Older video games are in danger of going extinct
Jul 13, 2023

Older video games are in danger of going extinct

The roots of the influential artistic and cultural medium are becoming inaccessible. Early titles help us “understand how game design evolved and where this medium came from,” says Phil Salvador of the Video Game History Foundation.

For the most part, it’s not too hard to get access to movies from the last decade or even the last century.

But if you want to experience a video game from before, say, the ancient era of 2010? Good luck.

A new report from the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network finds that 87% of those older games are “critically endangered.”

They’re not commercially available to the public unless fans have dozens of different old systems to play them on or travel to an archive in person and play them there. In other words, the roots of this hugely influential artistic and cultural medium are in danger of being lost.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Phil Salvador, library director for the Video Game History Foundation, about the report.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Phil Salvador: Video games for a long time had been treated as being sort of toys or being treated disposably. You see this happen with other mediums as well, like happened with, you know, early film and how, you know, films would just kind of get thrown out once they were used. The video game industry never really had this notion of, you know, “We’re going to resell these games 20 years later.” So there’s a combination of long-term-rights issues that just kind of weren’t hammered out back then, licensing issues if you’re making, like, you know, let’s say a game based on a Marvel comic. You know, that’s kind of a thing you have to hammer out long term. But also a lot of technical issues where, you know, you can’t just automatically put an older game on a new platform. It’s kind of a complicated, expensive process that only just now is starting to get a little more manageable. And we’re kind of feeling the effects of that now in terms of their availability.

Meghan McCarty Carino: In your report, you sort of translate this into another context that I think really brings it home, you know. What would be a similar scenario if we’re talking about films or movies? What would this look like?

Salvador: Well, our founder, Frank Cifaldi, at the Video Game History Foundation raised a really good comparison point where he looked at video games from the [1980s] versus movies from the ’80s. And it’s kind of bizarre that you can get most of the top-selling, you know, top-grossing movies from the ’80s through Amazon or a DVD copy or what have you. But when it comes to video games, most of those still tend to be inaccessible. Our point of comparison in the study was that the availability rate for these classic video games kind of falls somewhere around pre-World War II audio recordings and the survival rate of American silent films. Obviously, for games, you know, they’re not completely gone, you can still track down one of these, you know, used copies. But it’s a case where it’s like we shouldn’t be talking about these numbers in the same context, you know — mediums that are over a century old versus things that came out 30 years ago.

McCarty Carino: Downloading games digitally has sort of become the norm in the industry in recent years. I mean, how has this trend contributed to this issue that you’re talking about?

Salvador: Well, on the one hand, it’s been positive in the sense that it’s easier, I should say, to rerelease games than it ever has been before. You don’t have to re-manufacture cartridges or CDs. But the downside is that, you know, digital distribution is inherently volatile. At some point, these stores will shut down at some point, this isn’t going to be available. And we’re already seeing signs for some older generations of game consoles like the Xbox 360 that the stores are going to shut down sometime in the near future. And that’s going to represent, we’ve been saying, a mass extinction event for a lot of these games. There was a recent example where Nintendo shut down their old eShops for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U consoles. And it was estimated that about 1,000 games that were unique to those platforms were taken out of circulation. So you can’t even go to eBay and get the used copies of those anymore.

McCarty Carino: What is the role of public policy like copyright law here?

Salvador: Well, copyright law, we like to say, was not designed with video games in mind. There was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed over 20 years ago that made an attempt at modernizing copyright law to deal with things like digital copies, with digital rights management, which [is], you know, preventing tampering with or copying games, that kind of technology. But I don’t think they were designed with something like game preservation in mind. So we end up in scenarios where the kind of preservation activities that libraries and archives can do around other mediums, it’s harder to do that for video games. I think we live in a world where, you know, you could scan the pages of a book and make them available to researchers. Doing that for games, there’s just various copyright obstacles we still need to work around to do that sort of thing.

McCarty Carino: And what has the role of the actual video game industry been in this?

Salvador: Well, very broadly speaking, the video game industry has supported the idea of game preservation. But when it comes to copyright reform, consistently we’ve received pushback from the video game industry and its lobbying groups for even modest changes to copyright law to make it easier for libraries to do their jobs. These groups have raised concerns that I think aren’t unreasonable, that if libraries were able to expand access to their collection, they’ve kind of had this specter of, you know, “online digital arcades” they’ve been referring to, that, you know, we would be effectively competing with the video game industry. The reason we did the study was to show that we’re not talking about the same thing here. The industry is concerned with this 13% of games that are still in print that they’ve decided are commercially viable. Still, I’m not worried about a world where, you know, [Super] Mario or Sonic [the Hedgehog] or Final Fantasy aren’t available anymore. What we’re worried about is that other 87% of games that the industry can’t or won’t get to. You know, if the only option to get those is spending hundreds of dollars or piracy, we have to look at OK, well, what other options could be on the table? What can we do to make it easier for libraries and archives to do their job sharing this with the people who need it?

