I'm Dave Gibson. I'm 38 years old. I'm currently employed as a processing technician for the Library of Congress Moving Image Section working in the library's Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia.
Part of my duties include working with the videogame collection. It's a collection that's mainly built, as many art collections built here, through the copyright registration process. So, essentially, games that are sent in mainly by the bigger publishers for purposes of copyright and they send in the physical copy of the game usually and as many formats as it exists in for as many platforms as it exists for. We have, I think, the collection is up to about 3,500 titles at this point. So, it's growing slowly but steadily. [Laughs.] I would say that it's tapered off a bit in the last few years, but that's true of sort of all the physical media that we receive here in general. It's not just limited to games. We're starting to see, obviously, fewer and fewer 35mm film prints as well because nobody projects 35mm anymore. [Laughs.]
But we still do get that, too.
But, yes. Like, a fraction of my time here in the Moving Image Section is devoted to inventorying a game collection, trying to solicit donations to fill in the gaps that we have in the collection. I'm really trying to sort of be the custodian of the historical record of videogames as a library founder.
You said that you have about 3,500.
Was I mistaken? I read you had about 3,000 in 2012 and then I read somewhere else in 2014 you had 6,000. Was I reading incorrect information?
Yeah. [Laughs.] The 6,000 -- that seems like a very much a misrepresentation of the actual numbers.
It's certainly no more than 4,000. It's probably -- I would, you know, it's probably all told, somewhere between 35 and 4, but not very much more than 35 at this point.
That's still higher than the interview I read with you from 2012.
Yeah. It has grown since then, but that's because we receive about a hundred a year through copyright and therefore should be 300 or 400 more. [Laughs.]
Six-thousand's a little bit of a stretch, so, I'm not sure about that.
In a couple years, maybe.
So, I mean, maybe this is a silly obvious, but it being the Library of Congress and the United States, does that mean you only collect games that originated in America?
That's not necessarily the case. Although, typically, one would think that would be the case. Since it's copyright, we're getting things that were submitted for copyright for US copyright registration purposes. But we do actually get a handful of games.
Some Japanese titles that have Japanese packaging. Or even we'll get a physical Japanese game that was distributed and released physically in Japan but was only released online in the states. But, you know, they still send us in that physical copy via copyright. So, yeah, but -- mainly, yeah, it's still the big companies who would have distribution to both countries sending us those copies.
Gotcha. I mean, you had said earlier that you don't work on videogames all the time. But how does one become -- I think I've seen you labeled "the videogame guy at the Library of Congress." But I think I also read, too, it's not just you who's working on them and it's not just you working on them all the time. Like, you have a team of people?
Right. Well, it's three of us, although that's becoming a little bit more splintered because one of the three of us -- he still works for this section, but he doesn't work physically in this building anymore.
He moved back to DC, to Capitol Hill. And then I think the other member of the team, who was a cataloger, if I'm not mistaken, pretty soon will no longer be a cataloger. [Laughs.]
He's gonna try to do projection stuff full-time, so I think that will kind of take him away from that. So, it's looking more and more like I am -- at least for now -- the full member. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Thank you.
Well, basically, what had happened was I started working here in 2006 and around that time, the associate librarian of the Library of Congress and our chief of our division, the chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Greg Lukow, were being approached to various conferences -- by who, I'm not entirely sure, but by individuals who were curious to know what the Library of Congress was doing about videogames. [Laughs.]
'Cause I think, and this was sort of around the time when people were starting to think about videogames as part of the cultural record, as part of the output of the nation's creative output and various other things like that. So, I think the decision was made that we were moving to this new facility in 2007.
We organized our positions to be able to a lot more born digital and digital preservation here in this building. The idea would be that we would take over custody of what games the library would have and start to be the custodial position for anything new coming in. As I said in the recent -- I was recently profiled in American Libraries Magazine, in the November/December issue, if you want to go look at that. In that I talked about the fact that part of what I think that happened was I was the youngest person in the office at the time. [Laughs.]
And Brian Taves, who was a cataloguer who was kind of given the task of setting up whatever kind of program we were gonna have for getting the games looked across the aisle at me -- he was was still in his twenties -- and said he didn't know anything about games, really. So he just kind of looked at me as a person who basically played them. [Laughs.]
It was like, "You would probably be interested in this, right?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I'd be happy to help out in any way that I can."
From the beginning and even from when I was in school I've had interest in digital preservation of mainly moving-image media at the time. But just in general, born digital, the preservation of born digital media and born-digital artifacts have been of interest to me and so I kind of was secretly excited and leapt at the opportunity to work with games because my thinking was that if we could figure out that, if we could sort of get a handle on what needed to be done to preserve games software, just the same principles could be applied to other born-digital projects, moving-image projects that would come down the pike at some point. We all saw the writing on the wall at that point that it was going to start to be an issue more and more.
