Why are a group of industry experts trying to digitise the very history of video games? Frank Cifaldi, founder of The Video Game History Foundation, details a wildly ambitious project to Will Freeman
Frank Cifaldi, much like many video games professionals, has a past life as a collector of cartridges and disks.
But for the Digital Eclipse head of restoration, games developer, former journalist and editor, the notion of gathering and preserving games has grown into something more ambitious than a personal thirst to pack shelves at home with rarities and curios.
He now stands as the founder and director of The Video Game History Foundation. The group is a non-profit formed by Cifaldi and several other industry veterans with an ambitious aim. To catalogue, digitise and preserve the history of video games. We caught up with Cifaldi to better understand the aims of the project, and why developers themselves should care.
How long has preserving video games been part of your life? Would you consider yourself a collector as an individual?
I’ve really not collected games, per se, since something like 2003. Really my interest has always been in the digitising and preserving aspect of video games. My roots in preservation go back to the late nineties and early 2000s, when I was involving myself in what’s known as ROM dumping; tracking down what was – for me, anyway – cartridge games, and making sure they were preserved and downloadable.
And is there a natural evolution from that start to where you find yourself now, as founder and director of The Video Game History Foundation?
Yes. I guess so. I mean, it has been a 17-year ‘natural evolution’. I’ve never had the patience for doing work that doesn’t have impact, and so in my ROM dumping days I pretty quickly tried to focus on what would have the biggest impact, so thinking about what was the best use of my time. For a while I was focussing on obscure import stuff, like the Taiwanese games and Korean games. But then I started switching focus to the games that didn’t ship, my thought process being that those are the most volatile, and in the most danger of actually disappearing if nobody went and grab them.
So I founded a website in 2003 called Lost Levels which, as far as I know, was the first website dedicated in any form to games that never shipped. What I did there was try and track down the people who worked on these games so I could talk to them and get their story. Try and contextualise those games. I’ve always really respected the efforts of these people who track down these games and then put them on the internet, but I never liked the idea of releasing a ROM and it living in a vacuum, as opposed to having context around it.
Fast forwarding to your establishing of The Video Game Foundation, how ambitious is this project? How far does preserving the history of video games go?
I am infinitely ambitious, but I’m also a realist. I’m the CEO of this company, which is a company that needs to grow and sustain and feed me, and any future employees.
So I’m scaling our efforts based on the resources we have. In terms of what kind of subject matter we would consider viable, I think that’s basically infinite. But in terms of what our day-to-day actual activities are, that’s fairly limited for now. So our days here are about establishing this notion of there being a digital library of video game things, and defining what that means, and building that structure, whilst also having some of that material accessible now.
I don’t want to get into this infinite feedback loop of constantly trying to perfect something that people can’t actually access. Our interim solution is to siphon off curated digital collections from our larger archive, and make them accessible. I’d like to get to the point where people can curate digital collections, and submit them, in the same way that a collector might donate their collection of a specific type to an archive.
But as an example of how far we might reach, or what our limits are – which I haven’t defined yet – there was someone who came to us who worked on a documentary about the Clue VHS board game.
This is not a video game, but a board game where you’d run the VHS and play along with that. It’s kind of a stretch to call that a video game, but really it fits the story of what we’re trying to do. Right now a lot of the work is going through my backlog and sourcing material that is at the extreme end of the rarity scale, that can be digitised.
Does that logic go beyond games themselves and into related materials?
Well, for example, our next major collection is electronic media assets, so things that were sent to the press. Those were often just handed to journalists. I guess its mostly thumb drives and FTP sites now, but we have a collection going back to about 1996 on ZIP disk and CDR.
I think the material on these disks in some cases might only exist on these disks now. For example, one of the things I was playing with today was a disk of assets for Pandemonium by Crystal Dynamics. On this ZIP disk is a high-res version of the logo, and some hi-res renders from the cut-scene, from before they got shrunk down for the PlayStation.
There’s wireframes and concept art and all sorts, and I wonder if Crystal Dynamics even has that stuff anymore, and even if any journalists have the stuff. That is an example of the easier to-do, high- impact stuff that we are focusing on right now. So we’re not really looking at stuff you can get on eBay or anything like that.
In terms of access, who is the Video Game History Foundation library for?
I think if you’re an archivist, thinking about whom it’s for slows you down. You can see why I’d say that?
Because your focus is on preservation, and not who you are preserving this for?
Yes. But that said, I think inherently we do think about that. I am so bored by talking about older video games from a place of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is unproductive at best, and harmful at worst. I think it leads to some sort of gatekeeper-y behaviour, in terms of people feeling ownership over how we talk about things, or what something should be, or what gender a Ghostbuster is allowed to be.
I’m sort of an anti-nostalgia person. So part of this is hoping that people start to talk about this content in more interesting ways than just nostalgia.
That’s a personal thing, I guess. As for who this is for, it’s for historians of the future, and it’s for historians now. It’s for people like Norman Carusoa and Jeremy Parish who make YouTube videos about specific games or subjects that they deep dive into. It’s for people who write articles too.
The dream there is that somebody who is writing an article about a game or developer can go to our library – whatever that might be – and be able to discover content related to a particular subject, and get it laid out in front of them and get their narrative from that process.
And speaking as a historian myself, it’s kind of miraculous how narratives start telling themselves once you’ve gathered a lot of things and put them in front of yourselves.
Is this something games developers can contribute to from their studio archives, for example? Are you looking for that kind of support?
Yes we are. The ultimate dream is that we can get to a place where if people have, for example, been keeping source code for years and taking it from hard drive to hard drive, then we could ingest that source code, and work with the developers on the legalities and restrictions of that, and keep it safe.
Source code is something that is very tragically missing from any online archive that any historians can access, and I think we could learn a whole lot about games by looking at what they are actually made of.
It’s the equivalent of film historians being able to access shooting scripts for a movie, and being able to see the changes that were made, and even glean the artistic decisions that happened on set, and being able to take narratives from that.
I don’t think we have the equivalent in games. We don’t have internal documentation people can access, and it’s the same for lots of source code, assets and early builds.
There’s demo builds that were made for trade shows that just disappeared after the show was over. Things like that can help people tell the story of games, and I think that in this industry we’ve all just kind of been taught that all this stuff is top secret, and you’re going to get fired if anyone sees it.
I think that’s a shame. I think we’re loosing our history because of that attitude. If nothing else, I hope we can affect some attitude changes as far as that stuff goes, and get that stuff accessible to the people who would benefit from it.