Best Before: The Red Queen Dilemma of Preserving Video Games?by Staffan Björk
When I was young, I was fascinated with a Chess set by parents had. The pawns looked like some weird form of Vikings and all the other pieces similarly interesting appearances, and this sparked my imagination. It was only later that I found out that these were reproductions of the Lewis Chessmen, chess pieces crafted in the 12th century from walrus ivory, most likely in Norway, and found by chance in the 19th century on a beach in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. While the original pieces are now kept safe in the British Museum in London and the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the reproductions let me actually play Chess with them (or just play with them like toys). The issue of preserving games to posterity is the subject of the book "Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence" by James Newman. In this, he addresses the problem of ensuring that video games are accessible in the future even after they have stopped being sold commercially and after the platforms they depend on have stopped being supported by manufacturers. Having been one of the initiators of the National Videogame Archive and a member of the European Federation of Game Archives, Museums and Preservation Projects, he has had many years experience with the practical challenges of ensuring that games available today will be so in the future as well. As a gamer and a game researcher, it is difficult not to agree with the basic idea that it would be good to preserve video games.
The book is divided into four chapters. Newman uses the first to position his view on why preserving video is needed. He does so by arguing for the paradox that video games are disappearing. Not as a phenomena, but old games are difficult to play on the unsupported platforms, and emulators and new platform often have technical issues. Even when the hardware is preserved as well as the game itself, this may fail over time due to what Newman refers to as "bit rot" - that digital data storage becomes corrupt over time. Further, the graphical presentation and physical controllers differ and thereby do not give the same experience. Newman briefly also discusses preserving virtual worlds but makes a less strong argument here since he bundles this with a discussion about accessibility issues due to digital rights management systems on various networks. The first chapter ends with Newman explaining that the book is not about game preservation per se. Rather, he wants to expand preservation efforts to include player attitudes to games and actual gameplay. At this point, one part of me is starting to object. Even if the shift from game to gameplay preservation makes sense and he argues convincingly that the overall experience of playing a game changes as soon as minute detail change, one question arises. What games should be preserved? Remakes of old games are described as being problematic as substitutes for the original games, but does that make them not worthy to preserve also? Many of the first video games, e.g. OXO for the EDSAC computer and the chess programs written by computer pioneers such as Turing and Shannon, are remakes. So are the Lewis Chessmen as well, Europeans added visual themes to Chess that suited them after receiving versions with only geometric forms from the Arabs - which themselves had remade versions that had gotten from India and Persia (Shenk 2006). It is difficult to judge if Newman sees games as artifacts designed by an auteur and it is this auteur's vision that is to be preserved.
Another Chess piece from my childhood is the Red Queen that appears in Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking-Glass. While she is the main adversary to Alice - which Carroll first introduced in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - the queen is interesting to this review because of what is called the Red Queen's Dilemma (or hypothesis). In one part of the book, the queen and Alice need to get somewhere fast and run to do so. After Alice has run as fast as she can for as long as she can, she collapses and notices that they have gotten nowhere. When complaining that all their effort has been in vain, the queen answers: "Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place." This idea of having to put a lot of effort into maintaining one's place has been used as a metaphor in several different areas. Biologists use it to explain the "arms race" between competing species, marketing people use it to explain practices of introducing new products to replace old ones, and game scholars have used it to explain why players need to spend time in the game just to maintain their current positions (see Linderoth 2009 for the last example). The organizations devoted to game preservation also seem to be stuck in a Red Queen's Dilemma - with games becoming more and more popular there seems to an ever-increasing demand on preservation effects simply since more and more games are being released.
The second chapter of Best Before deals with various industry practices, and how this relates to game preservation. Newman argues that game industries devalue their own old products with the introduction of new games and platforms, and by that way work against preservation (why preserve something that is no longer valuable?). Further, even if manufacturers of game consoles state that the new models are backward compatible this is not universally true for all games. While the developers may be cast in a negative light, Newman goes further with retailers: he compares the usage of 'trade-in' paper bags by some companies with the usage of sick bags by airlines. Publishers of strategy guides get off slightly easier, they are simply trying to "communicate the finite nature of the gameplay". Overall, this chapter reads like a complaint of all the faults of the industry; all the practices described are argued as being bad for preservation even if Newman does not go so far as to say they intentionally work against it. One does however get a feeling that he would be happy if game companies never released new platforms, or at least continued to support old platform indefinitely. While this would perhaps help preservation, it is hard to see why companies would do this from a commercial perspective. They too are caught in a Red Queen's dilemma - if one company does not invent and release new products, it is very likely to lose market shares. A cartel would solve this problem and remove many of the objections to industry practices described in this chapter, but it is difficult to believe that this is a solution Newman would want to promote even if it was achievable. Like the first chapter, the second chapter explicitly postpones some discussions for future chapters. After coming this far into the book, I found myself asking what aspect of a game do Newman think should be preserved. I agree with Jesper Juul's idea that games are trans-medial (Juul 2011), so playing a game of Chess on a computer (and perhaps against it), with the Lewis Chessmen or with figures taken from the Simpsons TV series would all be playing Chess; clearly different experiences but still experiences of playing Chess. Newman sees many different types of problems with the remakes of old games on new platforms since they are not exactly the same and often portray the older version as dated. Does this mean that making the Lewis Chessmen and the Simpsons Chess set devalue Chess as a game since they are not faithful to the original designs?
