Jon-Paul (JP) Dyson is Vice President of The Strong National Museum of Play in New York. We had the chance to speak to him about his work preserving video games and video game history. Located at The Strong in Rochester, New York, the National Museum of Play is one part of a much larger mission devoted to the study and exploration of ‘play.’
The Strong National Museum of Play includes exhibits for games, toys, pinball, dolls and more. The Strong’s mission is;
The Strong explores play and the ways in which it encourages learning, creativity, and discovery and illuminates cultural history.
Founded in 1968 by Margaret Woodbury Strong, “a prolific collector of everyday objects, especially dolls and toys”, The Strong has grown to incorporate all manner of exhibits. In 2009, the International Centre for the History of Electronic Games was launched and it is now the most “comprehensive public collection of video games, other electronic games, and related materials anywhere, currently numbering more than 55,000 items.”
Australia’s own National Film and Sound Archive and the Game Masters exhibit work to collect and preserve an Australian history of gaming. However, doing so on an international scale seems like a difficult job at best.
We spoke to Dyson about his role, the process of preserving video games and why this work matters.
Preserving Video Games
PowerUp!: How important is it to preserve the history of video games and why do you think it’s so important?
JP Dyson: I believe video games are the most innovative and influential form of media of the last 50 years, transforming how we play, learn, and connect with one another.
A century from now, people will want to know how this medium grew, developed, and matured so it’s essential that we preserve that history now.
PU!: What difficulties and challenges do you face when preserving video games?
Dyson: As your question implies it’s a huge challenge!
Each generation of video games presents its own challenge. For an arcade game, it may be the difficulty in finding replacement parts, flat screens are a poor substitute for the original CRTs. For an early computer game, the problem might be getting the information off a floppy disk that’s susceptible to bit rot.
For a modern born-digital game there might be challenges of ensuring continued access to the software and hardware to run it, wrestling with the fact that the game might be continually updated, so which version are you preserving?
Facing the fact that there might be digital rights management controls or reliance on external servers that the company might shut down that will mean the game won’t be playable in the future.
There are also intellectual property issues that might mean that you have to be careful how you share essential elements like source code.
PU!: In addition to the above, how do you get around these difficulties, what creative solutions have you found?
Dyson: In general, we’ve found that we need to focus on preserving video game history as opposed to just video games. This includes preserving the games themselves but also encompasses a much wider array of materials, from archival items related to the design, production, and distribution of the game to materials that show how that game was received by everyone from media to the players themselves.
I liken preserving the history of video games to preserving the history of a sporting event like cricket – you may not be able to preserve the game itself but you can preserve many materials that will help future scholars understand what it was about, why it was meaningful to the players, how innovations happened etc.
In general, we try to ask interesting questions about the history of video games and then collect sources that will help future scholars articulate answers to those questions.
Dyson’s view that preserving the history of video games is more important than the game itself resonates with me. The idea that, like sport, oftentimes you aren’t able to preserve the actual event itself, but instead need to preserve the history of it, the outcomes and the way it all came together makes perfect sense.
It especially rings true today when games are frequently updated and often cease to work without servers. When the publisher takes away server access, players are left with a game that doesn’t function.
By preserving the history of these games, they live on, in a form that people are still able to understand and can still experience, albeit in a very different way.
PU!: What makes Game Masters so successful and why do you think it resonates so much with people?
Dyson: People care passionately about video games, and it’s only recently that institutions are recognizing the artistry, skill, and dedication that go into producing those games.
Seeing that recognized in an archive or museum recognizes what fans of video games know, that video games are amazing works of art, science, and play.
Plus the exhibit is a lot of fun!
PU!: Do you think video games could one day stand side by side with other artworks in museums?
Dyson: Certainly, I think video games will have a place in museums, as places like The Strong are doing already.
I’m not sure if it will be in exactly the same way as artwork, however.
Certainly, video games are art, but they’re also ‘play’ and story and design and technology, and there are museums that study and collect all those things.
So I suspect video games will have a place in museums that reflects their own nature as amazing mixtures of all these different elements.
Thanks to JP Dyson for his time.