[-empyre-] Games, histories and preservation

Melanie Swalwell melanie.swalwell at googlemail.com
Thu Mar 13 11:37:25 EST 2008

Hi Christian,

Yes, the Russian arcade game collection is interesting.  It's only one
of a number of nationally-/regionally- specific products, as I
discovered a few years back when visiting my German colleague, Andreas
Lange, at the Berlin Computerspiele Museum.  He was driving me through
the snow to the museum's storage unit on the edge of town and,
inbetween wiping the condensation off the inside of the windscreen, I
was telling him about what I'd discovered in NZ: a whole history of
locally built consoles and arcade games that no one seemed to know
about.  It turns out that we were soon looking at an East German
"Polyplay" machine, and discussing the structural similarities between
the old East Germany and New Zealand (which used to be known as "the
Poland of the South Pacific", and which incidentally had a locally
made computer called "the Poly") because of its strict import controls
and general closed-offness in the 1980s.  Apart from arcade machines
per se, the pieces that have stayed with me most afrom this visit are
the East German handmade keyboards, which point to the DIY ethic
operational in early computing.  But that's about to take me off on a
whole different tangent...

For anyone who's interested, I have a rough translation of a magazine
article that mentions the "Polyplay" on my vuw webpage:
Mischke, Thilo (2004) "Planspiel Ost", Gee, 09, pp. 54-60, (English
summary and trans. Kerstin Grosch).

I plan to collect these regional local histories together somehow.
Please do let me know if you have colleagues working on such research.

Re the rest of your post, Christian, I can't do it justice in the time
I have available; but what came through for me in your elaboration of
nostalgia was a sense of game history as utterly personal and
aesthetic, a history of, or better *with*, a particular game/s.  While
I also work on aesthetics quite a lot, your discussion nicely captures
a personal temporal dimension that is often elided.

This provides a nice opportunity for me to segue into some of the
excerpts I wanted to post on today, from my aforementioned Journal of
Visual Culture article.  Here's the abstract:

This article addresses the shifting, multiple and contradictory
reception of early digital games technology. It reflects on the changing
fortunes of early digital games in terms of the shifts in esteem they
undergo: from novelty to detritus, to partial recuperation as nostalgia
item, based on the author's research into the history of such games in
New Zealand. Drawing inspiration from Tom Gunning's analyses of the
interrelation between technological novelty and the existence of a
discourse that makes it possible to express such novelty, the author
argues that while the present collector-led valorizing of game artifacts
is significant, and the mercantile marketing of games from backcatalogues
useful, there is an urgent need for discourses reflecting on
digital games in relation to broader shifts in visual culture.

Some excerpts (with apologies for any formatting oddities): Coming in
about half way through...

Having made the journey from novelty to detritus, are early digital games
now progressing back towards novelty? That is certainly the hope of those
game companies with extensive back catalogues. They may not move quickly
from 'low' to 'acceptable' status, but retro gaming has, over the last decade
or so, certainly attained a degree of cool…


Game companies are seeking to cash in on this rediscovered interest in early
titles with re-releases of 'classic' game titles. A number of well-known
companies have repackaged samplers of their early 1970s and 1980s games
(Konami, Intellivision, Atari) for a range of platforms (arcade, PC, console,
mobile phone)...

Reaching more people are the exhibitions that have brought early digital
game artifacts into mainstream cultural institutions and other venues,
and raising the profile of historic videogames. Unlike the game
companies, who only peddle nostalgia, exhibitions – such as 'Game On'
(2002) from the UK, and 'Pong Mythos' (2006) in Germany – explicitly make
a case for videogames' historic significance. Locally, the New Zealand Film
Archive's 2005 exhibition 'C:/DOS/RUN: Remembering the 80s Computer'
reflected on the decade when most people got their first taste of computers,
whether at home, school, or through popular culture's incorporation of
iconic games imagery, such as in the video clip for the Mi-Sex hit 'Computer
Games' (1979). The exhibition seemed to touch a nerve, making it 'the Film
Archive's most successful exhibition since opening in its new premises in
2003, prompting unprecedented audience numbers, media attention, online
debate and the show traveling to our Auckland office', according to curator
Mark Williams (private communication).

