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Videogame Heritage Society : A Subject Specialist Network

Category: Blog

VHS Guest Blog #2: Why Conserving Videogame Heritage is (Almost) Impossible: Materials and Storage Conditions – Álvaro V. Guisado

Álvaro Vázquez Guisado is Conservator-Restorer of Cultural Heritage from Seville University.

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As we all know, videogames, consoles, and all their related media, are objects of a growing cultural interest, being the cause of one of the biggest cultural revolutions of recent history. Videogames, consoles, peripherals, etc., all have in common the fact that they contain inside them a long and diverse variety of materials: of which each of them require special conservative measures and environmental conditions, depending not  only on the main material, but also on their adjacent ones.

In many cases, most game consoles have internal components with different needs, which can contradict the proper conservative measures of each one of them: for  example, capacitors internal components can deteriorate in certain environmental  conditions and be damaging to the metallic and plastic elements of a PCB board, while all of them being major components of the same item.

As such, it is not crazy to consider the importance of guidelines to ensure their  conservation in the future. As a Conservator-Restorer of Cultural Heritage, I believe that as retro-console enthusiasts we could make use of some of the methodology and criteria established by the international standards of the profession, but with a focus on this kind of new cultural heritage.

Sadly, there are not yet written any specific guidelines to the videogame heritage, but there is a base for them in the guidelines of contemporary (Michalsky, 2006) and video art, the preservation of plastics (Shashoua, 2014) and the archives and museum expositive guidelines.

The most common material is, of course, plastic. PET and ABS 071 (moulded and extruded) are the main plastic materials used for outer casings, and silicone rubber  specially for the controller pads.

Wood is another commonly used material, as a decorative trim in some early game  consoles or, especially, in arcade machines, made of agglomerate and low-quality woods mixed with a variety of adhesives which expel acid gasses and are an important agent of deterioration of the plastics. They all have a common friend in absorbent air agents, such as active charcoal, which can slow down the deterioration caused by the gases produced by the decay of different components.

The many refined metals present in circuitry, body parts, capacitors and many more  pieces are commonly aluminium, tin, and copper (this one used in most PCBs sealed  by heat and pressure in plastic). Their main enemy is metallic corrosion which can be produced by the contact of two different metals (like in weld parts with copper) in a humid environment which favours the exchange of ions between them.

Although they are not very well known nowadays, there exist videogames published in paper for people to compile in their machines. The modern paper manufactured with wood pulp, can or not be covered/protected by a plasticizer like low density  polyethylene or polyethylene terephthalate for manuals and covers. Their decay is very difficult to fight since its founding materials are also their doom by expelling acid gases which corrode the paper fibre making it very brittle, and the use of inks based in acid materials which accelerate the natural corrosion of the paper.

There is also a large list of industrial and organic adhesives used for labels, inner parts, cables, etc., being common the presence of PVC, PVA and acrylics among others. The use of organic adhesives in some old labels can ease in the growing of different moulds, which can result in the loss of information in the label, damaging of the plastics and can be especially dangerous to people.

Being for display in a private collection or for their proper conservative measures in an archive like room, the common ground of these materials is their lighting conditions and the relative ambient humidity of the environment, being advised a 30-50% humidity and a maximum of 50 lux (with minimum to no IR or UV radiation) for most of them. The real problem we must face is the temperature at which the materials need to be kept at to extend their useful lives to the maximum. Metal and wood are, relatively, natural materials and need a stable environmental temperature of around 10Cº so they do not contract or dilate excessively. However, adhesives and plastics are wildly different artificial chemical compounds, and need a temperature of around -20 to -10Cº to avoid them to expel decay gasses.

The labour to conserve the videogame heritage, so generations to come can  experience it as we did, will be a difficult and tiresome one given the complexity and  difficulties, in which they have, and currently are, developed.

References

Michalsky, Stefan. “Preservación de las colecciones”. Como administrar un  museo: manual práctico. UNESCO, ICOM: Paris, 2006: 51-90.

Shashoua, Yvonne. “A SAFE PLACE Storage Strategies for Plastics.” The CGI Newsletter 29, 1 (2014). https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/2 9_1/storage.html.

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The VHS Guest Blog #1: “Collecting the Guildford Games Sector” – Sarah Fairhurst

Sarah Fairhurst is the Collections Manager at the Guildford Heritage Service.

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When I started as Collections Manager for the Guildford Heritage Service just over 18 months ago, I had no idea that Guildford was home to such a famous videogame sector. Guildford to me was the centre of rural Surrey life, surrounded by rolling hills with its famous castle and sett-laid high street.