We'd start to see more and more born-digital files for television, digital cinema packages, which are what you see when you go to the movies these days, just a hard drive with a film on it.
What's actually mechanically involved with preserving games, and please don't spare any buzzwords or jargon or lingo.
Right. Well, we are currently not actually involved in doing any game preservation activities aside from just collecting them in temperature- and humidity-controlled areas.
But there are -- I mean, the biggest project that I can think of currently as happening is happening between Stanford University and the National Software Reference Library, which is a part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
They have, like, a little arm of software preservation. So, they're working on a collection called the Cabrinety Collection.
Steven Cabrinety, who was a big collector of software and games in Silicon Valley, he passed away. His family donated his huge collection to Stanford and then Stanford is working with NSRL, which is my short name for National Software Reference Library, to image all of the disks basically. Image all of the cartridges. And then to scan photos of all the packaging.
That's essentially what it involves. It involves basically getting an image of -- as it currently stands. I mean, obviously there are other things going on. But that's sort of the big -- when we get together at meetings and talk about game preservation, that's what we're talking about. We're talking about, like, an .iso image of the media and then getting digital images scanned of as much of the packaging as we can and just having that somewhere. [Laughs.]
And there is, to some degree, there's emulation tools that will allow people to then access those images in a desktop environment and play them as if they're the game.
And it just gets a little complicated when you're talking about emulating things.
So you catalog them, but they're not available for people to come by and try? Is that right?
That is true.
We have had some requests to look at -- I mean, just basically look at the physical packaging. Most of the clients that we've served with our games stuff has been people, like, settling lawsuits who just kinda need to know that we have the game on hand and have all the physical stuff that we need in order for them to say, "Yes, this is it. This is the thing that we made." [Laughs.]
So, yeah, so, we actually don't have -- for example, in our reading room currently, a way for people to sit down at a station and play anything.
But that's a thing you decided against doing. You don't want to do that.
It wasn't even really like a decision where we were like, "Okay, we're not gonna do this."
I mean, it's still basically up for discussion. We're still trying to figure it out, even after nine years.
Are you saying the government's a little bit of a bureaucracy?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] I mean, you know, it took a long time to even figure out how we were gonna stream digital content from this building back up to the reading room on the hill.
Which we do, so we don't have to send up a physical video cassette or necessarily a film print in a truck every time someone wants to see Star Wars or ET or something. [Laughs.] We can just digitize it here and send it up through fiber optics. Or we have a workflow system where basically you log into this database and you call up the digital file and then you watch it in the reading room, essentially. It pulls it from our tape library and then you just watch an MP4 of that media that you want to see.
So, I mean, it's more logistically we haven't figured out what we want to do. It's not that we don't want to do it and it's not like a decision has been made that we're not gonna provide access to this stuff because most of us who are actively working on this stuff would love to provide access to these things.
But it's a matter of figuring it out and even a matter of figuring out, like, cataloging of these things because that's still a work in progress even.
I was gonna ask about that.
To actually determine a catalog record for a game should look -- I mean, there are plenty of catalog records out there for games, but no one can say for sure whether or not they're -- 'cause, I mean, there just aren't any standards or rules for cataloging games yet. So it's all just kinda a crapshoot. And it looks like -- it's the same thing with moving images. If you apply book cataloging rules to a movie or to a videogame, are you actually describing what it really is? Are you taking into account what users of that media would want to see in a catalog record? So, I mean, that's stuff that's actively happening and that's actually a group working within OLAC, which is the Online Audiovisual Catalogers group, to determine best practices for videogame cataloging. Like, that's currently what's happening.
It sounds like what you're saying is it grew very organically, which is what I had read. I didn't think it was like, "No, we're not gonna let people have access to it."
But when I also think of the logistical headaches -- like, I can't get King's Quest VII to work on my computer when I bought it off of Steam.
I was wondering -- you need to have, what, like, contacts at all the OS companies?
What else would you even need to even facilitate that? [Laughs.] For every conceivable game?
Yeah, that, and then just the technical infrastructure to actually to be able to. And that's the thing. For a university that has a small collection, or a collection of games, most of them also probably have some of the playback consoles that they would need. I don't think anybody -- from what I've seen of collection universities it's mainly newer console games and they have a few of the consoles, too, so you can come in and kind of play them. But they aren't necessarily study collections. I mean, I don't exactly know what a lot of the universities are doing. What their mission is in terms of the games that they have.
I think it's, honestly, as many as they can get. I've taught at two different universities and it tends to be whatever they can get that's current and then whatever people are nice enough to donate.
Yeah. And that's basically the same thing with us. I mean, we just get what's current because of the copyright laws essentially.
