the 1990s are already starting to decay. One company has allowed us to copy their discs because we contacted them and asked, but it is a huge task to contact every company,” says David Brodin.
May not copy computer games
According to Swedish copyright law, libraries and archives have the right to produce copies of works, but this does not apply to computer programs. This means that libraries in Sweden can only show computer games if they use the original copies and the original game consoles.
From a preservation point of view, it would be logical if it was allowed to make copies of the originals before making them accessible to researchers. This is possible with other types of materials and in Denmark, for example, the law makes an exception for libraries, archives and museums so that they may make copies of computer games for use on their premises.
“A few of yesterday’s games, for example some of the ones from 1995, can’t be played anymore. This is partly because we don’t have the operating system and partly because game consoles don’t last forever,” says Bengt-Olof Ågetoft.
Not all national libraries collect computer games, but many do and David Brodin has been thinking a lot about contacting other national libraries.
“Because we have the same problems but solve them differently. We are planning to contact Finland, from what I understand our copyright laws are quite similar”, he says.
“We have had some contact with Denmark,” Bengt-Olof Ågetoft adds.
A few projects
In their mission to save the culture of computer games from being destroyed and to collect them for future generations to see and study, the game group at KB has started a few projects, all on a very small scale. Besides contacting game developers and asking them to voluntarily donate games, they have started to download free online games.
They also try to emulate some games; however the Swedish law does not allow showing emulated computer games, and they are filming games as they are being played.
“We have a project where we film games that are hard to preserve, for example the game app Ingress, which is actually only a map with GPS and different portals that the players find through their mobile phones,” says David Brodin.
He explains that there is a type of narrative that can be found on different web pages connected to this game, and that different events and meetings are arranged. The players have their own community and this type of game is difficult to collect and preserve for the future.
“Since we have downloaded the films on the game’s YouTube channel we can preserve all the surrounding aspects that are important in order to understand what this phenomenon was,” says David Brodin.
A lot of people film themselves while they play computer games and the game group at KB collects these films. Some people do it professionally, for example the YouYube channel PewDiePie. This is a Swedish guy who films himself as he plays through different games and makes a good living from it. His channel has 35 million subscribers all over the world.
That is more than the TV ratings for all the Swedish TV channels combined and everyone can probably understand that it is important to preserve TV channels. The game group at KB thinks that some YouTube channels are just as important.
“We make a selection because there are very many of these films,” Camilla Johansson explains.
“The gaming culture is documenting itself all the time and we collect it. If we fail to preserve some games, at least we will have a film showing it being played,” David Brodin continues.
“But of course we want the game as well, so the film is only a complement,” Camilla Johansson adds.