Preserving the cultural heritage of the Born Digital

I was lucky to hear from Henry Lowood at the Brown Bag at the Australian National Maritime Museum this week. Henry is from Stanford University, leading the project How They Got Game dedicated to the archival preservation of digital games and simulations, and was keynote speaker at this year’s Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference at ACMI. Digital games have existed since the dawn of modern computing, dating back to the 1970s running on long-obsolete hardware and software platforms, and have been a part of our world’s cultural landscape for over a generation.

Here‘s a brief presentation of work being done with one such collection from Stephen M. Cabrinety of 15,000 game titles from 1975 to 1995 consisting of hundreds of gigabytes of data, and the another on challenges involved in it’s conservation.

There is a danger that this culturally significant material will be lost forever unless it is preserved now for future generations, particularly as some of the original media is now decades old and at risk of damage and data loss. Interestingly, old floppy discs (3.5″ or 5.25″ floppies) have been found to have a much higher data integrity than expected (around 85%) especially when compared to copied CDs (around 35%, usually lower, although factory-pressed CDs are higher). Digital forensics will sometimes be required to extract data from old media. Copy-protection checksums on the media can also prevent a complete image from being created; this is especially the case with cartridge media from Nintendo, Sega and Atari consoles. In some cases the copy protection in order to run the program may be a physical artefact such as a manual (finding a particular word on a particular page) or more obscure objects. A fortunate aspect of preserving digital artefacts once it has been rescued from its original media is that it is infinitely copiable.

There is also the problem with emulation, how do we ensure that we can recreate the original environment when the old hardware is obsolete? For example, even with a perfect 1:1 emulator there will be discrepancies between how graphics are displayed on a modern LCD compared to the original CRT displays, and interfaces between the computer and controllers. This emulation problem doesn’t just exist in games, but with hundreds of companies around the world who run on decades-old hardware and are responsible for health records, factories, defence simulators; many of them are looking to replace their old failing fridge-sized serial-ported mainframes with emulators running on a PC to perform the same function.

Legal ownership and property rights are a major and constant project. Due to the amount of time since their creation, the rights may have passed from original authors through a web of successively defunct and overtaken companies. Even when the current companies who own the rights decide to revert these rights to the original author there is the challenge of finding out who this was and then actually locating them. This is a labyrinthine process, and only when rights have been granted can the public be given access to the ROM. Until then the ROM is preserved but not accessed.

There are many other issues which came up in the discussion, including preservation of different versions of games, replicating the environment of online games and virtual worlds (eg, World of Warcraft), the problem of viruses and whether these should be preserved, phone phreaking and illegal software, and who preserves the software on the Maritime Museum’s naval ships.

I have a long list of other questions which I didn’t have time for, such as the collection and ownership of user data for online games, the preservation of bulletin boards and mobile applications, what happens where the operating system is unknown, digital metadata of museum records and collection datasets, preserving digital museum interactives, and the archaeology of Andy Warhol’s experiments in digital art.

I consider myself born digital in 1977 – my dad has been working in IT since the 1970s, a photo from 1980 is of me sitting scabby-kneed on a mainframe, and by the mid 80s I was assembling PCs by myself. I have everlasting memories of transcribing BASIC programs from magazines onto cassette on my Tandy MC-10, playing Scram on a DEC Alpha, monochrome Kings Quest off 5.25″ floppies (technically not black and white since you could switch between black and orange, blue, or white), being eaten by a grue, and forging unseen friendships in MUDs over 300 baud dialup modem. This is an inseparable part of my life and that of many others in the world, and will continue to be for generations to come.

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4 thoughts on “Preserving the cultural heritage of the Born Digital

    • Amelia says:

      Seconded there, thank you Chris for the great summary. I love the retro pic too! I find it very heartening that these important cultural artefacts are being preserved.

  1. stephengapps says:

    I was really intrigued by Henry’s take on the digital historians being divided into 3 camps – historians, archaeologists and reenactors. Just like non-digital history I guess. It’s an interesting image to conjure up of authenticity nazis (as they are known in historical reenactment circles) using the period correct hardware to play 1980s video games. Do they also dress that way? Recreate a 1980s lounge room? How far do you go to create the (‘authentic’) experience?

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