The video game lives its great moment. Gone are those years in which the electronic entertainment sector only appeared in the media because of its billing data or due to prejudices around it. Currently, it is one of the cultural industries that most connects with the population as a whole and that best explains the world today. His present health is enviable and his future looks bright, but what about his past? Judging by a recent study, it is in danger of extinction.
87% of video games published before 2010 can no longer be purchased in physical or digital stores, or what amounts to the same, the only way to acquire them is to resort to second-hand or piracy. This is one of the main conclusions of the report published by the non-profit organization Video Game History Foundation and by the Software Preservation Network association, and although the data refers to the US market, it can be applied to practically all markets.
87% of video games published before 2010 can no longer be purchased in physical or digital stores
After analyzing 4,000 titles published before 2010, the study highlights the few measures for the conservation of the video game that have historically been carried out by the companies that own their rights. It also points out the difficulties and challenges involved in making them accessible over time in a legal, affordable and faithful way to their original version. This is a concern that has also reached Spain, where different institutions, associations and users have taken action on the matter.
“It is important that the video game is preserved, since it is a cultural product; it is necessary for future generations to see how a society behaved at a certain moment”, affirms the deputy director attached to the technical direction of the National Library of Spain, María Jesús Morillo. Precisely, this body has been making calls since 2020 to recover the collection of video games produced in Spain over the last 40 years. In fact, thanks to the latest change in the legal deposit law, since 2023 video game publishers are required to deliver a copy of all titles published in Spain.
“The one who has been most concerned about the preservation of the video game is the community of players itself,” says Oscar Nájera, a passionate about the interactive medium who for a few years has been documenting the existence of Spanish arcade video games through the portal Recreativas.org. Nájera is also one of the partners of arcade.cat, an association based in Cornellà de Llobregat whose objective is to restore and preserve these machines that were so popular during the 80s and 90s. So is Eduardo Cruz, an entrepreneur in the technology sector who, during his spare time, restores and even returns to the classic video game life “Everything that has been known and was popular is preserved or practically preserved,” says Cruz, “but just as happens with music or cinema, there is a long line of anonymous creators whose works are irretrievable.”
Classic games provide a lot of information, not only technological, but also about the way of thinking of a society
The key word is preservation and it affects both video games from almost half a century ago and more recent titles. As reflected in the study by the prestigious Video Game History Foundation, only 13% of the history of video games is represented in the current market. It is an alarming fact, especially when compared to other older media that are also at risk of disappearing. For example, the percentage of films from the North American silent era that can now be purchased through commercial channels (14%) is somewhat higher than that of video games of all eras.
One of the main obstacles in the preservation of video games is their dependence on specific technological devices, that is, computers and consoles. “In the library we have very old books, even papyri from thousands of years ago, and yet recently created products such as video games are more difficult to preserve,” Morillo points out. “We are testing the digitization of video games, but preservation is just as important as access,” he continues. In this sense, the deputy deputy director of the National Library has confirmed to The vanguard that emulation environments are already being worked on that allow any user of the library to access these old games. At the moment, he explains, tests have begun with titles on cassette support from the 80s.
Our aim is to relive those golden years of the neighborhood arcades, of those halls in which we grew up.
Now, for Cruz, the problem of preservation is not found so much in the games of the past as in the current ones. “The vast majority of video games that are produced today depend on servers and online systems and, as soon as these systems are turned off, the game stops working,” he points out. Says a person who knows well what it is to revive classic video games. He is one of those responsible for having recovered the arcade machine The End of Time, marketed in 1981 by the Barcelona manufacturer Niemer. “It’s a machine that until we saw it with our own eyes, we weren’t sure if it really existed or if it was just an ad in a magazine,” recalls Cruz. “After a few years a unit appeared and we were able to get it working again and get its code back,” he adds.
Groups of enthusiasts free many games from disappearing due to the lack of interest of the companies that own them to keep them
If it weren’t for the intervention of groups of enthusiasts such as Recreativas.org, this and other games today would have disappeared from the map due to the disinterest of their owner companies in preserving them. “Anyone who works in the sector knows that the concern is current projects, the last thing you think about is that what you are doing could have an impact and maybe in forty years someone will want to preserve it,” admits Cruz. It is something in which he agrees with his partner Oscar Nájera: “If the company that maintains the game does not see profitability, it will stop doing it, we, the players, put romanticism on it, but it does not stop being a business.”
When taking a walk among the bright screens of the more than a hundred arcade machines of the Arcade.cat association, it is easy to realize that it is not only video games that are protected, but the experience of a bygone era. “We are dedicated to restoring, conserving and disseminating the arcade culture of that time, but what we are also looking for is to relive those golden years of neighborhood arcades, of those halls in which we grew up,” meditates Nájera.
If the video game is culture, as politicians now point out, it is necessary to ensure that this culture will last over time
That 9 out of 10 video games published before 2010 cannot be purchased today without resorting to second hand is the reflection of an industry that does not seem too concerned with preserving its legacy. “Thinking that there is no need to preserve them because today there are games with many more features would be like not preserving works from the Middle Ages because their contents could be considered outdated,” says María Jesús Morillo. “They speak to us about mentalities, they are products that provide a lot of information, not only about technological development, but about the way of thinking of a society at a certain moment,” he adds.
There is no doubt that video game companies play a fundamental role in the preservation of these works, but for Eduardo Cruz it is also an issue that concerns public institutions. “If the video game is culture, as politicians now point out, it is necessary to ensure that this culture will last over time; action should be taken now to ensure that, years from now, when these games enter the public domain, they are recoverable works.”