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From Issue #26 September 26, 2013

Impermanent Games

Australia’s and New Zealand’s early video-game history may already be lost.

By Richard Moss Twitter icon 

Australia’s and New Zealand’s early digital video-game heritage is literally rotting away, succumbing to the deterioration of the media on which it’s stored. But so too is the memory of the software in the wetware of its users (and overusers). It may already be too late to preserve the full legacy, whether in bits or neurons. But that isn’t stopping archivists.

Melanie Swalwell heads the Play It Again project, and she’s acting now, as quickly as she can and with whatever resources she can marshal. She’s battling resistance from funding bodies that are notoriously slow to adapt to the times, and she’s fighting back colleagues who worry that preservation is “too hard.”

The scope of her work is huge. What do people remember about the early days of the personal computer? Where did they get the games they spent countless hours playing? What were artists and other creative people doing with this technology? She’s looking for these answers by searching forums and Web sites and old magazines, and by conducting interviews.

She’s not alone. Play It Again is a collaboration between Flinders University and several Australian and New Zealander tertiary and cultural institutions. It aims to record the early history of video games in the two countries and to restore a selection of titles for the public to enjoy all over again. It’s tied closely to a larger effort covering local computer usage in a broader sense.

Any innovations they create will filter through to similar projects overseas; likewise, they’ll take away whatever lessons they can from the ongoing work by groups like the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (which is run by the Strong Museum in New York) and Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum, as well as by researchers like Henry Lowood from Stanford University. (Lowood has been a leading light in the field for over a decade, with his CV including the projects How They Got Game and Preserving Virtual Worlds.)

It’s hardly a solved problem, this game-preservation thing — quite the opposite, in fact. This is why there’s an urgency to work on it now, and researchers and archivists tend to keep an eye on each other’s successes and failures. They also rely heavily on fans and collectors, especially community-made databases and digitized software collections like World of Spectrum, Hall of Light, and, in its prior life, Home of the Underdogs.

Top all-time scores

Play It Again is building a master list at the moment to catalog what existed. If a program was written in Australia or New Zealand in the 1980s — even if it was only distributed between the developer and a few friends — it goes on the list. “We’re interested in titles that weren’t commercially sold, because they represent something that’s important as well — the enormous homebrew community,” Swalwell says.

The Australasian Heritage Software Database comprises over 1,600 titles now, two-thirds of them games and most from Australia. It was assembled through word of mouth and exhaustive research, because there are no official records of locally produced software.

Swalwell and the group aren’t focused on whether the product was a commercial success. People’s stories, memories, and excitement matter more. From the hundreds of games they’ve identified, 50 or 60 made it onto a draft shortlist. The final shortlist will be built into a database of all the information they can get about the titles, and that’ll be put on a Web site as part of “a larger thing” called the Popular Memory Archive. (The site won’t be available until September 30.)

“We’re doing a big kind of crowdsourcing collection of people’s memories from this time about playing games and what these memories meant to them,” she says. “It’s really about the perception of games in this period.” There’ll be guest posts from experts, a forum for people to share and discuss their early gaming memories, and tools that allow people to contribute relevant documentation, photographs, files, and ephemera.

Get a new life

Hamish Curry, the Education Manager at the State Library of Victoria, has spent years campaigning for the library to collect games actively, but progress is slow. Curry describes the “bittersweet irony” that one of the world’s oldest surviving films is of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly’s siege at Glenrowan.1 “It’s so bizarre that it’s about Ned Kelly in Australia,” he says. Nitrate-based film easily disintegrates, or even bursts into flame, and there is relatively little preserved anywhere.2

The same is happening to games. “The cassettes are unreadable, the studios are gone, the people that made them are dead,” Curry says. Games might get the cachet of film one day and become a medium considered worthy of close attention, he says. “You just have to wait for it. But at the expense of what?” The history of video games and early software is slipping through our fingers, and still we argue over whether it matters and how best to save it.

