When I ask Frank Cifaldi, founder and director of the Video Game History Foundation, to explain the importance of preserving and maintaining old video games, he responds with a film analogy. Imagine, he said, “if movies were only ever released on VHS. you want to look Return to the future? Alright, you need to go to eBay and find an old VHS copy that’s a little weathered from use. You have to find a working VCR, a TV you can plug it into (or the external scalers that make it look right on your modern TV), and you may need a time base corrector because the magnetic flux signal is not there. synchronized.”
For many games, this is the state of the industry. For the most part, decades-old games now exist only in their original form: on a disc or cartridge that goes into a console that no one has anymore. Many of those games will be difficult for players to find, and if we don’t do anything to save them, they could disappear entirely.
In this episode of The Vergecast, The second in our three-part series on the future of gaming, we once again join our friends at Polygon to explore the incredible effort being put into making sure you can play all your favorite Atari, SNES, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy games long after those consoles stop working. It involves groups like the Video Game History Foundation and Digital Eclipse, which are not only restoring games but also helping people understand the context and culture around those games.
It also involves a large number of engineers and developers working to emulate old consoles in software or even build devices like the Lord that can bring life back to almost any gaming system. They all help ensure that games are available and playable in as many ways as possible. And there are even official systems like Nintendo Switch Online that offer a collection of iconic titles from old consoles on the company’s newest device (although they don’t always look great).
Despite all that effort, almost everyone in this space seems to agree that there is one very important way to ensure that gaming history doesn’t disappear: the laws have to change. Jonathan Loiterman, an attorney at Foundation Law Group who has worked on gaming legal issues for years, points to one set of regulations in particular, the Code of Federal Regulations. 37 CFR Part 201. This document lists exceptions to some of the aggressive copyright laws that make it difficult for anyone to copy and distribute things like video games, and Loiterman says that document is reevaluated every three years. Loiterman and others believe it’s time for libraries to be able to lend out digital copies of games and consoles like they do e-books.
However, there is no obvious solution to all of this. Developers should be compensated for their work, instead of throwing it all into a subreddit full of ROMs. But should those developers be able to remove any game they want from circulation permanently? If not, who is the best manager of these games? Should we rely on libraries and museums, or is there a potentially huge business here, a Spotify for old video games? When we talk about emulation and preservation, are we talking about saving games as historical artifacts or giving people new ways to play them? Are those even different things?
One thing’s for sure: video games should last longer than their cartridge or console. Making sure that happens will take the entire gaming industry and then some.