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