Preserving games on the scholarly record

In February 2021, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL-ABRC), of which Concordia Library is a member, issued a fascinating white paper on the development of fair dealing guidelines. The author, Mark Swartz, makes a compelling case to focus on software preservation. Video games are mentioned in passing. Fair dealing is a general exception to the Canadian Copyright Act, which affords users of copyrighted material agency over certain rights reserved to the copyright holder. In that sense, a library could mobilize fair dealings, as well as other more salient exceptions specified within the Copyright Act, for digital curation practices.

Others, such as Dany Guay-Bélanger or Melanie Swalwell, suggest that preserving the context of play provides for a meaningful contribution to game studies. Guay-Bélanger’s research provides for a deeper narrative around preservation practices, introducing ephemera, developper interviews, game documentation and other epitexts or paratexts as salient objects for curatorial practice. In this case, the legal governance of these objects mobilizes fair dealings and other exceptions as well as direct licensing.

In addition, game preservation with regards to game studies, is increasingly seen as a vector for studying “design knowledge” as is posited by Khaled, Lessard and Barr.

All in all, there are two broad categories of legal frameworks within the Canadian Copyright Act one can consider to preserve games: exceptions or permissions. Libraries, archives and Museums (LAMs) must weight these options carefully in seeking to establish new practices or services in the curatorial realm.

In a nutshell, I consider copyright exceptions (such as fair dealing) to be one of the many legal frameworks libraries could mobilize to harvest digital content. Those that I favour include contractual vectors, such as direct licensing as well as trusts (fiducies), which seem to be frowned upon as being too complex to implement. On the other hand, they offer the added benefit of adding a level of certainty to the démarche of preservation! I have spearheaded one such project in the past, attempting to solve long-term preservation issues by launching a new game licensing platform for public or school libraries (with funding from the amazing Knight Foundation).

The trick, as with any case where one is attempting to design a novel institutional arrangement from scratch, is to load the game in one’s favour. This is where open access mandates come in.

Open access is the preferred method by the Tri-Agency for making research outputs available. And yes, games scholars make games using public funding to create certain games, such as Mia Consalvo at Concordia University. The astute reader would then surmise that academic libraries should explore the option of preserving games made by funded researchers within their organisations…

Given that I am a librarian at Concordia University, I will preach for my parish, but do steal this idea !!!

Scope

How can we preserve games for the scholarly record? One area of strong consensus involved “games made by” Concordia researchers. Another was “games made at” Concordia, most notably during game jams. Finally, a less feasible option seemed to entail “games studied” by Concordia researchers. For now, the realm of media archeology would fall outside of the scope of this initiative, particularly given my stated research interest in seeking contractual vectors to foster game preservation. 

There are many points which remain unresolved, notably how to determine when a game is ready to be preserved, such as the final version or minimal viable prototype. Issues around obtaining consent when a game is a collaborative effort also come to mind. Of course, I am approaching this project from the perspective of a legal scholar, a multitude of technological (software or hardware) and librarianship (metadata or encoding standards) issues still need to be explored within the scope of this undertaking.

In addition to figuring out version control of games, we can also think about the play experience as well as the context of play. This bring a nice cybernetics trilogy of “about the game” (eg. version control), “within the game” (eg. play experience) and “around the game” (context of the game). Of course, I’m really thinking about capturing the game in terms of the multimodal objects, strung with code, which make the game into a cultural object. This novel medial object is really the center of the cybernetics play universe.

Opportunities

I have taken note of our institution’s growing interest in digital preservation. Similarly, I have noted in recent years the growing number of services which support research activities at Concordia, most notably Spectrum, our institutional repository.

In addition, I am aware the issue of digital preservation is of interest to many other institutions, such as other research groups in Montréal (Homo Ludens, Ludov, TAG), academic libraries, national libraries as well as museums. In the medium term, software preservation may also interest local game developers and studios.

Strategy

Explore how contractual vectors can be mobilized to achieve the objective of preserving video games, including elements around the game, within the game and about a game. Contractual vectors could include direct licensing, donations, market design or simple, old school, acquisition (e.g. buying).

Next steps

Here are some possible next steps, which I intend to take on:

  • Micro talk @ tag: May 17th 2022 at 1pm.
  • holding informal conversations with various stakeholders inside at Concordia, other institutions and organisations
  • Drafting a white paper
  • Presenting at CGSA

This is a preliminary draft, provided for discussion purposes.

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