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Mary Clark

Artifacts vs. Activities

This week, I’ve been making my way through Game After by Raiford Guins, a study of the afterlife of games. I got off on a late start this week due to my copy arriving after the weekend instead of before, so I read the introduction and the first two chapters. In these chapters, Guins explored the complicated task of curating and preserving games in museums, thus this week was less research-heavy and focused more on the development of future goals for the exhibit, based on Guins’ analysis.

Ontologically, video games are incredibly complicated to preserve. Traditional no-touch museum displays of game hardware—encased behind glass, protected from the decay of years in a basement, never to be handed off to a new generation of players—only present what most consider to be one part of the game itself, which consists of “both object and process”, as Espen Aarseth describes. Emulating the game’s process on a non-native machine is equally valuable and inadequate: the experience of play may be revived and relived “safely”, without damaging hardware, but requires digital maintenance and even possible legal issues. In their afterlives, even when every part of their being is preserved in the safety of a museum, most games are doomed to be disembodied for the sake of their longevity, and as they build their memorials, curators must “negotiate video games as both activities and artifacts” (p. 34).

Guins frequently cites the work of Henry Lowood, curator of the Stanford University Libraries, as he grapples with the issue of games as artifacts or activities. He raises the question:

“Is it necessary to play The Legend of Zelda on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, with the original Nintendo controller and a contemporary television set, in order to gain a historically valid experience of the game?”

Lowood’s argument asserts that new institutional models must be developed for the collection, documentation, and archiving of video games, but—at least in the context of Guins’ writing thusfar—the answer to this question is left ambiguous. To play devil’s advocate, I think some would argue that, if the game is the experience of playing and not the shell that process lives in, you don’t need any of the original hardware to play it: you could emulate it on another machine (if I remember correctly, you can even buy it digitally and play it on the Nintendo 3DS) and this would be a valid experience of the game. But this is an inherent re-contextualization of the game: even if it’s not being emulated for the purpose of historic analysis, the experience is still separate from its intended body of hardware. I could go on, but I think that especially in the context of the Console Living Room, it’s important to experience the game on what is as close to accurate hardware as one can afford.

On the subject of accuracy, since I started reading Game After, I’ve been thinking a lot about how far accuracy can be stretched. On a smaller scale, I think it’s important to have real, physical copies of the game on CD-ROM, but these can get incredibly expensive. A cracked version of the game is still historically valuable, but admittedly less satisfying than having the physical copy. Moreover, I realized my greatest concern when Guins, in the introduction, asked what World of Warcraft emulation could do for a future curator “besides reveal what a lonely world it is without some documentation of the social and cultural experience of online play”. Without any players, the experience of a massive online multiplayer game, which relies on both AI and real interactions with other people through a digital space, is completley lost to time. Likewise, even small-scale multiplayer games that rely on one machine per player (online or over LAN) will lose some part of the intended experience of the game without those other players and machines.

Because of this, my new stretch goal for my part of the project is so make sure that at least some of the games can have multiplayer LAN, which could turn out to be more difficult than I think depending on compatibility. If we only have a Mac and an MS-DOS-friendly computer, there are very few games that might be able to natively talk to each other over a network, especially if the systems are chronologically far apart. If there are two compatible games out there, I’m sure that a network between the two could at least be faked with the help of some modern computing, but again, that could turn out to be more difficult than I think it will be. It’s something to keep in mind.

Next week, I plan to finish Game After and research some more games (especially ones that could possibly work for my stretch goal). I think I’ll put off the rest of the stretch goal research until I actually know what kind of computers we’ll be working with.