Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen & Anna Sivula

Abstract: The paper deals with the question of how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the paper illuminates the amateur and professional historicising of computer games. The general theoretical contribution of the paper is in the explanation of cultural heritage processes where contemporary cultural phenomena are historicised and in the illustration of the role of production of monuments in the historicising.



Laurajane Smith argues that heritage is not only something material, which merely relates with the past. Rather, it is a process of engagement of contemporaries. According to Smith, heritage is an act of communication, and an act of creating meaning in, and for, the present. At the same time, it signifies cultural identity work, a cultural and social process, which engages with acts of remembering, hence creating ways of understanding the present (Smith 1–2.). The process of defining cultural heritage occurs within game cultures as well. Academically, and in hobbyist communities, and partially within the game industry, cultural heritage debate has roused demands such as that certain digital games have to be saved and preserved ”before it is too late” (e.g. Lowood et al.). In the sense of Laurajane Smith’s ideas, the reason for the preservation is the shared conceptualization that digital games are meaningful and they should be able to pass on to new generations. Digital games are not – yet – in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, but there are already game canons, lists of significant, important, and revolutionary games; collected and conducted by hobbyist communities and semi-officially nominated committees.[1] Even though those debates about the heritage value of game cultures circle around material issues and, in many cases, specific items – digital and non-digital – the debates are part of the process of engagement and communicative identity work described by Smith.

Recognized heritage ought to be preserved, and scholars, as well as game hobbyists, have examined various possibilities for digital game preservation. They have approached that from the perspectives on creation of (museum) collections and archives, documenting and emulation and migration of game software code and so forth, which all can be perceived as ‘heritage work’ or ‘heritage management’ (Smith 2006) for ensuring that valuable items could be transferred for new generations. (See e.g. Swalwell; Heinonen & Reunanen; Guttenbrunner et al.; Barwick et al.. For a critical overview, see Newman.)[2] The discussion of digital game preservation is significant, but it, primarily, lacks serious contemplation regarding one of the key questions that is the focus of this paper: how the game cultural elements are recognized and selected as being worthy of preservation, of becoming elevated to the status of cultural heritage?  Obviously, one simple answer to the question is that particular games and devices have received wide recognition and impact as novelties in their contemporary contexts and therefore their value is somehow self-evident. We argue that there are other reasons to consider: more local and marginal means and, especially, historicized value of something to be the first of its kind. These canonical items of cultural heritage, we call here monuments.

Our primary theoretical concepts in this paper are the above mentioned (cultural) heritage process and monument. The cultural heritage process is observed in light of a case of early Finnish commercial computer games. Instead of being particularly interested in what digital game actually was the earliest production in Finland, we will merely deal with the question of public discourse of firstness and its connections with the cultural heritage process. The emergence of such discourse, representing the past of Finnish game cultures in a precise manner, we argue, is a sign of a particular phase of a cultural heritage process where specific actors have a motivation to discover origins of national game cultures and industry. Thus, we ask here, who is historicizing Finnish commercial computer games? When did the question of the first game emerge? How is the debate related to the process in which digital games become cultural heritage?  The case provides answers to the primary research question: how are certain items selected and transformed to the cultural heritage of digital game culture, particularly in the role of a monument? This article provides a model for comparison on other case examples in different contexts.

The article consists of the following sections: we will begin with an introduction to our essential theoretical concepts based on contemporary academic discussion on cultural heritage. Then, we will illustrate our case and describe public debate about the first, Finnish commercial computer game. In conclusion, we will return to theoretical conceptualizations of historicizing “firsts.”

Cultural heritage, community and monuments

Raiford Guins (108–109) has described the remnants of arcade game machines, such as Pac-Man or Pole Position cabinets, as unintentional monuments. Leaning on Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s definition (1903), Guins states that even though the machines were monumental in their own age, they were not intended “for deliberate commemoration.” According to Guins, their monument status is new — or what we would contend: newly historicized.

Monuments are the vital elements in the production of cultural heritage.[3] The topical question is how and when an average digital game object is transformed from an ordinary artefact or a commodity to a realm of memory (Nora 626), or, as we prefer, a monument of digital culture.

A monument is a historical artefact that has a specific symbolic value to a certain cultural heritage community, i.e. a group of people who share an understanding of their common history.[4] In the cultural history of games, for instance, the famous and somehow special game devices and games, such as the first coin-op games or home consoles, now presented in museums and private collections, can become monuments to game culture. Such monuments are able to commodified as new products such as retrogames.[5]

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

A monument is an active element in a dynamic network of cultural heritage processes. A monument derives its cultural value and meaning from historical interpretations. A monument, a particular gaming artefact for example, is a link between the different elements of the production of social memories. Things, places, events, and stories are comprised in a monument. (Aronsson 197.)

The monument is historical by nature. The making of a monument requires a historical antecedent. When elements of cultural heritage are selected and thus, cultural heritage produced, the argumentation is grounded on histories. History, in this context, is a representation of the past, based on research and traceable source materials. The value of particular game devices, games and game related practices, is built on the historical representations of them, but the research conducted by professional, trained historians is not the sole source of these representations. Therefore, it is important to ask; who writes the history? The one, who conveys the history and conducts the process of cultural heritage?

As mentioned above, cultural heritage as a concept does not only refer to material or immaterial objects, but to a dynamic process (Smith 44–45; Bortolotto 21–22).  In this circular process, cultural heritage is produced, used, and reproduced. Instead of only consisting of objects, cultural heritage is merely an experience of historical continuum and social participation (Smith 45 and 49–50). Cultural heritage is also an instrument of various sorts of group-identity work, which has several transnational, national and local levels. (Sivula 2015; Sivula & Siro 2015.)

There are several groups, as well as individuals, who are developing their historical identity with digital games: game developers, players, journalists, and collectors, to name a few. On the other hand, there is not any indigenous group of digital culture, who possesses an exclusive right to the cultural heritage of digital games. A heritage community experiences the possession of cultural heritage and thus uses it in identity work and maintains its symbolic value. (Sivula 2010, 29.) According to Pierre Nora, the realms of memory are remnants or symbols of the past, “where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (Nora 1989, 7).

Cultural heritage is an instrument of identity work with the symbols and traces of the past, experience of participation, and shared historical experience. (Sivula 2015.) The identity work is performed by a cultural heritage community, as seen below.


Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

The researching and interpretation of the past keeps the cultural heritage process active. Further, the practice of researching, interpreting and representing the past can be observed as the three phases of historiographical operation. According to Paul Ricoeur, the three phases are: 1) documentation, 2) explaining and understanding the past and 3) the historical representation of the past. (Ricoeur 169–170, 182–184 and 234–235; Sivula 2006, 44–45). The cultural heritage process begins with an attempt at historicizing the past, selected by a heritage community. A historian, either amateur or a professional, steps through all the three phases of historical operation, until the past is documented, explained and understood, and further represented in the form of a history.

Monuments – tangible or intangible – are the traces of the past, used in the identity work of a cultural heritage community both as documentary, historical evidence, and meaningful, historical symbols. The symbolic and/or evidential value of a monument, as a realm of social memory, is based on history. Written or oral histories are acting as, and used as frame stories, establishing the meaning of cultural heritage. However, when digital game culture is concerned, one is able to find these histories, for example, in game magazines and online forums consisting of feature articles on (developments of) particular games, genre, developers, and devices; or personal memoirs or one’s personal gaming histories. A tangible or intangible monument, in its turn, serves as evidence and thus solidifies the plot and content of heritage communities’ historical self-comprehension. (Sivula 2015, 64–67.)