While game companies are seeking to revive the novelty of 1970s and 1980s
games through appeals to nostalgia, the interest in retro digital artifacts
should not just be dismissed as such. Some of the excitement generated by
'C:/DOS/RUN' may be put down to that, but one of the strengths of this
exhibition was that it also contained contemporary games and artworks that
were heavily influenced by 1980s game aesthetics, showing how the early
digital game era has had a lasting legacy on visual culture. Works such as
Lexaloffle Game's 'Jasper's Journeys' (2005) and Campbell Kneale's
'McCahonoid' (2004), a digital image of a Colin McCahon painting being
blasted, Space Invader-fashion, make this point eloquently. The exhibition
was also successful in generating a buzz about the accessibility and simplicity
of 8 Bit computing. It makes me wonder whether or not one of the reasons
why some people are so keen to forget this period is because it now
seems somehow quaint and naive, compared to our current presumed
sophistication. Works such as Stephen McGregor's 're-humanizing' of the
mighty Sinclair Spectrum, getting it to read poetry and perform 'Incorrect
Sums' (1992), recall a time when computers were more approachable and
you didn't need a computer science degree to write code.

It is significant that this re-discovery of the early digital age
should occur now,
when early computers and game systems are beginning to be at risk, as they
become fragile and start to break down. In his analysis, Gunning (2003)
invokes the work of Martin Heidegger, for whom the moment of equipment
breakdown allows us to experience a piece of equipment afresh. When we
are missing a certain tool, and only that tool will do, we come to understand
what that tool does (p. 45). Such recognition is arguably occurring now, as
mobile users and content providers discover the suitability of low-fi graphics
for the small screen, and commentators argue whether contemporary videogames'
impact is comparable to the success of some early hits, such as 'Pac-
Man' (Poplak, 2006).

It is, however, puzzling that, just as curators are offering audiences a chance
to reflect on the moment when computers began to directly impact on
people's lives, there is still a reluctance in some quarters to look back, to
recognize the early days of the digital era as an historically valid subject of
enquiry. How can it be that the 1970s and 1980s – the beginning of the digital
age for most people – are considered singularly uninteresting and
insignificant by expert panels, funding providers, and (some) cultural
institutions? I have been by turns surprised, disappointed and intrigued at
the lack of interest shown by a range of institutional and research
gatekeepers. The question arises as to whether, or not, this is part of a need
to believe that we have always been digital (modern). For instance, I have
found myself in the farcical situation of explaining to a New Zealand
Government Fund 'Business Manager' why research into emulating early
computer technology is a worthy investment, likely to generate economic
and social benefits, when her predecessors in government departments such
as Trade and Industry in the 1970s were falling over themselves to support
the development of electronics and associated fields, because they were seen
as industries with valuable economic potential (Department of Trade and
Industry, 1976: 8, 21). Perhaps this lack of interest is due to a reluctance to
remember the 1980s, because the decade is still relatively close; specifically,
the Lange Labour Government's years of restructuring the country were a
watershed, economically and socially. Only recently are 'defining moments'
from this decade – such as David Lange's Oxford Union debate (against Jerry
Falwell) on the moral indefensibility of nuclear weapons, the sinking of 'The
Rainbow Warrior' in Auckland harbour, and the protests the Springbok
rugby tour occasioned – being (selectively) recuperated as their anniversaries
come up.

C. Nadia Seremetakis (1996) tells us that in Greek, 'Nostalghía speaks to the
sensory reception of history.' Yet
Nostalgia, in the American sense, freezes the past in such a manner as
to preclude it from any capacity for social transformation in the present,
preventing the present from establishing a dynamic perceptual
relationship to its history. (p. 4)

Nostalgia is currently the dominant motif of remembrance, as companies
market nostalgia-led purchasing and consumption. However, while
important, this is not sufficient to conjure Seremetakis's fuller sense of
nostalghía, despite the centrality of aesthetics to gameplay. If early digital
games are to be remembered in a fuller sense, as having 'a dynamic
perceptual relationship to . . . history', then they also need
critical discourses
in which their significance can be articulated. There is an urgent need for
compelling explanations of the significance of early digital games for
culture and its history. Particularly given the challenges of preserving
digital artifacts, arguments need to be made that situate the early digital
period and its products (such as videogames) in terms of broader shifts in the
relation to technology (for instance, games' role in acclimatizing users to
digital computing) and shifts in visual culture.

