Articles

An Archivist Sets Out to Save the Material History of Video Games

Launched in February by Frank Cifaldi, the Video Game History Foundation is racing to preserve ephemeral gaming material and the physical documentation of video games.

Nintendo NES-SCES June 1985 brochure (courtesy the Video Game History Foundation)

As museums increase video game acquisitions, and games are made available online by organizations like the Internet Archive, the culture and context around them is vanishing. That’s why Frank Cifaldi started the Video Game History Foundation (VGHF). Launched in February, its mission is to save ephemeral gaming material, from artwork to packaging design, preserving the physical documentation and development history of video games.

Unlike the Museum of Modern Art or Smithsonian Institution that have recently added games to their collections, the nonprofit VGHF focuses on the how and why of the games’ creation. “They’re both elevating certain game titles into this-is-worth-conserving status, which is great. We should be establishing that, especially while there is collective knowledge of why they are important,” Cifaldi said. “But what I’m doing that is different is conserving the entire history of video games, instead of just what the future should look at. I think my job as an archivist is not to decide what’s important, it’s to save what I can, because I don’t know what’s going to be important 50 years from now.”

The Video Game History Foundation site (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Currently, the VGHF archives are in Cifaldi’s home and a storage unit, as he works as the sole staff member along with his board, including Steve Lin who has been collecting video game history since the 1990s. Although Cifaldi said he has no plans to open a museum, his ambition is a physical reference library accessible to researchers. The public can get involved through the VGHF Patreon funding page, with supporters invited to Google Hangouts, and kept up-to-date with VGHF’s progress.

Cifaldi has a background in journalism, and founded the Lost Levels site that explores unreleased games. The initial launch collection of VGHF is focused on something he’s written extensively about: the 1985 launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the United States. The NES Launch Collection includes digital assets such as scanned press coverage, advertisements, the script used by Nintendo’s Howard Phillips (who presented the NES in New York), NES launch party swag, and a reconstruction of a 1997 Nintendo.com article demonstrating now obscure design work.

We take Nintendo’s popularity for granted now, but the success of the Japanese-made NES was very much a gamble in the 1980s, when the video game market had crashed. “The video game industry had tanked, basically any store buyers who were investing in video games just lost a ton of money,” Cifaldi said. “Games were dead.” Now that games are a major international industry, fleshing out that precarious moment with online material can support a more complex history of their rise.

Nintendo 1985-86 FAO Schwarz New York display (courtesy the Video Game History Foundation)
NES test market mall photo (courtesy Howard Phillips and the Video Game History Foundation)

Alongside the NES digitizations, VGHF has a Video Game Media Assets Collection concentrated on material sent to publications by game publishers, whether photographs or screenshots. Dating from 1996 to 2011, these range from Mario Party promo art recovered from a zip disk, to pre-release screenshots from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

In the future, Cifaldi hopes to have outside curators organize new special collections, making this material available as an ongoing digital library. “The biggest issue is there’s no checklist, there’s no complete catalogue of video game ephemeral material to work from, we’re just discovering things as we go,” Cifaldi said. “What we focus on is identifying and digitizing and archiving what we feel like is the most ephemeral and volatile of it.”

Nintendo SCES 1986 brochure (courtesy the Video Game History Foundation)
Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, an unpublished game collection by Absolute Entertainment, at the Video Game History Foundation’s space at GDC 2017 (courtesy the Video Game History Foundation)

Collecting the material is itself a challenge, as many brochures, ads, materials sent to press, articles from a pre-internet age, and old game boxes were discarded. “It really comes down to finding pack rats, finding people who worked on this material who had some pride and kept it,” Cifaldi said. In rare cases, it’s discovering a publication or game office’s inventory that’s been untouched over the years. “The biggest enemy to a video game preservationist is a company moving offices, that’s when things get tossed,” he added.

Hopefully by now, art and cultural institutions are beyond questions like “Are video games art?” or “Are video games important?.” Last year, for instance, the first museum retrospective for a video game artist (Jason Rohrer) opened at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, and the National Videogame Museum debuted in Frisco, Texas. Yet without context, without a deeper comprehension of how their current standing came to be, what can these games mean when separated from their origins? “I think if you play a game in a vacuum you’re not really understanding it past its basic mechanics,” Cifaldi said. “Putting it in a time and place just takes it to another level.”

While VGHF only recently launched, Cifaldi said he aims for it to become a more traditional foundation, offering grant money for research that fits its core vision, and continuing to expand what is in its digital library. As Cifaldi stated, “I want this to be a foundation that lives well beyond me.”

You can support the Video Game History Foundation through its Patreon page.

comments (0)