Histories are, during the cultural heritage process, used in order to highlight some important moments and attach some remnants of the past i.e., monuments, to these highlighted moments of shared history. (Sivula 2015, 66.) Monuments are usually attached to the beginning of the historical story, or to the turning points of the historiographically described process. Monuments are, therefore, often attached to historically important turning points, or to the instance in which a progressive series of events starts to unfold. In Finland, for instance, the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of the 1980s, is that sort of monument, which signifies the turn towards home computer gaming and the micro computing age and, which, functions as a media technological symbol for a certain generation of people. In Japan, the Nintendo Famicom console has the similar role, and we are able to find a plethora of examples from other countries.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

In the monumentalisation process, the meaning of the object obviously transmutes from its original significance. J. C. Herz (61–62), for instance, richly describes the change in the videogaming context in her famous popular book on videogame history, Joystick Nation. In her work she portrays an early coin-op videogame exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Images, where game cabinets’ new displacement has illuminated and underlined their novel contextualization. The machines were not situated as close to each other as they would have been in arcades, where their placement catalysed an aesthetic elevation in the author’s mind: “They are privileged with space, like statues or really expensive clothing, and thus become Design Objects. And this is when you realize, for the first time, that these cabinets, apart from containing your favourite videogames, are really just goddam beautiful.”

There is plethora of games that are not actively played anymore. Some of them have already been forgotten, but some of them, nonetheless, have the potential to become monuments of digital culture. The cultural heritage potential of a game appears, most often, to be rested on the argument of being “the first” or being a “historical turning point.”

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi's review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi’s review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

We have noticed that the frame stories of the cultural heritage process of computer games are not global (though in many cases globalized), but are rather national histories. In Finland, there are already some popular histories available, and there is a vivid, ongoing discussion on the beginnings and turning points of digital gaming in Finland. The symbolic monuments are not yet largely selected, but they are under historical construction (see e. g. figures 1, 3, 4). The usability of these selected items of cultural heritage depends on their historical value. Selected items can be used, for example, as unique celebrated artefacts in museums, and/or as commodified, copied, varied, and reproduced elements in retro- and heritage industrial contexts. On the other hand, monuments are able to be based on shared experiences: they are not curiosities, they are unique items or have particular cult status as rarities but merely popular and international items such as above mentioned Commodore 64 computer or specific popular game products. However, in this case, we focus on a rarity as a potential monument. The next section of the paper will deal with the case of the first commercial computer game in Finland.

Debate on the first Finnish commercial computer game

There are never ending debates in different fields regarding what was the first of a particular type of invention, technology, media form, or something else. This debate has already been recognized earlier, for example, by computer historians. The history of computer games and videogames is not an exception. The debate on what is the first video game or computer game has mainly been international – or essentially, US oriented. One is able to find variations of this discussion from almost every videogame history book or textbook of game studies, which repeat stories and report new findings related to American Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, Pong and so on.  When the national and local digital game historical representations of the past have begun to emerge, the similar debate has achieved domestic dimensions and bloomed as national versions. This has happened in Finland as well, mainly within computer and game hobbyist communities and in online discussion forums and publications.

Computer scientist and historian John A. N. Lee (57) provides several reasons for the “common desire to be associated with firsts” within the history of computing. On the one hand, it is certainly desirable to become recognized in history as an inventor or a founder or discoverer of some sort of historical origins of the important phenomenon. On the other hand, other reasons can be economic: “Unique firsts do have a place in the identification of the owners of intellectual property rights with respect claims on patents, copyrights, and such.” Lee notes critically that in many cases, it is difficult to define something as being the first and continues further: “Everyone likes firsts but the attraction is for fame and fortune rather than downstream usefulness—firsts are better left to the Guinness Book of Records than being the subject of endless, meaningless arguments in scholarly journals.” (See also Haigh)

Overall, the discussion about the first digital game in Finland has primarily dealt with the issue of the first Finnish commercial computer game publication and not the very first Finnish (digital) game ever produced, perhaps because the publication is less difficult to master: before commercial publications there was a quite uncertain phase of non-commercial amateur game projects, a period of producing and playing of games with mainframe and mini computers (Saarikoski 264). Some studies dealing with earlier developments, at least partially, have appeared (see e.g. Saarikoski; Paju; Saarikoski & Suominen), as well as studies pondering questions of the earliest computers and microcomputers in Finland (e.g. Suominen 2003; Saarikoski 2004; Paju).

Even though the question of the earliest Finnish commercial computer game release seems rather straightforward from the first sight, it is much more complicated than that. Basically, we can challenge all of the elements of the question: what does “Finnish” mean? And what do we signify with “a computer” game’ or with a “commercial?”

Let’s now trace the tracks and marks regarding the online debate of the first commercial computer game in Finland using Google search as a helper. It appears that there are only a few hits with the keywords “first Finnish computer game” or “first Finnish video game” (during the process of writing first manuscript of the paper in Spring 2014). However, for example, the, which has focused on forms of popular culture, such as television, cinema and games; consists of various articles and discussions about the issue. Jukka O. Kauppinen, a pioneering game journalist and one of the key persons researching the historicisation of digital gaming in Finland (Suominen 2011; Suominen et al. 2015), published, along with with Miikka Lehtonen and Teemu Viemerö, an article about the early years of the Finnish game industry and the “first Finnish games” on the 1st of December 2013. The authors opened their article with a summary introduction and referred to an antecedent text handling the 30-year anniversary exhibition about the Finnish game industry. The exhibition had been had been organized for the DigiExpo2013 fair by the association of Finnish game importers, FIGMA. Game distributer firms trace their history from the establishment of Petri Lehmuskoski’s company, Toptronics, in 1983. In the article, Kauppinen and his colleagues stated that not only importing, but also the production of the first commercial games began in Finland 30 years before prior (Viemerö et al. 1.12.2013.).

The above-mentioned writers noted that the company Amersoft was probably the first game publisher in Finland. They looked through the company’s different phases by introducing its, as well as some other publishers’ early releases. They discussed the following games: Joe the Whizz Kid (1985), RahaRuhtinas (1984, Amersoft), Sanxion (1986), Uuno Turhapuro muuttaa maalle (1986, Amersoft), Painterboy (1986), Delta (1987), Quedex (1987), Octapolis (1987), and Netherworld (1988). About Amersoft, they wrote:

The book publisher Amersoft was probably the first Finnish game publisher whose contribution to domestic game field was very significant. The best knowledge available suggests that that the first domestic commercially published game was RahaRuhtinas [“Money Prince”], which came out in 1984 which was a pseudo-3D graphic implemented adventure. Little information remains about the game’s aims or storyline for future generations, however, the Finnish adventure game was, according to some recollections, quite functional and entertaining (Viemerö et al. 1.11.2013).

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Quite obvious sources in tracing popular knowledge of game cultural histories are main social media platforms, particularly Wikipedia and also game historical vlogs on YouTube. In the winter 2013–2014, Finnish Wikipedia’s chronological list of Finnish games stated that RahaRuhtinas was the first game (Wikipedia: Suomen videopelialan historia 30.11.2013).  Wikipedia referred to another of Jukka O. Kauppinen’s articles, published on June 27, 2011. The article was titled “Is this the first Finnish game ever” There, Kauppinen noted that “who knows how long the search for the first Finnish commercial computer game has lasted, and there has not been a definitive answer to the question so far. Although there are several good candidates.” Kauppinen first mentioned the Yleisurheilu (Track and field sports) game for Commodore 64, released in 1985 by Amersoft and stated that RahaRuhtinas had an even earlier release date. He continued: “According to some claims, there are some older Vic-20 games as well, but it seems that one cannot find quite now very exact evidence about them” (Kauppinen 27.6.2011.) In his article, Kauppinen also referred to a discussion that occurred in April 2011, in MuroBBS online discussion forum. However, Raharuhtinas was not actually mentioned there, only more recent commercial games and older non-commercial games (MuroBBS 14.4.2011). Obviously, it is worthwhile to follow article links and references and trace their mutual connections and cross-references in an ongoing loop bouncing between Wikipedia entries, online articles, and message boards.

