"Save the rocket cats," US gov't tells devs

National Endowment for the Humanities rep implores studios to preserve more than just their finished games

While many of the speakers at the Game Developers Conference spend their sessions talking about the future of the industry, National Endowment for the Humanities senior program officer Jason Rhody used his time at the podium Wednesday afternoon to talk about the past.

As part of a session on how US federal agencies are investing in games, Rhody made his case for preservation with the help of an image from a 1607 journal manuscript depicting cats and birds with primitive jetpacks attached to their backs that were supposedly used to infiltrate and burn villages and castles. Bizarre as the idea might be, it is exactly the sort of fascinating cultural artifact Rhody worries could be lost forever in the current game industry.

"Save the rocket cats," Rhody begged the audience.

Many studios have no formal archival process that extends much beyond keeping an executable file of the finished game, Rhody said. But software is the product of whitepapers, engineering specs, memos, venture capital, Mountain Dew, and espresso.

"These are material circumstances that leave material traces," Rhody stressed. "So these are your archival materials, as much as the game itself. Maybe not the Mountain Dew cans, but the rest of it. So the lesson of rocket cat is that you don't know what hidden easter egg, what manuscript, what material trace will cause a future scholar's heart to swell with joy when they find it."

Just as creators today draw inspiration from what people must have considered mundane records (such as Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry developers consulting classified ads of the time to inform their depiction of slavery), so too will enthusiasts, scholars, and creators of tomorrow examine the minutia of game development today to get a better understanding of things we aren't even aware will be of interest.

"There may be all sorts of legal, competitive reasons and copyright reasons one can't share all of that," Rhody acknowledged. "But I appeal to any of you with access to or control of that kind of work, to share what you can, when you can. And even more importantly, to work with scholars and librarians to preserve the rest of those archival materials. Because what you do is valuable, and our mission at the NEH is to help preserve and interpret our shared valuable, cultural heritage."

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Latest comments (4)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 3 years ago
As a closet game historian who knows others who feel the same, I can say that this article and that GDC speech just may be the most important thing to take away from the show. Preservation is important, especially in this digital age where cheap/free disposable, very easily forgotten games are the big thing.

Who knows how many titles have already been lost forever once they fade off the internet and/or no records have been kept of their existence? I sure don't, but it's a shame because this is the sort of thing that would help future creators see what worked and what didn't, what was "popular" as opposed to actually "good" and so forth and so on...
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 3 years ago
Many game companies are totally colour-blind to such considerations.

We still don't have guilds or even any concept of Moral Rights in the game industry. Do you think the leaders of this industry give a damn about such high artistic concepts as preservation of works of art?
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 3 years ago
@Andrea: Ha! I wasn't thinking about Blade Runner, but I did watch it again a few hours after I posted and laughed at that scene because Roy Batty was saying more or less what I typed.

@Tim: Well, if not now, when? I ask.

This slightly reminds me of the work for hire situation in comics and comic strips where some companies weren't cataloging artwork and/or trashing it after it was printed or not returning it to the artists at all for any number of reasons. A great deal of comics history went down the toilet as a result.

With games, we do have some champions out there (I know of a few running a traveling game history museum, which is at GDC I believe), but as far as modern games, MMOs that aren't WoW or EVE Online (which has a nice exhibit wall at MoMA here in NYC) and apps? Well... it's going to be a big blank page in about ten years when people look back and see nothing but screens (if that) or have nothing but people saying "Oh yeah... I think I remember that game... but I'm not sure how it was..."

I find that some what disturbing...
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Judith Haemmerle Executive Director, Digital Game Museum3 years ago
We at the Digital Game Museum think about this non-stop. It is impossible to get anything from game devs, although we regularly beg for scraps of drawings, code, anything, including merchandising, that can represent a game. We finally succeeded in getting the storyboards used to get venture capital funding for one important studio, but it took the combined efforts of two legal teams to negotiate a mutually acceptable deed of gift. It was time well spent. If you're an indy developer, we want your failed games, your great games, and the notes you scrawled on a napkin when you first decided to go independent. We want your history! (In case you were wondering what to do with all that stuff. )

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Judith Haemmerle on 21st March 2014 6:12pm

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