Disc-Free Gaming Is an Archival Nightmare
Will corporate control erode game history?
Carly Kocurek is the author of Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (Minnesota, 2015) and Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls (Bloomsbury, 2017).
Microsoft's new Xbox One S launching May 7 boasts "disc-free gaming," a feature that has already raised issues about ownership and access for players. However, the upcoming xCloud game streaming service indicates Microsoft may be moving towards streaming as a dominant distribution model. If the goal is to migrate away from downloads entirely, the new Xbox disc-less console is the harbinger of what could be a pretty grim trajectory for video game history.
According to Andrew Borman, Digital Games Curator at the Strong Museum of Play, there is currently no model for preserving playable versions of streamed games.
“Other than video, which is a key part of preservation and what we do, there is no record of the game," Borman told me. "We can’t see the files and the elements of the game including art and story. We have no means to revive the game so that it can be played not just now, but decades from now. The idea of ownership disappears in this model. You have a license to use that for as long as the company wants to let you play the game.”
The diversity of films readily circulating has declined sharply because of the dominance of streaming. For example, Netflix started as a mail-order movie-rental service offering hard-to-find foreign films and cult favorites alongside new releases. However, as the service has shifted to focus on streaming, the number of titles has compressed. As of 2015, Netflix’s disc library included just 7,500 titles, much of it television—and if that sounds like a lot, consider that Chicago video store Odd Obsession has at least 20,000 titles.
Many movies are not digitized and ownership of current copyrights can be ambiguous, making digitization efforts difficult. Movies drift on and off streaming services due to complex issues including licensing of the movies themselves or even of the soundtracks. This drift creates holes in history and presents sometimes weird challenges; a film professor I know reported recently having to run a class screening of the 2006 movie Shortbus from Pornhub, the only site that had it available. Disc-free consoles and streaming services similarly present an acute challenge for historians and archivists. While digital distributors like Steam have driven the move to the cloud, most of these still allowed downloads. Newer streaming platforms remove that possibility, which means access is entirely dependent on the corporation.
I serve on the board of directors for the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive, one of the largest collections of video games and related artifacts. Co-director Judd Ruggill says streaming raises fresh challenges for an area of collection and preservation that is nascent.
“There’s a reason this model works well for game companies—there’s security and the ability to update constantly or create additional content, but the number of dependencies and scale of operations is huge," Ruggill said. "We’re trying to imagine how to save games in the past, and we have ideas, and we’re starting to implement them, but going forward, when there’s no material object, it’s really tough. The industry isn’t super helpful.”
Media producers often don’t act as benevolent cultural stewards. Disney has carefully managed its own racist past, recutting Fantasia to remove racist caricature and, for decades, keeping Song of the South out of circulation as best they could. Game companies can exert control over versions of available games more easily with newer media forms. “Even if they were to re-release the game, you’re not necessarily getting the same experience that was available on day one of the original release, due to changes that have been made to the game. You only can play what the current developer wants you to play,” Borman said. This is perfectly reasonable from a corporate standpoint, but the effort to protect brand reputation can also shut down criticism and undermine future demands for accountability. Corporate histories—and corporate secrets—kept in corporate archives exist at a remove from the public’s cultural memory.
If streaming becomes the new norm, corporate control of today’s games may persist for decades and games may fall out of access or even disappear entirely. I don’t think Microsoft is going to fold, taking its game library with it, any time soon, but nobody in 1979 would have guessed Atari’s decline, either. There is a huge difference in the problems presented by streaming in the present tense and the 40 years from now – I’m most concerned with the latter.
Preservation standards and practices in video games are less well defined than those for film, television, or other established media forms. Today’s archivists, a mix of professionals and committed collectors, are already unsure of how to handle emerging forms due to the complex interdependencies between software, hardware, servers, and networks. The Library of Congress holds physical copies of games submitted by producers and distributors, but there is not an established way to submit games that can’t be sent in as a complete hard copy.
“Some game companies pack up everything and send it to Iron Mountain, and theoretically you could construct virtual machines and everything from that, but the likelihood of doing that is very low,” Ruggill says. “Everyone interested in these things whether it’s at a high scholarly level or just in general is going to be in trouble.”