Information dealing with Amersoft and Raharuhtinas became more specified in 2013 and in spring 2014. In autumn 2013, game historians, hobbyists and collectors Markku Reunanen, Mikko Heinonen and Manu Pärssinen, published an article about the history of Finnish games in Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies (Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2013). Their article was based on their database of Finnish games published at the site. They claimed: “So far the oldest finding is an adventure game Raharuhtinas, programmed by Simo Ojaniemi and published by Amersoft in the year 1984.” On the 14th of December 2013, however, was updated and a new game appeared. The site alleged that the first game, also programmed by Simo Ojaniemi, was called Mehulinja (Juice line), not Raharuhtinas: “[Mehulinja] requires a VIC-1211 Super Expander extension. According to our current information, Mehulinja is the first commercially published computer game. The game won I came-made-won programming contest in 1984.” The example shows how researchers, at least, were careful when claiming something as being the first. refers to another website called Sinivalkoinen pelikirja ( (Blue-white game book [colours referring to the Finnish national flag]), which has published a review of the Mehulinja game on 22 March, 2013. The Sinivalkoinen pelikirja site was connected to an ongoing book project, a chronicle about Finnish game history. The book was published in spring 2014. On the one hand, the book, written by journalist Juho Kuorikoski and based on the website, claimed that RahaRuhtinas is “as far as we know, the first commercial Finnish game for Commodore 64.” Kuorikoski mentioned three “small games” programmed by Simo Ojaniemi for VIC-20 published in the same year: Mehulinja, Herkkusuu (Sweet Tooth) and Myyräjahti (Vole Hunt) (Kuorikoski 12). On the other hand, he declares that Raharuhtinas was the first Finnish game released (20) and that Yleisurheilu was only “one candidate for being the first Finnish game ever.” (25). That variation proves the uncertainty of the first.[6]

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on website.

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on website.

Similar updating of the information has happened on a YouTube channel by alias AlarikRetro. He published a video review – another type of history – of Raharuhtinas on December 1th, 2013 and remarked that the game was the first Finnish release. Only a few days later, the 14th of December, he included an edit, in which he refers to the site and states that actually Mehulinja was the first (AlarikRetro 8.12.2013 and AlarikRetro 27.12.2013) There are similar debates on other hobbyist sites.

In sum, the question of the first game has not been verified, although though it has received some emerging interest. Then, in July 2014, a novel turn took place, when Manu Pärssinen and Markku Reunanen discovered a new, an older candidate, which might have been the first commercial computer game in Finland. That was called Chesmac, a game programmed by Raimo Suonio in 1979 for the Telmac 1800 home computer. According to Suonio, the game, released by computer retailer Topdata, sold 104 copies. Pärssinen and Reunanen published several documents related to game, such as scanned photos of the game’s manual and an interview with the programmer (Pärssinen & Reunanen 28.7.2014). The news of this new first was circulated in online magazines as well as in newspapers (Kauppinen 28.7.2014; Berschewsky 28.7.2014). In the end, the leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published an interview with the programmer Raimo Suonio (Jokinen 10.8.2014). Thus, the history of Finnish commercial game releases turned out to be at least five years longer than previously thought and has garnered, for the first time, major public coverage in Finland. It therefore appears that the discussion amongst hobbyists and researcher-hobbyists has emerged and strengthened during last few years.[7]

We would argue that such interest in discussing and representing the past was not only related to collecting of games, or sort of hobbyist retrogaming boom, but also to international emerging interest towards digital game preservation, exhibitions, and a turn towards the research of national and local aspects of games and game cultures (See also English blog writing on the history of Finnish digital games: Skäpädi Pöy 28.8.2013). This shift was also connected to the organization and recognition of the Finnish game industry.  It is a sign of legitimization and institutionalization processes of digital games in society.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as "Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. [...] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland." In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as “Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. […] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland.” In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

However, there has not been significant discussion about the first Finnish commercial game yet outside the hobbyist and academic communities, even though it seems to be emerging during the time of writing this article in autumn 2014.[8] Earlier, for example, one is not able to find many mentions of first games in the database of the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, nor in many other newspapers published by the same corporation. The references are from the 2000s and they are not connected to the first ever Finnish commercial game, but rather to the first Finnish publication for a certain new platform, such as first game for PS3 (Digitoday 27.4.2007), PS4, Nintendo Wii (Kauppalehti 23.6.2009, 14–15), Steam downloading platform (Digitoday 13.9.2006), etc. These mentions belong, thus, to contemporary discussion where the importance of the game industry has been acknowledged and where turning points are aimed at aimed at explaining contemporary use and applicably only for future history writings. The issues are distinctively connected to the economy, ICT sector, and new cultural industry.

When Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas and other games were published in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the game industry was an undeveloped field internationally. Historical understanding or awareness was not established, not even among game developers and players. The establishment of Finnish computer hobbyist and game oriented publications from the mid-1980s, created the needed public space for the creation and construction of historical understanding amongst hobbyists and players (see Saarikoski 2004; Suominen 2011). The press created hero stories about the earliest Finnish game designer individuals and occasionally introduced the first releases in a certain genre (first adventure game etc.) (Saarikoski 2004, 264), or underlined the historical importance of some new releases (such as the Sanxion game, published in 1986). Amersoft, however, had a somewhat marginal role in the early magazines, even though some of its publications were reviewed and it had advertised it products, primarily books, but also some games. These early computer hobbyist magazines and game magazines later on, including the above mentioned hero stories – which usually revealed histories of individual programmers or game designers as computer users, gamers and developers, have acted as sources when the interest towards the early phases of Finnish game industry has been emerged since the early 2000s.

In the beginning of the 2000s, new interest towards development of the Finnish game industry and education emerged. This was due to several, interconnected reasons. International success stories such as with the Max Payne (2001) PC-game, developed by Finnish company Remedy, raised interest towards the game industry. Importantly, it was situated in the international trend of new cultural and creative industries. Likewise, the triumph of cell phone corporation Nokia created an information and communication technological boom which, in its minor part, focused on mobile game software development.

Several game industry and education reports were published. Even though they mostly referred to the national history of game industry (typically excluding non-digital games, for example) very cursory, they articulated the more general trend, which with was related to the production of game historical narrative: the significant branch of industry had its roots. However, the origin story of game developers themselves did not mention Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas or some other early games but was fastened to so-called demoscene phenomenon due to the fact that some key persons of the focal firms, like Remedy and Housemarque, which had their background in the late 1980s and early 1990s demoscene (on demoscene’s role in the Nordic game industry, see Jørgensen et al. 2015). The demoscene origin story was introduced in the interviews of firm personnel in computer and game magazines and newspapers in the late 1990s. Later on, it has growth as a myth which has been repeated in publications as well as in the interviews of early game developers (e.g. Niipola 51–62; Kuorikoski 36–38).

But as we have argued, the primary “boom of the first” has started to emerge in last few years. It has mixed ingredients from new success stories of Finnish game industry, post-Nokia context, establishment of retrogaming, anniversaries as well as “awakenings” of memory organizations and researchers on questions of game history and preservation. What has happened? Who uses history, for what and why?

The First Game is both a piece of historical evidence and a symbol

We argue that cultural heritage process of digital games has reached a new phase, and the Finnish heritage community of digital games is actively involved in a new kind of identity work. The institutionalization of this new type of heritage has begun. The cultural heritage process of digital gaming can be observed in the context of the different levels of the cultures of history.

