All Your Base are Belong to Who?: Cultural Memory and the Longevity of Video Games

Unlike my previous posts, this time I would like to look at a more theoretical and general issue in the video game medium rather than analyse a particular game. While doing research on Braid for my last post, I came across an article by Tom Auxier. In the article Auxier talks about innovation and creativity in video games, and argues that game creators, like people working in any other art form, draw and build upon the history of their medium. This is something I agree with completely, and is in line with the argument I made in my last post. Auxier goes on to say that many games get criticized for being too derivative, but this is unfair. People only make this claim because they can see the rather short history of the medium, and therefore know what material new games are drawing on. Of course Braid seems derivative, because you’ve played Super Mario Bros.; Shakespeare would seem derivative too, but you haven’t read any Marlowe. Only professors and lit buffs read that stuff, so only they see how great writers draw on literary history. But when it comes to this new medium, to quote Auxier, “we are all game buffs.”

This part of Auxier’s article is not his focus, and I’m not writing this to attack what he wrote. But my reaction against this aspect of his argument helped solidify an issue I had been mulling over for some time: the issue of preserving video game history.

Sure, Auxier may be right in saying that most gamers know the majority of video game history. But this is only because the medium’s history is so short. This will change, and is already changing. The games of my childhood were Starcraft  and Tomb Raider, not PongZork, or even Super Mario Bros.. How long can we preserve these games in our cultural memory? What do we stand to lose if we lose them?

Zero Wing has been immortalized for this line, but would otherwise have been forgotten long ago.

Zero Wing has been immortalized for this line, but would otherwise have been forgotten long ago.

A wonderful short essay by Jan Assmann, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” is useful for addressing this issue. In this text, Assmann talks about communicative memory, and compares/relates it to cultural memory. Communicative memory “includes those varieties of collective memory that are based exclusively on everyday communications” (126). In other words, communicative memory forms part of a particular group’s collective self-image, the part based on everyday dealings and interactions between a group’s members. For example, what it means to be a lawyer (a lawyer’s self-image) emerges out of everyday dealings in the courthouse (communicative memory), and helps form a general, shared idea of what a lawyer is (collective memory). Each self-identified group draws on a shared history which is made up of these everyday dealings. But this history, according to Assmann, can change. The everyday life of a lawyer in 1900 no longer explicitly effects how lawyers view themselves now, and the meaning of being a lawyer is therefore different (though the laws or the organization of the 1900 court can effect the modern-day lawyer; we’ll get to that). Assmann claims that communicative memory goes back 80-100 years, and though I can’t speak to the validity of this claim, I do agree that it inevitably has a temporal limit. Eventually, the way we live on a day to day basis will stop influencing how future people think about themselves and life.

This is getting kind of abstract, so lets bring it back to games. I like to think of video game culture as one of Assmann’s groups; we have a shared communicative memory because we have shared day to day experiences. We play games, we talk about games, and we implicitly understand how games work (if not in terms of source code, in terms of functionality). So Auxier is right in saying that we all speak the same language. We can look at a game and say, “Hey, that game’s kind of like Zelda,” and we understand each other. At least, we do right now, because our communicative memory reaches back through video game history, which is so short. But eventually, the inevitable will happen: our day to day experiences with games will no longer directly influence the way people interact with the medium and conceive of gaming. So how do we preserve what is important to the video game culture of today?

The obvious answer is to preserve the cultural productions of today’s culture. These preserved productions would form what Assmann calls “objectivized” or “crystallized” cultural memory. Groups or societies draw their identity in part from static aspects of their distant past, typically artistic productions or rituals: being English is forever effected by the works of Shakespeare and Milton; being Christian is influenced by the ancient ritual of baptism. As such, collective memory is composed of this far-reaching, atemporal cultural memory as well as the recent, fluid communicative memory. It is cultural memory, the crystallized manifestations of culture, that is able to impart on a group a sense of self-hood which lasts more than a few generations. And the ability of video game culture to crystallize is far from certain to me.

While it is clear that there is a great deal of esoteric knowledge when it comes to the study of literature or visual art, and that not everybody is familiar with historical productions in these media, it is relatively easy to give them access to this kind of knowledge. If someone hasn’t read Marlowe, and so doesn’t understand many of the ways Shakespeare draws on his work, you can just give them a copy of Dr. Faustus. But I’m afraid video games don’t age so well, nor are they so easily preserved, because they are inherently dependent on ever-changing technology.

