“WE are on the cusp of losing something critical to our cultural heritage,” Aleks Krotoski told listeners at the beginning of the first episode of a new series of The Digital Human. “And already so much has disappeared into history.”
Sounds serious, right? If I tell you what’s disappearing are early video games would you think again?
If you do Krotoski might want to have some words with you. Her subject last Monday was the early days of video games, how so much of that history is already lost to us and what, if anything, we can do to get it back.
The reason for that loss is simple. When a new technology begins it is constantly looking for the next development and its makers are too busy to archive what they are doing.
As the BFI’s Briony Dixon pointed out in the programme, we have lost somewhere in the region of 80 per cent of silent cinema because much of the film it was shot on was recycled for its silver content.
The other challenge for videogame tech is that it has changed out of all recognition since the 1980s. “I think we take video games for granted because videogames for the most part have been a product that one could purchase and own,” videogame preservationist Frank Cifaldi told Krotoski. “But that’s like saying film history is safe because we have VHS tapes.”
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He reminded listeners that early games tech involved the use of CD-Roms, floppy discs and cassette tapes, which prompted a flash of memory for me of loading up the old ZX81 via cassette tape sometime in the early 1980s to play Mazogs.
The challenge Cifaldi and his fellow preservationists face was summed up in his attempts to recreate a 1980s arcade videogame from the notes left behind in the basement of its deceased creator.
Cifaldi found the code for the game but had no way of transposing it to another, more up-to-date system. It had to be translated into machine language, but no one still had the 1990s software that would allow that to happen.
He tracked down the software developer responsible, but he had retired and couldn’t help. Eventually he found the executable software in the source code repository of a digital thermometer on a dodgy Chinese website.
I’m not sure, as adventures go, it’s quite Indiana Jones. But it proved a fascinating insight into the lengths “code archaeologists” go to to rediscover what has been lost.
Some of you might still be asking why does any of this matter? The reason is because it’s culture. It’s an expression of who we once were. And ads and magazines and comics and video games tell us as much about that as high culture. As do the communities that build up around them.
To this end Krotoski talked to Connor Clarke of Sheffield’s National Videogame Museum who told her about the museum’s Animal Crossing Diaries Project which sought to archive and collect stories from those who have played the Animal Crossing game during lockdown. What emerged was the way games and real life increasingly intersect. Date nights were sometimes held in the Animal Crossing world, he explained.
“We saw a lot of people using Animal Crossing as a place of resistance, so we saw a lot of protests happening,” he added. “The Liberate Hong Kong protests, the Black Lives Matter protests.”
And they were also sent screenshots of shrines built in Animal Crossing to lost friends and family members.
In short, the distance between digital and real life keeps shrinking. Why do we need to remember? Because it’s who we are.
Listen Out For: Scotland the Low Countries, Radio Scotland, Monday and Tuesday, 1.30pm. Billy Kay examines the links between Scotland and the Flemish and Dutch people.
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