Find out what the Museum of Modern Art and the Internet Arcade have in common.
In this episode, we talk about video game archival, preservation, and curation with Jason Scott, co-founder of Archive Team and archivist for the Internet Arcade, and Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design and director of research and development at the Museum of Modern Art.
Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Jason Scott is the co-founder of Archive Team who speaks passionately on the never-ending and critical saving of online history. He has been a video game art director, unix administrator, documentary filmmaker and public raconteur.
Paola Antonelli is a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, and Director of Research and Development at MoMA.
[00:00:00] JS: It runs a bootleg Italian circuit board that on itself has an operating system running an emulator.
[00:00:22] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a co-founder of Forem.
[00:00:30] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem. And today, we’re talking about video game archival preservation and curation. And with us are Jason Scott, co-founder of the Archive Team, and Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at the Museum of Modern Art. Thank you so much both for being here.
[00:00:49] PA: Thank you for inviting us.
[00:00:51] JS: Happy to be here.
[00:00:52] BH: I am very, very interested to find out how video game archival and preservation impacts all of our lives as developers and as a burning topic, it probably is more so than a lot of our listeners probably realize, and we are going to get into all of that. But before we do, Jason, can you tell us a bit about your background?
[00:01:12] JS: I do lots of work as the software curator and free range archivist at the Internet Archive. Before Internet Archive, I was part of the Archive Team, which was a volunteer collective, trying to grab everything and anything digital. And before that, I was doing documentaries. I was running a site called textfiles.com, which itself was a kind of archive of digital artifacts of the 1980s. So basically, I’ve been doing things for a long time, picking up a lot of things.
[00:01:43] JP: And Paola, can you tell us about your background?
[00:01:45] PA: Yeah. I’ve been at MoMA since 1994. I have a background as an architect. I came from Italy, Milan. And because I am an architect and designer, I was always very comfortable with technology. So the most relevant thing for you to know about my background is that I coded the first website for MoMA in 1995, because I wanted a website for my first show. Nobody knew what a website was. And they gave me a budget of $300, which I use to take out to dinner somebody that taught me HTML. That’s how it happened. But then ever since I’ve been at MoMA, exploring various forms of design and Department of R&D, which we founded in 2012, is there to demonstrate that museums can be the R&D of society. So it’s not technological per se, but it takes the idea of technological development to culture into the museums.
[00:02:35] JP: So let’s get a little deeper into your current roles and what you’re doing day-to-day. Jason, let’s start with you.
[00:02:43] JS: I’ve been working mostly in software on two different fronts. One of them is communicating with people who have collections of software or being somebody who folks can think of is having a place to come to, and also trying to make it easier and easier for people to preview, to play software in the browser so that you have an old Apple II or console program and then you’re able to play it in the browser somewhat well, enough to get the point, especially if you’re a researcher and you don’t want to kind of track down every cartridge or make every machine come up and boot. And along with that, the documentation, the manuals, the engineering notebooks, and all the other parts of software that people don’t always think of as being part of it, even though they’re as important as what’s on the screen.
[00:03:36] JP: Very cool. And Paola, what does your day-to-day look like at MoMA?
[00:03:39] PA: My day-to-day changes a lot, but we’re organizing a collection show for the fall about some of the video games and some of the interactive designs that we have collected. We have collected 36 video games and a lot of interfaces of various kinds of information architecture. So today, for instance, I was up in the Digital Conservation Department because MoMA had one to test a projection of Muriel Cooper’s Information Landscapes from the ’90s to see how good it could look in resolution. And this was today. Then I was also checking other things and having meetings. But as far as our topic of discussion is concerned because design comes in so many different forms, there are some days in which I look at chairs and other days in which I immerse myself in video games.
[00:04:28] BH: When it comes to making effective decisions as an organization like the MoMA, when you’re talking about software, deciding for the future, like having the organization understand that maybe emulators are going to catch up in a few years and you might want to plan around that, what does it take to create a culture in an organization like MoMa which makes effective technical decisions? I imagine you can maybe hire some individuals who really understand how to think about some of these software decisions, hardware decisions, but if the organization doesn’t have the willingness to kind of work with that environment, it probably doesn’t work out. So I’m just sort of curious. How does it come to be that an organization like MoMA can make good decisions in the world of software?
