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Games' Social History

In the recent, but not immediate, past, a few devel-oggers were discussing trying to maintain an archive of MUD history. Raph Koster, Richard Bartle and Brian Green (among others) talked about the difficult balance of relevance and authority in trying to get MUD history documented on wikipedia. While there appeared to be (in common Wikipedia fashion) some sort of compromise put together (in the sense that no one left happy), it left me thinking about the enormous difficulties in trying to get a decent, much less accurate, archive of games. I'll only tackle a bit of it, but I had to tip the hat to the source of the concerns, and it revolves around (surprise) us.

Formal archives are an important for academic work. Archives provide continuity in research, allowing people to take a look for themselves and compare work. New insights, new challenges. Good archives have all sorts of side effects. Research and criticism are more effective, more persuasive, more testable when they are able to present the source material alongside the claims. At some point, you are taking my word and evaluating my claims, but I'll get a lot more mileage if I'm able to, you know, corroborate those claims with evidence that's readily available.

It's worth noting, too, that what are historical archives to some, might be viable, living resources to others: Wowwiki isn't just strategy and lore, it's also the product of a particular community at a peculiar time. An arcade from 1992 would be a place for some to play, and others to observe, a fascinating artifact in its own right.

Referencing popular culture ought to be easy: it's popular so everybody knows about it, and it's culture so you should be able to find it all around, right? Not entirely: as fellow GAMBITeer Kevin Driscoll has encountered, sometimes bits and pieces of popular culture aren't protected or valued, even when they are crucial.

The affordances of digital media have presented a double-edged sword to the eager archivist, whether professional or amateur. On one hand, media that can be found on the internet are easily copied (that's, you know, the Internet's point); and conversations, ideas and tools that come on to the internet can be found. We get pieces of conversations that we wouldn't find otherwise, and these can be really useful. But their ubiquitous presence might suggest that they are irrelevant or uninteresting, that the lack of scarcity implies a lack of value, a deficiency of worth. This seems wrong to me.

Sometimes we think of these conversations as ephemera, which can be accurate. Sometimes they are short-lived. But ephemeral doesn't mean epiphenomenal: these cultural products and conversations are often vital for understand more substantive artifacts. Indirectly, they are contextual cues, giving insights into conversations and attitudes that might not merit a place on the box. But they are part of a "demand chain", the processes of information and exchange that bring a player to a game, enculturate them in the norms and hidden rules of play, and teach them how to participate, how to play their role.

Take, for example, DKP. They aren't a mechanic of the games they appear in. But if you tried to understand how social ties work in raiding guilds, or the kinds of incentives that game developers work with, you'd do a poor job without DKP.

As Damion Schubert described them in the wiki-kerfluffle that started this train, "DKP...was a social mechanism that wasn't heavily researched or documented, at least not until recently, aside from a handful of guild sites and personal pages." The informality of the sources on DKP provided a significant challenge to editors of the DKP wikipedia page. This tension between wanting authoritative, reliable sources and the fact that many of these practices don't yet exist in formal contexts is familiar ground for academics, historians and archivists alike.

But it's not just these ritualized social structures that present these challenges; informal and relatively emergent elements of gameplay are also subject to popping up on the outside. Take the practice of 'ganking'. PvP is a feature of games, and is documented both inside and outside of official game materials. But the techniques and tactics behind griefing are not the kind of thing that most game developers draw attention to. But they still have a great deal of influence on the formalized and even mechanical parts of games. Patches, new features, and, in the case of Ultima Online, a massive change in server structure and world design have evolved out of this activity. But it's not commonplace for these practices to appear in official documentation, and it's not hard to imagine why.

Some community-based efforts have begun in tracking all sorts of data (The MUD wiki for one genre-but-not-game-specific model), and the Preserving Virtual Worlds project at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign looks like an excellent commitment, the latter proposing a combination of 'migration' and 'emulation' in order to preserve the worlds. While a combination of these might work to archive a large portion of the worlds that wouldn't exist on a disc-borne copy, it's still going to be difficult to record the social practices that influence gameplay; I can't imagine they're unaware of the challenge, and it's not a critique of the project, just an observation of the pitiful condition of our (impending) degeneration.

I've picked examples from MMOs, but these kind of social elements aren't unique to them. Similar roles might be played by walkthroughs, videos, fanfiction, mods, the explicit and implicit social rules of a place like XBox Live Arcade. Do you recall sharing rumors about secret characters in arcade fighting games? What about learning moves? How different were the moves between Mortal Kombat and SFII and how did their complexity matter in which was more popular?

As more games outside of the MUD-MMO genealogy remember to incorporate social play into the designs, the unpredictability of dynamics might be entering earlier and earlier.How could we archive a game mechanic? We might go with abstract descriptions, a walkthrough, or a piece of uncompiled code, or video, or narratives, or a copy of the game. On playthroughs, we tend not to think of them as an artifact, but they can be. One possible instance of this would be an collection of save files; players can pick up a particular moment, see the breadth of options available. These tools aren't particularly widespread, are limited to PC games, and require any potential audience to have a copy of the game installed.

This is part of why I'm so happy about the recent announcement of the National Center for the History of Electronic Games, and in particular the attention they give to to the culture and practices of the players in their white paper. Perhaps it stems from their place in the Strong National Museum of Play; the study of play initially emerged as an anthropological pursuit, and so the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of that field seem to underlie their approach to games. But I suspect it comes from a debt to scholars like Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee and Mia Consalvo, who have continually pointed to the role that player-produced practices, tools and stories have played in shaping play itself.

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