Thursday, January 29, 2009

Video Game Preservation Colloquium at FI

Hi, I'm Steve, your mostly-invisible SLA-TSG blog minder. I've decided to use my editorial prerogative, just this once.

This is really only tangentially related to special libraries, but I feel it deserves a place here because it has something to do with the non-traditional library career interests of this blog’s (presumed) readership. Why this is so won't become apparent until a little later on, so don't give up on me.


Yesterday here at the Faculty of Information we had a visit from Megan Wingt, of the University of Texas, Austin. She just got a research grant from IMLS to fund her study of issues surrounding the preservation and description of video games. She didn't say how much the grant was for, but these IMLS awards max out at a million dollars, so it's probably a lot. She's actually been working with games for some time already in her role as head of the University of Texas Archives' Preserving Games Project, whose website you can visit.

What was interesting about this talk, from a career perspective, was Wingt's discussion of some of the measures she was taking to move the project forward. She made it sound like she'd really had to show some entrepreneurial spirit. It makes sense to me that a project like this would require such strong advocacy. Video games have an image problem. They are entertainment culture's acne-ridden offspring, and so it can't be easy winning approval for a project whose goal is to save them forever. People who care about them are not yet positioned to award grant money. They are, for the most part, too young.

Surprisingly, the crowd at the lecture was fairly diverse. I was expecting a roomful of nerdily-inclined students like myself (and we were well represented, to be sure), but actually there was a pretty thick contingent of FI faculty, older students, archives students, etc. Everyone really seemed genuinely concerned about the logistics of video game preservation, even if they hadn't--as one FI professor admitted during the Q and A--played a single video game since Pac Man.

To sell the project to administrators and grant-awarding bodies, who presumably, like the FI professor, had a familiarity with video games that began and ended with early-'80s arcade culture, Wingt had to learn to frame her project in terms of ethnography. Her grant is for the "study of creative behaviors and methods of game creators." In other words, she didn't get her money by simply telling IMLS she wanted to collect lots of cool stuff.

In fact, she said, she rejects the "closet of curiosities" model of video game preservation entirely (by which I assume she means shelves and shelves of old, defunct hardware). After analysis, she has decided that the project's real value to institutions and future users is in what it can say about the culture of games.

If the distinction between games and game culture doesn't seem clear, that's because it isn't, at all. What I took away from the talk and the subsequent Q and A is that the two things are actually inseparable. At one point Wingt was even talking about filming people in the act of playing video games as a means of capturing culture and game simultaneously. The two things are so close together that they can actually coexist on the same screen. (Researchers must not be denied the edifying experience of hearing people trash talk one another over Xbox Live!) Her message was that truly preserving games requires a record of how contemporary players are reacting to them. As it happens, the most eloquent possible centerpiece for such a record would have to be the game itself.

Wingt's project is very much involved with saving games, but its selling point is its cultural significance and its ethnographic rigor. She's trying to save the cool stuff, but she's doing it in service of a cultural record that may not prove its value for decades.

This is a project with roots in two very different communities of interest. To gamers, it's the games themselves that matter, but libraries and archives require a fuller understanding of the medium's nascent heritage before they'll actually collect them. Part of getting the funding for saving the games themselves involved weaving a story about their likely future value so that non-gamers could feel their importance.

My impression is that Wingt is not alone in this struggle. By which I mean the struggle to appeal to disparate interests. If I were a special librarian, working for a company whose management had trouble seeing value in the aspects of my service that didn't translate directly into revenue, wouldn't I also need to somehow convince those in power that what I was doing was worthwhile? This is basically the exact inverse of the video game problem. Instead of proving the long-term value of their activities, corporate special librarians have to attend to payoff at some point in the now. Regardless of timeframe, these notions of "value" and "payoff" in libraries are very slippery. Gaining traction in this environment might require librarians to occasionally construct good stories, in which to cast themselves as heroes and saviors.

Maybe writing good grant applications and budget justifications takes a little bit of a fiction-writing mindset. Which is not to say that librarians should make things up, but that they should be able to deploy the craft of representation to make projects with subtle payoff feel intuitively correct to the people who cut checks.