Holding on to Virtual Worlds

Games, by Axel Tregoning, Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0.

While some people seem to enjoy fantasizing about doomsday scenarios and the end of the “real” world, a recent piece on Ars Tehchnica’s website makes it clear that virtual worlds don’t last forever, either. By late this summer, librarians at the University of Illinois are planning to finish the archiving about a dozen early computer games—including DoomWarcraft, Adventure, and the first fully interactive video game,  MIT’s early 1960s Spacewar!—as part of a larger project called Preserving Virtual Worlds, that includes archivists at other academic institutions, as well.

While what characterizes these various games is their goal of producing compelling and interactive renditions of brave new worlds, according the Jerome McDonough, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, there are a host of other reasons to preserve what turn out to be surprisingly vulnerable cultural artifacts. The digital gaming industry employs hundreds of thousands of people who sell hundreds of millions of units to eager consumers eager to transport themselves to another place. And, with active gamers in two thirds of all American homes, each successful new product can become not only a money-making, but a revealing barometer of social and cultural phenomenon.

The challenge in saving these entertainments, however, is daunting. You’ve got to figure out how to run the software in its original form sometime in the future, minus the aging hardware, antique operating systems and outdated chip architecture these products were once dependent upon. The challenge for McDonough and his colleagues is to preserve the games and  create new emulation software or virtualized platforms to play the games on.

That’s easier said than done. For the moment, the University of Illinois is building a repository of material based upon software developed by Hewlett Packard and MIT, while fellow archivists at the Stanford Digital Repository who are working off of another software platform altogether. The goal, for now, is to see how well either system handles the metadata involved if these games are to remain accessible and can survive long-term. Preserving Virtual World’s longer term goal is to provide the Library of Congress with guidelines on what a national collection policy for games ought to be. Of course, once that’s worked out yet another wave of real world problems, specifically copyright issues, may threaten to scuttle the effort. But for the moment, the most pressing challenge is to figure out how to keep fantasy alive.

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