Oral and written histories are produced in three different fields. First, there is the academic field of history-cultural activities consisting of academic rules, refereed publications and academically trained researchers with doctoral degrees. Histories are based on the source criticism and supplementary rules of academic research. Secondly, there is a field of the public, which consists of politically controlled and publicly funded processes of cultural heritage with less strict academic control, but much more discussions on and monetary involvement. The institutionalization of cultural heritage takes often place on the second level of the cultures of history. It is conducted with political decisions, and there is not a specific means of control for the credibility of a frame story. The third field is the field of amateurs; such as individuals and groups of hobbyists, even families, selecting meaningful things from the more or less authentic remains of their pasts. The amateur is permitted to choose whatsoever (elements of) heritage and use any kind of frame stories as arguments, without an obligation to put the arguments to the test of any kind. The three fields of cultural heritage are interrelated.  Amateurs are often extremely active in the second field of cultures of history. An amateur may find academic research useful as a frame story that gives meaning to one’s own cultural heritage of her/his own.  An academic researcher or a politician may also be an enthusiastic amateur, and an academic researcher often uses the academic competences for to promote the cultural heritage process and consolidate the cultural heritage value of the historical remnants of her own hobby.  (Sivula 2013, 163; Aronsson 43.)

The case we described above shows that the first game historians were not usually “proper” professional historians, but more likely historically oriented amateurs. The active heritage community, in our case, consisted of the hobbyists.

It seems to be quite common, that the historicisation of a new culture begins among the community or groups of the amateur historians, involved in the historical process themselves. (Cf. history of computing and Lee 1996.) Because of this involvement, we refer to them as participatory historians. Amateur popular historians use often specific period-related concepts as metaphors or rhetorical elements.[9] Accurate or not, the amateur historian has already marked the turning points of the story, when an academic professional historian begins the research work. The preliminary plot of historical narrative, suggesting the argument for valuable cultural heritage, is often constructed by the amateurs.

The plot of history has, at least, a beginning and an end, and a change in between them. The emplotment of a history consists of the defining of the origins of the historicized phenomenon’s life cycle, marking some turning points of the process and constructing the end of the presentation. In the presentations of the history of digital gaming, there have been some international discussions on, what actually was the first game.  The battles of what came first are common in the discussions on the phenomena that are not yet historicized, however they can continue after that as well. Historian of an incomplete process is strongly interested in the beginnings of the process and the origins of the phenomenon.

Either the beginning or the end of a historical narrative is usually self-evident. The first and the last fact of a historical series are often chosen from among several options.  The defining of an origin, the beginning of the story, is an act of interpretation. It is, however, not an arbitrary one. The professional historian’s choice must be based on evidence. The interpretations are built in negotiations (Foucault 34; Ricoeur 143–144.) The plot of a written or orally solidified history determines the experienced value of the cultural heritage. The original game is experienced to be historically more valuable than the successor or a copy.

According to Michel Foucault, the past was an irregular chaos of events, and an oral or written history organizes these events. (Foucault 34–35.)  History gives comprehensibility to the past and solidifies the connections of separate events, building series of events and building the sense and sensibility of time and temporality. The oral or written, amateur or professional history, as a frame story of the cultural heritage process, solidifies the symbolic function of a monument.

There are some regular phases in every cultural heritage process. In our case, the digital game is originally used, functioning and experienced as a game. In the new context, though, it is defined in the historical frame story, it begins to be used and experienced as cultural heritage, either as a tool for to build the temporal identity of a heritage community, e.g. group of players, or as a tool of building the public image or other communicative activity of an enterprise or other corporation. Likewise, it could be used by the state or international organizations. For these goals they use all the other institutionalized cultural resources, such as education or cultural production. In the cultural heritage process, the use, function and experience of the game, all change. The public or private heritage community has either active or more or less subconscious goal of increasing the symbolic value of the game. The game with increased symbolic value, cultural heritage value, can still be played, although it might represent outdated technology and design.

When public resources and the academic field of history culture are involved in the cultural heritage process, the histories used as frame stories are most often based on academic, professional research. The interpretations pass the normal academic quality control. In the field of amateurs and in the private field the rules are different, but in many cases academic sub-contractors are hired for to produce the frame story.

When an object, e.g. a digital game, is identified as a symbol or evidence of the history shared by a group of the digital cultural heritage community, it receives a new social function. It is no longer only a game, but a monument or a place of memory. It is used, either with a playful sense of retro or in the more serious feeling of the memorizing the past, in commemorative rituals. It becomes a tool of identity work. (See also Heineman) Sooner or later, it may be rejected, changed, found to be useless or be replaced with another, more accurate tool, e.g. what we have learned with the changing definition of the first commercial computer game in Finland. Or the community, whose identity tool the cultural heritage was, may disband and move on (Bohman 17–23; Sivula 2013, 161–164).


Digital game culture is a unique field of contemporary culture, and a very interesting one at that. Our case study opens a view to the historiographical operations of participatory historians. Our case aids us in understanding the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of the historiographical practice related to monuments. It helps to develop the methodology of analysing the historiographical operations, historicizing the contemporary culture. To be critical, we ought to know, how the monument of the first digital game was erected.

In most cases of the production of new monuments, the role of the amateur field has been essential. The production of monuments is a part of historiographical operations and it is clearly located in the documentary and representative phases of the model of historiographical operation, presented by Paul Ricoeur.

The right to choose a monument of digital game culture cannot be monopolized by either academics or amateurs. In our case, both academics and computer game hobbyists were active, selecting objects that they considered worth of preserving and creating monuments of Finnish game culture. In the case of the cultural heritage process of Finnish computer games, the academic field of history culture is closely and continuously interacting with the history-cultural field of amateurs. Many actors of the academic field do have a position in the field of amateurs as well. In other words: there are many computer game hobbyists among the academic researchers of the history of digital culture. The historiographical operation of digital games produces plethora of monuments.

The question of what was the first game becomes important in the phase of representation of historiographical operation. That is the phase where the plot of history is created. The question of what came first is often already answered, even before a professional historian gets an opportunity to make any conclusions.

We can conclude that there are some preconditions for a reliable definition of the firstness, when concerned with digital games. All the concurrent definitions must be observed critically, paying attention to the goals and needs of inventors of the monuments.

First, there is the contemporary definition. A chronicling actor has a motive to spot and articulate a new field, turning point or a milestone. The actor wishes to claim that something important, even revolutionary has happened. We must notice who is acting and why.

Second, there is a retrospective definition. Usually, it is connected to a situation and phase where certain field of actions is the subject of reformation and re-definition. Need for birth stories and origin stories, when legitimizing a need for a cultural industry and several organizations related to it, has taken place. It this case as well, economy and politics have certain role in the process. There is a supply of and demand for money.

Third, there is a specified retrospective definition. That happens, for example, when celebrating anniversaries. In Finland and within digital game cultures, this sort of definition has not happened until recent years and celebrations of the 30th anniversary of commercial game development and digital game importing businesses.

The knowledge related to what is first might become more exact, although this is not necessary. A contemporary definition of what has been the first do not occur, if phenomenon does not feel like significant for contemporaries – if they don’t comprehend that they are living “historical moments.” With the Finnish case, it was not until the publication of “the first Finnish adventure game”, a release of specific popular genre, was the rhetoric of first actually launched. Another option is that they do not comprehend something as being first: this question applies to what is Finnish, what is a game and what is commercial? Because definitions of all of the three aspects are controversial, it is difficult to define something as first Finnish commercial game publication.

The question of what is the first, functions on at least two levels: on one hand, it can deal with the particular first (first game ever), but essentially there are difficulties, and in many cases, that are not necessary to define. On the other hand, questions regarding firstness are connected to larger turning points and they are less difficult to outline: there is, for example, no doubt that that Commodore 64 was the first popular home computer in Finland and the first popular computer gaming device available.


