For far too many years, the video game industry struggled to assert its place as a true artform, one deserving of the kind of respect granted to movies, music, television, and literature. This has been a source of frustration to those of us who can recognize the powerful storytelling device that video games represent, as well as the way modern games contribute to art and social commentary. But by its nature as a relatively new medium, games have also struggled to preserve the industry’s history in the way more widely and permanently disseminated artforms have accomplished. And that’s where the gaming industry has taken a turn against its own artistic interests, often demonizing methods for preserving gaming history over intellectual property concerns. Emulators are the chief method at hand, where games that are ancient by gaming standards can be digitized and preserved for posterity, save for the threat of legal action over copyright infringement and the industry’s attempts to stave off these useful tools.
Like so many issues in the intellectual property world, it’s not hard to understand the gaming industry’s consternation. There’s no doubt that many people use emulators simply to play games from old consoles and cabinets rather than pay for physical copies. Still, there’s also no doubt that these same emulators work to preserve the artistic output in the gaming realm. This was most recently evidenced in two games that might never have seen the light of day again, save for emulators.
The first is the discovery and release of Millennium Racer: Y2K Fighters, a previously completely unknown 2001 Dreamcast port of a 1999 PC racing game. The title was recently discovered intact on a Dreamcast development kit, altered a bit to get it into a playable state, and then released as both an emulatable ROM and a burnable disc image that will work in actual Dreamcast hardware…The second emulation-fueled release making the rounds recently is Primal Rage 2, the unreleased sequel to the popular prehistoric-themed, stop-motion arcade fighting game of the mid ’90s. Only two prototype cabinets for the cancelled sequel are known to exist, and one of them has been playable at Illinois’ sprawling Galloping Ghost arcade complex since 2014.
The moment we agree that games like this are a form of art, we must also agree on the impetus to preserve that art. And once that’s done, we can only conclude that these efforts to digitize the history of gaming in this manner have to be more important than any legal hurdles that exist in the form of copyright infringement or DMCA prohibitions on tinkering with them. The stated purpose of copyright seems to make this quite clear. What could be more important to promoting the arts than preserving art that could otherwise be at risk of total loss?
Emulators and those that use and support them play a key role in this, one that goes beyond merely copying the game digitally to be played.
While both of these games were technically accessible on their original hardware when they were discovered, it’s only the ability to copy and emulate the software on other hardware (often with crucial software tweaks) that has made sure they’ll be preserved and playable going forward. That kind of preservation doesn’t just happen, either; remember that an estimated three-quarters of all silent films ever made have been lost to history. Thanks to emulation and a committed community of video game preservationists, that situation seems less likely to happen as the video game medium grows out of its youth.
The future will judge the history of gaming by the actions of the present. If games are art, and they are, then efforts to preserve this art must be cheered on, not demonized.