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Preserving the Games

Tue 18 Aug 2009 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Games

Iain Simons and James Newman explain what the National Videogame Archive is all about - and why it's not just pods of games...

While the UK videogames industry digests the news that productions might soon be up for tax breaks as part of a cultural test, some sections of society - including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - has already decided that games qualify as culture.

To that end, it's providing funding for a National Videogames Archive, and here the two people working on the project - Iain Simons and James Newman (both of Game City fame) - explain more.

Q:

Iain Simons: It's relatively self-explanatory I guess. It's an attempt to preserve - and also ask questions about the best ways of explaining what videogames are and what they can be to people who aren't necessarily aficionados.

The most important thing about the Archive is that it's not just about code - code is very important, but it's not necessarily the thing that explains games best to non-players. So it's also about fan material, marketing materials, and the whole context that's often ignored when we talk about explaining videogames.

It's a DCMS-funded (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) project, and a partnership between Nottingham Trent University and the National Media Museum, and it's the first of its kind in terms of central government investment. In terms of the problems the industry has faced in government lobbying this is a pretty significant step forward for the public sector and a sense of cultural art.

Q: The idea of 'videogames as culture' is an argument that's been rattling around for a while, but it feels like it's starting to get a decent amount of traction now. How did you start those conversations?

James Newman: It was almost accidental, actually. The really important thing is to understand that it's not just about taking games and demonstrating the ways in which they could be taken seriously. It's a recognition of the fact that they're already important parts of our culture. So it's not just a code depository, though that may well be part of what it becomes, and it's not even just about the physical object, the playing of the game - it's about how players make meaning out of games and understanding the value they have for them.

So that's why we're interested in things like fan culture, to recognise and record that this kind of stuff is important for people. Whether fans engage in cosplay or walk-throughs or speed runs - all that stuff is part of what we're interested in recording and documenting as well, because it tells us about the story of games, and how important they are in everyday life.

We don't want to tell the sort of stories where games are just sort of aberrations - so with that in kind, the Archive itself sort of emerges out of a bunch of projects we've been doing. We've been writing together for a number of years, published a bunch of books individually and together, and one of them was a book for the British Film Institute called 100 Videogames, as part of their screen guides series - a sort of mini-review and discussion about 100 key videogames.

It was an interesting discussion, but it highlighted some of the problems in that a lot of the stuff that you're talking about is for BFI's audience, which isn't necessarily game-savvy, so you're writing for a cross-over audience and people who have never necessarily played games.

So we started to think about it, and wonder if we were just being ignorant that there were these huge archives and depositories that did exist - the more we started to look at it, the more we realised that other people weren't doing it, so why didn't we do it?

Then we did some more experimental exhibition-type stuff, and how Game City gets involved is another part of the project. It's very much about the exhibition, and involvement with stuff, rather than a load of dusty objects sitting on shelves.

Iain Simons: The festival remains very much about experimenting with different ways we can think about and play games, so the last thing we intend to do is have pods with games on - not because there's anything necessarily wrong with those, but it's also not necessarily the best way to present games.

It's that kind of experimentation in working out how to allow the public the best access points, and hopefully shoring up games as a kind of cultural entities in themselves. Because one of the paralysing problems for the industry is that it spends time worrying about whether it's culture or not. Of course it's culture - so our starting point wasn't even having that discussion, it's going from after that point, working out ways to celebrate it, instead of defending it and validating it.

James Newman: The problem is that you always end up starting from a defensive position, trying to claim that the stuff is important. Organisations like the National Media Museum... the DCMS has already decided it was going to fund a collection of new media, so there's no point about having the argument about whether we should be doing it or not. The DCMS has already made that decision, rightly, that games should be included.

The biggest thing really was being ambitious about the scope of the things we were going to collect, because the temptation is just to collect games and consoles, and fetish-ise the object. It's not only the fan side, but also the production side of things as well - those stories that don't get told.

Some of the interesting things we're doing with Game City is an expression of some of the archive work - some of the director's commentaries, stuff that you just don't hear, that you're used to hearing in film, and treating it as art, as craft. So Martin Hollis talking about GoldenEye, talking about it in a way that you've never seen before - even for fans of the game that know it inside out, it's a new perspective.

Iain Simons: This is one of the core problems with the way that the industry talks about itself - every other creative community celebrates the people that make the work. It isn't about having celebrities, and we understand that it's more than just one person that makes a game, but the absence of a human being at the front of how the industry talks about these things makes is pretty essential.

Of course, there are exceptions, but the problem is that people don't know whose babies these games are. And these are, mostly without exception, really interesting people.

James Newman: And we have a really poor language for describing games - we tend to easily slip into cliches: "The controls were really fluid," for example. So it's interesting to get insight into the way that these people describe their games as well - hear the vocabulary they're using - and understand stuff like pacing and compromises... to look at these things as art and technology, and even hear some of the banal office politics that humanises this work.

Iain Simons: That's the stuff that's going to make people believe that games are culture.

Q: So why the National Media Museum?

James Newman: It was the obvious thing to do - they used to be the Museum of Photography, and the DCMS gave them a broader remit to collect across a range of media, new media being one of them. So they're in the same sort of place that we are, and videogames fitted in perfectly.

So now the National Videogame Archive is part of the New Media Collection at the museum. It's quite a significant thing in that it's kind of a legacy project, and assured for all time. It's not a time-limited thing that's got a bit of funding to throw a load of dusty old consoles into a warehouse somewhere. It's got the weight of part of the Museums of Science and Industry behind it. It was essential that we had that level of museology experience.

The big thing for us at the moment is that there's a whole bunch of research projects really, trying to find out what you do with games to make them meaningful. So this is partly a bunch of issues about how you preserve stuff, but we didn't want to just create a collection. There's no point in having a collection if you're not going to do anything with it, if nobody can see it - exhibition and display is a key part of what we're about.

But exhibiting videogames is really difficult - if we're just talking about games, rather than the culture, think about a game and how you would actually display it in a meaningful way to somebody that had never seen it before. That's okay if it's Pacman, because that has enough cultural significance that most people know what it is anyway. That game has been designed to be walked up to, it explains itself really well.

But if that game is Final Fantasy XII and you're in some sort of exhibition space, and you don't have 150 hours to dedicate to finding out how the Hell it works, how do you make it make sense?

So we start from a slightly heretical position that the game isn't necessarily the unit of currency - because often they're not the best things for describing themselves. A lot of our research right now is working out how you exhibit and interpret complicated, non-linear narratives that branch out in different ways and respond to players making choices - whether they know they're making them or not.

How do you display that stuff in a meaningful way to somebody that's never seen it before? I don't have the answers for that at the moment, but that's good, because it's what keeps us in the business for the next ten years or so.

Q: You can see a point in the future where a school trip to a gallery could take in Pointillism, Cubism and Final Fantasy... it deserves and requires explanation, and you have to find a way to get that across.

Iain Simons: If you were my mum... I wouldn't even know what book to get her about games. I know where she'd find out about science, and dinosaurs, and art, and radio - and even TV in the last 40 years. You can go and learn a lot about that. But to our knowledge there isn't somebody you can direct people to for learning about games.

Q: Has the industry been supportive?

James Newman: It's been good. We started last October, so we've done a couple of specific projects, but what we're really interested in most is working out ways in which we can display that work. The support's really good, but we want to explore it further.

Q: And if people do want to get involved?

Iain Simons: NationalVideogameArchive.org - if they go there it'll tell them what we're doing, how to get involved and how to get in touch with us.

Iain Symonds is director and James Newman is producer of Game City. Both work on the National Videogame Archive. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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