Guildford High Street, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service
Guildford Castle and bowling green, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service

However, I soon learnt that Guildford was actually nicknamed the ‘The Hollywood of gaming’.

This name was ‘coined’ by Guardian journalist Stuart Heritage in an article in 2014, as Guildford has been home to a large number of successful gaming studios since the 1980s. Not being a ‘gamer’ myself, it was unsurprising that I didn’t know about this digital side of Guildford’s Economy. What is perhaps more surprising, is that many people living in Guildford and the Borough are also unaware of its existence.  

From the founding of Bullfrog Productions by Peter Molyneux in 1987, over 70 studios have emerged in Guildford – making over 200 games and releasing over 4000, and employing over 1800 people, making up over 10% of the UK game industry workforce. The video games industry is worth almost $90 billion globally. The UK videogames market reached a record £7bn in 2020.

With this history in mind, the importance of collecting objects to reflect the thriving videogame sector in Guildford soon became obvious to me. Although the museum had previously made a great start by collecting four games from the Fable series (Lionhead Studios) and carrying out an interview with Peter Molyneux, it was also clear that this was only the tip of the collecting iceberg!

Fable Anniversary, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios
Fable: The Journey, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios
Fable III: Limited Collector’s Edition, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios

As well as creating a permanent videogame collection, Guildford Heritage Service has scheduled a videogame exhibition at Guildford Museum for next summer, to coincide with the 2022 annual Guildford Games Festival, for which Guildford Borough Council has been one of the headline sponsors since its first year.

Fable III, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios


Questions questions…

Before I started this collecting project, I had so many questions.

What should we collect? Do we only collect videogames or other material? Should we collect physical games or digital versions? How do we collect these?  Did it matter that I wasn’t a ‘gamer’?

Luckily, I was put in touch with Sam Read who runs the fantastic Guildford.Games website and is part of the Guildford Gaming Festival team.

We created a list of the 229 games made in Guildford by each studio – highlighting which games we could potentially buy on eBay with our small acquisition budget. 

To date we have purchased 14 games by Bullfrog.

Part of our Guildford Games List
Some of our eBay purchases, Syndicate Wars; Bullfrog Productions
Some of our eBay purchases, Genewars, Magic Carpet, Theme Park World; Bullfrog Productions

I met with Iain Simons, Claire Mead and Claire Boissiere (Jumpship), of the National Videogame Museum, who kindly supported us in best practices in videogame collecting.

With their expertise we were able to firm up our collecting policy. Guildford Heritage Service will only collect physical versions of games – to collect digital versions and code is still an unknown and complicated area. We will focus on collecting games and material from studios with a GU postcode. This will enable us to collect from studios slightly outside Guildford, such as Godalming, as these are still viewed as part of the Guildford gaming scene. We also want to collect any associated gaming material such as artwork, merchandise, audio files and photographs, and to carry out interviews with different people within the sector, to capture first-hand experiences.

Some more of our eBay purchases, Dungeon Keeper 2; Bullfrog Productions
Populous; Bullfrog Productions
Flood; Bullfrog Productions

Over the last few months, I have been contacting each games studio still in operation on our list via email, explaining the collecting project and what we are hoping to achieve.

We also have a blog post on the Guildford.Games website about the exhibition which led to the donation of ‘The Movies’, by John Silke, previously of Lionhead Studios.

The Movies; Lionhead Studios

Many individuals and games studios have since been in contact offering to donate material to our collection, or to loan to the exhibition. However, we know there is still a long way to go and many more studios and collectors to contact.

Although we have the 2022 summer exhibition to aim for, this will be a long-term project. We hope to build long term relationships within the Guildford games sector that will enable us to continue to collect new games when they are released in the future. 

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If you have any games or materials produced by Guildford studios that you may like to donate or loan to Guildford Heritage Service please get in touch atHeritageServices@guildford.gov.uk

Netflix’s “High Score” – The Pop History of Videogames

This American-centric documentary offers little new understanding of that nebulous term “videogame history”, but it does present a fascinating perspective on the ephemeral impact of the medium in popular culture.

do not be surprised if the next series will be called “Level Up”

Netflix’s six-part mini documentary series is rather unimaginatively called ‘High Score‘, and the rest of the series is equally unimaginative in its basic retelling of videogames in the United States through the late-1970s to the early-1990s. Those expecting to see the Magnavox Odyssey and other cult classics will be left disappointed.

