Game Change: The Role of Professional and Amateur Cultures in Preserving Virtual Worlds

  1. 1. Kari Kraus

    University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Rachel Donahue

    University of Maryland, College Park

  3. 3. Megan Winget

    University of Texas, El Paso

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In 2006, Margaret Hedstrom and a team of researchers
at the University of Michigan published the results of
an experiment exploring how users evaluate the authenticity
and usability of computer games and other digital
materials that have been preserved through multiple
methods (Hedstrom 2006). The study found that users
tended to prefer playing emulated and migrated versions
of a popular 1980s-era computer game known as Chuckie
Egg to the original version. Arguing the importance of
the user’s perspective in archival decision-making, the
authors begin and end the paper with a call for further research
into the “needs and preferences” of the user community.
The purpose of our presentation is to develop
this line of inquiry by drawing on our experiences with
the Preserving Virtual Worlds and Game Preservation
projects.1 Where we depart from Hedstrom and her colleagues
is in how we position the user within the preservation
system. While their assumption is that users are
only or primarily consumers of digital information, ours
is that they increasingly play an active role in its preservation.
To frame the issue in archival terms, we see users
taking responsibility for collecting, managing, and creating
long-term access to computer games. Because our
interest lies with the contact zone between hobbyists and
professional archivists, we will enumerate and analyze
how we are currently collaborating with or relying on the
user community to preserve virtual worlds, with an eye
to how these relationships might eventually be codified
within a larger preservation framework.
Web 2.0 provides one obvious context in which to consider
the rise of the amateur archivist. In recent years
much has been made of the allegedly stark contrast
between amateur and professional culture, and those
writing about it tend to structure the conversation in
markedly polemical terms. While proponents of amateur
culture extol the democratization of the means of
production, opponents denounce the decline of subject
expertise, certified credentials, and standards. This paper
attempts to shift the focus and substance of the debate
in two ways: first, by framing amateur and professional
culture in terms of content preservation rather than (or in
addition to) the more customary content creation (userpreserved
media rather than user-generated media). We
will draw our examples from the creative/expressive domains
of computer games, interactive fiction, and 3D virtual
worlds. Second, by demonstrating the interconnectedness
of professional and amateur efforts to preserve
virtual worlds. We propose that digital preservation of
virtual worlds requires cooperation among several different
stakeholders, including users, designers, creators,
and archivists.
A librarian with a book she’s unsure of might turn to
WorldCat for bibliographic information. Where do we
turn for video games? There is no professional resource
that can offer us the same depth and breadth of information
for video games that WorldCat offers for more
standard information resources. Instead, we must turn
to the wealth of web sites maintained by the gaming
community (MobyGames, Home of the Underdogs, and
GameFAQs, to name a few). In the case of the PVW
project, we are indebted to this community for providing
us with fresh perspectives on our preservation practices,
methodologies, and theories. On a purely practical
level, we rely on the resources the community produces
and manages to help us document context information,
as well as prepare descriptive, technical, and administrative
metadata for the digital objects in our case set.
Moby Games, for example, is an online game database
billed as “a historical archive, documentation, and review
project for all electronic games (computer, console,
and arcade)” with two overarching goals in mind: “1.) to
store a diverse array of information about games, who
created them, what their system requirements are, what
their game screens look like . . . all browseable via an
easy-to-use, hyperlinked interface. 2.) to let the public
contribute to each entry in the database, whether it be
with new entries, additional information, simple ratings,
or detailed reviews.” While the screenshots, descriptions,
and game metadata available on the site are all
useful, perhaps most valuable is the information on the
hardware and software platforms necessary to play different
versions of the games we are archiving. One such
game is Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel, one of five interactive
electronic novels published by Broderbund software
as part of its text adventure series. Initially released for
IBM and Apple, versions of the game were also adapted
for Atari and Commodore systems.
The same caveats that apply to the reliability and accuracy
of user-generated content in other research scenarios
also apply here, and consequently we take pains to
cross-reference many different sources of information.
It should be noted, however, that quite often the most authoritative resources by conventional standards are
authored by individuals who are themselves dependent
on or contribute to the user-generated wikis, databases,
and discussion boards highlighted here. For example,
Wikipedia has been a regular port of call for learning
about--in some cases identifying--the publishers and
rights-holders of various games in our archiving case