And then everything else, yeah, whenever I do something like this or something like the BuzzFeed article or an interview with Kotaku or something, then I'll get two or three emails from people who say, "Oh, hey, I saw that and I'm interested in doing donating." And so we've had a few donations.
Those have also slowed down a little bit more than I would have liked them to have done at this point. [Laughs.] I'd like to see more.
For people reading this, if they'd like to donate stuff, like is it just a simple Google search? Or what should they do?
Just send me an email at email@example.com. [Laughs.]
Okay, I'll have to put that in a way where you won't get a lot of spam.
[Laughs.] But, yeah, I mean, there is still lots of gaps to fill in. We only really -- I mean, I'm sure you've read this in a couple of different spots, but prior to us taking custody of the games, the only requirements for copyrighting a game were to send in a video representation of half an hour of gameplay and the first 25 and last 25 pages of source code printed out and send in to the library. That was essentially all. It's funny to me because it's similar to back in the nitrate film days, in the silent film days, all that was required to copyright your film was to send in, like, contact paper. Basically your film printed on sheets of contact paper rolled up so they look like a film reel but they're actually every frame of the film printed on paper. [Laughs.]
We have those now, and it's great that we have them because we've been able to rescan all of those and make new 35mm prints out of those. But it seems similar to me in the way that of, like, "Well, we can't really handle this actual thing right now. So just send this in and let's make an arbitrary stopgap requirement for copyright and hope for the best." [Laughs.]
Ideally, if we can get all the source code, that would be the pie in the sky sort of thing that we'd still love to get. because essentially, that way, in 100 years from now, we're able to put together all of these, like, paper prints into a film format, we could potentially and essentially hopefully do something with these games. As nice as it is to have a physical game, without something in place to actually allow people to access them, it's just more optical media sitting on our shelves. [Laughs.] It's not really being accessed, so.
I mean, I'm sure you knew I was going to ask about this, but the recent expansion of copyright exemptions for Congress, how does that affect you guys and the preservation of videogames?
Yeah, I don't think it actually changes much of what we were or are able to do because, I mean, we're already the government, so we're kinda already protected in a lot of ways. [Laughs.]
I think it is nice to know that the exemptions for being able to get access to abandonware games passed. I mean, I think just any step towards allowing people to get access to things that they have rightfully paid for and essentially then own is a good step. And again, it's like, we're not necessarily able to even get those types of games and so if somebody, or some collector is able to get access to something from a major publication that otherwise was abandoned, that he or she can then donate to us somewhere down the line, that's how I look at it. That it's advantageous for us to allow the user to have as much access to the content that they own and that hopefully they will keep and be able to get access to and potentially when they decide that they want to donate all of their game content to the Library of Congress, we will also be able to get access to those otherwise sort of abandoned titles as well.
Curation like you're doing there, how is it or why is it that it means more than, like, a listicle on a website?
Which is not meant as a diss, but just, in layman's, for a civilian, why is what you're doing more important or different? Is it?
I mean, other than the stamp of cultural approval or whatever, which I think in some ways the industry still craves -- it's one thing to have the player community say, "These are the games that we love." That's all well and good. But there's still something about having, whatever, the Library of Congress -- even with the film registry. Whenever the National Film Registry proclaims the 25 most important films that we've decided upon this year and are worthy of preservation, people still eat that up and it get distributed all over the place. It's something that then the filmmaker can say, "Well, this film has been named to the National Film Registry and it will be preserved in the Library of Congress and blah blah blah."
I mean, it's still very much looked upon by certain parties as important. That the federal government has deemed that this artform to be worthy of preservation or something like that. [Laughs.]
How do you perceive the game industry is looking for cultural approval?
[Laughs.] Well, I don't know. I'm not entirely sure that I've seen specific ways that they're seeking cultural approval. I think they're probably just fine collecting lots of money at this point. [Laughs.]
But you see things like "The Art of Videogames" exhibit at the Smithsonian that Chris Melissinos put together a few years ago or, you know, just the never-ending argument of, "Are videogames art?" And all these kinds of things. I can't say that I've seen tons of evidence that big companies are super-excited about the fact that the Library's collecting games. [Laughs.] I mean, I can only hope that it'll be similar to how was it at the studios when they were dealing archives back in the day where all of a sudden one day they're like, "Oh, wait a second, we don't have such and such a thing or such and such a print anymore that we threw away or since our warehouse burned down or whatever."
Lucky for us, the archives of the country and even the collectors of the country who love what we were producing and coveted what we released were wise enough to hold onto these important things that ultimately benefits the companies that produce them.
I mean, that's the thing. You can't really say what looking down the future, like, what will be important, which is why we're trying to collect as much -- not just the games and the supporting documentation and everything because, you know, 100 years ago nobody thought that they would be making DVDs of Nosferatu or Blu-Rays and people would actually be wanting to buy them. You know what I mean?
