The Open Archival Information System Reference Model vs. the BFG 9000: Issues of Context and Representation in Game Software Preservation

  1. 1. Henry Lowood

    Stanford University

  2. 2. Jerome McDonough

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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In February of 1993, the Committee for Film Preservation
and Access submitted a statement to the National
Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress advocating
the creation of a national policy to preserve the
nation’s motion picture heritage, and arguing that such
a policy would “be incomplete—utterly pointless—unless
there is a guarantee of access to the films that are
being preserved,” (CFPPA, 1993). This argument was
summed up in the title of their statement, a phrase that
has echoed throughout the library preservation world
during discussions of efforts to preserve digital information:
“Preservation Without Access is Pointless.”
While insuring access to preserved material is a necessary
condition of preservation, we believe that efforts to it is not a sufficient condition for their scholarly use.
Scholars require more than simply access to cultural
materials; they require resources for understanding them
as fully as possible, which is a far more difficult goal
to achieve. Games are very complicated technological
artifacts, and as Lowood (2008) notes, they are also incredibly
complicated cultural artifacts. Understanding a
game requires extensive documentation of their technical
nature, of their use, and just as important, of the contexts
for their use.
Issues surrounding the extent and nature of documentation
necessary to preserve digital information have been
extensively studied and debated by a variety of communities
within the past decade. One of the significant results
of these discussions has been the emergence of The
Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System
(OAIS) (CCSDS, 2002) as a foundational standard
for the design and operation of digital archives. OAIS
provides both a functional model for the operation of an
archive as well as an information model describing the
necessary types of information that must be acquired and
maintained to preserve digital objects and their relationships
to one another. While originally crafted to inform
the efforts of space data archives, OAIS has gained acceptance
far beyond its original community and is being
used to assist in the design of preservation repositories
by the international digital library community.
The information model set forth by the OAIS reference
model is predicated on the idea that preserving any
form of digital content will also require the preservation
of a body of additional knowledge necessary to
understand and interpret that digital content. This
additional knowledge takes a variety of forms, but two
are of particular significance to the preservation of
computer games:
Representation Information—formally defined
as “information that maps a data object into more
meaningful concepts,” representation information
is that information which allows a series of zeros
and ones constituting a digital data stream to be
interpreted as meaningful. Representation information
is of two types: structure information, which
maps a bit stream into common data types such as
character data, integers, arrays, etc., and semantic
information, which allows a user to meaningfully
interpret the data. Structure information tells you
that a series of zeros and ones represents a four-digit
integer; semantic information informs you that the
four-digit number represents the date of publication
for a work.
Context Information—defined as “information
that documents the relationships of the content
information to its environment,” context
information includes information documenting the
circumstances in which information being archived
was originally produced. It also documents
relationships that may exist between a particular
piece of content and other content within the
archive or elsewhere. The OAIS reference model
identifies provenance information as a specific
type of context information, but it does not provide
guidance about the nature or extent of the types
of relationships between items in the archive (or
outside it). This information is needed to preserve
digital content that will carry meaning for future
historians and other scholars.
The assumption underlying the requirement to store representation
and context information is that preservation
of digital content must entail preservation of the ability
to fully interpret and understand content in the digital
archive, both at a basic technical level (being able to render
the digital data in a manner a human being can apprehend)
and at a more sophisticated intellectual level (being
able to understand the digital data’s significance
and relevance).
Archivists face a key question in trying to conform to
the OAIS reference model. What is the nature and extent
of the representation and context information they must
maintain in order to allow users to fully understand the
information being stored? Taken to its logical extreme,
the semantic representation information for a digital version
of Borges’ El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan
should include both a Spanish dictionary and grammar
(and quite possibly bilingual editions of each to insure
that it is possible to decipher Spanish without actually
knowing the language to begin with). For complex data