set. Pinsky’s Mindwheel is instructive in this regard.
Mindwheel was originally owned and developed by
Synapse Industries (or Synapse Software Corporation)
and published by Broderbund Software, who acquired
the IP rights in c. 1984. The complex corporate history
of Broderbund, whose creative assets have been repeatedly
bought and sold over the past 20 plus years, is well
documented on Wikipedia. The genealogy is as follows:
The Learning Company purchased Broderbund in 1998;
Mattel then purchased the Learning Company in 1999
and sold it to Gores Technology Group in 2000, who in
turn sold the Learning Company’s holdings to Ubisoft
and Riverdeep in 2001. Mindwheel’s corporate chain of
transmission is thus at least six levels deep. Based on the
Wikipedia entry, it appears that the Broderbund assets
and IP rights are now under the control of Riverdeep.
Attempting to verify this, we contacted the Riverdeep
company, who informed us that the program was no longer
available or supported, but that we should consult
Moby Games for more information about the developer.
Likewise, Nick Montfort, Associate Professor of digital
media in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies
at MIT, has discussed Mindwheel in several venues,
both in refereed books and conference papers, but also
on the Interactive Fiction Wiki, a participatory media
project to which he contributes (Montfort, Twisty 174-
181; “Condemned”). Montfort reaches the same conclusions
as Wikipedia about who owns the IP rights to the
game, and while he does not footnote the “encyclopedia
that anyone can edit,” it seems likely that he relied on the
extensive network of user-generated game resources that
he avidly promotes, uses, authors, and edits. The process
by which we attempted to acquire information about
the IP rights of Mindwheel thus serves as an object lesson
in the way knowledge circulates across professional
and amateur communities of practice, and the degree to
which these communities loop back on each other.
Moving beyond our personal experiences with the PVW
project, we would observe that from the perspective of
collection development, the professional archivist and
the private archivist often closely resemble each other.
Many collections of videogame materials vary in scope,
focus, and validity. Some are housed in large academic
institutions, within the context of traditional archives;
invested amateurs run others, and these collections are
limited by the time and resources of that individual or
group of individuals. Some of the collections focus on
videogame material; others collect videogame material
as a sub-set of their main institutional goal. Finally, some
of these collections try to provide access to primary materials
while others either provide access to end products
(like video games, manuals, or individual music tracks),
or they collect and organize information about end products.
Many of these collections, whether housed within
institutional settings or in individual server space, are
managed by people who have an intense personal interest
in their success; videogames are their avocation rather
than their vocation, and the videogame collection isn’t
necessarily the main collection’s focus. Due to this lack
of decisive institutional support, even within institutions,
videogame collections as a whole appear haphazard and
fractured as opposed to collections that focus on conventional
subjects, or are composed of traditional materials.
The fact that invested individuals are in charge of these
collections can either be a strength or weakness depending
on your point of view; for example, invested
amateurs have created emulated versions of out-of-print
games—these emulated games might be illegal (in that
they are still intellectual property of some entity—although
“abandonware”), and focus on game play rather
than authentic preservation. Whatever the case, these
individuals’ interest, energy, and devotion are characteristics
that will have a guiding influence on the development
of formal institutional collections. Additionally,
these somewhat ad-hoc collections set the stage for future
development of more formal repositories, and provide
the information professions with a valuable starting
point for future collection development.
“Broøderbund.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. October
15, 2008. Retrieved November 12, 2008: http://
Committee for Film Preservation and Public Access
(1993). Preservation without Access is Pointless: Statement
by The Committee for Film Preservation and Public
Access before The National Film Preservation Board of
the Library of Congress, Los Angeles, California, February
12, 1993. Retrieved March 11, 2009: http://www.loc.
Hedstrom, M., Lee, C., Olson, J., & Lampe, C. (2006).
“The Old Version Flickers More: Digital Preservation
from the User’s Perspective.” American Archivist, 69(1),
159-187. Retrieved August 4, 2008: http://archivists. Montfort, Nick. “Condemned to Reload It.” Nick
Montfort. November 11, 2003. Retrieved November 12,
Montfort, Nick. Twisty little passages : an approach to
interactive fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.
Preserving Virtual Worlds. November 10, 2008.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne; University
of Maryland, College Park; Stanford University; and
Rochester Institute of Technology. Retrieved November
13, 2008:
“Writing the history of virtual worlds.” BBC. Interview
with Megan Winget. August 15, 2008. Retrieved
November 12, 2008. <
1. On Megan Winget’s Game Preservation Project, see
her interview with the BBC cited in the bibliography.

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