[00:05:21] PA: It happens organically. It takes a while. And it certainly was helpful, the fact that even though it started in architecture and design as a department, it was an issue that was also very much present in media and performance, it’s another department, or also painting and sculpture. So artists also have been working in software. So it’s been kind of organic. It started out with our audio visual department that took care of all the videos that have been collected at MoMA for a long time. And then slowly but surely, it was clear that we needed digital conservators. So we started Ben Fino-Radin at the beginning and now there’s Peter Oleksik, and also the AV people have become software digital people also. So the expertise just happened out of necessity and design that is born out of necessity is the one that is like the most resilient and stays forever. Also, some of these digital conservators were also academics and connected for instance to NYU and French Alliance Institute. So that’s where they establish certain protocols for conservation because the job of the museum is to make the art of our time, of moment, particularly the art of our time available in the future. So there’s always this idea of thinking long-term. And academics or institutions like Brewster’s and Jason’s are also thinking in these terms. So it just happened because it was part of our mission and because there was a will. It was successful for that reason.
[00:06:56] JP: Jason, you’ve mentioned the Internet Arcade and how visitors can actually play the games in their browser. Could you tell us a little bit more about what the Internet Arcade is? What powers it? What its purpose is?
[00:10:14] JP: Right, Game & Watch.
[00:10:15] JS: And if it was plastic that you loved as a kid, we’ve gotten them to work too.
[00:10:20] JP: Oh, those were even emulators, because those were cartridge-based systems, were they?
[00:10:24] JS: Yeah. It is stunning how they make this work, the people who are doing this, and I want to stress that the Internet Archive and me, we’re not doing it. We are making it run in our environment and we are helping them make it run in browsers. But there are people out there who literally get their hands on antique games, antique plastic games. They pull them apart. They photograph and trace down all of the layers of electronics and then make them run electronically as accurately as possible, and it is an art. It’s one of those things, it’s like watching somebody reverse build a violin because they have to literally use acid to steam through layers. Right?
[00:11:03] JP: That was incredible.
[00:11:03] JS: So that’s a thing going on, but what it comes down to is as an online archive, what made Brewster come to me was the fact that we had books online. We had movies. We had music. And to him, it was just a small step forward to say, “And what about software, since that’s as important as the rest of it now? Everything’s running on software.” That’s why we did it, and thousands and thousands and thousands of people are using it every day as a result.
[00:13:41] JP: I’m curious over on your side, Paola. When you design the exhibits for visitors to play these games, are you also designing ways for them to interact with them? Are you falling back to the original hardware that the games were on? Because a lot of times these games are designed around a particular controller or a particular game system. So I’m wondering if you could talk about what your approach is to making them playable, given that your focus is on a physical space?
[00:14:15] PA: We made a very strong decision, which is not to show the arcade cabinets, not to go into nostalgia, even though of course we’re using the controller, but oftentimes we’re redesigning the controllers so the functionality is the same and also the flow between the human body and the video game, but without the nostalgia, if at all possible. Of course, in some cases it’s not possible. For instance, today we’re discussing how to show Snake in the exhibition in the fall because, of course, you can find still all the Nokia phones, but there’s been several changes in ownership at the company. So we were saying we can go out and buy the phones, but the ones you buy on the market are not really working very well. So we were having all these different discussions. In that case, the phone would be quite necessary. But in other cases, for instance, when we installed Pac-Man, we wanted to have the purity between the person and the interaction with the games without the arcade cabinets. So the commands are the ones that you would use and we try to also mimic the kind of elasticity or the friction or the hardship rather to say that of the original controller, but we try to isolate and to make sure the person just dives into the game without nostalgia. In some cases, the games are presented instead, like EVE Online, for instance. The EVE Online Community recorded a day in the life of EVE Online for us because it would be too much to have people to sit down also with the Sims and SimCity. It would take too long. We have three million visitors a year. So even in that case, we had some recorded bit, but Pac-Man, Katamari Damacy, Tetris, so many of these games can be played portal and many others. Minecraft, we sometimes let people play, other times we show videos of them. But it was a decision that of not having the nostalgia, we do collect as part of the study collection a lot of the hardware just in case, but we don’t show it if we can.
[00:16:36] JP: Paola, I wanted to ask you and I might be projecting here, but it makes sense to me that the Internet Archive would be interested in curating and preserving digital entertainment. I’m wondering if you could talk about how did the conversation go to think of games as art? That’s been a really controversial topic in some gaming circles, “Are games art?” And I’m wondering if you talk about maybe the beginnings of MoMA’s video game collection and what that conversation was like.
