When I ask Frank Cifaldi, the founder and director of the Video Game History Foundation, to explain the importance of preserving and maintaining old video games, he answers with a movie analogy. Imagine, he said, “if movies were only released on, like, VHS, ever. You want to watch Back to the Future? All right, you have to go on eBay, and you have to find an antique VHS copy that’s degraded a bit from use. You have to find a VCR that works, a TV that it plugs into — or the external scalers that make it look correct on your modern TV — and you might need a time-base corrector because the magnetic flux signal is out of sync.”
For too many games, this is the state of the industry. For the most part, decades’ worth of games now exist only in their original form: on a disk or cartridge that goes into a console nobody has anymore. Many of those games are going to be hard for players to ever find again — and if we don’t do anything to save them, they might disappear altogether.
On this episode of The Vergecast, the second in our three-part series about the future of gaming, we once again join our friends from Polygon to explore the incredible effort underway to make sure you can play all your favorite Atari, SNES, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy games long after those consoles stop working. It involves groups like the Video Game History Foundation and Digital Eclipse, which are not just restoring games but are helping people to understand the context and culture around those games.
It also involves a huge number of engineers and developers working to emulate old consoles in software or even build devices like the MiSTer that can bring just about any gaming system back to life. They’re all helping make sure games are available and playable in as many ways as possible. And there are even official systems like Nintendo Switch Online that offer a collection of iconic titles from old consoles on the company’s newest device (though they don’t always look great.)
For all that effort, nearly everyone in this space seems to agree that there’s one most important way to make sure gaming history doesn’t disappear: the laws have to change. Jonathan Loiterman, a lawyer at the Foundation Law Group who has worked on gaming legal issues for years, points to one set of regulations in particular, Code of Federal Regulations 37 CFR Part 201. This document lists exceptions to some of the aggressive copyright laws that make it hard for anyone to copy and distribute things like video games — and Loiterman says that document is reevaluated every three years. Loiterman and others think it’s past time for libraries to be able to lend digital copies of games and consoles like they lend ebooks.
There’s no obvious solution to all of this, though. Developers should be compensated for their work, rather than having it all dumped into a subreddit full of ROMs. But should those developers be able to then remove any game they want from circulation permanently? If not, who is the best steward of these games? Should we rely on libraries and museums, or is there a potentially huge business here, a Spotify For Old Video Games? When we talk about emulation and preservation, are we talking about saving games as historical artifacts or giving people new ways to play them? Are those even different things?
One thing’s for sure: video games should live longer than their cartridge or their console. Making sure that happens will take the whole gaming industry and then some.