Acknowledgements: We are grateful to the Kone Foundation for funding the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö [Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobby Culture] project, and the Academy of Finland for funding Ludification and the Emergence of Playful Culture (decision #275421). In addition, we thank the two anonymous referees for their useful comments.


Works Cited


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[1] See, for example, The Game Canon proposed for the Library of Congress, consisting of games such as Spacewar!, Tetris and Doom and selected by a committee comprising game historian Henry Lowood, game designers Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky and Matteo Bittanti, as well as blogger Christopher Grant.

[2] We thank referee number two for giving us information on some more recent software preservation projects: Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report (2010); Preserving.Exe. Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (2013); Emulation & Virtualization as Preservation Strategies (2015); Software Preservation Network Proposal (2015).

[3] The constructionistically oriented researchers of heritagization, e.g. Laurajane Smith, do not use the concept of monument in the sense we do. From the point of view of the historicization of a tangible or intangible object, the concept of monument is useful.

[4] The specific group, working with its identity in the process of cultural heritage, can be named as cultural heritage community.

[5] The line between the artifacts/monuments and commodities becomes less clear when old devices and game software are bought and sold at Internet auction sites. Various music videos, works of art, books and new editions and revisions of old game products– in some degree commercials as well – are also commodities of the cultures of history (Author 2 & Author 1 2004). (See Suominen 2008; 2012.)

[6] In a Facebook chat discussion with Jaakko Suominen, Markku Reunanen explains background of the rewriting the history of the first. According to Reunanen, they received new information while they browsed online Finnish Commodore archive maintained by a hobbyist Niila T. Rautanen (Rautanen: Commodore Archive). Rautanen has gathered games, screen shots, some information and for example scanned early Poke&Peek Commodore magazines, published by the Finnish Commodore importer. The magazines proved to be an important source of information. Amersoft had released several games in 1984, and according to Reunanen, mentioned publication order of 1984 releases in, was based on mainly to reasoning. VIC-20 computer was simpler than Commodore 64 and the popularity of VIC was decreasing in 1984. Reunanen states that Raharuhtinas for Commodore 64 represent “more advanced programming” and Mehulinja had won an earlier VIC-20 programming contest. (Reunanen 5.3.2014, FB-chat.)

[7] In addition to Jukka O. Kauppinen, Mikko Heinonen from Pelikonepeijoonit collector community, started in the 1990s, has specifically contributed to discussion. For example, he published “for honor of Finnish Independence Day,” “A Chronicle of Finnish Games” in 6 December 2009, where he divided the history into “prehistory,” “middle ages,” and “modern times” (Heinonen 6.12.2009) and started his “prehistory” from Amersoft publications and claiming wrongly that Yleisurheilu was published in 1986. The association of Finnish Game Developers, for their part, published on their website “A Short history of Finnish game industry” in October 2011 where they alleged that Sanxion by Stavros Fasoulas, published for Commodore 1986 was the first Finnish commercial game (Suomen Pelinkehittäjät Ry 3.10.2011). Actually, the particular game was the first larger international Finnish computer game hit, released by the British company, Thalamus, but not the first.

[8] The situation has partially changed after that, however, mainly because the introduction of Finnish Museum of Games project. The Museum, partially based on a crowd funding project, will be opened in January 2017 (

[9] That is why, for instance, in the above mentioned case, a journalist has applied terms such as “pre-history”, “middle-ages” and “modern times” to game historical representations.



Jaakko Suominen has a PhD in Cultural History and is Professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, Suominen has studied computers and popular media, internet, social media, digital games, and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. He has lead several multi-disciplinary research projects and has over 100 scholarly publications.

Anna Sivula has a PhD in History and is a Professor of Cultural Heritage at University of Turku, Finland. Sivula has studied theoretical, methodological and cultural aspects of cultural heritage process and heritage communities, historiographical operation and historical culture. She has written commissioned histories and led several research projects.

Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.


[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.



Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.


Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood

Abstract: The preservation of digital media in the context of heritage work is both seductive and daunting. The potential replication of human experiences afforded by computation and realised in virtual environments is the seductive part. The work involved in realising this potential is the daunting side of digital collection, curation, and preservation. In this lecture, I will consider two questions. First, Is the lure of perfect capture of data or the reconstruction of “authentic” experiences of historical software an attainable goal? And if not, how might reconsidering the project as moments of enacting rather than re-enacting provide a different impetus for making born digital heritage?

Keynote address originally delivered at the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference, Melbourne, 19 June 2014

Let’s begin with a question. When did libraries, archives, and museums begin to think about software history collections? The answer: In the late 1970s. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) and the History of Computing Committee of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), soon to be a sponsor of CBI, were both founded in 1978. The AFIPS committee produced a brochure called “Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” Distributed at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it is the earliest statement I have found about preserving software history. It says,

If we are to fully understand the process of computer and computing developments as well as the end results, it is imperative that the following material be preserved: correspondence; working papers; unpublished reports; obsolete manuals; key program listings used to debug and improve important software; hardware and componentry engineering drawings; financial records; and associated documents and artifacts. (“Preserving …” 4)

Mostly paper records. The recommendations say nothing about data files or executable software, only nodding to the museum value of hardware artefacts for “esthetic and sentimental value.” The brochure says that artefacts provide “a true picture of the mind of the past, in the same way as the furnishings of a preserved or restored house provides a picture of past society.” One year later, CBI received its first significant donation of books and archival documents from George Glaser, a former president of AFIPS. Into the 1980s history of computing collections meant documentation: archival records, publications, ephemera and oral histories.

Software preservation trailed documentation and historical projects by a good two decades. The exception was David Bearman, who left the Smithsonian in 1986 to create a company called Archives & Museum Informatics (AHI). He began publishing the Archival Informatics Newsletter in 1987 (later called Archives & Museum Informatics). As one of its earliest projects, AHI drafted policies and procedures for a “Software Archives” at the Computer History Museum (CHM) then located in Boston. By the end of 1987, Bearman published the first important study of software archives under the title Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. (Bearman, Collecting Software; see also Bearman, “What Are/Is Informatics?”)

In his report, Bearman alternated between frustration and inspiration. Based on a telephone survey of companies and institutions, he wrote that “the concept of collecting software for historical research purposes had not occurred to the archivists surveyed; perhaps, in part, because no one ever asks for such documentation!” (Bearman, Collecting Software 25-26.) He learned that nobody he surveyed was planning software archives. Undaunted, he produced a report that carefully considered software collecting as a multi-institutional endeavor, drafting collection policies and selection criteria, use cases, a rough “software thesaurus” to provide terms for organizing a software collection, and a variety of practices and staffing models. Should some institution accept the challenge, here were tools for the job.

Well, here we are, nearly thirty years later. We can say that software archives and digital repositories finally exist. We have made great progress in the last decade with respect to repository technology and collection development. Looking back to the efforts of the 1980s, one persistent issue raised as early as the AFIPS brochure in 1978 is the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software. This is an important issue. Indeed, it is today, nearly forty years later, still one of the key decision points for any effort to build research collections aiming to preserve digital heritage or serve historians of software. Another topic that goes back to Bearman’s report is a statement of use cases for software history. Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it? Answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history.

As we consider the potential roles to be played by software collections in libraries and museums, we immediately encounter vexing questions about how researchers of the future will use ancient software. Consider that using historical software now in order to experience it in 2014 and running that software in 2014 to learn what it was like when people operated it thirty years ago are two completely different use cases. This will still be true in 2050. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand its implications. An analogy might help. I am not just talking about the difference between watching “Gone with the Wind” at home on DVD versus watching it in a vintage movie house in a 35mm print – with or without a live orchestra. Rather I mean the difference between my experience in a vintage movie house today – when I can find one – and the historical experience of, say, my grandfather during the 1930s. My experience is what it is, not what his was. So much of this essay will deal with the complicated problem of enacting a contemporary experience to re-enact a historical experience and what it has to do with software preservation. I will consider three takes on this problem: the historian’s, the media archaeologist’s, and the re-enactor.