[00:17:04] PA: The issue of video games as art always grates on my nerves because we acquired them as design. And people always think that everything is art and that design is a little appendage, but there’s a big difference. I let people just talk about it, but then when I can, I underline and highlight the fact that we are collecting video games as great examples of interaction design. Interaction design is the design of the communication between humans and machines and any ATM interface or MetroCard interface here in New York is a form of interaction design. And video games are particularly perfect to explain this new language of design because it is pure behavioral design and it’s a direct communication. So we started thinking about collecting video games in 2006. We started collecting information design and visualization in 2008 when I did the exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind. And instead for video games, we waited because MoMA always takes a long time when it starts a new branch of the collection. We really tried to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s. So we talked about it with a panel of experts in 2006. And then we created a committee because every time we don’t know what we’re doing, we bring together people that know what they are doing and they teach us. So we had this great committee made of people playing video games, people designing, producing video games. And we started discussing both the list of video games that we should go about collecting first and also how to collect them. When it comes to video games, once you set the criteria and you make sure they are designed criteria, then you can make a list fairly quickly.
[00:18:52] JP: Yeah.
[00:18:52] PA: We can discuss later on, there were certain decisions that related to ethics and violence in particular. So we’re missing from the collection some masterpieces of the history of video games because we’re collecting them as designed. But what is fascinating to us today and connects to what Jason was saying was the discussion on how to acquire video games. First of all, it’s a question that I would like to ask Jason also because we also involved MoMA’s general counsel and we created one of the most interesting issues for our general counsel because, of course, video games come with an end user license agreement. And one of the clauses of this EULA is that the company can revoke the license any time, which is now acceptable for a museum collection, right? It has to be there in perpetuity. So that was one of the most complicated negotiations that makes it so that there are no Nintendo games in the collection of MoMA because Nintendo had conditions that couldn’t be met. They wanted to really control every single time the way we showed the video games and we cannot do that. But the negotiation was really interesting because, of course, we could have gone out and bought either on the market or at auction the cartridge or whatever tether was available. But in truth, for the reasons that Jason just discussed, you always try to get the code. I mean, the holy grail is the source code and of course big companies wouldn’t give it to you, but more indie designers would, which is great. So when you have the source code, you feel more comfortable because you know that you’ll be able to migrate it a bit. If not emulations, possibly emulations by the original producer or designer. For instance, when we collected Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, one of the original designers, emulated the game for us so that it could be shown on a contemporary screen. And if not, the real last resort is the plastic, but we’d rather do without it because already code is as fragile as porcelain. When it’s in plastic, it’s the end. So once the work is acquired, then we do what Jason discussed. We go to the original programmer and designer. We interviewed the person at length or the team at length then we’d filmed people playing. We record the audio of people playing. We interviewed people who played. So we really are super redundant so that 50 years from now emulation happens with the blink of an eye, but needs to have a lot of cultural preparation. We will have everything that might be necessary to emulate the game. So this is the technical part. Then part of the agreement with the companies is that the museum visitors can play the games if they’re playable in the galleries, but not online. So in a way there’s a give and take, right? We cannot put playable games on the MoMA website, but they can be played in the galleries and then hopefully they will find the Internet Arcade that Jason is working on and they’ll be able to play the games.
[00:22:05] JS: Oh, no.
[00:22:05] PA: But I see you don’t have Nintendo games there either.
[00:22:07] JS: Nintendo, well, okay, so I’m not the legal counsel. So everything coming out of me is kind of my perception. But one of the things that happened in the beginning was we started doing this around 2012, 2013, and naturally the response from everybody is let us know when you’ve been bundled up and sent to Cuba because they assumed that this was an untouchable, impossible thing to do without ending up mired in some sort of nightmare situation and different organizations have different layers and levels to this, which I, of course, totally get. I mean, I respect that. If you’re the Norman Rockwell Museum and you’re trying to acquire something and you’re not sure of the provenance, even though it’s claimed that it was Norman Rockwell’s, you have to really double, triple, quadruple check everything because you don’t want a situation where you took something and it was stolen from Norman Rockwell’s house or something. You’re constantly on the alert to make sure that what you have doesn’t run afoul of problems or your own approach. So