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From Issue #31 December 5, 2013

Kill Screen

Will video-game museums and preservationists run out of extra guys or reach the boss level?

By Lora Shinn Twitter icon 

The blond-haired boy looks like he’s in shock, his eyes as wide as if it were Christmas morning. “A PlayStation! Atari! You’ve got everything!” he says as he looks around the light-filled room at the Seattle Center, taking in the blinking CRTs and consoles — and one lonely Commodore 64 — that line the room’s perimeter. “Super Nintendo! You seriously have everything!”

A young man with glasses and short dark hair flecked with silver steps forward. Andrew Perti, 28, is the room’s docent, interpreter, and game-rigger, and the man behind Seattle’s first video-game archive.

Perti greets the boy and his family, encourages donations (appreciated but not required, he points out), and shows how to load games onto systems invented before the boy was even born. Pillars in the room’s center are festooned with sticky notes, on which the names of favorite video games are scrawled in visitors’ handwriting: Pacman, Super Mario Sunshine, Barbie Horse Riding.1

As more visitors stream in — with parents often taking over the controls from their kids — an 8-bit soundtrack beeps and bleeps from the monitors. One of Perti’s favorite songs is “Terra’s Theme” from Final Fantasy 6, which he describes as a “somber, bittersweet” score.

Power Up

Perti is a passionate guy, as most collectors tend to be. His habit of acquisition started at an early age, with Marvel Universe cards, then Magic: The Gathering, before he took up Transformers, a 1980s toy that could transform from car to battling robot and back again.

Then in 1999, at age 15, Perti received a Nintendo 64 Star Wars Episode 1 Racer bundle set. He opened the package carefully with an X-Acto knife, lifted away the sticky tape on the plastic bags without tearing it, and even carefully tucked the twist-ties back into the box. With that first game, “I became an active preservationist of video games,” he says. From then on, he took special care of hardware, software, and associated ephemera as he acquired it.

Perti’s collection now numbers more than 2,100 games, 170 consoles, and countless joysticks, many donated to his organization, the Seattle Interactive Media Museum (SIMM).2 SIMM has been located in a 900-square-foot ground-floor white-walled temporary space in the Seattle Armory at Seattle Center, in the shadow of the Space Needle.

“Video games are becoming recognized as an art form, a viable form of entertainment,” he says. “We’re institutionalizing the preservation and exhibition of video games.” His dream? A large public resource gallery with hundreds of employees, dedicated to the narrative and preservation of games; it would offer a museum exhibition space, a research library, and a physical and digital preservation archive. He hopes to become the official partner museum for the physical and digital assets of the game industry.

For the past three years, he’s worked with the University of Washington’s Information School to create a metadata schema for indexing and describing video games to let future researchers and gamers visiting the resource space look up games by era, type (like puzzle or first-person shooter), and manufacturer, among other data points.

But for now, Perti runs the public space, gives talks, makes contacts, and offers to set up portable game lounges. Seattle Interactive Conference and Microsoft’s Build Conference borrowed retro-console setups from Perti, and the University of Washington has a semi-permanent gaming area with consoles on loan from SIMM.

The Experience Music Project’s (EMP’s) The Art of Video Games exhibit earlier this year used many of SIMM’s consoles and games, while Perti has presented white papers and research (conducted with the iSchool) at numerous play, video-game, and game conferences.

Every third Thursday night, at “Seattle’s Best Damn Happy Hour,” Perti carts out three or four game systems for public play into a large common area. The happy hour includes sudden death games of SoulCalibur or Street Fighter II, with Perti awarding free EMP or performing-arts passes to the night’s bracket winners.

It’s all pretty good for a guy whose dad threw out his first Game Boy. “He thought I played it too much,” he says. “My mom bought me another.” Perti dropped out of college, but he’s a self-starter: books on museum development are stacked up on his laptop in the SIMM room. He also meets regularly with directors from the handful of other similar museums and repositories across the country, and stays actively involved with several hobbyist Web sites.

Where and why of preservation

“I joke my parents wouldn’t buy me an Atari 2600, so my revenge is to be in charge of one of the world’s largest collection of video games and artifacts,” says Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at The Strong, a Rochester, New York, educational institution devoted to the study and history of play.

At ICHEG, guests can play more than five dozen arcade games. The inventory requires a full-time arcade technician, an electrical engineer who once serviced arcades, and who can still source a cathode tube. The center also houses more than 50,000 games, consoles, and related artifacts, like packaging and advertising materials. It’s one of about a dozen game-related repositories and museums in the United States, relatively few for the industry’s size and history. Archives are also found, among other institutions, at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Video games are often derided as either silly diversions or inherently destructive to the fabric of society. But 58% of Americans play video games, and they spent more than $20 billion on games, hardware and accessories in 2012, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

An important piece of our cultural legacy could be lost if we fail to preserve games, says Jin Ha Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, who works with Perti on the game metadata schema. Lee says future researchers might wonder: “So you went around eating mushrooms and saving a princess? It doesn’t sound awesome, it just sounds strange. Why did people find that game so exciting?”

Henry Lowood, curator at Stanford University’s Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing, says games are important to preserve not only for their impact on history, but also because they offer a particular type of creativity, problem-solving, and, in particular, social interaction. Video games also overlap with board games and sports. Like both, video games present a socially acceptable form of competition.

Multi- or single player?

