Report | 18. October 2023
Lost without emulation? Joint panel of NFDI4Culture and media/rep/ on archiving digital games at the annual conference of the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft
Where does the history of digital games begin to become critical? How can computer game history be written and preserved on the basis of archiving conditions and media-technical dependency relationships? The lack of documentation of some games, which in the early days only ran on mainframes (Spacewar! from 1962), may be just one example among many. Even today, long-term preservation of digital games remains difficult. Long-term preservation strategies such as bitstream preservation or format migration are not suitable for making digital games, like other dynamic digital objects, accessible in a long-term and sustainable way. Emulating environments, on the other hand, are complex and costly. Thus, in the future, large parts of this cultural heritage are in danger of being lost and research work with dynamic digital objects affected.
To discuss these pressing problems and questions, the Cultural Research Data Academy and the media studies repository media/rep/ hosted a joint discussion panel at the annual conference of the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft as part of the Forum Medienwissenschaft in NFDI4Culture. The conference was held at Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Germany, September 27–30, 2023, on the topic of "Abhängigkeiten" (Dependencies). The panel titled "Lost without emulation? On the dependency of dynamic digital objects on current long-term archiving strategies using the example of digital games" gathered speakers and researchers from various disciplines in order to raise conservational or media archaeological questions and to focus attention on topics such as music and sound, some of which are still neglected.
The panelists Dîlan Canan Çakir, M.A. (Freie Universität Berlin, previously Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach), Alexander Holz, M. A. (Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach), Prof. Dr. Dr. Stefan Höltgen (SRH Heidelberg) and Jun.-Prof. Dr. Melanie Fritsch (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf) first presented their perspectives on the topic in short inputs: Çakir and Holz reported on the collection activities in the field of digital games at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, which are primarily carried out under the aspects of reference to literature. In this context, productions by writers who have become game authors are also considered as hybrid forms between literature and games, as well as narrative experiments. Digital games are treated as special forms of born-digitals. Höltgen addressed the historical and technical aspects of emulators and focused on the possibilities, challenges and limitations that such software programs bring with them: For example, the fact that emulators are for the most part developed by hobbyists, which ensures a variety of emulators, but by no means a permanent and error-free operation. In addition, emulators always represent only ideal systems. Fritsch presented the challenges she faces in the field of Ludomusicology: There is often a lack of metadata on the composers/sound designers involved, both in the games themselves and in the supporting material, and research on this is difficult. In addition, emulators make the games playable again, but the sounds of the original game environment (e.g. hardware sounds) are missing, which must be considered as part of the historical performance practice.
Following the inputs, the discussion (moderated by Prof. Dr. Malte Hagener) was opened to all participants. Among other things, the existing hurdles and challenges in the preservation and research of digital games were discussed. It became clear that historical game environments can only be preserved and reconstructed with emulators to a limited extent. This is especially true for the soundscapes of digital games, which were shaped by the hardware used. Inseparable from the question of archiving are legal dependencies, since many companies conclude non-disclosure agreements with their employees and researchers, which represent an obstacle to research. At the same time, however, the company's archiving situation is often poor. Reasons for this are, for example, company takeovers, but also a generally weak archive awareness in the computer games industry. The transition of the games industry from the distribution of games as born-digitals to born-virtuals also poses major challenges for archiving practice with regard to the different workflows.
One possible way to improve the existing precarious situation was seen by the discussants in a stronger approach of research and archives to the production companies as well as in possible collaborations to work towards the creation of a pragmatic archive culture in the games sector. Another important measure for the preservation of this cultural heritage was the ideally comprehensive, systematic archiving of digital games (various versions, but also accompanying materials such as wallpapers and content created by the communities, as well as forum discussions that document the history of reception) by public institutions, since this has so far been done primarily through private initiatives. This would need to be accompanied by the creation of standards for games-related metadata, as well as the granting of special rights to archives with respect to the preservation and accessibility of digital games. Emulators can contribute to making these games experienceable at all within limits, but their development and versioning should be made comprehensible. In recent years, repositories have been increasingly used for this purpose.