Playing In/With the Archive

Archives are everywhere. This much is obvious. Essays and books with archive somewhere in the theme or title have increased in the past few decades and recently I have seen a slew of ‘archive’ related conference CPFs.

Of interest to me is the archive’s intersection with gaming, history and memory. There are three points of intersection that I see: acknowledgment and creation of archives, manipulation of archives and playing in archives. These three forms of archival play correspond to three types of games and gaming. One, massive ROMization (MAME, SNES9X, et cetera) and recent (official) migration of old games to WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade and Play Station Network. Two, sequels and remakes of older games and the creation of a particular genealogy of titles. Three, demakes and unofficial titles that problematize the greater archive.

The first is simply the building of an archive of obsolete platforms and games. Whereas it used to be possible to pull out one’s old NES and blow into the cartridge more people are finding that the technology simply doesn’t work anymore. This goes doubly for games that were/are hard to find. As the technology has become increasingly unavailable it has become obvious to more and more people that an archive/library is necessary for games. However, because the platforms themselves become similarly unavailable it has also been necessary to create a means of playing the games.

Since the late 1990s there have been semi-legal efforts to play ROMs on personal computers. The game’s cartridge information is ripped to a computer and emulators are programmed to play the games. While emulators are made for some of the most advanced systems such emulation has generally been problematic (buggy, slow, unable to play many games), the emulation of older systems like arcades, Atari, NES, SNES, SEGA et cetera have been highly successful. While this method has resulted in a massive archiving of games (even if the platforms and materiality of play have disappeared – television, cartridge, console, controller), one thing that is undeniable is that this ROMization is less than fully legal and companies are losing what they see as a profit.

The second generation of the archive has recently been implemented with the big three game companies (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) creating respective means to play previous generational games. Nintendo releases WiiWare versions of previous games such as Megaman that one can play on the Nintendo Wii. Sony releases past games such as Spyro the Dragon through the Playstation Network (it should also be noted that the Playstation, as a DVD/CD console is able to play older generational games (the PS3 can play PS2 and PS1 games; the PS2 can play PS1 games). Finally, Xbox Live Arcade, which has more broadly made available Sega and other games. While all three of these forms have been more legal than the ROM movement in that they prevent ‘piracy’ they are far from successful in the simple archiving project. They pick and choose (and buy the rights for) what they archive on the three libraries.

However, both of these projects are at base simply the creation of an archive for preservation and further use of games. Here I refer to the building and playing of the archive.

The second way in which the archive and gaming interact is something that has been going on since Tennis for Two, but has begun to take a slightly more aggressive turn. While gaming has always been a form of remediation, and sequels have been around (at least) since PacMan turned into Ms. PacMan, there have more recently been remakes cropping up that are slightly different. Previously I discussed the interaction with a form of restorative nostalgia with the remake. The remake, as restorative, acts to whitewash the past and justify a particular reading of history: it is a form of playing with the archive. This is not new or unusual: all history is manipulative and restorative. However, initial implementation that occurs simultaneously with the rise of the second generation of company archiving is interesting. It makes one think of just what is happening when FPS and 3rd person action games are being remade: what happens to the archive when its contents are embellished and highlighted?

Third is the demake and what I want to call playing in the archive. It is also a type of playing in the past. Demakes work with reflective nostalgia and focus on the patina of the old. With games this is crucially ideas like retro graphics seen with the initial MAME movement, but it is also the attempts to translate/adapt modern games to older platforms. That most of these demakes can only be played by emulation is slightly problematic, but one might also point out the longer history of cartridge manipulation (Cory Arcangel’s Mario Clouds) and its progress into the present with efforts being made to put demakes onto cartridges (D+Pad Hero). Here people are deliberately moving into the archive, taking present things and forcing them into the older sections of the archive. Unhappy with the look and smell of a new book it’s given a fake patina and odorized in order pass and pleasure like an old book.

So, these three types of gamic archiving are taking place. We know that the archive is a deliberate (if uncontrollable) cementation of knowledge and indication of a certain mode of knowledge production. So, the question is really what sort of knowledge production is happening with these three types of gaming archives? What is the difference between the first and second generations of archiving? What sort of knowledge is opened up and closed by remaking and demaking?

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