Take 1. The Historian

Take one. The historian. Historians enact the past by writing about it. In other words, historians tell stories. This is hardly a revelation. Without meaning to trivialize the point, I cannot resist pointing out that “story” is right there in “hi-story” or that the words for story and history are identical in several languages, including French and German. The connections between story-telling and historical narrative have long been a major theme in writing about the methods of history, that is, historiography. In recent decades, this topic has been mightily influenced by the work of Hayden White, author of the much-discussed Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973.

White’s main point about historians is that History is less about subject matter and source material and more about how historians write.

He tells us that historians do not simply arrange events culled from sources in correct chronological order. Such arrangements White calls Annals or Chronicles. The authors of these texts merely compile lists of events. The work of the historian begins with the ordering of these events in a different way. Hayden writes in The Content of the Form that in historical writing, “the events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.” (White, Content of the Form 5) How do historians do this? They create narrative discourses out of sequential chronicles by making choices. These choices involve the form, effect and message of their stories. White puts choices about form, for example, into categories such as argument, ideology and emplotment. There is no need in this essay to review all of the details of every such choice. The important takeaway is that the result of these choices by historians is sense-making through the structure of story elements, use of literary tropes and emphasis placed on particular ideas. In a word, plots. White thus gives us the enactment of history as a form of narrative or emplotment that applies established literary forms such as comedy, satire, and epic.

In his book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, White writes about the “events, persons, structures and processes of the past” that “it is not their pastness that makes them historical. They become historical only in the extent to which they are represented as subjects of a specifically historical kind of writing.” (White, Figural Realism 2.) It is easy to take away from these ideas that history is a kind of literature. Indeed, this is the most controversial interpretation of White’s historiography.

My purpose in bringing Hayden White to your attention is to insist that there is a place in game and software studies for this “historical kind of writing.” I mean writing that offers a narrative interpretation of something that happened in the past. Game history and software history need more historical writing that has a point beyond adding events to the chronicles of game development or putting down milestones of the history of the game industry. We are only just beginning to see good work that pushes game history forward into historical writing and produces ideas about how these historical narratives will contribute to allied works in fields such as the history of computing or the history of technology more generally.

Allow me one last point about Hayden White as a take on enactment. Clearly, history produces narratives that are human-made and human-readable. They involve assembling story elements and choosing forms. How then do such stories relate to actual historical events, people, and artifacts? Despite White’s fondness for literary tropes and plots, he insists that historical narrative is not about imaginary events. If historical methods are applied properly, the resulting narrative according to White is a “simulacrum.” He writes in his essay on “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” that history is a “mimesis of the story lived in some region of historical reality, and insofar as it is an accurate imitation, it is to be considered a truthful account thereof.” (White, “The Question of Narrative …” 3.) Let’s keep this idea of historical mimesis in mind as we move on to takes two and three.

Take 2. The Media Archaeologist

My second take is inspired by the German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. As with Hayden White, my remarks will fall far short of a critical perspective on Ernst’s work. I am looking for what he says to me about historical software collections and the enactment of media history.

Hayden White put our attention on narrative; enacting the past is storytelling. Ernst explicitly opposes Media Archaeology to historical narrative. He agrees in Digital Memory and the Archive, that “Narrative is the medium of history.” By contrast, “the technological reproduction of the past … works without any human presence because evidence and authenticity are suddenly provided by the technological apparatus, no longer requiring a human witness and thus eliminating the irony (the insight into the relativity) of the subjective perspective.” (Ernst, Loc. 1053-1055.) Irony, it should be noted, is one of White’s favourite tropes for historical narrative.

White tells us that historical enactment is given to us as narrative mimesis, with its success given as the correspondence of history to some lived reality. Ernst counters by giving us enactment in the form of playback.

In an essay called “Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View,” Ernst plays with the notion that, “To tell as a transitive verb means ‘to count things’.” The contrast with White here relates to the difference in the German words erzählen (narrate) and zählen (count), but you also find it in English: recount and count. Ernst describes historians as recounters: “Modern historians … are obliged not just to order data as in antiquaries but also to propose models of relations between them, to interpret plausible connections between events.” (Ernst, Loc. 2652-2653) In another essay, aptly subtitled “Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” Ernst adds that mainstream histories of technology and mass media as well as their counter-histories are textual performances that follow “a chronological and narrative ordering of events.” He observes succinctly that, “It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations.” (Ernst, Loc. 1080-1084)

Where do we go with Ernst’s declaration in “Telling versus Counting,” that “There can be order without stories”? We go, of course, directly to the machines. For Ernst, media machines are transparent in their operation, an advantage denied to historians. We play back historical media on historical machines, and “all of a sudden, the historian’s desire to preserve the original sources of the past comes true at the sacrifice of the discursive.” We are in that moment directly in contact with the past.

In “Method and Machine”, Ernst offers the concept of “media irony” as a response to White’s trope of historical irony. He says,

Media irony (the awareness of the media as coproducers of cultural content, with the medium evidently part of the message) is a technological modification of Hayden White’s notion that “every discourse is always as much about discourse itself as it is about the objects that make up its subject matter. (Ernst, Loc. 1029-1032)

As opposed to recounting, counting in Ernst’s view has to do with the encoding and decoding of signals by media machines. Naturally, humans created these machines. This might be considered as another irony, because humans- have thereby “created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime.” We are in a realm that replaces narrative with playback as a form of direct access to a past defined by machine sequences rather than historical time. (Ernst, Loc. 1342-1343)

Ernst draws implications from media archaeology for his closely connected notion of the multimedia archive. In “Method and Machine,” he says, “With digital archives, there is, in principle, no more delay between memory and the present but rather the technical option of immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and vice versa.” In “Telling versus Counting,” he portrays “a truly multimedia archive that stores images using an image-based method and sound in its own medium … And finally, for the first time in media history, one can archive a technological dispositive in its own medium.” (Ernst, Loc. Loc. 1745-1746; 2527-2529.) Not only is the enactment of history based on playback inherently non-discursive, but the very structure of historical knowledge is written by machines.

With this as background, we can turn to the concrete manifestation of Ernst’s ideas about the Multimedia Archive. This is the lab he has created in Berlin. The website for Ernst’s lab describes The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as “a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography.” (Media Archaeological Fundus) Ernst explained the intention behind the MAF in an interview with Lori Emerson as deriving from the need to experience media “in performative ways.” So he created an assemblage of media and media technologies that could be operated, touched, manipulated and studied directly. He said in this interview, “such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture).” (Owens) Here is media archaeology’s indirect response to the 1979 AFIPS brochure’s suggestion that historical artifacts serve a purpose similar to furnishings in a preserved house.

The media-archaeological take on enacting history depends on access to artifacts and, in its strongest form, on their operation. Even when its engagement with media history is reduced to texts, these must be “tested against the material evidence.” This is the use case for Playback as an enactment of software history.

Take 3. The Re-enactor

Take three. The Re-enactor. Authenticity is an important concept for digital preservation.   A key feature of any digital archive over the preservation life-cycle of its documents and software objects is auditing and verification of authenticity, as in any archive. Access also involves authenticity, as any discussion of emulation or virtualization will bring up the question of fidelity to an historical experience of using software.