Locally and internationally, cultural institutions charged with the preservation
of cultural heritage (including digital cultural heritage) have been slow to
realize their responsibilities towards preserving hardware and software –
though this is starting to change (Library of Congress, 2006) – items that
future historians will need to study. As Henry Lowood (2001) has argued,

The broader social and cultural impact of computing will revolutionize
(if it has not already) all cultural and scholarly production. It follows
that historians (not just of software and computing) will need to
consider the implications of this change, and they will not be able to do
it without access to our software technology and what we did with it . . .
Historians of software clearly will have to venture into every niche,
nook, and cranny of society in ways that will separate their work from
the work of other historians of science and technology. (pp. 148–9)

In New Zealand, the collecting of early digital artifacts has largely
fallen into
cracks between institutions. After discovering so many systems that were
indigenous to New Zealand,7 I was perturbed to find (through a 2004 inquiry
to the Museums Aotearoa listserv) that no New Zealand institutions were
collecting these digital games and game systems. Whilst a will to archive
might be thought to characterize contemporary societies, digital artifacts
from this period are still not on the agenda. Archiving is a politically charged
endeavour, involving decisions about what to include and what to exclude,
or, as Jacques Derrida (19961995) puts it: 'archivization produces as much
as it records the event' (p. 17); preserving something to be
remembered involves leaving out something to be forgotten. With regard
to early games,
clearly the low cultural esteem in which games are often held has not made
them a priority for inclusion. Locally, confusion as to what digital games are
– are they material culture, publications, or moving image works? – has been
the cause of some delay in finding an 'appropriate' institutional home. The
Film Archive was sympathetic to initial approaches and was interested in the
likeness to film, but its policy is to collect linear works for the
screen (that is,
not interactive works). The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa felt
that games should be held by the National Library, while the National Library
felt that they were items of material culture that would be best held by the
museum. This struggle with meeting the requirements of institutions vividly
illustrates Lowood's (2001) observation that software does not fit current
institutional divisions.

Though early digital games mark an important shift in recent visual culture,
the boom in games studies internationally has not (yet) encouraged
assessments of digital games' wider relations to, and significance
for, the field
of visual culture. While there are reasons for why this has been slow to
develop, situating digital games in relation to other visual media and their
histories is critical for the emergence of wider discourses regarding games'

-- [end excerpt] --
ref: Melanie Swalwell (2007) "The Remembering and the Forgetting of
Early Digital Games: From novelty to detritus and back again" Journal
of Visual Culture, special issue, Detritus & the Moving Image, Amelie
Hastie, ed., vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 255-273.

I guess I have two reasons for posting these excerpts.  First, I'd
like to make the point -- and invite others to discuss this claim --
that digital games need to be included in theories and histories of
contemporary/recent visuality.  There is some existing work which does
this, but there is room for much more.  I should probably note here
that I am not persuaded by the arguments that discussing games in
terms of non-game media enacts some sort of theoretical violence to
games, arguments that were popular til recently in game studies (the
so called ludology vs narratology debate).

My 2nd reason is to ask empyreans about the role/s for cultural
institutions in games history, particularly in terms of
responsibility/activity for collecting and preserving/conserving
digital games.  There are currently huge oversights here.  Lots of
work is being done on Digital Archiving, but these digitisation
endeavours often miss the "born digital" (an oversight that probably
goes for newer media art as well, though to a lesser extent, because
it is "art", after all).

Games -- particularly early ones -- constitute digital cultural
heritage, though they're often not considered as such.  Recently, I
bought the anthology "Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical
Discourse", Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, eds. MIT, 2007.  It
looks a fascinating read.  While I'm not berating the editors for
this, I am looking forward to the sequel or the next anthology on the
subject that actually makes reference to games and other early
computing endeavours, which deserve to be included as forms of digital
cultural heritage.

How did we become digital?  Weren't early games one of the first
digital technologies with which we dabbled?  Mightn't antecedents to
our contemporary love affair with digitality warrant collections,
scrutiny even, if not now, then in the future when it will be of

How can the cosy relation between nostalgia and amnesia be shaken up?

What do others think?