The third chapter discusses how old games live on, partly through the pre-owned marketplace and partly through "retro" collections. However, he also introduces player-produced walkthroughs as a user-driven way of finding value and replayability in games, and while doing so compares it to the strategy guides discussed in the previous chapter. Again, Newman finds problems with how retailers make old games available - by having them close to new games they act as a contrast and thereby devalue themselves. Even worse is the case when recently released games are offered at lower price, this simply shows how quickly games lose value. While the discussion on how developers try to stop retailers from having a second-hand market from which the developers gain no revenue, it is somewhat unclear if Newman would prefer one or the other. That some groups of gamers complain over the number of games in retro collections is also addressed, it is however not made clear if Newman sees these gamers are part of the problem for preserving games or if they are victims of the mechanism that devalue old games. The actions of both game developers and designers are again used to argue for making the original version of games obsolete, both in sequels of games and in remastered versions of "classic" games. This chapter works against the argument in the previous chapter, i.e. the actions of the industry work against old games being treasured and therefore would be lost. Now, at least for popular games, the issue is not so much that they will be unavailable to play but rather than they cease to possess a definitive form. This is the same "problem" Chess, Monopoly and many other "traditional" games have, but the question is for whom this is a problem? Newman shows that there are some people which are worried about changes in remastered versions of games but at the same time implicitly shows that designers, developers, retailers, and most gamers have no issue with this. The position of game researchers is left unclear making it seem that the main stakeholders for preserving the original form of games are the people doing the preservation. It is somewhat funny to note that while Newman critiques the behavior of the retailer chain Game and Gamestation in this chapter, the economic troubles these have had in 2012 make them targets for a Best Before discussion - should they be preserved if they are no longer financially viable so knowledge about games are preserved?
The fourth chapter returns to the issue of reproducing games on new platforms, and how the many possible minute differences in these often make for large differences in the game and gameplay experience. Video games are analyzed both as objects and as software leading into a detailed discussion on the "troubles of emulation", and Newman shows that the issue of game preservation is even more problematic since often the original games exist in different variants. However, he also discusses that gamers find many different ways of playing games and that all these variations can be lost unless these also are preserved. This last minute observation brings Newman to his conclusion about game preservation: a shift is needed from preserving old games that may no longer be played (typically from the 1980s) to documenting current gameplay. Newman does acknowledge the importance of having emulators and caring for the original platforms, but sees this and the collecting of development documentation as part of the contextualizing materials used to position the gameplay. Newman argues that game preservation should document gameplay as well but does not clearly describe what he means by it. If gameplay is only the systemic interaction then the argument about variations in presentation as a problem for preservation falls, but if it is more, then it is difficult to judge were to draw the line of what should be studied. The events taking place throughout the book Through the Looking-Glass have been mapped by Carroll Lewis to moves in a game of Chess - should this be part of preserving Chess? Likewise, playing Chess as a European noblewoman soon after the Queen had become the most powerful piece in the 15th century probably affected the experience of playing the game and points towards a social and cultural context in which any game experience needs to be understood. In the final section of the book, Newman's solution is to "record as much as we possibly can about games" but this cannot be seen as practical advice to those engaged in the process of preservation except possibly that they should adopt a laissez-faire stance or embrace a race with the Red Queen.
After finishing the book, I am pretty convinced I do not belong to the target audience of it. This is somewhat surprising since I do research on all types of games and often find myself in the minority of people looking at both current and old games. Newman's exploration of the various mechanics that work against preservation efforts may be necessary to understand why preservation is difficult, but his style of writing makes it seem that he is looking for adversaries. Reaching the final chapter, he only comes as far as citing the claim from another archivist that "the games industry's lack of interest is a key factor" in the challenges of preserving games. This makes me think of Alice and how she ran with the Red Queen. The book does not seem to be directed to the industry or gamers either, nor to most game researchers. It does seem to be mainly directed to those working for preserving games. I can see that those involved in preservation activities - and especially those beginning to get involved in them - can find the middle chapters enlightening but they do not strongly tie into what arguably is Newman's main point: that game preservation needs to broaden its scope. Not only should the games (on their original platform or through emulators) and all their paraphernalia be collected, but accounts of how the games were played should also be collected. While the methodology for how to do this is left unanswered as is the issue of how to prioritize preservation efforts, Newman makes an important point that will hopefully spread among those trying to preserve games.
Juul, J. (2011). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. The MIT Press.
Lewis, C. (1872). Through the Looking-Glass. Reprinted in The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carrolls (1993). Chancellor Press.
Linderoth, J. (2009). It is not hard, it just requires having no life - Computer games and the illusion of learning. In Nordic Journal of Digital Learning, No. 1.
Shenk, D. (2006). The Immortal Game. Souvenir Press.