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The future is behind you: the new life of retrogaming

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Our current obsession with nostalgia raises an important question: how do we preserve the past?

You’ve probably seen the signs of retrogaming becoming mainstream. From the hallowed arcade celebrated in Stranger Things 2 to Commodore 64 t-shirts, retrogaming is no longer just the preserve of the nerd herd. In 2018, retrogaming moves to the box office, with the long-anticipated film Ready Player One (based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 book of the same name) loaded with nostalgic references and characters from long-dead games. Generation X is looking back to the culture of their youth and the corporations are listening.

Last year, Nintendo released the SNES Classic Mini, a retro game console with 21 classic games including Street Fighter II, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Kart. The console targeted older gamers keen to recall the games of their youth and by the end of October 2017 over 2 million retro consoles had been sold. There are plenty of fans still hungry for home gaming experiences and Nintendo has plans for more retrogaming products and games. Riding on this wave, the Commodore 64 Mini is a reboot of a classic home gaming system (right down to the clunky old joystick) which is slated for release later this year. The demand for nostalgia gaming is set to boom as older gamers make up a larger market for the likes of Nintendo and Millennials seek out ways to remember the games of their childhood.

Aaron Clement, co-host of the retrogaming podcast Press Play on Tape, sees the rise of retro hardware as a step forward. “The reception to both of Nintendo’s Classic Systems has been almost universally positive, although there’s still a subset of old school or “purists” who see them as nothing more than a cash grab that can’t compare to the real thing.”

The arcade scene from Stranger Things

Re-creating nostalgia

Most retrogaming is aimed at nostalgia, as greying gamers want to play the games of their childhood again. Theme music, the shape of an old controller or that monolithic arcade machine, all transport gamers back to that time when they first played a game. Nostalgia is marked by a longing for the past associated with the feeling that things were better back then. But retrogames could never claim to be technologically better. While some gamers may miss simpler games that were easier to master in the good old days, the improvements in gameplay, CGI and storytelling make contemporary gaming more compelling. Psychological research points to retrogaming being more than just a hankering for old gameplay and the sound of a tape drive.

Dr Jamie Madigan of the Psychology of Games links nostalgia to a need for social connection: “Thinking about the loss of social connection (as nostalgia often makes us do) primes us to think about repairing those connections, establishing replacements, or maintaining current ones.” This need for social connection is why we respond to the arcade scene in Stranger Things 2. We relate to the arcade as a social meeting point, populated with other geeks who compared high scores on Dig Dug. In retrogaming, we’re trying to get back to the arcade or the lounge room where we played games, as much as trying to finish a game from our youth.

Web-based emulators mean many retro games are no further than a lazy Google away, but the experience of an arcade or home console is harder to get. Retro hardware design tries to reproduce this with a similar (if smaller scale) products designed to plug into your TV much like the old systems.

The arcade is harder to re-create. ACMI’s Game Masters exhibition featured original arcade machines (alongside consoles) to re-create just that feeling. Similarly the evolution of barcades, like Brisbane’s Netherworld or Melbourne’s Bartronica or Pixel Alley has sought to give retrogaming a new venue.

A snapshot of our Game Masters exhibition

In restoring the arcade, the challenge lies in keeping original hardware running as the corporations that built them disappear and the technical skill to maintain them become harder to find. As Clement points out about gaming consoles, “As robust as an Atari 2600 may be, they’re 40-year-old technology built with parts and knowledge of the era… People have to cannibalise existing systems for parts. And much like fossil fuels, these existing systems are a not a replenishing resource.”

Archivist and historian, Jason Scott works with the Internet Archive to preserve and emulate software. He acknowledges the appeal of gaming on arcade machines over emulation. “A physical arcade machine is designed from the ground up to be attractive, stand in real space and make you feel like you're interfacing with a strange, unique entity. Emulation tends to be more compact, more directed towards the software, and generally just gives you a rough idea of what the original arcade experience was.” While not transporting you back to that physical space, an emulator creates a playable version of the game and means there is a record “to speak authoritatively or reference permanently the excellent history of video arcade games.”

The Internet Archive's arcade

Game online

Retro hardware reboots ride the wave of decades of emulating games on the web. While vintage retrogamers seek to only play games for original systems, web-based emulators like the Internet Archive and ACMI's own Play It Again project have put games into the hands of millions. The Internet Archive’s software collection preserves thousands of games, ranging from Adventure to the Zork. Because the archive works from floppy discs, old-style tapes, cartridges and other out-dated storage tech, they reproduce games as they originally appeared that are playable online. Clement sees the role of the Internet Archive and other digital preservation organisations as crucial, because all the games featured on his podcast are “all tape or disk based, and magnetic media has an incredibly finite lifespan… For me this is one of the biggest limitations we face as once this media goes, with it goes part of gaming history that can never be recovered.” Organisations like the Internet Archive are at the forefront of gaming preservation, seeking to rescue an emulated version for as many games as possible online.

Even more than redundant technology, retrogaming’s greatest obstacle comes from copyright. According to Scott, companies like Atari are now little more than “a licensing outfit, a filing cabinet and a lawyer.” Copyright holders make more money, more easily by making Atari t-shirts than emulating the old games. It is easier to sell the nostalgia rather than try to reproduce the original experience. For organisations like the Internet Archive, preserving games is made harder when the rights for games are no longer held by their original creators, have been bought out, or are just undefined. Software presents challenges to copyright laws that were conceived with old media in mind. As Scott sees it, “There are a lot of questions up in the air about software – it is certainly a sold product, but it's also a cultural force, and in many cases it's impossible outside of emulation to ever experience the games again.”

Faced with the prospect of extinction or emulation, games are better available on the internet. Some have even seen a second wave of popularity as light mobile games. But the appearance of games in TV series like Stranger Things 2 or a blockbuster film like Ready Player One can make it harder to preserve games history. According to Scott, once games become “active properties” companies want other versions to be removed to allow for licensing products. “It can be quite frustrating for people who want to reference, study or enjoy the originals. Games rarely ‘disappear’, however – they just don't get as easily seen.”

Interventions to preserve games – either by organisations like the Internet Archive, ACMI or fan-fuelled resurrections of obscure games – the history of video games would be shaped by the market. The evergreen Mario and Tomb Raider reboots would push out smaller unique games. By preserving, emulating and playing old games, we hold them in the present and maybe even get them to inspire the future.

George Dunford is director at Ferrous Digital with previous digital leadership roles at the National Museum of Australia, National Library of Australia and RMIT University.

To see how we are preserving video games for the future visit Screen Worlds