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Inside The Fight to Save Video Game History

Video game history is lost faster than we can preserve it.

In February, Nintendo announced it would shut down its 3DS and Wii U storefronts. While the closure is an inevitable part of the life cycle of those long since sunset consoles, the move sparked anger, disappointment, and even fear as fans lamented the loss of access to digitally exclusive 3DS and Wii U titles. With console gaming entering its ninth generation, the digital storefronts from the previous generations are slowly disappearing, taking with them thousands of digital-only games and DLC. Combined with the decline of physical media in favor of subscription services and digital distribution, it’s getting harder for people to play older games and harder still for the games of the present to be preserved for the future.

That is, if you want a legal way to play them. As games age and as companies continue to remove the means to properly purchase and download them, people are looking at other, less than legitimate options to continue to play the games they enjoy. It’s created tension between players and companies. While it’s unrealistic to expect publishers to maintain their prolific libraries in perpetuity, it’s also not ideal that large swathes of games can, at any time, just disappear on the whims of the store operator.

So how can we ensure that older games can be enjoyed by future generations without the expense of maintaining aging digital infrastructure or violating existing copyright laws? Video game preservationists are doing the work at the intersection between these two points.

Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin are co-directors of the Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of gaming’s relatively short but impactful history.

“We believe video games are part of our culture and that people should be able to have the tools and resources to study them,” Lewin told The Verge.

Institutions like The Video Game History Foundation and the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) work to preserve games in a number of ways. They maintain physical copies of older games and the hardware needed to play them. They also copy software for preservation on hard drives saving them from fragile physical cartridges. They even alter a game’s source code so games with online requirements can still be played after their authentication servers have gone offline.

Games are an interactive medium. In order for any of this work to mean something, the games that have been rescued from the great digital garbage heap need to be available for people to play. In other words, there’s no point in saving a game if nobody can play it — and this is where video game preservationists and video game publishers clash.