Video game preservation

Importance of preservation

Unlike most other forms of media like books, art and photography, and film which can be preserved in a variety of formats that are not ladened with intellectual property (IP) issue, video games typically require specialized and/or proprietary computer hardware and software to read and execute game software. However, as technology advances, these older game systems become obsolete, no longer produced nor maintained to use for executing games.[1] The media formats of the early days of computer gaming, relying on floppy discs and CD-ROMs, suffers from disc rot and degrade over time, making it difficult to recover information.[2] Further, video games tend to rely on other resources like operating systems, network connectivity, and external servers outside control of users, and making sure these boundary aspects to a video game are preserved along with the game are also essential.[1]

One period of the video game industry that has received a great deal of attention is up through the 1980's. As a result of the video game crash of 1983, many companies involved in developing games folded or were acquired by other companies. In this process, the source code for many games prior to the crash were lost or destroyed, leaving only previously-sold copies of games on their original format as evidence of their existence.[3]

Most issues related to video game preservation are based on the United States, one of the largest markets for video games, and as such, issues related to preservation are limited by laws of the country.

In general, the copying and distribution of video games that are under copyright without authorization is considered a copyright violation (often called as software piracy). However, it has generally been allowed that users make may archival copies of software (including video games) as long as they own the original software; if the user sells or destroys the original software, they are expected to destroy the archival copies. This is also justification for a person being able to make ROM images from game cartridges that they own.

In 1998, the United Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), designed to bring copyright within the United States to align with two doctrines published by the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1996. The DMCA make it a criminal offense to develop, sell, or use technologies that are designed to bypass digital rights management (DRM) used in various forms of media. This subsequently made it illegal to backup up one's software for many games distributed via either game cartridge or optical disc, if some form of DRM was used to limit access to the software on the media.

The Library of Congress is responsible to open submissions for specific and narrow exemptions from interested parties every three years, and determine which of those, if any, to grant. Through the Library of Congress, some key exceptions to the DMCA have been granted to allow for video game preservation.

  • In the 2003 set of exemptions, the Library disallowed enforcement of the DMCA for "computer programs protected by dongles that prevent access due to malfunction or damage and which are obsolete" and for "computer programs and video games distributed in formats that have become obsolete and which require the original media or hardware as a condition of access".[4]
  • In the 2015 exemptions, the Library granted permission for preservationists to work around copy-protection in games which required an authentication step with an external server that was no longer online prior to playing the game which otherwise did not require online connectivity; this specifically did not cover games that were based on a server-client mode like most massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs).[5]
  • In the 2018 exemptions, the Library allowed for preservation and fair use of server-based games like MMOs, permitting preservationists to offer such games where they have legally obtained the game's code within museums and libraries.[6]

The DMCA exemptions do not mean all ROM images are legal, and concern about continuing video game preservation was raised in mid-2018, after Nintendo initiated a lawsuit against two website that distributed ROMs for games from their older platforms.[7]

Preservation of video game software


Video game console emulators use software that replicates the hardware of a video game console or arcade machine. Generally these create a virtual machine on newer computer systems that simulate the key processing units of the original hardware. The emulators then can read in software, such as a ROM image for arcade games or cartridge-based systems, or the game's optical media disc or an ISO image of that disc, to play the game in full.

Emulation has been used in some official capacity on newer consoles. Nintendo's Virtual Console allows games from its earlier consoles and other third-parties to be played on its newer ones. Sony had originally released the PlayStation 3 with backwards compatibility with PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games if players had the original media, but have transitioned to selling emulated games in its PlayStation Store as well as offering the PlayStation Now cloud gaming service that allows PlayStation 3 games to be played on other devices including the PlayStation 4 and compatible personal computers. Microsoft has created a backwards compatibility program through emulation to allow selected Xbox 360 titles to be played on the Xbox One if they own the original game and have made some of these titles available for purchase through Xbox Live. Former console hardware companies such as Sega and Atari have released emulation-based collections of their games for multiple systems.

In the PC space, emulation of either a game engine or full operating system are available. In these cases, players are expected to own copies of the game to use the content files. DOSBox emulates a complete IBM PC compatible operating system allowing most games for older computers to be run on modern systems. Emulators also exist for older arcade games, such as MAME.

There are legalities related to emulation that can make it difficult to preserve video games in this manner. First, the legality of creating an emulator itself is unclear. Several United States case laws have shown that developing emulation is a legal activity as long as no proprietary information or copyrighted code is incorporated into the emulation.


Migration refers to re-releasing software from one platform to a newer platform, otherwise keeping all the gameplay, narrative, and art assets the same. This can be done through a few routes:[8]

  • Game engine recreation: A new universal game engine can be developed that uses the original game assets but otherwise runs on any future hardware platform. Such examples include the Z-machine for many of the Infocom text adventure games, and the ScummVM allows players to run nearly every LucasArts adventure game.
  • Software re-compilation or porting: The original source code for the game is re-compiled for a newer platform, making necessary changes to work on the newer hardware. This requires that the source code for the original game is available for this purpose.


