What are the challenges of collecting games?
Video games are more prone than other media to obsolescence. With each new generation of hardware and software, scores of titles are made unplayable. Without a strong commercial incentive to maintain their back catalogues, many publishers allow games to drift into extinction. When companies such as Nintendo do put old titles back on the market, the re-releases are limited to a handful of well-known classics, placed in the company’s digital store for unceremonious download.
We are a social history museum, and we treat the video game collections as museum objects in the same way we treat our collections of, for example, London trade tools. We preserve copies of the original game, with the hardware that would be needed to play them.
But don’t these video games suffer deterioration over time?
Yes, of course. The ZX Spectrum games we have collected (like Hampstead) are stored on magnetic tapes. (ZX Spectrum software was distributed on audio cassette tapes.) Those tapes deteriorate over time, the plastic decays and the data on them – the game – is lost. Some of the original games we have collected are already unplayable.
So you’re just collecting cassette tapes? With dead games inside them?
The tapes were still alive - that is, the data was still retrievable - when we added the games to our collection. We have now managed to digitise the source code, the content, to preserve the game. Because if these tapes are not already dead, they will die with mathematical precision in the near future!
The actual cassette can no longer be played, but for reasons of historical record and provenance we keep the original. We keep the original packaging, any guidebooks or manuals that came with the game, to retain, as far as possible, the experience of people who first bought and played with these games. But of course, we also focus on keeping a playable version of the game, via various forms of emulation and preserving the source code. Just because you cannot plug a game into the original console, it does not mean you cannot play it.
We want all the games in our collection to be playable, not just historical objects. I would never create any exhibition of video games that just sat behind a glass case, that you could not interact with. Video games are about playability, interaction, immersion in a virtual world. If you cannot do that, there is no point.
So how do you let people continue to play these games?
Well, video games and their systems are unique because they are totally interdependent, everything must work together, to let you experience them. Games rely on hardware, software and input/output devices, screens and joysticks, all coming together to perform correctly. We were really focused on capturing not just the mechanics of the game, or how it looks, but the original experience of playing. So we extract the source code of the game, and run it on a small, very simple computer called a Raspberry Pi, but we keep all the original devices. With the games originally released for the ZX Spectrum, you play the game with the Spectrum keyboard, and you see exactly the image and the design you would have seen thirty years ago, but you are playing an emulated copy of the game.