Physical copies of games persist in the form of disks, tapes, cartridges, circuit boards, and so on. Even if by some miracle the data hasn’t succumbed to demagnetization, bit rot, or some other form of physical decay, they’re useless because the systems and parts they relied upon no longer exist. Even CDs start to break down and lose data within a decade. And the more degradation that occurs, the more expertise is typically required to salvage something useful (like readable text files and non-corrupted binaries).

Some champion emulation as a solution to keeping old games and systems alive, but that’s a path fraught with peril. Not only is perfect cycle-accurate emulation incredibly difficult to do without access to original hardware schematics and documentation (which is, unsurprisingly, kept under lock and key by the creators if it still exists), but all sorts of laws block the use of emulators to play old games.3 You might flout these laws in the privacy of your own home, but public institutions and legitimate organizations have their hands tied unless they obtain the rights or get permission from the rights-holders. And in the case of the earliest and rarest games, that’s often a moot point because there are no readable copies to digitize.

If it is too late to save the code, we’re thankfully not out of luck yet. Magazines, boxes, manuals, videos, and stories can still provide a link to the past, provided we take the time to save them before they vanish too. And in the end they may actually be more important — take, for example, the window we receive into life in the 18th century from a young girl’s diary versus a collection of toys and clothing from the era.

Like Swalwell, Curry wants to record people’s memories — to collate everything they know and recall, particularly if they helped forge the local industry. “That’s the bit that libraries can actively collect,” he says. But, with few exceptions, they’re not, because the discussion is ongoing and the policies aren’t yet in place. “My hope is that we get our heads around it before we lose much more.”

Swalwell has her own ideas about how to get the libraries involved. She wants to partner them with collectors. Maybe they can work together to preserve the material, and then extend that to new ideas, dialogues, and collecting models. “There’s all sorts of ways that I can see potential to move,” she says. “We have guidelines and policies and whatnot that we have to work around — you know, like IP [intellectual property] law — but there are some little spaces. There’s some wiggle room in there where we can move and we can do some projects.”4

Her team is setting up a media archeology lab, including whatever working tools and hardware they can get their hands on, and she hopes that they can collaborate with libraries, museums, and collectors to plug the gaps. “I know there’s retro-computing people in Tasmania who have some really ancient media-reading facilities, like paper tape and that kind of thing,” she says.

Boss level

Swalwell spent time as a fellow at the State Library of New South Wales studying early code books. Magazines printed programs, too, that you could type in and run. But few people limited themselves to someone else’s code.

“They invented things,” she says. “They experimented with what they could do in programming, and games were an obvious outcome of that. You made your own version of a game that you played down the arcade, perhaps, or a game that you’d seen on the Apple II and you had something obscure like a Spectravideo.”

In New Zealand, there was an entire arcade manufacturing industry built on this concept. It came about as a result of a system of import licensing that made it illegal to import goods without a special license. “The people who had import licenses were in a privileged position,” Swalwell says, “and they were able to go on to open an arcade, getting their machines at a considerable discount to those that they would presumably sell on to their competitors.”

The portion of the import licensing system that affected arcade games was repealed around 1987, but before that, 13 companies — a huge number for a country estimated to have a population just over three million in 1980 — had tried their luck at local manufacture. “Everyone saw it as the next big thing,” Swalwell says, “and arcade gaming was big in New Zealand.”

Swalwell co-authored a chapter on this with the collector and historian Michael Davidson for an upcoming book called Locating Emerging Media. (She’s also writing her own book on 1980s homebrew hardware and software.) The chapter describes the story surrounding one game, Malzak, in some detail. It has been suggested that Malzak is a clone of Scramble, a side-scrolling shoot ’em up by Konami, but for Swalwell that doesn’t do it justice. Malzak was built from scratch using locally sourced parts, it had one button (rather than Scramble’s two), and it used a different processor than Scramble did.

Play It Again has uncovered many similar stories in both Australia and New Zealand — of games, built on their creator’s ingenuity, that were heavily inspired by (or based on) more famous titles. But these, too, have value. One Australian TRS-80 owner made Donut Dilemma, a Donkey Kong-like game about working at a donut shop that was inspired by his family business. The great thing here is that Donut Dilemma’s author, Nikolas Marentes, has carefully documented all of his games online, telling stories about his inspirations, challenges, and successes as well as showcasing the techniques, graphics, and gameplay at work.