So I think it's actually sort of up to the cultural institutions to still make the argument to the industry to say, "These things are important. People obviously think that these are important cultural works or, whatever, creative works. So, please, play ball with us. Help us out." [Laughs.]
By cultural institutions, who do you mean?
Just libraries and archives and universities and other collecting institutions.
You know, the people who see the actual cultural and historical value and not just the dollar signs. [Laughs.]
What are the ways game companies aren't playing ball with the Library of Congress? What have you run into?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that game companies aren’t playing ball with us. The companies are actually complying with the Library of Congress and Copyright Office request for physical copies of the game. The bigger issue is the need for a re-evaluation of what is actually required by libraries and archives in order to preserve these cultural and creative works and the obstacles towards that work that the game companies seem complicit in, specifically the inability to submit source code to archives and libraries due to the code containing "trade secrets." If we can all agree on the fact that the Library of Congress is not going to share these trade secrets but rather retain this information for purposes of future preservation and retention for the game companies themselves then I think we can start to make some progress. Again, I see it as analogous to the big film studios submitting their original camera negatives with archives and borrowing them back whenever they need to do a new high-res scan.
I read you saying in an interview that your game collection is today -- or three years ago, anyway -- basically where your movie collection was in the 1890's.
What does that actually mean, then, if in late 2015 we are roughly in the late 19th century for videogames?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it essentially means that we're just missing big gaps of the total historical record for games. And, I mean, this is true at the Library for television, it was true for film. I mean, it just takes a little while -- much longer than it does when you just look out into what actually engaging the general populous for the library. [Laughs.]
And I think for a lot of places, they do decide, "Okay, this artform or whatever it is is worthy of preservation or worthy of retention." It was the same with TV. I mean, we only, in the last five years have every episode of I Love Lucy in the library because at the time, the library was like, "Oh, that's just a frivolous thing that no one's gonna care about in however many years." [Laughs.]
Well, I mean, those are things, too, where you hear about the studios involved just getting rid of the masters.
Whether it was just the medium itself to print on was expensive and they needed to reuse it.
I don't know if they thought it was disposable, but you know the sort of thing I'm talking about, right?
I think so. [Laughs.] In terms of the film?
Yeah, films or albums or whatever, where it's just like you said: You don't know what's gonna be important later.
So, you need to make room.
Yeah, exactly. And, again, it kind of comes down to what would an institution need to actually preserve that thing. As nice as it -- when we get a film print, and that's nice, but it would be even nicer to have the original camera negative because then we would try to make a really nice print forever, essentially, as long as kept that original camera negative in good shape. And I've said a couple times, in my view, the full source code for a game is basically the equivalent of the original camera negative of a film. If we just had that and kept it under lock and key, because we're not game manufacturers and we're not gonna use it for nefarious purposes.
Then we could, at some point down the line say, "Okay, well, we have this. Can we use it in some way to preservation work?"
What are your blind spots? Obviously it's a very broad thing --
In terms of our collection?
Yeah. What has been lost due to lack of preservation? What are you totally in the dark about or don't have records of?
Well, we don't really have anything pre-1995 essentially. We don't have really any cartridge-based media. I mean, if you look in the copyright catalog for Pac-Man or for Super Mario Bros., you'll just see the submissions for those games are just, like, a piece of paper. [Laughs.] They probably just said, "This is a game called Pac-Man. It involves a little yellow pizza-shaped guy chasing after ghosts and eating dots." And we still get that kinda stuff for moving images, too. We won't get the film or the video, but we'll get a paper saying, "This is a movie about two people who fall in love."
We can't take everything is essentially what it boils down to. [Laughs.] As much as we want to at least have some representation of everything. But yeah, that's the biggest blind spot, is just anything pre-1995. And even then, what we have post-1995 is -- I mean, what we initially brought over in the first batch from the machine readable reading room, which was where what games the Library did have were being kept, which was basically just CD-ROM titles for Windows and Mac from '95 to 2005 essentially.
I know this is not what you do with all your time at your job, but do you interface with game companies or publishers? Do you try to solicit that material? Or is that not really what you guys do?
It's something that I would like to do more of, but, again, I'm not a game curator. [Laughs.]
This is not my title or part of my responsibilities. It would be nice to have a person who basically -- like a digital media curator, in general, I think is an important thing that we will need to have in the next couple of years. Not just for games software but for all kinds of different things that we're sort of lacking. We're missing out on a lot of stuff now because of sort of not being 100 percent ready for this transition from analog to digital, even though the transition from analog to digital happened over a decade ago. [Laughs.] We're still kind of behind the curve on that.
But it's something that -- and, again, and like I said, when I do these interviews and stuff, we do get the occasional person who says, "Hey, I have a garage full of Apple II floppies of games. Would you like me to send them to you?" And so we have a few collections like that. Even a few people who work in the library have donated their old Nintendo cartridges and stuff. So we do have a smattering of those sort of earlier games. But we certainly need to be fed up. [Laughs.]