McCarty Carino: So what kinds of solutions does your organization recommend to address this?

Salvador: The one that’s been on the table recently is the idea of remote digital access. There’s technology called emulation that lets us effectively mimic how old gaming systems work on modern platforms. There’s ways we can provide that access in a secure, responsible manner. But it’s been difficult to get the exemption we need in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make that happen because the game industry raised these concerns about, you know, whether this is going to impact their bottom line. So again, that’s why we dug into these statistics. It’s like, rather than arguing anecdotes about, you know, these games are available, these ones aren’t, we have hard data now to say, like, these are the games we are actually concerned about. This isn’t going to impact what the game industry is doing, and if anything, our efforts are complementing each other.

McCarty Carino: What’s really at stake here? What do we lose if we lose these older games?

Salvador: You know, I think this is kind of timely, what we’re seeing happening in the digital media landscape right now, where titles are being removed from services. You see things like Turner Classic Movies, you know, kind of facing this existential threat as Warner Bros. is cutting costs. There’s a concern about the same thing happening to video games. We’re worried about a world where, you know, the historical record for games is only what’s immediately, commercially accessible. Video games, like any other medium, like music or movies or books, it’s a medium of creative expression. And to understand the history of it, we want to have access to, you know, the broad spectrum of what “video games” means. One of the really concerning things we found in our study is for the oldest video games, and we’re talking games pre-1985, we sort of compare that to being like the silent film era of video games because that was when we were, you know, establishing the language of what video games are, we were kind of working out what this medium is. Less than 3% of those games are still commercially available. And there’s a good reason that’s the case. I mean, a lot of these games are kind of archaic. They’re not, you know, the most exciting things to resell. But it’s like, that’s kind of the roots of this industry. And if we want to understand how game design evolved and where this medium came from, we need access to that stuff, even if it’s not commercially viable.

McCarty Carino: Right, like in the film context, there are plenty of films that sort of serve as cultural artifacts that probably aren’t going to go into the Criterion Collection, but are kind of cool to have access to.

Salvador: Exactly, but they’ve had a huge influence on filmmakers and kind of developing their sensibilities. We think about games that might not necessarily have been the biggest titles, but still have something interesting you can learn from them or some unusual perspective because there’s, again, the sorts of rights issues or technical issues or just the industry deciding it’s not something they can really make money off of. That shouldn’t be the deciding factor for whether they’re still available for people who want to study them.

McCarty Carino: Phil, can you give me some examples of the type of games we might be losing?

Salvador: For one specific example, there’s a very fascinating game, which I don’t think was actually released in the United States, but it’s a great example of the kind of stuff we’re talking about here. It was a game from the 1980s for older computers like the Amiga computer. It was a game called Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness, which depicted a slave revolt in the French Caribbean in the 1800s. It is an incendiary game. It is still shocking today that this game exists, and especially that it was made during this earlier period of the game industry. There was a case even before I worked for the Video Game History Foundation where I was talking with a scholar who was studying depictions of slave revolt in media, and they wanted to play this game. And our solution was, all right, well here’s how to pirate this video game because you can’t get copies of it anymore. And here’s how to set up this cumbersome software to, you know, mimic how to run an Amiga on a modern computer. And there’s no real troubleshooting for this. We have the technology to make this easier for folks to access if they’re trying to research it, but because of some of the burdensome restrictions that still exist in copyright, libraries and archives are having trouble doing their job getting these sorts of games more widely accessible.

It’s been a big week in the world of video games.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Microsoft could move ahead with its nearly $69 billion acquisition of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, denying an attempt by the Federal Trade Commission to delay the deal on the grounds it was anti-competitive.

The HBO adaptation of the video game The Last of Us snagged two dozen Emmy nominations, including a nod for best drama series. It’s the first live-action video game adaptation to make such a splash at an awards show.

And over on “Marketplace Morning Report,” my colleague David Brancaccio and his team released a special series, “Skin in the Game,” which explores how young and upcoming developers from underprivileged backgrounds are getting into the game industry, and it highlights how their personal stories are reflected in their work.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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