Emulating the Future: A Visit to the Computerspielmuseum

By Michael Stephens |

During my ten day visit to Switzerland and Germany earlier this month, which was sponsored by the US Embassy in Berlin and the US Mission in Geneva, I was invited to spend a day exploring Berlin with members of the “Zukunftswerkstatt” - Future Workshop.

It’s a group that formed unofficially a couple of years ago at the German Library Association Congress, and its focused on the future of libraries in a rapidly changing, technological world. I was honored to be with them at the 4th Leipziger Kongress für Information und Bibliothek in Leipzig, Germany as the workshop became an official association. Look for more from them soon!

We spent the previous Friday in Berlin exploring and lingering over a lunch discussion filled with ideas and challenges, including a morning visit to the Computerspielemuseum - the museum of computer games. Curator Andreas Lange gave us an extensive explanation of what the museum is about. The visit soon became an important lesson for me on the importance of preservation and overcoming the obstacles of time and outdated technology. It also got me thinking about some important questions related to our world of ubiquitous info.

The Wikipedia entry on Emulators notes that “Emulation is a strategy in digital preservation to combat obsolescence.” Further: “Emulation focuses on recreating an original computer environment, which can be time-consuming and difficult to achieve, but valuable because of its ability to maintain a closer connection to the authenticity of the digital object.”

Take a look at http://www.emulator-zone.com/ to see an emulator site in action.

The museum has formed a research partnership with KEEP to “develop an Emulation Access Platform to enable accurate rendering of both static and dynamic digital objects: text, sound, and image files; multimedia documents, websites, databases, videogames etc. The overall aim of the project is to facilitate universal access to our cultural heritage by developing flexible tools for accessing and storing a wide range of digital objects.”

Herr Lange pointed out that working game machines we used to play at the corner arcade- for me it was Star Wars and Tempest (see above) - are rapidly becoming few and far between as their electronics fail. Rescued from the chips in the arcade games, the code is being preserved and curated at the museum. Now the games run on emulators through Windows machines and look almost exactly like they did so long ago. We watched a demo of the original arcade DonkeyKong on a PC projected onto a screen.

We also took a look at the Computer Game Timeline: http://timeline.computerspielemuseum.de

It traces the history of video games all the way back to Pong through more recent innovations and systems. I was most impressed to find out it’s a Wordpress blog with an ingenious custom theme overlay.

We toured the “library” of games, where a copy of every video game released in Germany is stored for posterity. It was definitely a trip back in time to see games I used to play on my old Macs and even older Apple II.

Some implications and thoughts after this most enjoyable and enlightening visit:

The visit got me thinking about all the various programs I’ve used over the years. Can I still open the papers I wrote in my undergrad years at IU on an Apple IIC in Appleworks? How about the papers I wrote for my MLS in the mid 90s in Clarisworks? How long until those documents are unavailable to me? What’s my own strategy for backing up my digital body of work?

Institutional memory (documents, plans, memos) in libraries is often stored on disks or drives, created in various programs along the way. Can these things be accessed by future staff? Will the paper binders of staff documents be the only way to look back? Wouldn’t a timeline of library history like the game timeline linked above be an interesting/engaging way to share the history of an institution?

What digital objects should all types of libraries be archiving? How do we preserve local information related to a community embedded in emergent environments like Foursquare and whatever comes next for the long term?

I have a great appreciation for the preservation of game materials now as well as a broader view of archiving the ever-increasing info environments we are creating. We even discussed the importance of archiving board games, determining that in Germany and most probably other places, many games are lost. What should we keep in our libraries? What should we preserve for future generations to see how we lived and played?