It should have been a little announcement, a footnote in the gaming press. In March, Sony announced it was closing digital stores for three consoles that are at least a decade old – PS3, PSP and PSVita. These devices ended the gaming talk a long time ago, but Sony’s plan still sparked a significant outcry. What would happen to the hundreds of games that were only available digitally in these stores? Would they just cease to exist? Alerted by this reaction, Sony resigned last Monday and announced that it would continue to support the PS3 and Vita stores – although the PSP store will continue to close as planned.
The most compelling criticism of Sony’s plan came from game rangers, a community troubled by the industry’s disregard for its own history. They complained how few companies go to great lengths to keep older games available, while independent attempts are often hampered by legal challenges. It’s relatively easy to track down a movie made 50 years ago, but many games that were released a decade ago are no longer playable.
Why is it so difficult? The first barrier is that unlike other media, games are platform-locked, which means that a physical copy of a game can only be played on the console for which it was created. Few players take care of their old consoles after new ones are added – most end up in attics or landfills. Even with the right console, you’ll need to locate the game disc or cartridge, which in today’s growing retro gaming collectable market could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Those looking for old games are better off on the PC, where hardware upgrades don’t make old games unplayable.
If you can’t find the game or console, you can still play the game you want – just not legally. There is a bustling online community that creates emulators, programs that replicate the hardware environment of old consoles on your computer and that you can use to download ROMs and pirated games. While emulations are a love affair for hobbyists that are rarely sold for a profit, of course, big game companies aren’t interested in the idea that people could play their games for free (Nintendo has proven particularly contentious in this regard). The emulator community argues back that if companies made their old games available, no one would have to emulate.
That’s not to say that the big three console manufacturers are completely ignoring their back catalogs. Nintendo is particularly adept at resurfacing old games for new consoles, including regular ones Remaster. Xbox is committed to supporting compatibility, which means that gamers can easily access a selection of older games on newer consoles. PlayStation’s classic games may be the hardest to achieve, although this may be due to the fact that many were developed by third parties. Hence, there are tough questions about how to find the IP owner and get the necessary permissions.
Such efforts are limited at best and constitute only a fraction of the rich game history. There is a growing group of independent initiatives including the game museums The Strong in New York, MADE in Oakland and the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield. The game historian Frank Cifaldi heads the Video Game History Foundation, which not only wants to preserve games, but also magazines, manuals and advertising material in order to anchor classic titles in their historical context. There are also targeted initiatives like GOG that are reviving old PC games run by Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD project;; the collection of browser-based arcade emulations from the Internet Archive; and Adrienne Shaw’s impressive LGBTQ games archive.
The jumble of these efforts points to a big question: Whose responsibility is it to preserve gaming culture? Is it the original creative team that rarely owns the rights to their finished work? An independent archive with enthusiasm but limited resources? Or the big companies that built on the passion of gamers? Logic suggests the latter. Giving an archive for gamers would honor game history and improve company reputations. The problem is, it wouldn’t serve the bottom line. For the big dogs, conservation is still more of a business decision than a heritage issue. Playing is not either an entertainment industry or an art form – defiantly it is both. And if we are in agreement Games are artWe must treat them as artifacts that must be respected, cherished, and preserved.
In March, a game preservation group posted more than 700 PS2 demos and prototypes online. This may seem like an ephemera to the casual gamer, but they are part of our artistic memory that is useful for game developers, enthusiasts, and academics to glimpse into the past, such as reading the draft of a famous novel. In the future, the rise of gambling is seen as a turning point in world cultural history. The ability to access this record shouldn’t be limited to those who can afford retro collectible games, willing to step into the legal gray area of emulation, or the curated selections offered by game companies. Archives cannot be in the hands of the few – they have to be accessible and open to debate so that everyone in the world can freely interpret game history and tell their stories.
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