the problem with software is it’s multifold, but the way that I put it for people in terms of perspective is games are easy compared to business software of which it was always expensive and low distribution and then industrial software is even harder. The stuff that’s in electrical plants and elevators and cars. And then you get to custom one-off pieces that were written to like make one robot at Tesla, do a certain kind of action for six months. Right? That’s really hard. That’s going to be all or none. You're never going to see it again. So games compared to these others are really easy, but games then are really, really hard. You have a lot of games where the value of their existence was solely as a commercial product and they’re only perceived that way. And the way that I’ve put it with people is imagine we only started collecting paintings as art in like 2003. What would that involve? Previously just throw them out. Paintings, who cares? A bunch of artists to do it. Well, what would you do? Well, you drive around with a truck and you go to people and go, “Hey, you got any paintings in your backyard or your attic?” And they’d be like, “Yeah, here’s some.” And some of them might be Rothko’s and some of them might be something painting of a clown on velvet. You’ve no idea. And you just assemble them as much as you can. And then everyone kind of remembers Thomas Kinkade art. So, okay, we have a bunch of those. People keep giving us Thomas Kinkade art. At the end of the day, you end up with a certain pile. That’s basically what happened with games. The way I tell people is, “Don’t worry about preserving Mario.” I’m like, “Whatever species lands from another planet after we’re all gone is going to find like a black obsidian statue of Mario and nothing else.” We’re really good. That’s a cultural icon that transcends its medium far beyond whatever. Using that as any kind of a goalpost is to me really problematic. The amount of software that has a living commercial value and a territorial entity cranky about its usage is a sliver. And of that sliver, the biggest sliver is Nintendo. Nintendo has been around for over 130 years. They know what they’re doing. They have been involved in games for nearly twice as long as I’ve been alive and they have been very aggressive on every level, including business and law. So for instance, they have, in some cases, contacted us about the Wayback Machine, which is our record of the web, to make certain things not browsable because it mentions Nintendo products. They’re literally erasing their own history because they can’t control it otherwise.
[00:26:39] JP: Wow!
[00:26:39] JS: And they have a very weird position when it comes to software being playable. And so there’s them. There are a bunch of other companies who I have had conversations with. And what I find is that a lot of these companies have something they care about like Sonic for Sega. Sega really cares about Sonic. Sega doesn’t really care about Pulsar, which is a 1984 video game, which is one of my favorites. It just doesn’t come up. Space Harrier might come up. Namco cares about Pac-Man. Capcom cares about Street Fighter, but even within their own histories, they don’t even keep track of it. But now take that out to the literal tens of thousands of companies that bloomed for home computers in Europe and America that made one video game and put it into cassette tapes and put them for sale in a baggie, in a store or through mail order, sold 250 copies, and now they’re gone, like completely gone, right? Even the families don’t have those tapes. That’s where I find the most pleasure in going after. Those are the ones where you say, “Look, they didn’t have the same commercial value. This was a person. He was working as an accountant. He got a ZX Spectrum at home. He started typing games on it. He made a really funny game about bunnies. Clearly, his family thought he should do it. He drew a picture of bunnies for a cover, and here’s this game, here’s this piece of essentially folk art.” So for us, what I’ve been doing is just opening the gates and saying, “Please make us the last thing before the trash.
[00:28:26] JP: Got you.
[00:28:27] JS: So to be honest, at this point, just so you know, what I do is I have a program called “The Screenshot Gun” and it will go through a collection of newly emulated items and play them for me and then generate screenshots of the most “interesting” things that happened and upload them. So people will look at the collection and they’ll be like, “This game’s kind of dumb or it’s [00:28:52] weird.” And I’ll be like, “Well, no human being has ever played it.” So there’s right now a group, it’s playing 20,000 titles right now and making new screenshots for them and I will then browse the result and go, “That looks weird.” And that’s how I’ll find out the game is cool because some poor machine is playing I think it’s like 20 games an hour all the time. And I’m like, “Oh, how are you doing?” And what you then do is it really shakes up since you don’t care, right? The machine doesn’t care. There will be games where I’m like, “This is something.” There’s like an Atari Computer simulator, like it’s a game for the Atari from like 1983 that’s like you are the CPU and you have to move all the bits around. It’s got a stupid name, but as soon as you see the graphics, you go, “Oh, yeah! Wow!”
[00:29:53] BH: Paola, when it comes to the curation process, I think in software sometimes there’s a will to consume the infinite version of everything. In your case is some heavy consideration around curation, maybe part of it was out of necessity with maybe Nintendo as you and Jason were kind of alluding to and then there were the cultural factors. What about the curation process wound up being the most difficult or like created the most internal conflict?