Video games, like any other kind of program, are of course functionally dependent on both software and hardware. While software may be easy to preserve, in order to actually use the software, it must be compatible with available hardware and systems. And the problems here are potentially quite serious. Porting games from one hardware system to another can be difficult, time consuming, and therefore expensive for companies. Even making old PC games playable on newer systems is challenging, constituting a major barrier for less tech-savvy people. Emulators for older games exist, but they exist, for the most part, on the fringes of the law or illegally.

Ok, so porting games to more modern systems isn’t impossible, and Nintendo has created an emulator for some of its games. But who chooses what games get ported, and thus preserved? Of course, game companies like Nintendo. And game companies will only preserve the games they think are popular and thus profitable. This is a good thing: some of the great games of the past are available to later generations of gamers. But some old games then risk losing their relevance as anything other than relics of a bygone era, unplayable, accessible only as source code. For example, many older PC games are unplayable without modification on newer systems. Even though this barrier isn’t insurmountable, obstacles like these just increase the chance of older works slipping from cultural memory. Furthermore, even though a game like Shadow of the Colossus has been made playable by Sony on the PS3, will it be playable on the PS4? At some point, will Sony stop porting the game? Things are clearly more complicated than just handing someone a copy of a book.

Now, why should we care if we lose these games, aside from the fact that they are fun to play? One of the problems with this kind of artistic loss is that, in losing many games that aren’t deemed profitable enough to be ported or which are too difficult to make work on newer operating systems, we lose the chance to rediscover and reevaluate past works. As Assmann says, when looking at historical works, “every contemporary context relates to these differently, sometimes by appropriation, sometimes by criticism, sometimes by preservation or transformation” (130). To use a literary example, T.S. Eliot famously reassessed the relevance of the poet John Donne in his treatise “The Metaphysical Poets,” repopularizing his works to the extent that Donne’s poetry is now mandatory reading for English Lit majors. Can this be done for video games? Will we be able to go back, look at old games, and draw fresh inspiration and generation from some forgotten part of our cultural past? If we can’t preserve games in a playable form, the answer is very likely no. And this concerns me a great deal. As Auxier says in his article, video game designers draw on the history of the medium for new inspiration: they don’t get inspiration from thin air. If we lose old games, the amount of material available for game designers to draw from may become quite small and short-sighted, something which is in my mind detrimental to creativity and innovation.

It may be the case that certain games will have such a devout following that certain fans will port or emulate the game to newer hardware, even if the game company won’t. But then there’s the issue of copyright: fans won’t be allowed to access and port the source code because it is the intellectual property of the game company, and therefore won’t legally be allowed to reproduce the game. And U.S. copyright lasts 95 to 120 years. If Assmann is right in saying that communicative memory lasts only 80 to 100 years, video games risk fading from cultural memory before people can even try to turn them into crystallized culture and thus preserve them.

While this post has mostly been negative, the situation I am describing is not really a doomsday scenario. The technology is available to preserve games, and is in fact getting more adept at doing so. But more than just technology is necessary if we are to crytallize our cultural heritage; there needs to be organized efforts to preserve our past. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent inclusion of video games is an attempt to do so, and it seems that curator Paola Antonelli wants to take this initiative further. But if such an influential institution struggles to gain legal access to games in order to preserve them, clearly this endeavor is not sufficient on its own. And while such endeavors may not always be profitable, in my mind they are important. Imagine a world where the only books available had been written in the last 50 years. No Joyce. No Confucius. No Shakespeare or Tolstoy. I think few people would say that these works aren’t worth preserving, and we need to take the same attitude towards games, especially if we are going to keep up with the technical progress of the medium. It would be a shame to let the development of technology make our works obsolete. And it would certainly be a shame to see a future where Ocarina of Time exists as nothing more than a relic.

The MOMA's recent addition is an attempt to preserve video game history, but can only be a part of the process.

The MOMA’s recent addition to their collection is an attempt to preserve video game history, but can only be a part of the process.

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One thought on “All Your Base are Belong to Who?: Cultural Memory and the Longevity of Video Games

  1. Pingback: Disappearing Digital World | I Can Find It!

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