Almost all classic US video games 'critically endangered'

Let us borrow titles digitally from libraries like we can books and movies, say 'puter historians

Many of the games released in the USA that we grew up with and love are out of print, which is a bummer for those keen to preserve and chronicle the nation's computing past.

Following some research, the Video Game History Foundation this week concluded 87 percent of classic games published in America are "critically endangered." At stake is a huge chunk of computing's early history – not to mention some cracking computer games – Phil Salvador, library director at the foundation, told The Register on Monday.

To be clear: it's not that a large percentage of classic games are simply unobtainable. They can be found on eBay, in second-hand stores, or pirate download websites, or loaned from a pal, for instance. It's that nearly nine in ten, according to the history foundation, are not in release. Contrast that with the piles of movies, books, and other media you can still legally get hold of today, even if they are decades old.

If you can't obtain your own copy of an old game, and don't want to turn to piracy, you could go to a library to find a title – but even then, you can't digitally borrow it like you can with books, film, and audio, due to US copyright law, we're told. We imagine you would have to play the title there in person, as if it were a museum piece, or possibly physically rent it. Or find an actual museum with the software.

We're told this means various old video games tend to dwell in private collections, museums, and libraries, requiring physical access. This isn't great for researching history. One of the largest archives of titles is maintained by the Strong National Museum of Play, which was founded by wealthy philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong. It's a valuable resource, though you'll need to fly to Rochester, New York, if you want to delve into the collection.

"We're not arguing for giant free digital arcades," Salvador told us. "It's comparable to studying film – to understand the specifics of the medium."

The crux of the problem are the restrictions put in place by America's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), preventing games from being digitally loaned out by libraries and other institutions. Those bodies are allowed to preserve titles albeit for on-site gaming.

The foundation cast an admittedly wide net in its definition of "classic," and goes into detail regarding its methodology here. It believes only 13 percent of old games published in the US are still in print and legally sold.

That's not too surprising, Salvador said, as companies will take stuff off the shelves once it's past its prime, though leaving this down to market forces could result in the loss of important artifacts of computing history.

It is noted that gaming outfits have been reissuing old titles, and sometimes we get the originals and sometimes remastered releases or updated versions. And that's cool, though it still leaves a lot of material locked in collections, and it's perhaps not best to leave these re-release decisions to executives who are primarily profit driven.

"The industry has been doing a good job in promoting some old software, but that amounts to less than 20 percent of games," Salvador added. "I don't want to demonize the industry – what they are doing is good business sense – but we can't rely on that for the historical record."

The foundation hopes the US Copyright Office will add computer games to the list of products exempt from restriction for research purposes. Unfortunately, the foundation says, entertainment industry lawyers argue corporations are doing a good enough job at preserving old code – although this study may dispute that.

The next round of DMCA updates comes through in 2024. Over the years the US administration has relaxed copyright rules in some areas, including a few small concessions for video games. Perhaps substantial change will come through for gamers eventually. ®

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