Frank Cifaldi, the founder and director of the Video Game History Foundation, explains the importance of preserving and maintaining old video games by likening it to a movie analogy. He said, “if movies were only released on, like, VHS, ever. You want to watch Back to the Future? All right, you have to go on eBay, and you have to find an antique VHS copy that’s degraded a bit from use. You have to find a VCR that works, a TV that it plugs into — or the external scalers that make it look correct on your modern TV — and you might need a time-base corrector because the magnetic flux signal is out of sync.”
In the state of the industry, this analogy rings true for many games. Decades’ worth of games now exist only in their original form: on a disk or cartridge that goes into a console nobody has anymore. Many of those games are going to be hard for players to ever find again — and if we don’t do anything to save them, they might disappear altogether.
In a recent episode of The Vergecast, the second in a three-part series about the future of gaming, Frank Cifaldi and other industry experts from Polygon discuss the incredible effort underway to ensure that old games, such as Atari, SNES, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy games, remain playable long after their original consoles cease to function. Groups like the Video Game History Foundation and Digital Eclipse are not only restoring games but also helping people to understand the context and culture around those games.
In addition to these efforts, there are a huge number of engineers and developers working to emulate old consoles in software or build devices like the MiSTer that can bring almost any gaming system back to life. Moreover, official systems like Nintendo Switch Online offer a collection of iconic titles from old consoles on the company’s newest device, although the visual quality may vary.
Despite all of these efforts, nearly everyone in this space agrees that laws related to gaming must change in order to ensure that gaming history does not disappear. Jonathan Loiterman, a lawyer at the Foundation Law Group who has worked on gaming legal issues for years, points to a set of regulations in particular, Code of Federal Regulations 37 CFR Part 201. This document lists exceptions to some of the aggressive copyright laws that make it difficult for anyone to copy and distribute video games. Loiterman and others believe it is time for libraries to have the ability to lend digital copies of games and consoles, much like they currently lend ebooks.
However, there is no obvious solution to all of this. While developers should be compensated for their work, there is a debate about whether developers should have the ability to remove any game they want from circulation permanently. Additionally, there is a question about who should be the best steward of these games. Should libraries and museums be relied upon, or is there a potentially huge business opportunity, such as a Spotify for Old Video Games? Furthermore, when discussing emulation and preservation, are we saving games as historical artifacts or providing people with new ways to play them?
One thing is for sure: video games should outlive their cartridge or their console. Ensuring that happens will require the entire gaming industry and then some. It’s evident that there is a need for a collaborative effort between industry experts, legal professionals, and preservationists to find a balance between preserving gaming history and supporting the industry and developers. As technology continues to advance, it is crucial to protect the legacy of old video games for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.