Preserving Works, or Preserving Memories?

I always go back and forth with my videogame friends when we talk about how to best preserve the videogames we enjoy.

It is easy to relive the experience of reading a book, watching a movie, or enjoying a painting. In modern times it would take a cataclysm to lose access to these works.

But games are much more connected to the period in which they are released. They are made specifically for the hardware of the time, and rarely work on that hardware’s successor. Some make the jump from their era to the latest machines, but this only happens to games that are extremely popular, or have developed a strong cult following. Most video game history is not playable on machines that can be bought in a store today.

But the advent of online games created a higher difficulty level in the preservation game. When I play World of Warcraft with long-time friends, or Destiny 2 with my brother, I’m playing games that do not exist entirely on my “machine,” but on a server maintained by a company that will only continue to do so while it is profitable.

And even if by some miracle the company forgot that its function is to make a profit, and decided to keep the service active indefinitely as a gesture of goodwill towards the fans of the game, the nature of these games continues to be one of constant evolution , and therefore it is almost impossible to replicate a past experience within them.

Even when Blizzard, developer of World of Warcraft, declares that it will launch a version of the game that simulates the reality of where it was 13 years ago, the people are still missing. What made Warcraft an indispensable part of my life 13 years ago was the bunch of adventurers with whom I hung out, friends and acquaintances with whom I took my first steps in this online world – and share the discovery of a type of game which at that time was still full of mystery.

Likewise, it will not be possible to replicate in 10 years the adventures that my brother and I live today in the space fantasy world of Destiny 2. Even if the game is still around by then, it will not be the same game that we play today. And even if it’s makers release a version that “imitates” this historic moment of the game, my brother and I are no longer going to be the same people we are now, we will not play it the same way.

I don’t know if video games can be “preservable” in the same sense that we preserve the works of the past. A video game like Destiny 2 or World of Warcraft is more like a summer afternoon spent with friends around a table in rural Alentejo. Or like a first high-school crush.

You can have something to jog the memory of the thing – a souvenir, a photograph, a diary – but you can not relive it.

Bungie, developer of Destiny, has approached this problem in a novel way. Players who meet certain criteria –  have achieved difficult feats in the game, lived noteworthy adventures – are allowed to buy certain “souvenirs”, things that are not available for sale to the general public. Medals, replicas of the conquered weapons, or commemorative t-shirts.

All of these things have value; availability is limited by time and print; but crucially, they have meaning only to the people who have “fulfilled” those goals. They are souvenirs of travel and achievements in the game, just as a traveler can buy things typical of the exotic places he visits, and to where he will probably not return.

I would like to see more video game developers follow this paradigm. Accept that videogames are different from a piece of static art – they are an experience which has more to do with a trip, a meal, or an outdoor adventure, than with a museum piece.

And focus more on giving us ways of remembering this experience, rather  than on suggesting that we repeat it over and over.