Play It Again: Preserving Australian videogame history of the 1990s

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Thousands of games developed in the 1990s are no longer accessible to the public or to researchers. As a new medium of the twentieth century, videogames are – like other forms of contemporary culture – complex born digital artefacts. Collecting policies often do not cover these forms of digital heritage. Long-term preservation in the digital age requires a rethinking of how heritage institutions identify significance and assess value. The collective neglect of these new forms raises the risk that there will be large gaps in our cultural-historical record for future generations.

This project is the successor to the Play It Again: Creating a playable history of Australasian digital games, for industry, community and research purposes project, which focused on 1980’s games. Hence this current research project is known as as Play It Again 2.

This is a joint project lead by Swinburne University, with RMIT University, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), AARNET PTY LTD, and OpenSLX GmbH. The research is funded by the Australian Research Council (LP180100104).

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This project aims to document, preserve, and exhibit the history of the Australian videogame industry during the 1990s. The challenge of preserving and accessing complex digital cultural heritage such as software is one that collecting institutions worldwide are facing. By recovering the history of Australian made videogames of the 1990s, preserving significant local digital game artefacts currently at risk, and investigating how these can be exhibited as playable software using the latest emulation techniques, the project expects to generate new knowledge needed by government and industry to inform future strategy and infrastructure investment aimed at making a range of digital cultural heritage available to the public.

The cultural research team begins from the premise that videogames are not just software or hardware artefacts. Digital games are understood as a set of played experiences embedded in wider cultures and communities of use. The 1990s saw the rise of a local studio culture and bold experimentation in the crossover space between cinema and videogames. While focused firmly on digital games, attention is given to the cultural and historical milieu in which game-makers negotiated a changing technology and business scene, collaborating with industries such as film, as well as the player practices around games, including experiments in a networked community and what players made and did with these products. The Popular Memory Archive website is being developed to exhibit some of the significant local games of the 1980s and 1990s era, and collect documentation in order to remember early games through popular memory.

Games and other software became more complex during the 1990s. Standard computer environments were no longer enough to execute a game. More specialised additional software was required, such as dlls (data link libraries), graphic and sound card drivers. Much digital preservation research to date has concentrated on end products generated by software rather than the software digital object itself. When only the software program is available without the accompanying installation information or files, the computer environment in which the program should best be executed is not easily discovered. Tools are being developed to discover and document all the requirements for an optimum emulated system that takes into account a multitude of factors (operating system, interface, code, metadata, driver files, etc) needed to emulate a preserved game artefact.

A curated installation of 1990’s games will be presented at ACMI executing on original hardware as well as in emulators on the Emulation-as-a-Service platform.

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