A Philosophy on the Preservation of Video Games

I was recently asked to write a forward for the second edition of Leonard Herman's book called "Phoenix: the Fall and Rise of Video Games." At about the same time, I was also asked to write an essay on the history and preservation of video games for a book on video games as art by Dr. Mark Wolf of Concordia University. I was immensely flattered by both of these invitations, and the bulk of this essay is drawn from those two writings.

The history of video games has been a central preoccupation of my life for the last 7 or 8 years. But of course, for an entire generation, video games have formed a kind of cultural strata upon which we have built our generational identity, much in the same way that rock and roll did for a previous generation. I met many wonderful people while doing research for Videotopia. When you become enraptured by a topic, truly let it enfold your life, you end up gravitating towards disparate individuals who have similar obsessions. You end up meeting new friends that feel like your oldest ones. In some ways, that alone is the greatest reward of such an obsession.

In sitting down to write this, I had originally planned to go into the creation of Videotopia, talk about some of the "adventures" that everyone involved in the project had experienced (and certainly some of those stories will appear here soon), but I realized that that was not what Videotopia or either of the book projects were about. What they are about, in fact, is the preservation of history... the true preservation of history.

Contrary to what one would at first think, the preservation of history is NOT accomplished by museums or large intellectual organizations, they merely perpetuate the established views of history and archive what is already regarded as valuable. This is not a fault of such organizations because, for the most part, that is exactly what they are designed to do. Of course, this leaves much of what is true and valuable to languish and evaporate. The true champions of history sacrifice to bring to the forefront of the cultural consciousness the things that have affected our lives and helped us build the world in which we live.

For too long, video games have been ignored by those that guard the established order of what is and is not "history". Video games are ignored in almost every book on the history of computer technology, or if they are not ignored they are treated so flippantly as to propagate myths like "Pong was the first video game" or "Sprint was the first arcade video game to use a microprocessor." This tendency to gloss over the topic is not only an indication of the lack of respect for video games as an art form and cultural and technological catalyst, but also an indication of the lack of willingness that our society has to actually examine the evolution of our rapidly changing culture.

If you accept the postulate that the move to an informational society that the western world is currently undergoing is the most important change in society since the industrial revolution, then video games are the most important technological incarnation of the twentieth century. Without video games, computers would still be esoteric boxes used only by a small fraction of society. With video games, computer technology has been humanized, popularized, and spread across the face of the western world. A series of events that certainly would not have occurred had spreadsheets and word processors been the extent of computer capabilities.

I began the Videotopia project over 7 years ago because of the great desire I had to see the history of video games preserved. At that time, many people thought I was foolish. I would constantly hear: "Video games are not history," they said. "Video games aren't important... what have they done beside waste people's time? Lets talk about computers. Now that's important." No one would listen to my points, few would entertain my arguments. Sure they would be interested in throwing a bunch of video games into a hall in order to "trick" kids into learning about other things... but they just were not yet ready to accept the importance of the topic.

Now, let me take a moment to tell you that I am the first person that would admit to thinking that I would have just given up when the idea of a serious, big-budget exploration of the topic met heavy resistance. But an odd thing happened... I didn't. It just strengthened my belief that the topic was important, and as the months and years went by that conviction grew in strength. The research grew, friends and contacts were made, great help as well as great hindrance came my way, but as is often the case with projects like this, it generated a life all its own. Videotopia has weathered many storms (even an attempted hijacking!), originally the exhibit was to have premiered in the summer of 1995, but various events prevented that. As it stands, the exhibit is nearly everything it was originally planned to be... a living tribute to the dreams of the designers and pioneers, a center of resource for the beginnings of the examination of the art form, a way to show people the science behind our daily lives... and, most of all, an exhibit on video games done right. There is a reason why so many people have traveled across this country and from as far away as Paris, France just to see Videotopia..... and that reason is manifest in the name. I mean, if you truly love video games... where would you most want to be?

My desire to accurately preserve this history was especially strong because it was such a personal history in many ways. Video games are a unique form of art and technology. Beyond the silicon and source code lies a more fundamental component of their structure. They are a distillate of the human spirit, the imagination brought to life in a purer form than any other that has come before. This particular expression of imagination is more than a plaything, or a compilation of words (as compelling as those words might be). This particular expression of imagination is a play mate. Video games are the ideas and influences of the mind of the designer, frozen for eternity, until you, by playing the game, bring them back to life.

Now, perhaps all of this sounds a bit heady, a bit too philosophical... I mean, after all... they are just games... but in the words of Marshall Mcluhan, a man that could look beyond the curtain of what we thought to be true and see what actually was true, "The games of a people reveal a great deal about them." And in following Mcluhan's approach to looking at a media, the greatest influence of video games on society is certainly not the content or gameplay of any of the games (the personal influences of the games on individuals is, of course, entirely content and game play), the influence on society is caused by the very fact that they exist, that they have flourished and caused a profound change in the way we communicate. The Internet, home computers, the visualization of information... all profoundly affected, and in some cases complete offspring, of video games. Now certainly... this is history, this is valuable, this needs to be preserved.

History is written by the efforts and sacrifices of those with foresight to push what is true into the consciousness of those that care less about what is true than what is acceptable. Without these rare individuals, our history would look more like the history of the dictatorships of the world, written to aggrandize accepted histories. Our histories would be the history of what is easy, what is most palatable.

Books such as "Phoenix," Steven Kent's "Electronic Nation," and Dr. Wolf's upcoming work represent the first steps in the correction of history, and not just by their publication, but by your interest and your discussions of them at dinner tables and car-pools. Ideas pass from people to people and gain strength.

Despite truth, history is malleable... let us make certain that it is molded in the proper way. We can thank such individuals as Steven Kent, Dr. Mark Wolf, and Leonard Herman for giving us the tools to help bang it into shape.

Keith Feinstein
Electronics Conservancy

Sept 18, 1997

Copyright 1997 Electronics Conservancy


VIDEOTOPIA and Electronics Conservancy are registered trademarks of The Electronics Conservancy, Inc. All rights reserved. All photos (c)1997, 1998 Electronics Conservancy. All videogames, characters, brand names, and trademarks are the properties of their respective owners.