Abandonware refers to software that may still be capable of running on modern computers or consoles, but the developer or publisher has either disappeared, no longer sell the product, or no longer operate servers necessary for running the software, among other cases.

Legally, such software still falls under normal copyright laws. Under the DMCA, the Copyright Office has made exceptions since 2015 for allowing museums and other archivists to bypass copyright issues to get such software into a playable state, a new exception seeks to allow this specifically for multiplayer games requiring servers, specifically massively-multiplayer online games.[9]

Fan-driven efforts

In some cases, fans of a video game have helped to preserve the game to the best of their abilities without access to source code, even through the copyright nature of these fan projects are highly contentious, and more so when monetary issues are involved. Games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which had difficult production issues before release, may leave unused assets to be found by players, and in the case of both these games, players have developed unofficial patches that work to complete the content, in some cases, exceeding expectations of the original content creators.[10]


Preservation of video game software has come through dubious routes. Notably, the source code for all of the Infocom text adventure games had been obtained by Jason Scott in 2008 via an anonymous user in the "Infocom drive", an archive file that represented the entirety of the Infocom's main server days prior to the company's relocation from Massachusetts to California in 1989. While Scott was aware this was akin to industrial espionage, he still had published the source code for the games for purposes of preservation.[11]

Preservation efforts

Library of Congress

The United States Library of Congress (LoC) launched the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) in 2000 to preserve non-traditional media. Around 2007, the LoC started reaching out to partners in various industries to help explore how they archive such content. The LoC had funded the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) from 2004 to 2010 to develop the ECHO DEPository ("Exploring Collaborations to Harvest Objects in a Digital Environment for Preservation") program.[12]

Preserving Virtual Worlds

Preserving Virtual Worlds was one project funded by the LoC and conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with support from Linden Lab, running from 2008 to 2010. The study explored a range of games, from Spacewar! (1962) through Second Life (2003, which was developed by Linden Labs), to determine what methods could be used for preserving this titles. The project concluded while there are technical solutions for preservation of game software, such as identify common formats for digital storage and developing database architectures to track ownership, many issues related to preservation remain legal in nature relating to copyright laws.[1][13]

National Film and Sound Archive

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia announced in September 2019 that they will start created an archive of Australian-developed video games for preservation and exhibition, with games to be added on an annual basis. The preservation effort will include not only the software but art, music and other creative assets as well as making considerations for playability in the long-term.[14]

Internet Archive

The Internet Archive started adding emulation of video games from older systems for play.[15] The Archive developed Emularity, a web-browser based emulator to run a number of out-of-production arcade, console and computer emulations, and offer numerous titles to be played through the Archive. The project's maintainer, Jason Scott, said that most companies do not take issue with their ROM images being offered in this manner, but did note that Nintendo has put pressure on them to not include any Nintendo consoles within the collection.[16][17]

Video Game History Foundation

Frank Cifaldi is one of the leading historians in the video game industry trying to encourage more video game preservation and to help recover games once thought lost. By 2017, he had spent about twenty years trying to encourage preservation as to track video game history, and established the non-profit Video Game History Foundation in 2017. The Foundation not only seeks to preserve games, but box art, manuals, and promotional material from video games, believing that these combined can help future historians understand the culture of games in the past.[18][19]

The Strong Institute

Among other educational aspects The Strong institute in Rochester, New York operates the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.[2]

Game Preservation Society

Founded in 2011 in Tokyo, the Game Preservation Society preserves the history of Japanese video games. The organization's focus is the preservation of 1980s Japanese computer games for platforms like the PC-88 and Sharp X1. The society's president, French national Joseph Redon, estimates that they will only be able to preserve about 80% of Japanese computer games.[20]

National Software Reference Library

While strictly not set up for preservation, the National Software Reference Library, created and maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has included a number of popular game software among other software principally used for help in digital forensics, storing electronic copies of these games and other programs. The initial games collection was added in 2016 with numerous titles collected by Stephen Cabrinety, who had died in 1995;[21] in 2018, Valve, Activision-Blizzard, and Electronic Arts all donated additional titles to be added to the collection, while NIST itself purchased other popular titles to include.[22]

Hong Kong Game Association

Founded in 2015 in Hong Kong by Dixon Wu and other volunteers with decades of video game knowledge, the Hong Kong Game Association is a non-profit society dedicated to preserve, curate, and showcase video game history, especially focusing on locally developed PC & console games, and traditional Chinese video game literature. The Association organizes the annual RETRO.HK Gaming Expo and RetroCup - free annual retro game events that are dedicated to promoting video game and competitive gaming as a culture and art form to the public.[23] The association has worked with multiple local universities or colleges to promote the cause, such as The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, The City University of Hong Kong, The Open University of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (IVE) group.