John Walker (of AutoDesk and Virtual Reality fame) created a workshop called Fourmilab to work on personal projects such as an on-line museum “celebrating” Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This computer programming heritage work includes historical documents and a Java-based emulator of the Engine. Walker says, “Since we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage’s dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves.” The authenticity of this experience – whatever that means for a machine that never existed – is important to Walker. In a 4500-word essay titled, “Is the Emulator Authentic,” he tells us that, “In order to be useful, an emulator program must be authentic—it must faithfully replicate the behaviour of the machine it is emulating.” By extension, the authenticity of a preserved version of the computer game DOOM in a digital repository could be audited by verifying that it can properly run a DOOM demo file. The same is true for Microsoft Word and a historical document in the Word format. This is a machine-centered notion of authenticity; we used it in the second Preserving Virtual Worlds project as a solution to the significant properties problem for software. (Walker, “Introduction;” Walker, “Analytical Engine.”)

All well and good. However, I want to address a different authenticity. Rather than judging authenticity in terms of playback, I would like to ask what authenticity means for the experience of using software. Another way of putting this question is to ask what we are looking for in the re-enactment of historical software use. So we need to think about historical re-enactment.

I am not a historical re-enactor, at least not the kind you are thinking of. I have never participated in the live recreation or performance of a historical event. Since I have been playing historical simulations – a category of boardgames – for most of my life, perhaps you could say that I re-enact being a historical military officer by staring at maps and moving units around on them. It’s not the same thing as wearing period uniforms and living the life, however.

Anyway, I need a re-enactor. In his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz described historical re-enactment in its relationship to lived heritage. (Horwitz) His participant-journalist reportage begins at a chance encounter with a group of “hard-core” Confederate re-enactors. Their conversation leads Horwitz on a year-long voyage through the American South. A featured character in Confederates in the Attic is the re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, a waiter turned Confederate officer. He took Horwitz under his wing and provided basic training in re-enactment. Hodge even became a minor celebrity due to his role in the book.

Hodges teaches Horwitz the difference between hard-core and farby (i.e., more casual) re-enactment. He tells Horwitz about dieting to look sufficiently gaunt and malnourished, the basics of “bloating” to resemble a corpse on the battlefield, what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat, and so on. It’s remarkable how little time he spends on martial basics. One moment sticks out for me. During the night after a hard day of campaigning Horwitz finds himself in the authentic situation of being wet, cold and hungry. He lacks a blanket, so he is given basic instruction in the sleeping technique of the Confederate infantryman: “spooning.” According to the re-enactor Scott Cross, “Spooning is an old term for bundling up together in bed like spoons placed together in the silver chest.” (Horwitz) Lacking adequate bedding and exposed to the elements, soldiers bunched up to keep warm. So that’s what Horwitz does, not as an act of mimesis or performance per se, but in order to re-experience the reality of Civil War infantrymen.

It interested me that of all the re-enactment activities Horwitz put himself through, spooning reveals a deeper commitment to authenticity than any of the combat performances he describes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, so requires dedication and persistence. Sleep becomes self-conscious, not just in order to stick with the activity, but because the point of it is to recapture a past experience of sleeping on the battlefield. Since greater numbers of participants are needed for re-enacting a battle than sleep, more farbs (the less dedicated re-enactors) show up and thus the general level of engagement declines. During staged battles, spectators, scripting, confusion and accidents all interfere with the experience. Immersion breaks whenever dead soldiers pop up on the command, “resurrect.” In other words, performance takes over primacy from the effort to re-experience. It is likely that many farbs dressed up for battle are content to find a hotel to sleep in.

Specific attention to the details of daily life might be a reflection of recent historical work that emphasizes social and cultural histories of the Civil War period, rather than combat histories. But that’s not my takeaway from the spooning re-enactors. Rather, it’s the standard of authenticity that goes beyond performance of a specific event (such as a battle) to include life experience as a whole. Horvitz recalled that,

Between gulps of coffee—which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs—Cool and his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’ (Horwitz, Loc. 153-157)

Stephen Gapps, an Australian curator, historian, and re-enactor has spoken of the “extraordinary lengths” re-enactors go to “acquire and animate the look and feel of history.” Hard-core is not just about marching, shooting and swordplay. I wonder what a “period rush” might be for the experience of playing Pitfall! in the mid-21st century. Shag rugs? Ambient New Wave radio? Caffeine-free cola? Will future re-enactors of historical software seek this level of experiential fidelity? Gapps, again: “Although reenactors invoke the standard of authenticity, they also understand that it is elusive – worth striving for, but never really attainable.” (Gapps 397)

Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience. I see some similarity here with the correspondence to lived historical experience in White’s striving for a discursive mimesis. Yet, like media archaeology, re-enactment puts performance above discourse, though it is the performance of humans rather than machines.

Playing Pitfalls

We now have three different ways to think about potential uses of historical software and born digital documentation. I will shift my historian’s hat to one side of my head now and slide up my curator’s cap. If we consider these takes as use cases, do they help us decide how to allocate resources to acquire, preserve, describe and provide access to digital collections?

In May 2013, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) of the U.S. Library of Congress (henceforth: LC) held a conference called Preserving.exe. The agenda was to articulate the “problems and opportunities of software preservation.” In my contribution to the LC conference report issued a few months later, I described three “lures of software preservation.” (Lowood) These are potential pitfalls as we move from software collections to digital repositories and from there to programs of access to software collections. The second half of this paper will be an attempt to introduce the three lures of software preservation to the three takes on historical enactment.

  1. The Lure of the Screen

Let’s begin with the Lure of the Screen. This is the idea that what counts in digital media is what is delivered to the screen. This lure pops up in software preservation when we evaluate significant properties of software as surface properties (graphics, audio, haptics, etc).

This lure of the screen is related to what media studies scholars such as Nick Montfort, Mark Sample and Matt Kirschenbaum have dubbed (in various but related contexts) “screen essentialism.” If the significant properties of software are all surface properties, then our perception of interaction with software tells us all we need to know. We check graphics, audio, responses to our use of controllers, etc., and if they look and act as they should, we have succeeded in preserving an executable version of historical software. These properties are arguably the properties that designers consider as the focus of user interaction and they are the easiest to inspect and verify directly.

The second Preserving Virtual Worlds project was concerned primarily with identifying significant properties of interactive game software. On the basis of several case sets and interviews with developers and other stakeholders, we concluded that isolating surface properties, such as image colourspace as one example, while significant for other media such as static images, is not a particularly useful approach to take for game software. With interactive software, significance appears to be variable and contextual, as one would expect from a medium in which content is expressed through a mixture of design and play, procedurality and emergence. It is especially important that software abstraction levels are not “visible” on the surface of play. It is difficult if not impossible to monitor procedural aspects of game design and mechanics, programming and technology by inspecting properties expressed on the screen.

The preservation lifecycle for software is likely to include data migration. Access to migrated software will probably occur through emulation. How do we know when our experience of this software is affected by these practices? One answer is that we audit significant properties, and as we now know, it will be difficult to predict which characteristics are significant. An alternative or companion approach for auditing the operation of historical software is to verify the execution of data files. The integrity of the software can be evaluated by comparison to documented disk images or file signatures such as hashes or checksums. However, when data migration or delivery environments change the software or its execution environment, this method is inadequate. We must evaluate software performance. Instead of asking whether the software “looks right,” we can check if it runs verified data-sets that meet the specifications of the original software. Examples range from word processing documents to saved game and replay files. Of course, visual inspection of the content plays a role in verifying execution by the software engine; failure will not always be clearly indicated by crashes or error messages. Eliminating screen essentialism does not erase surface properties altogether.

The three takes compel us to think about the screen problem in different ways. First, the Historian is not troubled by screen essentialism. His construction of a narrative mimesis invokes a selection of source materials that may or may not involve close reading of personal gameplay, let alone focus on surface properties. On the other hand, The Re-enactor’s use of software might lead repositories to fret about what the user sees, hears and feels. It makes sense with this use case to think about the re-enactment as occurring at the interface. If a repository aims to deliver a re-enacted screen experience, it will need to delve deeply into questions of significant properties and their preservation.