I read that you had intentions of forming specific genre terms to use in cataloging games. What are the challenges of preserving games and coming up with metadata in how to organize it?
Yeah. I mean, I think part of that is just -- I mean, the genre issue has been tackled for basically every kind of media. In some cases, very recently. I mean, the library only very recently started to come up with a definitive genre list for film and television. And so, yeah, kind of sitting down and trying to decide among a group of librarians -- many of which who don't even actually play games -- what the genres are for videogames. [Laughs.] And that information exists out there. [Website] Allgame, when it was actually around, I thought had a pretty good, comprehensive genre list that they used for all of their entries. And there's other work being done to say, like, "These are the definitive game genres."
But yeah, it's a matter of -- I do think that we need more input from the community in terms of saying, "Well, this is how we describe this kind of game. It's a first-person shooter, but it's also this."
Have you contacted game companies about support in that way at all, either?
We haven't. And I think that's probably a good idea. I think any avenue for which we can get them to be involved, even it's something as simple as, yeah, kind of helping us to come up with this list -- 'cause right now it's very academic.
It's very strange. I mean, I didn't ask about your personal curiosity with games. I assume you have a level of it if you're shouldering this at your job, but you mentioned Super Mario Bros. But that is a game, for example, where no one's actually sure the exact release date.
No one knows a lot about the creative decisions that went into it. They released a couple years ago a 25th anniversary version of the game. It came with a CD with a two-second tracks with sound effects.
They had interviewed [Mario co-creator] Shigeru Miyamoto and a level designer, and they took those interviews and chopped them down to single sentences.
Mmhmm. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. There's sort of this -- I don't know, like, bifurcation of history.
There doesn't seem to be a desire to share it or to know how to share it unless it is very careful marketing.
Yeah, no, I agree. There's this sort of hesitance, and I don't really know where it's coming from. I mean, we can get into this a little bit more, but it's been my issue with videogames for forever. [Laughs.]
We should get into that. [Laughs.]
That all of the artforms or cultural things that you experience in your life growing up, like, it's the least democratized of all of them. It's the least open of all of them. Because, I mean, you can grow up as I did loving movies, loving music, loving videogames -- probably to a lesser extent than the other two -- and if I want, I can go get a camcorder make movies in my parents' backyard or with my friends or I can buy a guitar and a tape recorder and get together with my friends and play music. I did both of those things.
But if I wanted to make videogames as a kid growing up or whatever -- other than than the programs you got off the back of 3-2-1 Contact Magazine, which I did do that stuff, too, but really being able to approach it in a way of, "Well, this is something that I like and therefore it's something that I want to explore more and get into." And most of the people who make games now I'm sure thinking and feeling that way. But you still had to get over a big hurdle. You don't necessarily have to in regards to other artforms if you want to be a guy who plays music or makes amateur films.
Yeah. But I think of it, too, in terms of democratization of -- if you want to be a fan and find out, like, why did Eric Clapton write that song or why did Dan Brown write that book, you could find out. But you can’t in games.
Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, yeah, you can go buy a box set of your favorite band now and have a huge book of liner notes that goes into every song and every recording session. You can have The Beach Boys' Smile box set where it's every single recording session that they have released and learn everything there is to know about that song. It's unfortunate that that sort of thing hasn't applied to the game industry.
Even, I think, The Art of the Game Industry [at the Smithsonian] -- I know the hard work that went into that exhibit because I saw it firsthand and I know Chris Melissinos and I was behind the scenes at Smithsonian giving a talk at that thing. But even there, I feel like it was almost in some ways not a missed opportunity but it was essentially the history of consoles and some short little video clips for the games that you could play on that console. I felt like it could have been so much more if there had been more interest or participation with the actual industry.
I mean, it’s interesting to see the rise of videogames starting to pop up in museums more and more. Do you think museums are legitimizing games more by having them in their walls, or do you think videogames are legitimizing museums -- which can be seen today by some as sort of stale institutions that used to ordain and create legitimacy. I just mean, they aren’t the only path for this stuff to get noticed by broader audiences.
I suppose it’s a little bit of both. I think there are many people out there who view videogames as an artform and feel that the creation of an exhibit based around the art of video games lends the medium some cultural legitimacy that has otherwise been missing. At the same time I’m sure museums are more than happy to bring in new visitors who feel that their interests aren’t always represented by your typical art exhibit. At the end of the day I think that the main responsibility for museums and libraries when it comes to games is to inform the public that games, and digital objects at large, aren’t necessarily going to be around forever just because they are free from the degradation from which physical objects suffer. I think the message that cultural institutions should be stressing most is the reasons why these extremely valid cultural and artistic works are just as worthy and in need of preservation as a painting by Rembrandt. In many ways they are even more at risk of disappearing than that painting might be.