The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment

Founded in 2011 in Oakland, California the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, the MADE performed the first institutional preservation of an online game when it worked with F. Randall Farmer, Chip Morningstar, Fujitsu, and a group of volunteers to relaunch LucasFilm Games Habitat (video game)[24]. This work lead to collaboration with UC Berkeley to petition for a 1201 DMCA exemption for the preservation of MMO games[25]. The source code to Habitat has since been release as open source software under the MIT license [26]. The MADE continues to work on further digital preservation, focusing on source code and online games.


Companies like and Night Dive Studios are recognized for helping to migrate older games to modern systems. Among their efforts include doing the research to track down all legal rights that are associated with a game, including those that have changed hands several times, as to get clearance or rights to republish the title, locate as much of the game's original source code and adapt that to work on modern systems, or when source code is not available, reverse engine the game to either work natively or through emulation (like DOSBox) with modern hardware. and Night Dive have successfully freed some games from IP limbo, such as System Shock 2, while identifying titles that remain difficult to republish and preserve legally due to conflicts on IP rights holders, such as No One Lives Forever.


  1. McDonough, Jerome P.; Olendorf, Robert; Kirschenbaum, Matthew; Kraus, Kari; Reside, Doug; Donahue, Rachel; Phelps, Andrew; Egert, Christopher; Lowood, Henry; Rojo, Susan (August 31, 2010). Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report (Report). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved August 23, 2018.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  2. Ore, Jonathan (January 17, 2017). "Preserving video game history is about more than nostalgia". CBC. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  3. Whan, Christopher (August 12, 2018). "Retro game preservation in limbo after Nintendo files lawsuit". Global News. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  4. "Rulemaking on Exemptions from Prohibition on Circumvention of Technological Measures that Control Access to Copyrighted Works". United States Library of Congress. October 28, 2003. Retrieved March 20, 2017.
  5. Statt, Nick (October 27, 2015). "US government says it's now okay to jailbreak your tablet and smart TV". The Verge. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
  6. Kerr, Chris (October 26, 2018). "The Library of Congress just made game preservation a little bit easier". Gamasutra. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
  7. Kohler, Chris. "In Defense of ROMs, A Solution To Dying Games And Broken Copyright Laws".
  8. Guttenbrunner, Mark; Becker, Christoph; Rauber, Andreas (2010). "Keeping the Game Alive: Evaluating Strategies for the Preservation of Console Video Games". The International Journal of Digital Curation. 5 (1). CiteSeerX doi:10.2218/ijdc.v5i1.144.
  9. Wawro, Alex. "U.S. gov't stands by DMCA exemption for museums preserving online games".
  10. Williams, Leah (October 14, 2018). "How Fan-Based Projegts Are Helping Preserve Video Game History". IGN. Retrieved October 17, 2018.
  11. Kohler, Chris (April 18, 2008). "'Infocom Drive' Turns Up Long-Lost Hitchhiker Sequel". Wired. Retrieved January 26, 2016.
  12. Patricia, Hswe,; S., Kaczmarek, Joanne; Leah, Houser,; Janet, Eke, (7 October 2018). "The Web Archives Workbench (WAW) Tool Suite: Taking an Archival Approach to the Preservation of Web Content". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  13. Lazer, Matthew (June 20, 2018). "Saving "virtual worlds" from extinction". Ars Technica. Retrieved December 19, 2018.
  14. Reilly, Luke (September 26, 2019). "National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to Collect, Preserve Aussie Video Games". IGN. Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  15. "Microcomputer Software Lives Again, This Time in Your Browser - Internet Archive Blogs".
  16. Orland, Kyle (August 21, 2018). "ROM sites are falling, but a legal loophole could save game emulation". Ars Technica. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
  17. Scott, Jason (September 24, 2018). "Over 1,100 New Arcade Machines Added to the Internet Arcade". The Internet Archive. Retrieved September 24, 2018.
  18. Bowman, Mitch (February 27, 2017). "Inside The Video Game History Foundation". Polygon. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  19. Alexander, Heather (February 27, 2017). "New Non-Profit Has Plans To Save Gaming's Past". Kotaku. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  20. Kohler, Chris (December 28, 2017). "Saving Japan's Games". Kotaku. Retrieved 2018-08-21.
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  22. Valentine, Rebekah (September 10, 2018). "NIST adds gaming software to National Software Reference Library". Retrieved September 10, 2018.
  23. Williams, Carl (December 23, 2016). "Interview – Dixon Wu Founder Of Retro Hk Annual Convention". Retro Game Magazine. Retrieved August 21, 2019.
  24. Farmer, F. Randall (January 20, 2016). "NeoHabitat Homepage". Retrieved December 13, 2019.
  25. Handy, Alex (November 9, 2017). "Comment of the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment" (PDF). Retrieved December 13, 2019.
  26. "Habitat Source Code on GitHub". May 4, 2017. Retrieved December 13, 2019.
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