Sometimes, video game history can be strange, just like love. Indeed, a lot of people can take it for a game. But, on a rather more serious note, video game history is disappearing at an alarming rate, especially for a medium that is barely 50 years old.
For those interested in doing research, it is often hard to find a way to do so without spending money on eBay to get a hold of magazines or paraphernalia – not to mention how difficult it is to access online archives, often taken down and disappearing without a trace. That is why the Video Game History Foundation is working on a new initiative headed by Phil Salvador: a new digital library.
It’s called 'Basic Utility for Batching and SYncing'. Yes, Bubsy. If you have to create a new app, at least give it a fun name
Salvador started working at VGHF almost two years ago, and recalls the biggest obstacle was starting a new library. "They don't happen very often, so we had to set up a system and negotiate with vendors to find the appropriate platforms," he tells us. "So much work has been just about setting up the infrastructure, before the fun part." Salvador recalls that, in order to make the two platforms – catalogue and archive – talk to each other, an entire new utility program was created. "It’s called 'Basic Utility for Batching and SYncing'. Yes, Bubsy. If you have to create a new app, at least give it a fun name!"
Now Salvador says the library is at a very usable place; in fact, he often prefers using the internal library, rather than Googling, to get faster and more accurate results. But what system was the VGHF using before the library came to fruition? "Basically, Frank [Cifaldi, VGHF’s founder]’s brain!" he replies. "What I’ve been doing can be described as downloading the contents of his brain to let people access it. He has spoken with many editors, so often his information was essential in making sense of a lot of disorganised magazine issues."
Salvador talks about the whole process of processing the magazine to upload them in the catalogue, which involves sending off duplicate issues to a local company to scan. "Often it is hard to track information on the magazines themselves, so we have to get them down from the shelves and look. We also want to avoid work that has already been done by others, such as Retromags. We've done over 1000 magazines so far and donated back the scans to some of the groups. It is definitely a collaborative effort."
We had to pay a three-figure number for each issue. It is all about an analysis of cost-benefits; for example, even some issues of Tips and Tricks magazine can be rare, for some reason, but we wouldn't pay 1000 dollars for one
Overall, the VGHF wants to make sure that the scans they provide are of the highest quality, since often those that can be found online have issues or, well, aren’t the most efficient site to browse. "We all love the Internet Archive, of course," Salvador adds. "But at times it feels like you are just leafing through a pile of magazines on the floor."
What was the process of selecting which magazines were relevant for the program? "For example, the oldest magazine we have in our collection is a Scientific America from the 50s, there is an article describing a hypothetical computer that plays chess," answers Salvador. "A couple of decades later, we have issues of Video Magazine, where there’s a small column on games. There, you can see the notion of people realizing there's worthwhile content on gaming and slowly expanding coverage."
Salvador mentions that the VGHF has a program to get people to donate magazines. "Those we don't need, we sell in our mystery boxes and use that money to buy other rare magazines." But, he also adds, there are times when the foundation was forced to pay for especially rare magazines, like the early issues of Computer Gaming World. "We had to pay a three-figure number for each issue. It is all about an analysis of cost-benefits; for example, even some issues of Tips and Tricks magazine can be rare, for some reason, but we wouldn't pay 1000 dollars for one!"
However, Salvador also wants to make clear that the launch of the library over the next few months will be a soft one, as it will be an ongoing thing and they will continue to upload magazines. But, he adds, for now, this is only a work regarding US mags, as internationally, things get more complicated. "In the US, we have our nebulous fair use clause," he says. "Naturally, it might be riskier when there are magazines still being published, but for those that are out of print, we should be fine. For example, EGM has been on the Internet archive for a while now, as opposed to Nintendo Power which tends to often be taken down. Based on our historical standpoint, I think we have a strong fair use case."
A big part of our mission is trying to move the conversation on providing open access to these things, there's a lot of reluctance also from devs because of jeopardizing industry secrets
Indeed, that argument is a strong one – but the results should be worth the effort. "A big part of our mission is trying to move the conversation on providing open access to these things, there's a lot of reluctance also from devs because of jeopardizing industry secrets," adds Salvador. The head librarian recalls an example: recently, they shared a video from E3 2000, and someone called it a leak. "We're so used to things only showing up in that form that our mind goes immediately to that. We’d like to show that there is a way to provide access besides these shady situations or illegal leaks."
Just recently, the foundation announced two different projects with collections of papers from Mike Mendheim (one of the designers of Fester's Quest) and Rita Zimmerer, former executive vice-producer of Sunsoft. These will also be available in the digital library, where everyone will be able to browse through art, development materials and production documents.
The digital library is a project which would like to change the way we access archives. "On the internet, magazines often tend to be either a bunch of PDFs on a torrent, or a very great collection only available in person or locked away. While we have a lot of respect for everyone which makes things available, what we want to do is give it a structure for researchers," Salvador says. "I hope it inspires people that have access to rare and interesting materials to prioritize free access, find a way to organize it so that it can be useful for users."