formats and data sets, the costs of acquiring and preserving
a complete set of representation information could be
extremely high. The OAIS reference model recognizes
this dilemma, and states that the extent of the representation
information maintained by an archive should be
based upon the knowledge possessed by the designated
community that the archive serves. If that community is
fluent in Spanish, there is no need to maintain a Spanish
dictionary and grammar in representation information
set for a Spanish language work.
Now we come to the rub. With respect to context information,
the OAIS reference model provides less guidance.
Its emphasis on the origin of digital information, as
well as on the relationship to other material in the digital
archive, suggests that the concept of context information
as developed by OAIS’s authors is at least somewhat in formed by notions of archival bond and respect des fonds
from archival theory (Gilliland-Swetland, 2000). By
maintaining relationships between archival records that
were originally established by their creators and documented
by their methods of organizing these records, the
archivist traditionally preserves the original context for
each individual record. At its core, the archival profession
assists users in understanding the totality of information
in the archive. This approach works for many
electronic records, or even scientific data sets, but it may
not be appropriate for all digital media and all forms of
digital information.
The Preserving Virtual Worlds project has been investigating
how computer games and interactive fiction
might be preserved in a manner consistent with the
OAIS reference model. The basic notions of representation
information and context information would seem to
be applicable to the preservation of computer games as
digital content. However, our research to date suggests
that OAIS’s assumptions regarding the relationship between
archivists and the community they serve do not
necessarily hold for a digital library of computer games
(and probably for other complex forms of interactive
media or software). The OAIS reference model seems to
assume a relative homogeneity in the user community’s
knowledge base; when this is the case, archival training
is geared toward determining the representation information
necessary for members of that community. With
respect to this model, our investigations suggest that potential
users of a game archive demonstrate a challenging
range of technical knowledge with respect to gaming
technology and use. We have not found a common intellectual
grounding in software design and implementation
or in game design that would allow an archivist
to readily discern an appropriate level of representation
information to record for games.
The same pattern holds for context information. Allowing
users of a game archive to fully understand the context
for a particular game also requires providing them
with much more information than the implicit information
provided by digital records’ archival bond. But
potential users of a game archive come from a variety
of perspectives and with vastly differing research needs
that require different contextualizing information. The
needs of a game researcher investigating the relationships
between game companies and user communities
with respect to issues of game mods and intellectual
property law are very different from the needs of a researcher
investigating the influence of the development
of pixel shading technology on game art, and both require
significant information beyond copies of the games
themselves to support their endeavors. These differing
users bring varying levels of knowledge of game history
and game play to their work which complicate the task of
any archivist attempting to determine the forms and extent
of context information that must be preserved along
with the game itself.
In this paper, we will explore some of the records that
will need to be preserved along with game software to
address the diverse and important research questions that
future historians will pose. If assumptions regarding the
designated community for an archive break down, the
application of OAIS’s notions of representation information,
context information and provenance information
becomes highly problematic for our efforts to preserve
computer games. Using id Software’s historically important
game DOOM as an example, this paper will discuss
specific problems that have emerged in applying the
OAIS information model to the archiving of computer
games. We will also discuss ways digital game archivists
might be able to circumvent these problems.
Borges, Jorge Luis (1942). El Jardín de Senderos que se
Bifurcan. Buenos Aires: SUR.
Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS)
(2002). Reference Model for an Open Archival
Information System (OAIS). CCSDS 650.0-B-1 Blue
Book. Washington, DC: CCSDS Secretariat: http://public.
Gilliland-Swetland, Anne J. (Feb. 2000). Enduring Paradigm,
New Opportunities: The Value of the Archival
Perspective in the Digital Environment. Washington,
DC: Council on Library and Information Resources:
Lowood, Henry. “Found Technology: Players as Innovators
in the Making of Machinima.” Digital Youth, Innovation,
and the Unexpected. Edited by Tara McPherson.
The John D. and Catherine T.MacArthur Foundation
Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 165-196. doi: 10.1162/
dmal.9780262633598.165: http://www.mitpressjournals.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None