P.S. Being again a resident of Sydney these days, I haven't actually
been to "Game On" yet—I tried to go when I was in Vancouver in 2005
and it was in Chicago, but the flights were too difficult to sort out.
I'm going to see it in Melbourne at the end of the month—it'll be
interesting to see it post this whole discussion.  Will I feel
different afterwards?

On Thu, Mar 13, 2008 at 12:03 AM, Christian McCrea
<saccharinmetric at gmail.com> wrote:
> Melanie,
>  Thanks for a great post! For dessert, we're having Russia.
>  Moments before reading your post, I was looking over last year's wired
>  article and gallery on Soviet arcade games:
>  http://www.wired.com/gaming/hardware/news/2007/06/soviet_games
>  Amazing to see how my assumptions about what makes a game shatter on
>  the surface of some half-assembled cabinet.
>  Anyway...
>  ----Nostalgia and Amnesia
>  ---------------------------------------
>  There is so much to respond to, I'll have to bring attention down to
>  one element. Nostalgia is a prime motivator, I think, in gameplay
>  itself - digital and non-digital. Pre-digital theories of play all
>  make passing mention that play itself might cohere across sports and
>  games.. that play might need to be thought of on its own terms. (This
>  is where Buckminster Fuller lost his mind, finally) But nostalgia as a
>  cultural mechanism is interesting... visible elements of pasts layered
>  like stains. Material traces stick like lipstick to every
>  technological occasion; the labour of key ex-Sega employees visible on
>  the development of Xbox and Xbox 360, the games of Shinji Mikami or
>  Suda 51 deploying telltale signs of the scenario of their development.
>  The representation process requires the obvious element of
>  abstraction, but in this formula an 'indexical trace' (cheers to
>  Friedrich Kittler here) is also required; one that leaves a mark on
>  the represented object - for example, the grain of 35mm film camera,
>  the over-saturated and over-defined aesthetics of a new flat
>  television, the soft melt of chalk on stone, or the heat bleeding off
>  the graphics chip inside a console. These are marks that affect our
>  bodily reactions to media, and they ground our material connection to
>  gaming.  We tinker with settings, we change the mouse aiming to
>  'sensitive', and in a final linguistic irony, we may add anti-aliasing
>  to our vision. Once that wear and tear takes place, history is
>  allowed.
>  The trace also leaves with us and our bodies with a sense of
>  granularity. We look, hear and touch games – and perhaps we are the
>  final process through which the media must finally pass to become part
>  of gaming history.  A trace is on our skin, in the fleshy sense of our
>  Nintendo thumbs and sore eyes in the dead of night – but more directly
>  in the accumulation of history that we come to know – our
>  knowing-play. That getting-better-at-games, or more jaded, or more
>  wistful for the first encounter, is a super-tensile nostalgia.
>  When we play a stealth action game, we may come with expectations from
>  our experiences with Thief, with System Shock, or with early MUD
>  environments. When we play a downloaded hacked ROM file of an old
>  arcade classic, we may come with expectations from our experiences
>  with that arcade classic in its native context. In each circumstance,
>  however, we are articulating a memory of a missing trace. Gaming is a
>  pursuit of recapturing lost ground, lost territories, lost memories.
>  No wonder then, that the more game history feeds into game design, the
>  more game heroes become amnesiacs. Its a self-fulfilling trope at this
>  point.
>  The reference of Pac-Man as a historical moment, one summer or date of
>  original release is somewhat counter-intuitive. It took a period of
>  six years for Pac-Man to energise arcade spaces growing across the
>  world in the early and mid-80s (energise sounds like PR-speak I
>  suppose... I mean in the electricity sense!) What may be rather
>  possible is an articulation of Pac-Man as an ongoing moment. New
>  players are acting as the 'defiler' in Kittler's agency, pushing the
>  Start button for the first time and seeing the faded Namco logo scar
>  another gouge in the pixel map of a 20-year old CRT. So why is this so
>  different that the articulation of cinema, or literature, or chalk,
>  for that matter?
>  The framing of the digital entertainment environment as the centre of
>  convergence belies the motivation; the recuperation of all the
>  collected traces in all media life. Games are greedy! The need to
>  transform all myths and moments into playable coda; the need to
>  re-use gaming traditions, the evolution of generic traits, the need to
>  add more of this, more of that, and very rarely less except in terms
>  of pure nostalgia for a purer gameplay model.  Taking a cue from
>  Phillip Rosen, if cinemas are change mummified, games could be are
>  change reanimated (like the undead.)
>  ---17.5 percent