I get the sense from our interview that Play It Again is barely the beginning for Swalwell, that all her research up to this point is just the tip of the iceberg. She hops from topic to topic, posing questions that she hopes to recruit people to answer. There are games, of course, but also things like early software in general and the demoscene.5 Not to mention educational games — it turns out, much to my surprise, that nearly every state in Australia had a software development division in its Department of Education, and there’s a company called Jacaranda that’s been developing educational software for the Australian market since the ’80s. “There’s fascinating histories there that no one knows,” Swalwell says.

But lots of people remember the software itself. They remember the games they played at school and at home. Many vividly recall Pieces of Eight, an adventure game for Apple II (and several other systems) that was installed on nearly every classroom computer in Australia for over a decade. “There’s actually a Facebook group devoted to it now,” Swalwell says, “where they’ve managed to recover the software off the one disk that someone had and have got it running in an emulator. Someone’s made a speed-run of it.” All this for an educational game they played as kids on a school computer.

But that’s what Play It Again and the Popular Memory Archive are all about. “You get people searching for the name,” Swalwell says of Pieces of Eight and its ilk. “You can’t [easily] search without the name, but they say, ‘It was this kind of a game, and you had to do this, and you were on an island and there’s a map and blah blah. I remember you turned east. What was the name of it? Does anyone else remember it?’ And finally they arrive at this.

“It’s a lovely quality of the remembrance, and the shared kind of collective ‘come on — someone provide the name here!’ that happens with a range of these titles that people played in school.”

The games of the ’80s hold a special place in the hearts of those whose formative years were spent enraptured by their glowing hues and enticing possibilities. Swalwell’s trying to make it easier for them to remember, and if she gets her way they’ll also be able to play those games again. As will everybody else — even if they missed out the first time.

Correction: In the original version of this article, we conflated the book that Swalwell is writing on her own about homebrew hardware and software with a chapter she contributed to Michael Davidson’s upcoming book.

  1. Kelly, immortalized in folklore because of his iconic iron mask and brutal crime spree, planned to hijack a train, blow up a police station, and rob some banks. But he was captured following a shootout with police and subsequently hanged. His story was told in a 1906 feature film, the surviving parts of which are available on YouTube

  2. Editor Glenn Fleishman wrote about the work to preserve audiovisual media, including nitrate-stock film, in “The Sound of Silence” in Issue #4 (November 22, 2012). 

  3. Emulators themselves are perfectly legal in many countries, but using them to play copyright-protected games (or ROMs, as they’re often called) usually isn’t. Myths and inaccuracies abound. One common bit of wisdom wrongly states that you have 24 hours to “test” ROMs before deletion. Even playing “backups” that you yourself created is a legal gray area in some jurisdictions. It’s all very complicated, and laws differ from one country to the next. And much of the legislation is untested in courts, which means there’s little precedence by which to gauge what exactly is OK or not. 

  4. There are severe intellectual property restrictions standing in the way of digital preservation in Australia and New Zealand (and many other countries, including the US and UK), with cultural institutions legally allowed to make just one copy of “orphan works” (and to hold three), and copyright holders being notoriously difficult to track down years after the fact. I covered this in more detail in a feature last year on the challenges of game preservation. The laws may be changing to better accommodate the needs of archivists, though, depending on how the dust settles on a few inquiries and consultations. 

  5. If you haven’t heard of the demoscene before, you’ve been missing out. It’s a showcase of the pinnacle of audiovisual programming, with creators eking the absolute most out of the hardware through “demos” that generate their graphics and music in real time. Think of the old Amiga Boing Ball tech demo, but weirder, more complicated, and more creative. The Amiga demoscene in Europe may be the best known, but it thrived in Australia too. The Tsumea Web site has an archive of videos and disk images

Richard Moss is the content editor at and a freelance writer focused on games, technology, history, long-form journalism, and interesting people and things. He has the dubious honor of being an expert on the history of Mac gaming, and is crazy enough to have written a book on soccer-management game Football Manager 2012.

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