As a once-upon-a-time film historian, I used to spend hours bent over microfilm machines (hey, it was a long time ago!) and rifling through 60 year old memos from guys like David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock. I loved getting my hands on history, touching all that original material. It made me feel closer to the material I was writing about and more confident that when I wrote up an article or a book about the history of the medium I loved and lived for back then (this was before there WERE videogames, of course), I might actually be saying something real and true and valuable.
At that time, I was struck by two things: First, how cool it was that so much material from the early days of film history still existed and, second, how much had been lost. For every David O. Selznick or Gloria Swanson, who kept EVERYTHING, there were a dozen John Fords, who seemingly kept nothing. And when you start talking about the Oscar Micheaux and Laura La Plantes of the world (look ’em up…), the picture starts looking really grim. According to some sources, 80% of films made before 1930 are gone forever. We’ll never see them. Ever. Imagine how much less of the supporting material exists–the contracts and script drafts and sheet music and so on. It’s enough to make a grown man cry…
Rather than cry, I decided that wouldn’t happen to me–to MY medium. So, to the chagrin of my lovely wife, Caroline, I’ve been saving a ton of stuff related to my work–concept art, design docs, emails, you name it. I’ve always believed videogames were going to be Important, someday, and that historians would want to know what REALLY happened as we created an entirely new medium, from scratch. Arrogance? Conceit? Sure, I guess. But the worst case was that I end up being wrong and Caroline, the aforementioned lovely wife, has boxes (okay, truckloads) of junk to throw away when I shuffle off this mortal coil. And, if I’m right, the detritus of my work becomes source material for generations of future game scholards and researchers.
I know a handful of other folks who feel the same way I do, and save their work-related stuff–notably Richard Garriott–but most seem to believe their efforts are ephemeral, at best, and no one cares, so they just throw stuff away. Drives me nuts. So earlier this year, I got together with some other folks–Richard Garriott, William Bottorff (of Austin Business Computers) and George Alistair Sanger (aka “The Fat Man”)–and we made a plea to the University of Texas’ Center for American History to create a Videogame Archive and Research Center. A place dedicated to the preservation of videogame history and a mecca for students, researchers, historians and even fans interested in learning how the medium became whatever the heck it’s going to become.
To my amazement, they expressed strong interest. I think it was largely Bill Bottorff being an absolute bulldog with a bone–he wasn’t going to stop until they said “yes.” And the fact that Richard and George have charisma to burn and can convince anyone to do anything. And maybe an email I drafted had SOMETHING to do with it. Here’s what I said in that email:
I have been hoping someone involved with UT would put together some sort of Game History collection for some time, but never really knew who to talk to about it. (Everyone I worked with at the HRC, back in the late 70s is long gone, I’m afraid, and I have no connections anywhere else inside the university.)
As someone who’s done a bunch of primary research in the area of film history, I know how devastating it can be to KNOW something happened but not be able to trace back how it happened, because the people and institutions involved didn’t see the value to future generations of preserving their work-in-progress. “Hey, we’re just making movies—no one’ll ever care about what we do day-to-day” was the order of the day in the film biz and that’s even more true today in games.
The fact is that the history of the videogame business is being written every day and, sadly, being lost just about as quickly. Few among us developers cares about this stuff or sees the value in preserving old contracts, correspondence, marketing materials, design documentation, source code, etc. Once a game is done, most folks empty out their files, delete their emails and move on.
So here’s my thought: Someone needs to step up NOW and recognize the cultural and academic importance of videogames. We’re a $25 billion business, and rising. We’re central to American culture and world culture (for better or worse!). Though many may not realize it, especially among the academic gatekeepers and politicians, we ARE an art form, a serious medium of expression, with serious practitioners whose work will be important to future generations. Luckily, we’re still a young enough medium, that nearly all of those serious practitioners are still alive and available to be interviewed and/or solicited for contributions to an archive of research and reference materials.
And Texas is the right place to build such an archive.
Austin has been home to more influential developers than you can shake a stick at—from Steve Jackson to Richard Garriott. We’ve been home to major offices of some of the biggest players in the industry—from Electronic Arts to Nintendo. Expanding the circle to Dallas and Houston opens up incredible opportunities for archivists, with id Software, Ensemble, Ritual and many others just up the road. Austin could easily establish itself as the center of game studies in the United States.
Who cares, you ask? Well, there are now hundreds of universities offering game studies courses and degrees—USC, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, Northwestern and many, many more. Academics need access to primary sources. UT could be the hub of a new and burgeoning field of academic study, one that’s of growing importance.
So, what I propose is this: Take my papers. Please. Take Richard Garriott’s materials. Empty John Carmack’s files before he shoots all his old stuff into space. Provide an archivally sound place to store that stuff—anything would be better than the old file cabinets and cardboard boxes I have at home! Set up a program of interviews with leading lights in the game business (and non-leading lights, too), before all of us die and it’s too late. Get started soon. The fact is, the pioneers in this business ARE getting older and we won’t be around forever. And there’s competition for our archives already.
Obviously, I could go on for days about this, but I’ll stop here. I want to see Richard Garriott’s “collection” housed in a manner similar to the Selznick collection and the Gloria Swanson collection and the like. And I’d prefer that it be in Austin, if at all possible, If you can help, I’d love to talk.
September 14, 2006
The folks at the Center for American History responded with enthusiasm. We had an event announcing the creation of the Videogame Archive back in February and tomorrow, Tuesday, September 4th, we’re having a BIG fund-raising event which promises to be incredibly cool. You can find out more about the event here:
I’m pretty sure the event is completely sold out, so it’s probably too late to attend, even if you’re an Austin local. But I’m sure the Center for American History would love to hear from you–about donations of funds to support the hiring of dedicated archive staff and the purchase of materials, space for storage, etc.. And be sure to click on the About the Archive link at the top of the page. There’s lots of good info about what we’re trying to do (and about the Center for American History, which is just a cool deal, even outside their interest in games).
Speaking personally, I’d like to ask all of you reading this, if you’re a developer or a journalist or a practitioner in any area of games and game development, PLEASE stop throwing away our history. Soon enough there’ll be a place where all your stuff can live and be made available to historians. Save our history, don’t trash it!