Preserving computer and video games at the UM library
ANN ARBOR —On a normal day in a normal year, the popular University of Michigan Library Computer and video games archive is buzzing with activity.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the accessible and versatile archives have provided students, staff, faculty and the general public with a space to take a break, study, do research or play games with friends.
CVGA director Val Waldron said the archives have remained calm this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but there is a silver lining.
“Between class sessions, helping students watch particular games or research faculty members, there’s always a lot going on at CVGA, and this is the first time we’ve been able to completely change our goal of user access to preservation part of our mission, ”she said.
Located in the basement of the Duderstadt Library on UM’s North Campus, the CVGA has continued to maintain its dual mission of providing users with access to their game collection while preserving them for future research and scholarship. The interactive archive includes a variety of video, board and card games, as well as game consoles, microcomputers, screens, game controllers, print media and more.
From the Atari 2600 (1977) and Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) to the first four out of five PlayStation consoles, to name a few, visitors can choose from over 60 unique systems and 8,000 games available. for research and play.
A thousand retro saves
The digital archive of game files are not accessible or playable by the general public, but will be kept in a dark archive as backup copies in case the original files become corrupted.
UM Librarian David Carter is a Video Game Archivist, Comic Book Librarian and Reference Services Coordinator. He explains that, as an open and usable archive with a primary mission of research and curricular support, their collection experiences regular wear and tear. Antithetical to the preservation process, physical games and magnetic media degrade with each use and simply over time.
“What we’ve been working on is taking digital and physical media and figuring out the best way to archive them in a variety of formats so that we can make sure they stay safe,” he said. he declares. “That way, if our physical copies degrade or become corrupted, we’ll have a digital backup instead for people to play.”
Since the start of the pandemic, CVGA staff have archived more than 1,000 games in the collection, and Waldron says that’s just the start.
“For now, we’ve just taken care of the fruits at hand, starting with digitally born PC games – things we’re familiar with – then reworking aging media formats before figuring out how best to image of other console games, which will involve more complex processes, ”he said.
A race against time
According to Waldron, there are plenty of fixes, updates and workarounds in older PC games lying around the internet on obscure websites that may not be around for long. Prioritizing these games means looking for all the components and content that make the game run, or at least run well.
Waldron says that while there are other archives that are working on preservation initiatives, those that seek to preserve an entire game rather than just the software are rare.
“There are a few experts or specialists in other universities, but there is not a lot of work or discussion known about the process of formal archiving of these games,” she said.
A much more complicated and novel process than archiving text documents from floppy disks, preserving games can seem like a daunting task for a number of reasons, from having a diverse game collection that requires different preservation methods or not having the technology or resources.
Because it’s such an unfamiliar process, Carter says it’s hard to know what other people are doing.
“We’re all doing this work ourselves at the moment, and part of what we’re trying to do is draw attention to preserving the game at this professional level,” he said.
In the future, staff hope that more people get involved to create more demand for the right tools and that they can collaborate with others to tackle archiving of more complex games and consoles with collective wisdom. For now, they will continue to forge the best processes and build workflows so that student interns can help prioritize the old while archiving the ever-expanding CVGA collection.
Lilian Varner story