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Preserving the 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.
So explain what the National Videogame Archive is all about?
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. 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.