Sometimes there's just this layer of frosted glass. I have this working theory that maybe it has something to do with Japanese business culture. When the industry got started, a lot of stuff around identity of people who were making games was obscured. I don't know if you remember beating any of those older cartridge games you talked about, but you would see the credits roll and it's not like an American kid would understand it anyway, but it would all be pseudonyms or names that were obviously not names.
My understanding of that was it was to help prop up the industry and prevent companies from having their employees being poached. But again, from the outside, that's my only guess because I don't actually know why it's like that. [Laughs.]
Yeah yeah. Well, and I mean, we're seeing that even now. The reason why the Library of Congress doesn't get full source code for these games is due to trade secrets. or whatever. I mean, okay. We get it. I understand there's lots of things to protect and there's lots of things that are unique to each company. But, again, we're a library. We're not trying to compete with the game companies. We're just trying to preserve their work. Trade secrets are the things from preventing us to be able to get the stuff that we would need to ultimately do preservation somewhere down the line.
I don't really see the Library of Congress putting out a Now That's What I Call Videogames! compilation.
But have you talked to companies about that, like, maybe trying to be a little more flexible?
No, and it really just boils down to not knowing who to talk to or, again, it's such a small portion of what we do in this building. If we had someone whose job it was to do that sort of outreach it would probably make a difference. But I have reached out to various independent companies because -- and this is still the case -- we don't refuse -- and this is kind of a big issue that we should talk about a little bit more, too, is that we don't receive games that are distributed online, like, really at all. We really only receive the physical items that come out that you would be able to go and buy at Gamestop.
But Netflix, I read, makes physical copies of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black --
Right, and they send them to us. Like, we got Betacam SP videos of Orange is the New Black and, yeah, all of that stuff. So, but it's weird and I feel like we're missing out on a lot of great things because, to me, personally, a lot of the most interesting, artistic creative stuff is being done by these independent companies or just by, like, a guy who releases something for iPhone or whatever. And we're just not seeing any of that.
There was a time a few years ago where I was reaching out to companies whose work I thought was interesting or whatever games I was playing at the time and say, "Is anyone there involved in any way?" But I think because it was an email coming from a government official -- not that I'm really that official -- I do think there was a, "Wait, why is this guy asking me about copyright and stuff?" [Laughs.]
From a .gov address, yeah.
Yeah. That was the basis of my request, was kind of, "If you send this in for copyright, then we will have it and we will be able to..." I don't think that's necessarily the interest of even the smaller companies. They're not thinking about that. They're just releasing their game and moving onto the next project, essentially. And I think it's the same with the big companies, too. But I don't know.
There does seem to be a learned -- I mean, everyone wants to make money. But I don't know what changed in the other mediums, though videogames are still seen by many as disposable for forgettable. It's not necessarily true, but it is interesting to hear about how it gets internalized among creators.
Yeah. I mean, I think as a creative person in general, working in a digital medium that these days the last thing you're gonna think about is, "Oh, I really need to get this into a library or the Library of Congress." [Laughs.]
We haven't necessarily positioned ourselves to be a great keeper of the digital record, either. So that's part of the problem. But, I mean, at the same time, it's still our job to keep things and to make sure they'll be around for as long as possible. If people think the Internet is going to do that for them, I'm not going to try to be the one to convince everybody that that's our job and that it's not necessarily the job of any other corporation.
I certainly don't envy you guys with the complete onslaught of Hulu and Amazon and all these other new digital channels that are popping up to completely overwhelm us.
Yeah. It's getting crazier and crazier.
It's funny. We had a meeting a couple weeks ago just to deal with, like, Adult Swim Infomercials. [Laughs.] Like, what are they? What do we call them? How do we deal with them? We'll get a cassette or a DVD of Too Many Cooks and it's like, "Well, what is this thing, even?" [Laughs.] It's kind of a one-off TV special. Because that's the thing: The language that has existed up until this point doesn't really describe even that kind of thing. Much less a multiplayer online game. [Laughs.]
Too Many Cooks went into the Library of Congress?
It's in. It's already in.
So, if you wanted to find it, like, what do you search for?
You can go to the Library of Congress catalog and type in the title Too Many Cooks and it'll come right up.
What did you end up filing it under?
I'm trying to remember what we ended up deciding. [Laughs.] I think we did put it under, like, television specials, fiction, television, and we tried to put in a little note that this is a parody of '80s sitcom opening credits or something. That's the thing. It's weird when you have to actually sit down and think, "Well, how would I actually describe this in a sort of organizational fashion." And I mean, one can be like, "Well, you can just say take whatever's on Wikipedia." [Laughs.]
