What happens to software, Web sites, and other digital content that disappears off the face of the earth?
I know there are ways of combating the problem in regards to Web sites, such as The Wayback Machine. There are various methods for saving software, such as converting software to ROMs, transferring software from one format to another, or saving old formats and maintaining old equipment. I’m interested in all of this because I’ve come across it: when new donations and purchases from contemporary organizations, authors, researchers, and families come in, there is bound to be records stored on a floppy disk or a CD, dated circa 1992. In these cases, I’ve made workarounds, such as opening a floppy with a portable drive I borrowed someplace else, or trying to find a piece of software that will open a file based in MS-DOS.
But what about digital content that does not want to be found?
I keep up with news that covers all facets of science and technology, and that seems to be my forté when it comes to researching and processing archival collections. This news coverage includes video gaming, which is permeating into every aspect of digital life, from the hardcore gamers playing on their overpowered PCs to the casual gamers playing free games on their cell phones and tablets. There are people out there who preserve video game history. Even the Library of Congress collects games for posterity.
Quite a lot of games are stored on physical media like a floppy, CD, DVD or Blu-Ray disc. These will be sold in packaging along with documentation in brick-and-mortar or online stores. I still have a bunch of games from the 1990s and 2000s with their instruction manuals and sometimes their boxes intact. An archivist would want to have all of this as a permanent record of the game existing. Other memorabilia like advertising posters, review articles, what have you would also be appreciated. The process of collecting this “identity” becomes more and more difficult when documentation moves from print form to online form, or when the game itself is sold as a digital download instead of in a physical form. When Microsoft announced that digital games purchased for the Xbox 360 console would not transfer to its about-to-release console, the Xbox One, many gamers were perturbed because that is probably hundreds of dollars of content that has now been rendered incompatible and will potentially be inaccessible and obsolete in the near future. I became concerned because there are independently released games on that console that only saw the light of day there, and may or may not be re-released on other systems. They will eventually disappear.
Not only will games like that disappear, but so will games whose existence solely live through an Internet connection. Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) are fueled by servers and thousands of gamers to keep them alive. When the number of gamers playing daily goes down, or the revenue just isn’t there to maintain the servers sufficiently anymore, or for many other reasons beyond the players’ control, these games will eventually shut down. Several retail-released MMOs over the years have shut down, most notably City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies.
Does the actual game exist in some form? Not from what I can tell; even when players install the game’s assets (the software components that make it run on the computer) onto their computer’s hard drive, they do not have a truly running game without an online connection to the game’s server(s). Once the servers are gone, it’s literally game over. Is there a record that these games existed? Most certainly. One can collect secondary sources for MMOs or any other server-based or online-only game or software. It is like preserving an event (like, say, a football game): one cannot recreate an event exactly (but war reenactors certainly try), but one can find sources that prove an event existed, such as a newspaper article, an audio or video clip, or memorabilia like posters and flyers. For MMOs, online news articles, online communities, Wikis, and even the physical packaging from when these games first released are out there in wild. However, as more of these games shut down, time will tell if any of them can be preserved in some form so they will researched, or even remembered, in some way.
One might be thinking — “Why would someone spend time preserving video games anyway?” First, video games are not just toys — they have permeated into popular culture and have become a legitimate form of entertainment for everyone. Movies and television shows reference them. The news covers them. One cannot get away from hearing about them. Second, the acquisition and preservation process can be applied elsewhere. Old productivity software can be preserved in the same manner, because a lot of it fades into obscurity. Software can be kept and maintained for various reasons, from preserving the corporate identity of software companies (and every business out there, to boot) to illustrating how computer science, pieces of technology, and software development have evolved over time.
So: What happens to software, Web sites, and other digital content that disappears off the face of the earth? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to find a workaround to solve the issue, along with others out there digitally preserving, well, everything.
- The Game Preservation Discussion Shortcut Calvacade (ascii.textfiles.com)
- A new exercise in video game preservation (gamasutra.com)
- All Your Base are Belong to Who?: Cultural Memory and the Longevity of Video Games (theanimistblog.wordpress.com)
- Data storage lifespans: How long will media really last? (storagecraft.com)