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Game Not Over! An Oakland Archive Preserves Video Game History

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A pile of brightly colored magazines with Japanese text and cartoon images
Vintage Japanese magazines that the Video Game History Foundation will scan and make available to researchers. (Courtesy VGHF)

Like many good ideas, Frank Cifaldi’s dream of a video game history archive came from an unlikely source. The game developer and editor floated the scheme during his presentation at the 2016 Game Developers Conference.

Six years later, the Oakland-based Video Game History Foundation, or VGHF, is the nation’s only library dedicated to the preservation and study of video game history. That includes physical gaming systems, press materials and consumer publications such as strategy guides, as well as source code that can be used to bring lost games back to life. The VGHF just celebrated five years of existence—and continues to level up on its mission in both the physical and digital realms.

In January, the foundation hired its first full-time librarian, Phil Salvador, a historian and librarian with expertise in audio-video preservation. That same month, the VGHF hosted a virtual reunion of original staffers at the iconic magazine Nintendo Power. They’ve spent the past few weeks setting up the physical research library.

Man and woman in dark shirt look at pages of drawings
Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin in the Video Game History Foundation offices. (Courtesy VGHF)

All of this recent activity builds on years of steady progression, bringing in materials dating back to the 1970s, as well as experts to manage the collection. In 2019, Cifaldi hired co-director Kelsey Lewin, a Seattle-based games historian and the co-owner of Pink Gorilla Games, a retro video games and imports shop.

For Lewin, who produced video game history videos on YouTube in the mid-2010s, the VGHF’s inception coincided with a critical juncture in her research and fact-checking. She’d sometimes spend hours trying to verify a single quote. “Frank launched the foundation at the peak of my frustration,” she says. “I thought, here’s someone who understands that preserving doesn’t just mean collecting games and putting them on a shelf somewhere. We need context!”

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In addition to running the oldest gaming store in the Pacific Northwest, Lewin volunteered as the VGHF’s press liaison and on large-scale archival projects, as well as helped with special events such as staging a pop-up museum showcasing the 35-year history of the Nintendo Entertainment System at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo.

One such multiplayer preservation effort occurred during a frenetic week in 2019 when a devoted team—including newly hired librarian Salvador, then serving as a volunteer preservationist—archived 25 terabytes of Game Informer magazine history dating back to 1991. “We were just trying to ingest data as fast as possible, and Phil was willing to be there for the entire week,” Lewin says.

‘No one saved this stuff’

Today, the physical space of the foundation has grown into a roughly 1,000-square-foot library that will eventually be open on a limited basis for researchers, though Cifaldi, Lewin and Salvador all stress that they’re big believers in remote research. Fittingly, the VGHF has many points of public education already available online, such as its podcast, The Video Game History Hour.

To get a sense of the challenges in preserving video games, the early film industry offers a powerful comparable example, when anything except the final cut was discarded and often destroyed. “Consumer video games are the equivalent of a film being on VHS only,” explains Cifaldi. “Without the raw material, there is no way to remaster the original to run on a modern platform, or to sharpen visuals.”

Lewin added, “Games were toys. No one saved this stuff because there wasn’t a notion of a secondary market.” A consumer product was released, and the story of a game’s development was often lost—unless a few meticulous people backed up their data.

A pile of white-paper wrapped floppy disks
Disks from the Video Game Source Project, the VGHF’s ongoing effort to preserve source code. (Courtesy VGHF)

That’s to say nothing of the dated format in which many early video games are preserved. “We get original game code that was kept on a floppy disk, and we have to determine which computer it ran on,” Cifaldi adds. Tape is even harder to process and back up, as most of it wasn’t compatible across platforms even when it was produced.

Original press materials can also look differently after time has passed, especially when certain developer-side details weren’t included in news stories. The same goes for game artwork both in the game and in original press kit materials. Images may have been cropped or compressed for publication, and to true gaming geeks, these details add another rich layer to the story behind the game that was eventually released to consumers.

Source code preservation remains a formidable challenge due not only to intellectual property issues but the fact that much of it remains a trade secret. Today, cloud storage enables sharing and preservation that wasn’t possible even a decade ago.

‘A reciprocal relationship with the community’

“Often we’re more surprised by what has survived than what hasn’t,” Cifaldi says. Sometimes, it comes down to luck, or someone stealing from work. Consider artwork saved by a GamePro magazine art director, who wondered why no one was putting old disks in binders, and ended up single-handedly saving nearly 1,000 issues on their own. Tech enthusiasts recorded early trade show displays just for fun, without any intention of preserving highlights that might, say, one day be used as History Channel B-roll.

Older man in suit sits with cane in hands, in background, man holds bat in front of man in chair
A photo from the set of the ‘Grand Theft Auto 2’ video shoot. (Courtesy VGHF)

What was treated as disposable at the time is now, with the advantage of hindsight, important ephemera that informs the larger story of a cultural phenomenon. “No one cared about the original Grand Theft Auto” when it was released in 1997, Cifaldi notes as one significant example. “So little was published, and everything went into the trash.” This includes press releases and high-res images in media kits.

Now a few decades on, not only has the hit franchise become a remarkable success story; its history only exists due to some luck and a few hardcore fans who happened to hold onto early marketing materials. When Danny O’Dwyer of the video game documentary company Noclip was putting together a film on GTA, he was able to rely on press kits preserved by the VGHF that contained character sketches and a photo of the whole development team posing together. Telling the story of video games creates a noble feedback loop, in which more individuals become interested in conserving. “This industry has always been treated as disposable,” Salvador says. “Now folks are realizing we can save this.”

Some of the rarer materials were first collated by fans who tirelessly collected and documented stats, stories, and historic images on personal blogs and player forums. Using the infrastructure and technology popular in research institutions, the VGHF is cataloging its holdings to make searchable what Salvador notes will be, “A better version of the loose confederation of PDFs that live tenuously all over the internet.” He adds, “I appreciate that we can have a reciprocal relationship with the community.”

About a dozen people standing at the stop of stairs
A team photo from the original ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ (Courtesy VGHF)

Enthusiasts donate money but crucially, they also give their time and materials to build out the story of video games. “What we collect is information,” Cifaldi says. “It’s hard to tell people what we need,” he adds, because sometimes, it’s not even clear that something is missing until an expert or collector points it out. Fortunately, many industry veterans can assist. “This is still a young industry, and most of the pioneers are still around,” Lewin emphasizes.

Donations fuel more than the foundation’s collection. To scan a magazine, the publication’s spine has to be cut, so duplicate copies of magazines are scanned once the VGHF has a shelf copy. Further duplicates are used in monthly Mystery Box packages sent to supporters, who currently number just over 400. (The program is so popular that the VHGF is no longer accepting new monthly subscribers; it’s unable to keep up with demand.) “All the money from that goes right back into starting the process over,” Cifaldi says, noting he just delivered 900 unscanned magazines to a San Jose digitizer, who would bill the foundation somewhere between $8,000 and $9,000 for that one project.

Going forward, the VGHF will continue to expand its library holdings, digitizing evermore print materials for faraway researchers, and possibly partnering with museums to facilitate exhibits and events. The foundation has the unique opportunity, Salvador notes, to be able to educate the public on what types of materials are valuable to historians and researchers. Acquiring collections held in people’s closets and garages is as much a conversation of methods as it is a pitch for the value of preservation.

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“This isn’t a problem that we will ever solve—check! We saved video games!” Lewin says, emphasizing that history is never fully written, and archiving never ends. “There are always going to be more out there.”

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