I'm glad you're laughing, because it used to be a laughable thing. But now it's just like, "Well, obviously you would do that."
Yeah, yeah. And we do use Wikipedia a lot to verify information about things and to verify episodes of titles of shows and stuff.
It's not like we don't use it. Because it is a valuable resource. But, of course, we always want to check our facts. Or even IMDb.
You should be cross-checking it, yeah.
Exactly. Right. [Laughs.]
What have you arrived at as far as categorization of videogames?
You know, it's still such a work in progress.
We've kind of narrowed down, basically, the broadest categories of genre. So, it'd essentially what would be at the top level of Allgame or top-level 12 biggies. I can't remember exactly offhand what they were, but I can maybe send that to you or we can put it in the transcript later.
But even for a while, and I'm not even sure that we've finally settled on this, but at the very beginning it was like, "Well, what do we call these things? Are they videogames? Are they computer games? Are they computer-adventure games, which a lot of them were called in the catalog originally before we got a hold of them?"
[Laughs.] Well, in my mind, as a person who grew up playing videogames and stuff, I would never go to a library and be like, "Oh, I really wanna know what computer-adventure games you guys have!" [Laughs.]
Well, in the UK, I know they sometimes just call them computer games, yeah?
I think so, yeah.
Yeah. But I've never heard computer-adventure game in conversation.
Yeah, exactly. Even computer game -- at least, to me, personally, I just feel like "videogames" is more all-encompassing for, like, every single thing. It's more of an umbrella term, and "computer games" gets a little more specific in terms of how you're playing.
I wouldn't say, as a kid growing up in the '80s, "I'm gonna go down to the arcade and play some computer games." [Laughs.] You know? I just can't imagine ever having said that.
Obviously there's the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, who I also interviewed a while ago. You focus more on preserving a record. But what do you do as far as documenting the differential in experience of things like online games or games where the servers will be gone? How will future generations be able to understand Minecraft or World of Warcraft based on the record?
Or maybe they'll still be around?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, we haven't had to deal with that too much. And actually, the second -- I don't know if you've read at all too much about the second phase of Preserving Virtual Worlds, but that was dedicated to significant properties in games, kind of looking at, "What are the things that people respond to most in these games?" So, I think that got kind of close to capturing what you're trying to say, like, "What about this game makes it what it is?"
But, I mean, in terms of the practical, "Okay, we're gonna do it now." It never even got to that point. The Preserving Virtual Worlds sort of ran out of money before they even sort of got to the point where they could say, "Okay, well this is how we do it." [Laughs.] It was like, "These are the things that define the properties of a handful of games." But it never got as far as, "And now, we're going to talk about how to actually preserve them."
'Cause, yeah, I mean, again, when we get together and talk about these things, it's a lot of, like, "Okay, well, it's one thing to try to preserve Minecraft the game, but there's trying to preserve Minecraft and then there's trying to preserve what Minecraft is and what's involved with that." And it's a lot more than trying to preserve the software. It's preserving every aspect of it: message boards or fan art or a kid's Minecraft costume for Halloween. It's kind of going out and trying to get all of that stuff because I think ultimately in getting all of that are we even going to be able to approach, "This is what it was, and this is was the impact that it had."
And I brought up the Halloween example because I saw at least three kids dressed as Minecraft cubes for Halloween this year. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] What about the collection you have -- how has that aided research so far? Like, what are some of the more memorable or unexpected inquiries that you've gotte?
Well, like I said, the only one we've really received has been related to settling lawsuits. I mean, we haven't had people coming in to do real research.
And that's the other thing that I would like to get the word out to more people who want to come here -- I mean, we've had people come to this building specifically to sort of look at the collection. They had to set up appointments and stuff and they were already in the industry.
Like, we had Mike Mika and Frank Cifaldi, who -- you know, Frank wrote for Gamasutra for a while and Mike runs Other Ocean Interactive -- and they're both just industry people who are also historians who are interested in game history and game preservation. They came and spent a day looking at the collection, spent some time looking at the old copyright records. Because Frank, like everybody else, is trying to figure out what the actual release date for Super Mario is.
And of course, he hit a dead end. Even if you look at the copyright record to see what date it was submitted for copyright, it's like, one of the possible dates but it doesn't answer the ultimate question of when it was really released.
That's so strange. I don't know why that's a mystery. Like, it is of great significance, but it's not, but also, it's such a simple thing so it's like, "Well, why don't we know that?"
Yeah. [Laughs.] That's true. I mean, you could say, "Okay, well, that date is what's listed on that record." You could choose to definitively say, "Well, that must be it." But then I feel like it's one of those things where it's like, "Well, still maybe..." That's just the date it was registered in America. That doesn't necessarily answer all the questions you might have.
But, I mean, even as you said in this conversation, people remember buying it, playing it, but no one really thought to hold onto the receipt.