>  ----------------------
>  (Melanie, you will probably have better information than I do on the
>  technical specifics....so apologies for any errors)
>  Through the dint of patent circularity and differences in broadcast
>  standard (PAL vs. NTSC being just one of many differences between
>  systems), the complexity of the gaming image being sent to televisions
>  the world over from the same original disc is further complicated. For
>  example, Australia's broadcast standard is 576i, which has required
>  sacrifices by console manufacturers right up to the current
>  digitization of the gaming image from 2003 onward. For the game
>  produced to generate 480 lines of visual information to fit on a
>  television showing 576 lines, two elements were introduced, which
>  retrospectively have had a number of effects on the gaming culture in
>  Australia (and other PAL-standard countries.)
>  First, black bars were introduced at the top and bottom of the game
>  image so that the 480 lines could be shown together and not
>  interspersed with black lines. This brute force cinematisation
>  squashed the image into place, meaning a significant difference in the
>  visual image between Europe, America and Australia. The second, and
>  perhaps more radical consequence, was that many games until 1993 were
>  not reprogrammed for the  PAL standard and were merely converted to
>  run at a stable rate of play – which required them to literally run
>  17.5 percent slower.
>  The Australian experience of playing slower games may have impacted
>  the taste and styles of gameplay of gamers growing up in the medium's
>  specific technical quirks. An adolescence steeped in obsolescences.
>  What these quirks do collectively is fracture the idea of the 'ideal
>  gaming image', that players are experiencing the same text. The
>  relationship that film has to its apparatus has, in a sense, a
>  referent to which it can apply an adjudication; the quality of film
>  itself. Digital technologies such as DVD and the more recent Blu-Ray
>  technology sell themselves on a diminishing relationship to a film
>  image, becoming closer and closer to an originary, despite the fact
>  that cinema itself is producing larger and larger scale images due to
>  the concurrent growth in the digital film apparatus. Yet games do not
>  have a referent situation; they chase nothing in the same way. There
>  is however, still a very strong sense of the 'ideal gaming image'.
>  This is the assumption that all copies of the game are experienced in
>  the same way, precisely because they are played and experienced.
>  This assumption, and ones it generates, is at the centre of gaming's
>  sensory status; and perhaps that is where game curatorship is (or
>  perhaps) isn't at its most tested, its most needed. The differences in
>  technical and material apparatus matter greatly to the virtualities
>  that we then presume to decode.
>  ---The Death of Games
>  ---------------------------------
>  A few years ago, being interesting in thought experiments and
>  abstractions, I presumed to rewrite Paolo Cherchi Usai's short
>  materialist manifesto for film archivists, 'The Death of Cinema', and
>  replaced all the medium-specific terms with those of games to produce
>  un-engagable, incoherent non sequitur text.
>  So that the first passage, which reads as:
>  "1. Cinema is the Art of Moving Image Destruction: Without the images
>  of drama, adventure, comedy, natural and artificial events imprinted
>  on motion picture film, there would be no cinema; there would be
>  nothing to make history out of; filmology would have nowhere to go. In
>  its place would either be still images (photography) or fleeting ones
>  (electronics).  The point is confirmed by video; a civilization that
>  is prey to the nightmare of its visual memory has no further need of
>  cinema. For cinema is the art of of destroying moving images."
>  ..became:
>  1. Gaming Is The Art of Computer and Videogame Destruction: Without
>  the technologically-determined genre games of puzzle platformers,
>  first person shooters, real time strategy being imprinted on
>  cartridges and discs, there would be no gameplay; game history would
>  have nowhere to go. It its place would either be flowing images
>  (cinema) or static ones (electronics). The point is confirmed by
>  software: a civilisation that is prey to its code memory has no
>  further need of games. For gameplay is the art of computer game
>  destruction."
>  The original book is where I took the idea of the 'ideal image' from,
>  and I still find it as useful as any theory reference work - poetic as
>  it is, I really enjoy the implications.
>  Anyway, back to Moscow arcades.....
>  Christian McCrea
>  ----
>  saccharinmetric at gmail.com
>  _______________________________________________
>  empyre forum
>  empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
>  http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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