Symposium ‘Preserving / Prolonging / Remixing Play’

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“Let video games die”; in his 2012 contribution Best Before, James Newman doesn’t hide his pessimism about the preservation of video games. This controversial statement seems to clash with the acceleration of preservation efforts emerging around the globe. Dedicated hobbyist communities strive to archive complete ROM sets for every possible platform. The Internet archive has brought many classic Arcade and DOS games to the masses thanks to in-browser emulation. At the beginning of 2015, UC Santa Cruz and Stanford experts published “A Unified Approach to Preserving Cultural Software Objects and their Development Histories”. In Australia and all over Europe, more efforts are being channeled to unearth local game histories; some of these stories have already found their way to a major historical account (Video Games Around the World, 2015). In many countries, museums and cultural institutions have developed games archives and offer a place for people to experience older platforms.

While solutions emerge from a growing number of bastions around the world, the material and legal challenges that feed Newman’s pessimism are only getting more intricate with time. Is it realistic to rely on the hobbyist emulation community to tackle the complexity of current systems? The rise of retro-monetization has created an incentive for the industry to emulate its own legacy, but this interest from stakeholders means that more efforts are dedicated to shutting down abandonware sites and control the circulation of classic titles. The situation is so delicate that even recent titles can be a challenge to remarket officially. In February 2015, Night Dive studios announced that they had abandoned their project to bring No One Lives Forever – a game that is only 15 years old – on GOG or Steam; lawyers were unable to untangle the legal situation. More recently, the Entertainment Software Association went so far as to lobby against exemptions to copyright laws that are sought for museums and other preservation institutions.

In spite of decaying materiality and legal uncertainty, many practitioners and researchers are drawn to older game systems and technologies in order to stimulate their creative process. Media archaeology labs such as the one at the University of Colorado (Boulder) not only offer the experience of a time gone by for these creators; they open up the possibility to extend or remix content for new audiences. Hardware hacking or what Hertz and Parikka (2012) define as “zombie media” allows for hardware and software to be reinterpreted, repurposed and replayed. Moreover, fans and hobbyists continue to make new game content for machines once thought to be obsolete, and actively encourage game jams dedicated to older platforms. For instance, the annual Speccy Jam invites veteran and younger game creators to explore the potential of the ZX Spectrum (http://www.speccyjam.com).

The 2016 edition of the symposium sought to document and engage with the various practices that strive to bring vintage experiences of play into the future. More specifically, it explored three tracks: preserving play, prolonging play, and remixing play.

2016 symposium chairs:

  • Alison Gazzard, UCL Institute of Education, London
  • Carl Therrien, Université de Montréal, Canada

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