Cataloguing video/computer games – pitfalls for new players

[ By LyndaB on June 4, 2014 | Filed under: Blog | Tagged with: , , , , , ]
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The issues for collection managers around games cataloguing are difficult and that may well be why we find 30 years on, the institutional collection and cataloguing of this material is somewhat limited. Similar to the new challenges of ‘Time-Based Media’ cataloguing we find ourselves with the complexities of hardware, software, documentation, versions, platforms, social memory, secondary resource material ….and the box it came in.  Play It Again with its emphasis on preserving games of the 1980s, and for us particularly, Australian material, provides the Australian Centre for the moving Image (ACMI) the opportunity to work with academics and industry practitioners in refining our cataloguing work.

An example of a catalogue entry from the 1980s typically looked like the following example and while showing a user the game is in the collection, it doesn’t provide much more than that.

For example:

Centipede
Atari Corp., c1982.
For the Atari 2600 game system.
1-2 players with joysticks; 3 skill levels.
Destroy the giant centipedes that are threatening the Enchanted Forest using magic wands. Watch out for paralyzing insect bites!

While enticing one to watch out for those bites, this kind of record does not provide the contemporary researcher with further context, description of broader aesthetics within the game play, general appeal, social memory around playing the game or even list equipment required. There is certainly room for more detail and current Collection Management systems can allow for this.

The Library and Information professional is looking to make items more discoverable by users the world over.  Online catalogues are being re-defined with the new era of cataloguing standards (RDA) where the expression, manifestation and items of a work need to be identified. What’s our minimum data set? How do we allow for emulations? What kind of Form, Genre and Subject Headings can we apply to games?  While we may not as yet have definitive answers at least working through these issues can help us towards a solution.

In fact, coming up with cataloguing data to an agreed international standard has been an area of investigation for us through this project.  Research by our Collections Access Officer, Linda Connolly, has found that while a number of taxonomies exist for games, generally there is not one universal approach.  For example, the Library of Congress Form and Genre vocabulary traditionally used for cataloguing moving image works does not apply to the different Genres that exist in the gaming world.  Various other approaches, deriving from both information professionals and the enthusiast community have been suggested (see the handy overview article in Wikipedia on ‘games classification’) but no single system is widely used.  Terminologies developed at ACMI (http://www.acmi.net.au/explore_game_genres.htm) (2006), Moby Games (http://www.mobygames.com/browse/games) and Hall of Light (http://hol.abime.net/) approach games in a similar way but are not quite standardised.  However these more user-driven vocabularies are probably the most worth pursuing in any attempts to arrive at an agreed taxonomy for games collections.

What about the actual requirements for preservation?  Beyond having a physical object, is it possible to preserve the playability of the game and equipment and data along with original packaging and manuals with a barcode on them? The Collection Management System we employ has the capability of registering a complex work made up of many parts, be they physical or digital. It allows for specific locations data to be assigned to all the elements that make up the work and/or allow for its future reproduction and thereby preserve its playability by maintaining access to all of these component parts in a single record. The aggregation of many parts under a single record greatly protects us against dissociation, one of the least obvious of the ten ‘agents of deterioration’. Coupled with reliable data storage for digital assets and humidity controlled conditions for the physical items, this further protects material from other agents of deterioration. The decision was made for this project to create and store emulations of the code of these games. Emulations kept under this umbrella record with the original item, while not a traditional approach, provides a satisfactory compromise as a method for easier access to code in the future by creating .tap or .tzx files alongside the original items.

For the passionate online contributors will their data be lost when the fans populating the sites are no longer around?  Can we harvest some of the data before it goes? This may depend on the significance of the game and the resources available to institutions such as ours. Determining the significance of these early games will be greatly assisted by the other extensive part of the project which is to record the memory of those that developed and/or played the games themselves. This ‘social memory’ created as part of Play It Again needs to be stored alongside the traditional data for the original object.  As with film, access to materials that discuss the reputation and possible significance of the creators, the game’s design aesthetics, narrative pros and cons, how people felt about playing the game and even if it is award winning, will provide users with a richer discovery experience.

The content management system also facilitates rights information to be recorded and in the case of some of these early 1980s titles record that they are ‘orphaned works’ where no current rights holder can be found.  In addition to rights, documentation and the social memory around the work can be linked to the record via an external Documentation window.  Links can also be made to related records for additional equipment needed and/or its specific storage, retrieval and preservation requirements.

Identifying our resources (fiscal, physical and time) available to catalogue works may influence the number of items recorded to this high level of detail and the social memory and significance attributed to works will guide us in this process.  New perspectives on traditional preservation and access methodologies are being developed for these classic games with the aim of preserving this moving image heritage for social historians, gamers, enthusiasts or interested public into the future.

Lynda Bernard

Collections Access Team Leader

ACMI Collections

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