Are video games going extinct?
Older games are being lost to history, but efforts are underway to preserve these endangered species.
Games may be easier to get than ever thanks to digital downloads and online resellers, but they are aging just like any other retro collectible.
“The older [a game] gets,” says collector and National Videogame Museum founder John Hardie, “the less that are available.”
Video games are becoming the new baseball cards, where rare copies of original NES cartridges and obscure accessories like the SNES Super Scope can go for thousands of dollars…if they’re still in their pristine, original box. However, there’s an even bigger price to pay when it comes to preserving them the way we preserve books, music, and movies.
“Historical video game availability is dire,” according to a survey included in the study written by VGHF library director Phil Salvador.
The survey includes games originally released before 2010, and some of the numbers of surviving games for systems and classic computers reach into single digits. Just over 4% of titles for the Commodore 64 system are available. Even some of the most popular retro consoles like the family of Nintendo Game Boy systems have an availability rate of approximately 5%.
“This is just par for the course,” says Brett Weiss, the lead video game cataloguer for Heritage Auctions and the author of books like The NES Omnibus and The SNES Omnibus. “Pop culture collectibles are huge right now and people aren’t just buying them for nostalgia. People are buying them for investments. When you’ve got people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s buying these old NES, SNES, and even Gamecube games, it’s just more expensive now.”
Arcade games can be a bigger challenge because of the size and upkeep required to keep them running. Demand is up thanks to the rise of bar arcades and retro arcades, but the older machines can be harder to maintain as the technology phases out necessary parts.
“There are days when you turn the machine on and you wonder what’s gonna come up,” Hardie says. “I always say if you look at them wrong they’ll go bad.”
One solution for improving preservation could be cataloging games in libraries along with books, movies, and other media, but copyright laws and legal opposition have created roadblocks for these efforts.
“Libraries don’t need physical copies necessarily but if they could have access to digital libraries, it would be great but the ESA [Entertainment Software Association] makes that difficult,” Weiss says. The VGHF report cites several instances where the ESA has argued that there really isn’t such a thing as an “old game” as any IP can be revived and revamped at any time.
More active digital archiving would do a lot to preserve game history, particularly—as Hardie points out—because some of the early cartridge-based consoles don’t age out as readily as old coin-op cabinets. They have less moving parts and are more durable and easier to maintain. In tandem with robust archiving, a lot of old games and systems could survive.
“Our museum’s been open for seven years and some systems like the Nintendo 64, people are still playing it and that system’s going strong,” Hardie says.
Game preservation groups like the NVGM and VHGF are doing what they can to keep classic games from disappearing over time. Hardie believes it’s important because chronicling where the industry and medium has been can determine where it goes from here.
“Let’s be honest, it’s all about money,” Hardie says. “It’s all about the fear that somebody playing an old game is gonna detract the sales from playing a new games. If anything, it’s going to rekindle the nostalgia that person had.”
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