What Will History Think Of Video Games?

Video games have come a long way since their inception. Of that, there can be no doubt. They've gone from a curiosity on the edge of mainstream culture to an integral element of the 21st century. These days, almost everyone's a gamer in one form or another, whether they're competing for hours in League of Legends or simply playing Farmville on Facebook. Such a cultural phenomenon cannot be ignored - nor can its impact on our society.

It is for this reason that educational institutions and museums across the country are now taking steps to preserve the history of the medium, acquiring games and curating games exhibits so that the historians of the future can look back and understand where all this stuff actually came from. In other words, they're taking steps to preserve the history of video games for future generations. That's actually a lot more difficult than it sounds.

It's not simply a matter of preserving the hardware, nor is it even a matter of making sure people still have access to a playable copy of a particular title. Instead, it's more about the culture. What did the game mean to the community? How was it played, and who played it? These are the questions historians are asking. 

What this means, argued Stanford Libraries curator Harry Lowood, is that games aren't simply historical artifacts. They are, he says, "historically specific sites of shared experience." Thinking otherwise, he continued, risks falling into something known as the fallacy of the executable: the assumption that a piece of software exists independent of the culture that birthed it. 

Charles Pratt, curator of the annual No Quarter exhibit, feels much the same as Lowood. 

"When it comes to game preservation, documentation is probably the most important thing," explained Pratt. "We should preserve the apparatus of a game, but it's impossible to save the culture of a game, which is really the most important part. With this restriction in mind, we should really just try to save as much of the memories and events surrounding the game as possible." 

Imagine if, a century down the line, a child is visiting a museum and signs on to play a perfectly-preserved copy of League of Legends. The problem is, they're playing by themselves, with no context as to what the game was in its heydey.  A match against bots doesn't, for example, tell the player anything about the huge changes developer Riot brought about in the world of competitive eSports, nor does it give any indication as to the toxicity of the player community (and the measures taken by Riot to remedy it). The game would effectively exist in a vacuum, independent of how it was actually played or developed. 

To truly preserve these games, we need something more. We need developer interviews, footage of high-level play, livestreams and news stories surrounding game updates and controversies. In short, we need to preserve some element of the players alongside the games, in order for future generations to look back and understand something of our experiences. That's not the only reason to preserve games, either.

"The purpose of (game preservation) is to enable game design education," explains Dylan McKenzie, curator of the NYU Game Center Open Library.  We believe that in order to make great games, students need advanced, deep game literacy. In order to become literate in 19th century Russian Literature, you should read books written by Russian authors from the 19th century.  If you want to make psychological thriller movies watch Hitchcock films. If you want to push the boundaries of what's possible with videogames you need to know what has already been done, and to do that you need to play games."

Video games are more than just a pastime at this point. They've become an integral aspect of our world, an integral element of our culture. To ignore them is to ignore a building block of the modern world; to disregard their place in history is to disregard an entire generation.