(Above: Photo of exhibit at the Computer and Video Game Archive, Duderstadt Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.)
Save your records.
And no, I don’t mean those things that go on turntables and produce sounds — I mean your records. The paper and digital content you produce every day. The documentation of your work, your games, and your company. Your records.
Okay, before you think I’ve totally lost my mind, give me a moment to explain. I blog because I love it, but in real life, I’m paid to be an archivist — someone who manages and makes accessible inactive collections of paper and digital records from various individuals and organizations for use by researchers, students, genealogists, etc. On occasion, I talk with these researchers to help them find items either in our collections or other collections in local institutions. Just last month, I spoke with two people who had been searching for collections of records that couldn’t be located. In both cases, it appeared most likely that the papers had been thrown out, discarded, trashed. Why wouldn’t anyone think to save their records, they asked. How terrible it is that all that knowledge has been (probably) lost forever.
Save your records.
I know the game industry might seem a little young to think about such things. In America’s history, it wasn’t until the 1820s or so, some 200 years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, that Americans really started thinking about saving their own history. And the game industry is, what? Six decades old? (Give or take depending on where you start.) That seems like a mere drop in the bucket of history, yet is it quite important nonetheless. Video game history is a thing to study these days. Classes are popping up in colleges and universities. There are dozens of blogs devoted to this topic alone, and people are interested! Know your past to know your future, right? Video games have a fascinating past, and we…you are making its history today. And though there may not be huge number of video game historians in the coming generations, there will surely be some, and they will need your records. They will crave those primary sources direct from the industry itself to understand the path of Nintendo, the Great Crash of the 1980s, the rise of motion gaming, and that point when it all began. They will want to debate, imagine, conspire, revise, and challenge the past in order to make sense of whatever gaming becomes. They will want to understand gaming as a leisure activity and a money-making venture, and they will capture its history to share in the same way that we currently share in the history of movies and television.
Save your records!
While people who love and play games have been collecting them for years, only in the past couple decades has that collecting extended to public libraries. And only very recently have they found their way into the hallowed halls of museums. It’s true that games have found their worth in places like the Computer History Museum and in science centers that document the history of our technology. But the notion of video games as “art” and “artifact” is still relatively new (and debatable). Still, museums of modern art are taking notice. Yet, those games that they are preserving will become nothing more than arrowheads and pottery shards (not to disgrace those valuable artifacts) if the histories and stories behind them aren’t also saved. Pong is nothing more than a thing that produces movable blips on a screen; but the story behind Pong, the story that in its records (paper and oral), is what really makes it interesting. And as much as game creators look towards the future, the industry’s past successes and mistakes simply can’t be forgotten. The history of those that came before is there to teach, to ground, to remember, and to admonish as much as exalt. The material that the industry produces today will be history tomorrow; and it’s a history that is as worthy as saving and preserving as any industry’s history. Today, the pasts of the railroads and coal mines are studied and juggled and written about as much as the pasts of the theatre and movies. Someday, video games will fall into that realm.
Save your records!
I know this all might sound a little crazy and preachy. Maybe you already have a records manager who carefully files and keeps track of your papers. Or maybe your records management system is stacked in random boxes against a corner of your office. Or maybe your records are all found on your computer’s hard drive. I’m not saying you need hire an archivist, buy a bunch of archival supplies, or buy 357 flash drives. My point here is that history is information. Information that’s passed down in stories, on paper, or on hard drives. The games that you create and publish only give limited amounts of information. The material that you create as you create these games completes the puzzle. And history doesn’t need trade secrets or confidential memos to survive. It simply the fullest stories that can safely be provided. That’s what future game historians will be looking for, your stories and your records. So before you toss , delete, or (gulp) shred, think about how that little bit of information contributes to your story, for it will be the one you tell for decades, even centuries, to come.