Game companies focus primarily on competing among themselves — making the current generation of (profitable) games and game systems — not preservation. “Compatibility is not what they care about,” Lee says, and consoles are seemingly designed to become obsolete. “We even called some game companies and they couldn’t tell us where to get the information,” she says, such as when the game was released, how much it retailed for, or who owns the copyright for the game’s artwork.

ICHEG, toward that end, is using a grant to capture gameplay on video. Dyson explains that for more and more games, it will be “very hard or maybe even impossible” to preserve a running copy. Video will at least preserve the flow of the game for future researchers.

For example, World of Warcraft runs on servers that may someday go dark. Players may abandon the community, rendering it a virtual ghost town. Smartphone games may suffer a similar fate as older versions are abandoned and become unplayable, or require iPhones, Android, and other hardware and operating systems that can’t be kept functioning.

At Stanford, the Cabrinety collection holds about 20,000 titles, along with consoles and computers. Its staff is working to migrate the media into a “digital repository” that preserves the game data and experience without requiring the original console, cartridge, floppy, or CD. Software and hardware can fail due to moisture, corrosion, or user error. Apparently, blowing into cartridges to get them working again was a bad idea, despite middle-school conventional wisdom.

After preservation, the organization will seek permission from rights-holders to make titles available via streaming or download, which can be a little tricky. Some game companies and console manufacturers have ceased to exist, and developers who retained rights may have died or be impossible to track down.3

Some parts of every collection are restricted to prevent damage to unique equipment. For example, ICHEG limits access to Computer Space, the first commercially sold coin-operated arcade game, which was released in 1971. “We ask ourselves how rare is it, how fragile, how replaceable,” Dyson explains, “before placing them in the restricted collection where they are only playable under certain conditions,” such as for academic research.

Still, ICHEG attempts to make games accessible to everyone: visitors can bat a digital ball back and forth using a re-creation of the Brown Box, a tennis game that was the prototype for the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey. It’s not Atari Pong; it came out before Atari made its coin-operated Pong machine. Ralph Baer, the creator, is still kicking at 91, but his age advances Lee’s argument that information collection can be a race against time.

Lowood brushes back a question as to whether there’s a race among the institutions to be the first to acquire a certain game, preserve a fast-dying game, or be the best at any aspect of video-game preservation. Gaming is a competitive pastime, after all.

“It’s too big of a problem for anybody to think they can do it by themselves,” he says. “There are legal issues, problems with collections, resources, cataloging, migrating data and emulators.” The work is being divided up among institutions, he says, just as art preservation and data collection is divided among art museums. He notes that “collectors do compete — just as they do with books, art, or manuscripts. But institutions are all pretty much aiming for the same thing.”

Which brings up an interesting situation, says ICHEG’s Dyson. Any new category of museum based on a medium or an audience ultimately rises to a professional status or remains only at hobby status, lacking real utility for research and preservation. Children’s museums, for instance, started out as small, local ventures in the 1950s, with a few exhibits. Today, multi-million-dollar children’s museums dot the United States, and there’s even a trade organization: the American Association of Children’s Museums.

A counter example might be pinball museums, says Dyson. While the first pinball museums appeared as early as the 1980s, “most have not really progressed beyond storefront museums,” he says. “While the collectors who run them are passionate, for the most part they have not transitioned these places into accredited institutions that are part of the broader professional museum community.”

Two parallel futures diverge: in 50 years, a late 20th-century copy of The Sims might be available at your local video game library or museum; or, the only copies might be locked away in a collector’s vault and academically focused repositories.

Reset: what’s next

Right now, Perti runs SIMM on a shoestring budget, and describes himself as “broke.” He works 70 hours a week, trying to tackle marketing, grants, acquisition and cataloging — along with running the on-site game room – relying on limited help from volunteers and a board of directors. His audience is out there, but it’s a long path to complete the game: get a grant big enough to start down the road to his ultimate institution. “I’m more or less a one-man show turning my hair grey,” he says.

A few days after this article appears, a restaurant tenant will move into the space currently occupied by SIMM, and SIMM must find a home elsewhere. Perti moved from being a collector to fronting an institution, but the institution is still looking for a permanent space. For at least the next year, the collection will return to storage while Perti fosters relationships and fundraises to reopen in a dedicated museum space at Seattle Center.

As for Perti’s favorite game? Tetris. “It’s so simple, anybody can pick up, but it’s difficult to master,” he says. “You can’t beat it, you can only get better at it. It’s a metaphor I use for life.”


  1. As best as visitors can recollect, that is: the correct names are Pac-Man and Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp

  2. Perti says he just recently filed paperwork to change SIMM’s name to the Gallery of Art and Multimedia Entertainment (GAME) Museum. SIMM is already a registered nonprofit in Washington State, and Perti says he has applied for recognition as a charitable organization, a 501(c)(3), with the IRS. 

  3. In “Impermanent Games” (Sept. 26, 2013) in issue 26 of The Magazine, Richard Moss explains the more severe challenges faced in Australia and New Zealand in preserving video games in the Antipodes. 

Seattle-based writer Lora Shinn has written about travel, tech, and career for publications like Wired.com, National Geographic Traveler, Redbook, and the Seattle Times. Her first computer was a Texas Instruments TI-99 4A, back in the early 1980s. Today, her favorite games are Bejeweled Blitz, Ms. Pac-Man, and Super Mario Brothers.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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