As technology strengthens and diversifies our channels of connection to the past, "heritage" becomes more and more a modern concept in addition to an historical one. At the same time, preservation, the fraternal twin (perhaps even the conjoined twin) of heritage, becomes a word used in present tense rather than past.
While the history of videogames goes back to the early 1960s, its timeline begins in earnest in the late 70s. By the traditional vernacular of the concept of heritage, that barely rates a flicker on the timeline. And yet, as our technological - and hence social and cultural - evolution accelerates at such an increased rate, we now find ourselves looking with a profound sense of historicity at a commercial, cultural and artistic movement less than 40 years old that has irrevocably changed the world.
This is the kind of work that we do at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), a museum in the heart of Melbourne that celebrates, explores and promotes the cultural and creative richness of the moving image in all its forms - film, television, digital culture, and videogames.
It may be said without hyperbole that videogames are the defining creative medium of our young century. Its combined value, level of engagement, and global reach across international boundaries, age, gender and economic class dwarfs that of film, contemporary art forms, fiction in the written form and even television. It harnesses more computing power than the internet and its commercial value exceeds the GDP of most countries. While a debate can be had over its worthiness as an artistic expression, there is no denying its potency and reach.
In fact, that very debate over its status as an art form lies at the very heart of the Game Masters exhibition. While there have been other museum exhibitions on videogames - the very successful Game On/Game On 2.0 franchise from The Barbican being a notable example - Game explored the creative process of making videogames, not just the form and impact of the final games themselves, calling it a crucial component of our culture and an artistic expression worthy of interrogation, preservation, and consideration as heritage. By focusing on the creators of this global phenomenon - the "Game Masters" themselves - rather than only the games themselves, the exhibition posits as its central thesis that the journey of the artist to carve out and define a heretofore unknown and unexplored field of endeavour is tantamount to the journey of, say, the Russian Suprematist artists or the German Expressionists (to randomly name two) in redefining the nature of contemporary art.
By focusing on the creators themselves, our exhibition pays tribute to the global nature of the videogame movement. This allowed for a consideration of heritage at a global level, which is an interesting contrast to the common goal of heritage in drilling down to the very local context. While there are barriers to consider heritage at such a broad level, the spread of videogames has allowed for this unique perspective. In fact, one of the great benefits to touring Game Masters internationally has been the opportunity if affords to institutions within their own geographies to connect with and forge partnerships with local games creators. These artists often lurk just in the shadow of a city's cultural institutions, well-known in their own subculture but largely not engaged by the more traditional organisations around them. Game Masters
has provided a foundation upon which enduring links can be forged between these sometimes disparate communities and has become valued for this.
The concept of exploring the art and social meaning of videogames is not new. In fact, the very first museum exhibition on the subject was back in 1989, when the field was still in its adolescence. In subsequent years there have been a number of exhibitions on the subject, and they usually put the games themselves in the spotlight, which is understandable. The challenge therein is one of topicality and currency. Because videogames depend so closely on the technology at hand, they are frequently seen to become outmoded as the platforms evolve. In much the same way that many games created for one technology become unplayable when the next advancement in that technology arrives, so too does the curatorial interpretation of games risk irrelevance if the exhibitions seems like "yesterday's news" the day it opens.
This conundrum is even more keenly felt in the field of digital preservation, and it is here where heritage and technological currency become slightly uncomfortable bedfellows. A growing number of institutions have now made a public commitment to collect games as part of their remit. The Museum of Modern Art in New York even made headlines with their decision. In their case, the decision of what to collect is based on aesthetics and interaction design. Along a slightly divergent path, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum recently acquired the software code for a game-like app called Planetary which had been closed down by its creators. Their approach was to collect the code and release it publicly and openly to the world, so that others can allow it to live on and the museum will have, in a certain sense, preserved a piece of heritage.
ACMI has also amassed a collection of games, with a focus on Australian-born examples, but recognises that it can neither be exhaustive in its collecting nor perennially able to upkeep legacy computing environments to keep them playable. Instead, we have entered into a consortium of like-minded institutions which all play a small part in upholding certain aspects of technological currency, such as emulated environments of older operating systems. This distributed international network may prove to be the only feasible way to guarantee the long-term preservation of modern technological heritage in the absence of a large central collecting body for this subject area.
Game Masters itself addressed the issues of impermanence by focusing on the people behind the games. Divided into three parts - Arcade Heroes, Game Changers, and Indies - the exhibition constantly maps back to the creative process and life journeys of the creators. Through this lens the ephemeral nature of the games' playability becomes less of a central issue. Thanks to the current availability of original platforms, whether actual arcade games or early desktop versions of classics such as Pong and Space Invaders, visitors are able to move along a chronological spectrum quite effortlessly. While this is something that can be roughly replicated at home by using emulation environments in current browsers, nothing replaces the tactility of using original hardware.
The time will come, of course, when we no longer have the option of offering original equipment up to the wear and tear of physical use by the public. At a certain point, these game cartridges and arcade machines will become precious and carefully conserved collection items, and they will only be touched with white cotton gloves in sanitized conditions. This process of change is inevitable, especially given the increasing obsolescence of some of the hardware even now. When that time does arrive, a very difficult decision will need to be made, one that goes directly to the heart of the meaning of "heritage" in our modern vernacular. What will be the future for the legacy of the game masters? And how will our institutions deal with this suddenly precious commodity?
We all look forward to tackling these questions on behalf of future generations of videogame lovers.