No extra lives: Stanford’s role in the quest to save video games

Libraries play a critical role in preserving video games, but legal restrictions are impacting preservation efforts in unexpected ways, says Stanford’s Silicon Valley Archives curator Henry Lowood.

Henry Lowood (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A recent study has warned it’s almost game over for classic video games.

The survey, based on data gathered by the Video Game History Foundation in partnership with the Software Preservation Network, found that a majority of video games are no longer commercially available, and warns that unless changes are made to preserve these works in libraries and archives, they will be lost from the historical and cultural record.

The study cites efforts – including those made at Stanford – to archive video games in their collections, as well some of the obstacles in preservation work. A key person in Stanford’s efforts on this front is Henry Lowood, the Harold C. Hohbach Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and the curator for Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries.

Since the early 2000s, Henry Lowood has led or had an important role in numerous initiatives devoted to the preservation and documentation of virtual worlds, digital games, and interactive simulations. Lowood is also a leading game historian and writer on software preservation, authoring numerous articles and papers that were recently republished in a book.

As Lowood explains in this Q&A, some of the biggest hurdles he and his colleagues encounter are more legal in nature than technical: questions about copyright, licensing, and ownership rights are often roadblocks to preserving or providing access to games in the Stanford Libraries’ collections.


What makes collecting and preserving video games important?

For me, the answer has never been the inherent importance of the games themselves; the answer has always been that games have become an important part of our culture. It is almost impossible to fully understand our own cultural history without having access to the history of games.

Twenty years ago, people doing game studies would justify their work by saying, “Compared to the film industry, we bring in half the revenue of the box office.” Today, it’s roughly 10 times the box office – it’s become a gigantic media industry. If we do not adequately document the history of the game industry, we’ve just lost a gigantic piece of our cultural history and we’ve lost the ability to connect what happens in game and online spaces to other aspects of our culture and politics.

Games are no longer a niche, side interest – they’re a very important cultural format.

For example, in recent years we’ve seen how modes of discourse started in gaming environments – like 4chan and Twitch – whose communities have set the tone for political discourse as it has developed more broadly on social media. If you look at some of the controversies that have plagued game culture, like Gamergate, for example – an outburst of online harassment and attacks in 2014 and 2015 directed against feminist and pro-diversity writing about games – there’s a fairly direct line from those issues to political issues that we have been dealing with the last couple of presidential elections and throughout our political system.


What has Stanford done to preserve games and what have been some of the lessons learned over the decades about preservation?

Stanford, as far as I know, was the first cultural institution to acquire a historical software collection. This was the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection acquired in the late 1990s. I have to acknowledge Mike Keller’s support for that acquisition; I think that was visionary to do that. Until that point, historical software had not been acquired as a collection, anywhere – it only survived in places like the Library of Congress because of the copyright deposit. There were some efforts at the Library of Congress in the early 1990s to have a reading room for access to the software, but nobody really thought fully about the implications of collecting digital artifacts.

The Cabrinety collection has been part of an ongoing process of learning how to deal with this medium, and it has spun off about half a dozen different projects through grants from organizations like the Library of Congress, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institute for Science and Technology, and other organizations. These grants have made it possible to study various aspects of the collecting of games, such as examining how to identify what games to collect or how to describe and cite games. In our latest project, we examined how game collections can be accessed through emulation – using one hardware and software environment to imitate another system. Libraries are exploring emulation as a way for researchers to run software now obsolete or unavailable using contemporary systems.


What are some challenges to video game preservation?

Many of the major challenges are legal in nature. We discovered that many issues related to licensing make it difficult for the copyright holders of a game title to give permission to cultural institutions like Stanford to make them available online. For example, there are issues like copyright reverting back to developers, or pieces of software that were acquired under license from other software companies, or music used in a game whose rights cannot be transferred to a library, thus blocking granting permission to providing access to the game as a whole. Many such gray areas have come up that are more legal than technical. They are making it difficult, in some cases impossible, for repositories to preserve digital games.

Because of copyright law, we already knew that there are publications that fall between the cracks in various ways. What we discovered about software is that there are new categories of “orphaned works” that we hadn’t really thought about with respect to print publication and that really only emerge with digital media.


Is Stanford doing anything about cataloging orphaned digital works?

Generally speaking, you often will not get a clear answer to questions about what is allowed for a given software title. When that is the case, should we just give up? Should we store it in a repository that only provides access on campus? Should we take a chance and just put it online, and see what happens? Each of those responses represent a different comfort level with risk. Across the country, and around the world, different institutions are dealing with these problems in different ways.

Stanford, along with most university libraries, has been fairly conservative in respecting the rights of copyright holders. But there are institutions – like the Internet Archive – that have been less risk averse in dealing with questions of what to do with copyright.

The approach we took was to avoid the risks associated with blanket interpretations of copyright laws by contacting rights holders directly for permission to provide online access to software as well as photographic images associated with software, such as box covers, inserts, and manuals. But even when publishers supported our efforts and ostensibly owned copyright to a title when it was released, it turned out that there were many reasons they could not grant us approval to redistribute their titles many years later. We did obtain clear permission from a few publishers, which is good because those cases are solved forever. However, more work is needed on documentation of orphaned software, such as a registry, and procedures for dealing with these cases.


What do you make of video game history growing into a new scholarly discipline in its own right?

The Stanford Libraries started collecting software and games in the late 1990s, around the same time game studies started as a discipline – coincidentally.

Some contemporary game scholars have referred to 2000 as the year “00” for game studies – it’s only a 20- to 25-year-old discipline. That’s very exciting. I’ve been fortunate to be on both sides – I write about game history, but I also work as a curator in the library. I can watch the field we are trying to document through library collections grow in real time as I am also figuring out what to collect.

The field is being changed again because a generation of graduate students is redefining what is of interest as they move past the first generation of monographs and articles.

In the Library we try to keep up with all of this by acquiring collections that are relevant to the work that is happening in classrooms and in research. Video games are only one part of the Silicon Valley Archives. With games, as with several other areas of work, riding the wave of a new discipline is collection curation at its best.


Do you play video games yourself? Are there any games from your youth you wish have been preserved?

When I can. While I do keep up with games such as FIFA Football online, my passionate interest is board games. I have played what I would call non-fiction games my entire life, by which I mean historical and sports simulations. The sports games I played in my youth by companies such as Strat-o-Matic or APBA are difficult to find in libraries and museums, and there is very little information about the design and marketing decisions behind those games. Which is a shame, because the argument can be made that these games were part of the early history of sports analytics in the United States. Maybe that absence explains my interest in game preservation!