[00:30:25] PA: In terms of the biggest issue, it’s personal. It didn’t create that much of a conflict, but it’s a discussion that I keep on having also inside of my mind, which is the violence and artistry. Right? So in our collection of designs, there are no weapons. I remember, when I started in MoMA in 1984, the New York City Police Department had started using Beretta guns. So these Italian guns that are considered really gorgeous. And so I thought, “My God! I should propose a Beretta for acquisition.” Right. And I was told, “No. No weapons in the design collection.” And I thought, “Wait a second, there are so many weapons in the painting and sculpture collection, representations of weapons. And they said, “Well, that’s exactly it. Those are representations.” And instead, in the design collection, what you see is what you get. We collect designs because not only of the form, but also the function. So that got me really thinking. And when I set out to collect video games, I thought, “Okay, I should use the same behavioral, ethical criteria and therefore yes to Street Fighter II because it’s martial arts, no to Grand Theft Auto because you just go around and crash cars and kill prostitutes. But to this day, I am thinking about it. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, “Is it right?” And I had a lot of conversations with my committee, with my colleagues, with people in the outside world. I still think about it. I even started a project called Design and Violence that was all online, not only about video games, but in general, to explore the manifestations of violence in contemporary society, looking at ambiguous objects. Right? So it’s something that stays with me. The way we deal with violence or aestheticize it or not and the role that it plays in video games is something that I still keep thinking about.
[00:32:46] BH: So can we quickly go around and talk about what everyone’s favorite games are from either of these collections? For me, looking at the lists and especially I think the MoMA one, SimCity 2000, that is a game I poured a lot of hours into and a lot of memories on SimCity 2000. That like ages me in the context of the whole thing that really hit me in a sweet spot of when I had time and energy that loved SimCity. But then Tetris is a game I can still play. And with every bit as much of like enthusiasm, I’ve got to put Tetris as number one for me.
[00:33:34] PA: I think it’s Tempest. It’s just so beautiful. Whenever I play Tempest, I’m just amazed at what the designers were able to do with those vectors because it really has depth. It really takes you to another place. It’s easy to be hyper realistic, but to do so much with so little is breathtaking.
[00:33:54] JS: For a while, there would be one or two video games that I just would keep booting up, probably because I remember them as a kid, BurgerTime and Mr. Do! where this is just me at 12 dumping all of my mom’s pizza money and buying a small instead of a large pizza at the pizza place for the family because I decided I was going to play Mr. Do! eight times. And now I’m like, “Ah, I got you now in this little box!” The ones I’m really proud of, the ones that I’m really excited about are things like The Oregon Trail, not because they’re my favorite game to play, but because of the outsize effect they have. For reasons that I can’t quite explain, The Oregon Trail, which is a game where you load up a wagon full of supplies and travel to Oregon, doing resource management, which was created in 1968 and had a recreation in ’72 and went on, is played at the Internet Archive once every 8 to 12 seconds. Twenty-four hours a day, there are schools that send their kids to play it on our site. There are kids playing it after school, sneaking ways to play it. I know this because they write reviews and they will say like, “Aha! Come and beat me! I’m the master forwarder. I’m doing this thing. Check me out.” Or, “I’m the top person in the school. You can’t beat me.” The fact that this game and the version that they’re playing is like a 1987-88 version, the fact that it’s still playing this outsize experience in kids’ lives is to me just like breathtaking. It’s not a perfect game. It is of its time. Right? Definitely got some additional questions that should be asked after you play the game. But at its core, it teaches kids about resource management. Don’t bring enough food, you got a problem. Don’t bring enough guns, you can’t hunt. Don’t bring enough this, that, you get sick. What are you going to do? It’s got layers. We’re talking a game that is five times older than the kids who were playing it and they still find value in it in the same way they would get cracking open Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit or anything else. So it’s like my favorite because it’s a validation. This is a real thing.
[00:36:30] JP: I think for me it’s going to sound like a really lame answer and it’s actually not a game that I played a lot of in arcades that release, but Donkey Kong stands out to me as just an important work. I’m a huge Nintendo fan. So Nintendo’s continued refusal to be a part of these collections or donate or support them really bothers me. But Donkey Kong was such a foundational game in terms of like being a cultural touchstone at the time, in terms of being important to Nintendo’s bottom line, showing that the company could get into video gaming. It was a real pivot in terms of the kind of games they were making. You could argue that they designed their first console, the Family Computer in Japan. A lot of the specs of that machine were designed to run Donkey Kong as well as possible. It was designed to be a quarter collector in the arcades, but it went on to do other things for the company. I think just from like a historical perspective, especially someone that really enjoys Nintendo as a company and as a cultural product, it’s really important game.
[00:37:44] BH: Thank you so much for coming. It’s been a great chat.
[00:37:47] JS: Thanks for having me.
[00:37:48] PA: Thank you very much for having me.
[00:37:58] BH: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Jess Lee, Peter Frank, and Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] and make sure to join us for our DevDiscuss Twitter chats every Tuesday at 9:00 PM US Eastern Time. Or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.