Play it Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes.

11 May 2012 - 11:58:41 in Research

An interdisciplinary group of researchers including Ian Welch, Stuart Marshall and Susan Corbett (Commercial Law) from Victoria University have received an $AU 186,000 grant to by write histories of the early digital age, and preserving key artefacts.

‘Play It Again’ is the project of a Flinders-led consortium of researchers concerned with the history and preservation of early software, specifically, locally-written computer games from the 1980s. Digital games make up a significant but little known chapter in the history of the moving image in Australia and New Zealand. Early software houses had a remarkable record of content creation and games were important in acclimatising the public to the then new technology of computers.

Despite this, surprisingly little is known about the history of these local digital game industries, the predecessors of today’s industry which earns billions of dollars a year. To date, digital games have also not enjoyed the care accorded other historic screen based media by national institutions, such as the National Screen and Sound Archive. The turbulence of the games industry – where many companies are short lived and firmly future oriented – partly accounts for why it has not undertaken archiving activities. Enthusiasts play an important role as informal custodians, however, an institutional collection and preservation solution is urgently needed, as without adequate preservation procedures, these digital heritage entities will be lost.

The School of Engineering and Computer Science has been working on the technical aspects of preserving games since being part of the formation of the NZTronix group in 2004. The group was formed by Dr Melanie Swalwell who first started researching the local histories of digital games in 2004, when she was a Lecturer at Victoria University. Concerned about the future prospects of the unique digital game artifacts she discovered, Dr Swalwell involved Ian Welch and Stuart Marshall as well as Susan Corbett from the School of Accounting and Commerical Law in the formation of an interdisciplinary team to research the social, legal and technical aspects of games preservation.

The current project builds upon the successes of this earlier work and involves researchers from VUW, Flinders University, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the New Zealand Film Archive, and the Berlin Computerspiele Museum. The Australian Research Council is supporting the project over three years and has provided $AU 186,000 of funding. The team is highly multi-disciplinary, comprising Humanities scholars (Dr Melanie Swalwell, Assoc, Prof Angela Ndalianis, Helen Stuckey), Computer Scientists (Dr Denise de Vries, Dr Ian Welch, Dr Stuart Marshall), an intellectual property lawyer (Susan Corbett), and cultural heritage specialists (Andreas Lange, Dr Winfried Bergmeyer, and staff at ACMI and NZFA). They will undertake a diverse yet integrated plan of work relating to: the history of the local games industries; the collection and preservation of its products and supporting materials; the very important role of fans in this history; and the collecting, policy and preservation challenges such ‘born digital’ items pose for cultural institutions.

Digital preservation is a pressing issue of relevance to a range of areas and disciplines concerned with a digital past and its products. The project directly addresses the challenges that obsolescence of computer software and hardware pose for historic artefacts. The technical team will develop a source code converter so that software written in early dialects of the computer language, Basic, can be translated to the contemporary Java platform. This will make it possible for early games to again be played by the community. Meanwhile, the cultural and historical team will investigate the production and reception histories of early game titles. Much of this work will happen online, with fans, collectors and the general public invited to contribute to a purpose-built Popular Memory Archive.

Apart from the delivery of knowledge about the origins and products of this industry, and making early software accessible once more, the project will help to build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’. An international conference will be held on this topic in Melbourne in the second half of 2013. Knowledge transfer workshops will be conducted in Melbourne and Wellington, to share learning from the project with industry professionals.

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