Right. [Laughs.] That's true.
That kind of says something about the nature of how we don't know what's going to be important.
As it pertains to people coming and checking out your collection, though, you're saying it's largely people from Capitol Hill for lawsuits?
Well, yeah, I would say originally the games were held onto for two main reasons. One, to fulfill the educational mission of a library, because we have a lot of educational software, that kind of falls under the umbrella of videogame.
And the other was to collect all the super-violent, controversial games so that Congress people could have an example to say, "Well, just look at this terrible, violent game that's corrupting our nation's youth." [Laughs.] We have lots of, like, Leap Frog stuff and then we have, like, Postal.
That was essentially what the original collection that we moved over from the Jefferson building consisted of. The most controversial, most violent games and the super-innocent educational ones. [Laughs.] Those were the two categories they kinda fell in, in terms of its usefulness to Congress, which is what we're serving first and foremost, essentially.
Yeah. I mean, what do you make of that stuff all these years later of the Grand Theft Auto stuff or the Mortal Kombat stuff?
Oh, no, I'm just saying as a person who grew up with it and has sort of -- I mean, yeah, I just think it's kind of silly. [Laughs.] Yeah. I don't, like, see -- I'm glad that the rating system came around. I don't know that it does much good. I think games have always in some respect been violent. As the graphics got better, they got better at depicting the violence. [Laughs.]
So, I mean, it's always been about, in some ways, at least in the very beginning, blowing up a bad guy or even eating a ghost. [Laughs.] Not that that's super-violent, but you know.
You're sort of having to defeat some kind of enemy or get over some hurdle. I mean, until things started to get a little bit more abstract later on. But yeah, I didn't really see it as a big issue. But that's my own reaction to it. I mean, I grew up playing games mainly that were based on movies that I liked because I was a movie kid first and foremost. "Oh man, they're putting out a Back to the Future NES game? I have to get that, even if it is the most terrible game ever made."
You mentioned Frank Cifaldi before. I used to write for him at 1UP, and they had me do a feature about how bad pretty much every Back to the Future game is. Although, I am sure you are sensitive to things like this or understand: That piece may not exist anymore online.
Oh yeah, that's true. [Laughs.]
You work with an interesting group of people, as it intersects with videogames. What do you think people inside of the videogame industry don't know about how it or the medium are still being perceived?
It's hard to say and I can only really speak from my own experience and to say that I think they're still a little bit ignorant, in general, of the historical impact and their own history and what it means to people. I mean, that ties into what we were saying before about how there's so little information available for people who are fans of certain games who really like to get into the nitty-gritty of how it was made or details. Because, and I think it comes down to that whole "trade secrets" thing. It's like, "Well, we can't let too much information out or else you'll steal the ideas we have."
But again, that gets into the democratization thing that we were talking about, too. It's like, "Well, okay, well, that's fine, but somebody's really interested in this thing and they want to be able to figure out every detail about it." I mean, I wouldn't know how to play Beatles song on guitar if they hadn't put out a big book of every Beatles song with chords for every Beatles song.
We need some kind of approach from the industry that says, "Okay, well, we value the effort and the time and the appreciation you've shown us all these years, and so here's a reward or at least an acknowledgment of the fact that you think they're historically and culturally important from our perspective and it's not a Greatest Hits and moving forward we'll make new stuff and keep ignoring our history."
That's the thing that I would really like to have the industry be a bit more aware of. Because, again, I think that Smithsonian exhibit would have been so much cooler if they had cooperation from the industry and it wasn't, like, "Play Super Mario on a big wall at the Smithsonian."
No, I mean, I interviewed people at MoMA and they told me some stuff pretty interesting stuff off the record that I'm sure you can imagine. But you just run into the strangest frustrations from companies that have contributed in huge, huge ways to the culture who don't really necessarily feel that way or want to see it that way.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Well, I think that they have become one of the most important storytelling mediums of our last century. I think that their visual style has -- whereas before it was kind of the other way around, where videogames were borrowing so much visual language from film and other things, I think it has gone the other way around where even watching a scene in the second Hobbit movie where they walk into Smaug's cave and they kind of do this thing where it shows you all these different spots around the room where things are gonna happen later. [Laughs.] Or, you know, potentially where some precipice is that someone can jump onto. And it's like, "This is totally straight out of a videogame. You walk into a room and it shows you all the potential places that you need to get to to get around this space." I think that's one of their greatest accomplishments.
I think just in terms of uniting communities, obviously, plays a really big part in that. And dividing communities in some ways. [Laughs.]
But I think, yeah, I just think that it's a super-important cultural and artistic medium and I hope that the cultural institutions and the game industry can find some common ground to build collections or at least figure out ways of preserving the legacy that's been built up over the last 50 years or so.