The Problem to be Addressed
This project addresses a neglected topic in digital media preservation: methods, infrastructure, standards, and technology for preserving the complex software, content, and interactivity in computer games and electronic literature, as well as the transactions and interactions that constitute the user’s experience of them.
The Preserving Virtual Worlds project recognizes that hypertext, on the one hand, and computer and video games on the other, have assumed a prominent place among media for entertainment, communication, and social interaction. The cultural profile of these virtual worlds has extended to education (training, “serious games”), artistic expression, social networking, and political commentary (“newsgames”). Such interactive media have become an important part of contemporary cultural expression and creativity in the United States, and that importance is not only about the economic growth of computer, video, networked and mobile games as an entertainment industry, which has equaled or surpassed movies, television and other media: at least as important is their impact on society and culture.
Anyone familiar with interactive fiction, the social worlds of MUDs and massively multiplayer games, the technical mastery of first-person shooters, the visual storytelling of adventure and role-playing games, the intellectual depth of historical and strategy games, or the emergent behaviors and cultures in open-ended simulations, knows that “virtual worlds” is a label that covers an astonishing breadth of art, entertainment, political expression, simulation, competition, and narrative experience. Despite all these reasons for taking them seriously, relatively little work has been done on the preservation of virtual worlds, which present particular challenges because of their interactivity, their frequent software modification and revision, networked collaboration, use of 3-D graphics and sound, and the like. Each of these adds new complexity to the problems of preserving digital content.
Electronic literature, video games and computer games must be understood as creative, born-digital works with distinctive aesthetic qualities that not only take advantage of digital technologies but also push the limits of digital media. These works are typically more experimental and diverse than other kinds of born-digital artifacts more familiar to libraries at this point—for example, digital documents. Electronic literature and digital games provide new kinds of test-beds for digital preservation. Addressing the problem of their preservation means preparing for a future in which an increasing proportion of what we create will be born-digital and will take fuller advantage of networked, new-media environments. These virtual worlds are actualized in user experiences that are sometimes unique, often social, and always necessary for understanding these worlds. Just as an archived book is of limited use if researchers cannot open its cover and read it, an archived world will be of limited use if researchers cannot visit it. Unless we also develop solutions for preserving user experiences, future generations will have no way to understand how these experiences became such an important part of our culture.