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Lost Experiences

It bothers me that games can become lost experiences.

If an online game has its servers taken down, that experience is gone. Some games can have private servers set up, but for modern console games, where the only option for online gameplay is going through the company’s servers, there’s no way to regain that lost experience.

Even worse are online or browser-based games. For these games, the end user isn’t storing any of the game data, so that entire game can potentially disappear instantly if the company decides to remove the game.

This isn’t to say that every game is worth revisiting, but I feel like we need to pay attention to archiving this media, the same way we archive books and movies.

The problem we have with games is that their inner workings are hidden from the consumer, and take significant work to open them up. I believe that most companies would be willing to do that. That is to say, if they were going out of business and had nothing to lose, they would rather open their games to the world than see them lost forever. However, by the time their situation is desperate enough to consider releasing their games, they don’t have the resources to do so. They need lawyers to release their legal obligations, programmers to undo the code restrictions, and engineers to set up servers to host their games and make them available.

What we need to do is force companies to consider that up-front. Part of the requirements for publishing a game should be planning for the game’s eventual demise.

What I suggest is the creation of a government entity for the archival of digital media, as an extension of the Library of Congress. As a requirement before a work can be distributed in the United States, an uncompiled copy of the source code must be submitted to this digital archive.

The creators must check in on their work regularly, and simply click a button or send in a form to confirm that they’re still in control of these programs and want them to remain private. My suggestion is to do this yearly, perhaps as a part of filing business taxes, but I could see it being prolonged as far as 10 years.

If a business fails to request that their programs remain private, the digital media archive will make basic attempts to contact them. If another year passes and they’ve still received no response, the source code is released into the public domain, allowing other programmers to retrofit the game and make it playable again.

Essentially, I’m suggesting a digital version of the Mandatory Deposit, which requires book publishers to deposit a copy of their work with the Library of Congress. http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/mandatory_deposit.html

I see three major problems with my plan.

First is storage. As soon as this program starts, terabytes of data are going to start pouring in, and they need to be stored securely and redundantly.

Second is curation. What defines a project that needs to be in the digital archive? Commercial use is definitely a good place to start.

Third is security. If the digital archive were compromised, the hacker would gain full access to every digital project currently in existence.

These might not be solvable problems, but I’m not deeply invested in my plan. What I am invested in is the general principle that a required component for the creation of digital media should be planning for the eventual end of the project and preservation of the media. In fact, I’ll extend that to all media: part of the act of creation should be setting up future preservation.

I was talking to some people at my company about it, and I was surprised how negatively they reacted to the idea…but they saw it very much in the short-term. “I don’t want the games I make to be released to our competitors.” We need to get out of that mindset – just for a moment – and ask ourselves whether our company will really be around in five, ten, or fifty years. When the company is dead and gone, do you want your work to vanish, or do you want it to be archived and preserved?

It’s like retirement. It’s hard to think about what you’re going to want three or four decades from now, but you need to think about it now, while you’ve got the resources, rather than later, when you don’t have any options.

  1. Jacqi
    March 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

    To a certain extent, I believe the LoC already has a digital archive, but I’m not sure in what context and for what media. I agree though that developers and the like need to think ahead into the future. I feel in a way, like we’re very lucky to have emulators to bring back games of our past, and game developers can’t rely on emulators or a plucky consumer to try and recreate say, New Zealand Story or Dig!. For a number of games that have been saved, gamers should think back on all the games that *haven’t* been saved. What game from say, the 70’s or early 80’s can they remember but no longer find? And for any game really, it’s the same. There are games from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Finland that archaeologists find, but have no idea how the game was played.
    However, you can also go with, hey you don’t wanna be remembered? Cool, cool.

  2. March 22, 2011 at 11:56 am

    I think you’ve touched on the heart of the issue there.

    Does a content creator have the right to choose that their work be permanently lost, or to allow it to be lost through inaction?

    Or do we, as a culture, have an obligation to chronicle as much of our history as possible, even if we have to force content creators to comply?

    Personally, I prefer the second option. I hate the thought of information being permanently lost. But it puts our society into a role of curator and critic, deciding what is art/worth preserving, and what isn’t.

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