The series is consistently celebratory in tone. This praising tone and argument is constant throughout the series. It’s not alleviated by the overly-peppy narration from Charles Martinet. For the cynics amongst you, this will grate extremely quickly.

missing pieces: High Score bypasses systems of historical and cultural significance

There is a fixation in High Score on consistently reinforcing the argument that videogames and the videogame industry are an overwhelming force for good. In some cases, this tone is welcome; there are some particularly nice moments revolving around inclusivity.

Most of the series is one giant argument that “games are important”. This does not strike me as something that still needs saying. And – if we are being wholly critical – the series ultimately argues that videogames are primarily important because they make massive amounts of money, and maybe not because they represent something more significant.

Consequently, the documentary’s scope is narrow. While it purports to be a series about broad videogame history, it is exclusively talking about American history. There is barely a mention of the impact of videogames in a European context. All the achievements of Japanese game developers are judged by their impact on the American market. Violence in videogames is contextualised by American congressional hearings in the 1990s; the popularity of specific videogames are reinforced by human interest stories about how plucky and talented American kids were able to make their names through the industry.

This series is a monoculture. Perhaps a duoculture at best.

a more global take on videogames would have been interesting

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the series reemphasises the view that videogames are more significant than just embodying the physical discs or cartridges that we play or see on a screen.

The documentary calls upon parataxts regularly. These materials about videogames that exist outside of videogames are employed in interesting ways that reaffirm a cultural impact that lingers long after the game is over.

For example, the creator of Space Invaders Tomohiro Nishikado details his hand-drawn design books for the sprites in the game. Artistic illustrations of jellyfish and monsters are then also shown in their bit form, demonstrating the design processes of creating the game on screen and formatting images into bit-art. To a lesser extent, John Romero similarly explores early enemy designs for DOOM, and Yoshitaka Amano is extensively interviewed regarding his initial intricate illustrations for the iconic monsters within the Final Fantasy series.

Furthermore, TV adverts and one-off shows about public videogame events are extensively cut into the documentary. This isn’t breaking with documentary tropes. But their use highlights that gaming history should also include how the industry marketed these new systems, and how they attempted to use the medium of TV and print to proliferate them.

By demonstrating this material alongside the creative work of developers, the series promotes the notion that videogame history does encompass something more than just the cartridge and the system it is played on.

It will be interesting if Netflix build upon this documentary further, especially with some acknowledgment that videogames are truly global, and not just for American audiences.

Retrospective: The Nintendo ‘Gigaleak’

At the VHS, we strive to create a respecting environment and community. Since February 2020, we advocate for, support, and provide expertise in all aspects of collection, preservation and exhibition.

I think it is also worthwhile to highlight news developments that engage with these goals, particularly when we are still trying to formulate our own responses to increasingly pressing preservation issues.

NOTHING AMISS HERE.

In July/August 2020, everyone’s favourite Hanafuda card manufacturer – Nintendo – was the target of an unprecedented leak of internal data. While the leak did not shed light on any upcoming projects, it did contain information on completed works situated predominantly between the SNES and Nintendo 64 period (1990-2002ish).

The leak was raw dump of files initially posted to an infamous anonymous online forum. There was a deluge of information: development repositories (full development histories of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl), master ROMs (prototypes of Super Mario Kart and Yoshi’s Island), and beta content. As has been borne out over almost 11 months, there was an abundance of development information contained within the leak.

To play devil’s advocate: Nintendo are traditionally considered a secretive company. It is explosive news that such a large amount of undiscovered content was leaked from a notoriously tight-lipped and litigious company. Therefore, it must be great for preservation practitioners that this leak has occurred. Look at all the information we now have public access to!

And Yet. The plain ethical dilemma – and what makes this leak uncomfortable – is that this data was most likely stolen.

As the above tweets demonstrate (try writing that line in 1990), the gigaleak is tremendously difficult to deal with. The leak turns preservation into an issue of security and intellectual property law rather than a conversation on its value to documenting the complex and multifaceted history of the medium.

So in the short term, the leak was a feast for videogame publications, Nintendo fans, casual observers, and – to an extent – preservation activists.

But in the longer term, the leak could be a catastrophe for wider preservation efforts.

As part of the VHS’s remit, the society offers a valuable space where preservationists and collectors can come together to discuss the leaks, and debate how best to proceed.

Yet it is also vital for developers and publishers to work closely with preservation organisations and archivists to properly preserve these diverse and hugely significant documents.

Always the optimist, I would still like to think that this leak has opened Nintendo’s eyes to the benefits of co-operating more closely with the already stellar preservation community.

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