Screen essentialism is also a potential problem for repositories that follow the path of Media Archaeology. It is unclear to me how a research site like the MAF would respond to digital preservation practices based on data migration and emulation. Can repositories meet the requirements of media archaeologists without making a commitment to preservation of working historical hardware to enable playback from original media? It’s not just that correspondence to surface characteristics is a significant property for media archaeologists. Nor is the Lure of the Screen a criticism of Media Archaelogy. I propose instead that it is a research problem. Ernst’s vision of a Multimedia Archive is based on the idea that media archaeology moves beyond playback to reveal mechanisms of counting. This machine operation clearly is not a surface characteristic. Ernst would argue, I think, that this counting is missed by an account of what is seen on the screen. So let’s assign the task of accounting for counting to the Media Archaeologist, which means showing us how abstraction layers in software below the surface can be revealed, audited and studied.

  1. The Lure of the Authentic Experience

I have already said quite a bit about authenticity. Let me explain now why I am sceptical about an authentic experience of historical software, and why this is an important problem for software collections.

Everyone in game or software studies knows about emulation. Emulation projects struggle to recreate an authentic experience of operating a piece of software such as playing a game. Authenticity here means that the use experience today is like it was. The Lure of the Authentic Experience tells digital repositories at minimum not to preserve software in a manner that would interfere with the production of such experiences. At maximum, repositories deliver authentic experiences, whether on-site or on-line. A tall order. In the minimum case, the repository provides software and collects hardware specifications, drivers or support programs. The documentation provides software and hardware specifications. Researchers use this documentation to reconstruct the historical look-and-feel of software to which they have access. In the maximum case, the repository designs and builds access environments. Using the software authentically would then probably mean a trip to the library or museum with historical or bespoke hardware. The reading room becomes the site of the experience.

I am not happy to debunk the Authentic Experience. Authenticity is a concept fraught not just with intellectual issues, but with registers ranging from nostalgia and fandom to immersion and fun. It is a minefield. The first problem is perhaps an academic point, but nonetheless important: Authenticity is always constructed. Whose lived experience counts as “authentic” and how has it been documented? Is the best source a developer’s design notes? The memory of someone who used the software when it was released? A marketing video? The researcher’s self-reflexive use in a library or museum? If a game was designed for kids in 1985, do you have to find a kid to play it in 2050? In the case of software with a long history, such as Breakout or Microsoft Word, how do we account for the fact that the software was used on a variety of platforms – do repositories have to account for all of them? For example, does the playing of DOOM “death match” require peer-to-peer networking on a local area network, a mouse-and-keyboard control configuration and a CRT display? There are documented cases of different configurations of hardware: track-balls, hacks that enabled multiplayer via TCPIP, monitors of various shapes and sizes, and so on. Which differences matter?

A second problem is that the Authentic Experience is not always that useful to the researcher, especially the researcher studying how historical software executes under the hood. The emulated version of a software program often compensates for its lack of authenticity by offering real-time information about system states and code execution. A trade-off for losing authenticity thus occurs when the emulator shows the underlying machine operation, the counting, if you will. What questions will historians of technology, practitioners of code studies or game scholars ask about historical software? I suspect that many researchers will be as interested in how the software works as in a personal experience deemed authentic.   As for more casual appreciation, the Guggenheim’s Seeing Double exhibition and Margaret Hedstrom’s studies of emulation suggest that exhibition visitors actually prefer reworked or updated experiences of historical software. (Hedstrom, Lee, et al.; Jones)

This is not to say that original artefacts – both physical and “virtual” – will not be a necessary part of the research process. Access to original technology provides evidence regarding its constraints and affordances. I put this to you not as a “one size fits all” decision but as an area of institutional choice based on objectives and resources.

The Re-enactor, of course, is deeply committed to the Authentic Experience. If all we offer is emulation, what do we say to him, besides “sorry.” Few digital repositories will be preoccupied with delivering authentic experiences as part of their core activity. The majority are likely to consider a better use of limited resources to be ensuring that validated software artefacts and contextual information are available on a case-by-case basis to researchers who do the work of re-enactment. Re-enactors will make use of documentation. Horwitz credits Robert Lee Hodge with an enormous amount of research time spent at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Many hours of research with photographs and documents stand behind his re-enactments. In short, repositories should let re-enactors be the re-enactors.

Consider this scenario for software re-enactment. You are playing an Atari VCS game with the open-source Stella emulator. It bothers you that viewing the game on your LCD display differs from the experience with a 1980s-era television set. You are motivated by this realization to contribute code to the Stella project for emulating a historical display. It is theoretically possible that you could assemble everything needed to create an experience that satisfies you – an old television, adapters, an original VCS, the software, etc. (Let’s not worry about the shag rug and the lava lamp.) You can create this personal experience on your own, then write code that matches it. My question: Is the result less “authentic” if you relied on historical documentation such as video, screenshots, technical specifications, and other evidence available in a repository to describe the original experience? My point is that repositories can cooperatively support research by re-enactors who create their version of the experience. Digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a research problem than a repository problem.

  1. The Lure of the Executable

The Lure of the Executable evaluates software preservation in terms of success at building collections of software that can be executed on-demand by researchers.

Why do we collect historical software? Of course, the reason is that computers, software, and digital data have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of recent history. What should we collect? David Bearman’s answer in 1987 was the “software archive.” He distinguished this archive from what I will call the software library. The archive assembles documentation; the library provides historical software. The archive was a popular choice in the early days. Margaret Hedstrom reported that attendees at the 1990 Arden Conference on the Preservation of Microcomputer Software “debated whether it was necessary to preserve software itself in order to provide a sense of ‘touch and feel’ or whether the history of software development could be documented with more traditional records.” (Hedstrom and Bearman) In 2002, the Smithsonian’s David Allison wrote about collecting historical software in museums that, “supporting materials are often more valuable for historical study than code itself. They provide contextual information that is critical to evaluating the historical significance of the software products.” He concluded that operating software is not a high priority for historical museums. (Allison 263-65; cf. Shustek)

Again, institutional resources are not as limitless as the things we would like to do with software. Curators must prioritize among collections and services. The choice between software archive and library is not strictly binary, but choices still must be made.

I spend quite a bit of my professional life in software preservation projects. The end-product of these projects is at least in part the library of executable historical software. I understand the Lure of the Executable and the reasons that compel digital repositories to build collections of verified historical software that can be executed on-demand by researchers. This is the Holy Grail of digital curation with respect to software history. What could possibly be wrong with this mission, if it can be executed?   As I have argued on other occasions there are several problems to consider. Let me give you two. The first is that software does not tell the user very much about how it has previously been used. In the best case, application software in its original use environment might display a record of files created by previous users, such as a list of recently opened files found in many productivity titles like Microsoft Office. The more typical situation is that software is freshly installed from data files in the repository and thus completely lacks information about its biography, for want of a better term.

The second, related problem is fundamental. Documentation that is a prerequisite for historical studies of software is rarely located in software. It is more accurate to say that this documentation surrounds software in development archives (including source code) and records of use and reception. It is important to understand that this is not just a problem for historical research. Documentation is also a problem for repositories. If contextual information such as software dependencies or descriptions of relationships among objects is not available to the repository and all the retired software engineers who knew the software inside-and-out are gone – it may be impossible to get old software to run.

Historians, of course, will usually be satisfied with the Archive. Given limited resources, is it reasonable to expect that the institutions responsible for historical collections of documentation will be able to reconcile such traditional uses with other methods of understanding historical computing systems? The Re-enactor will want to run software, and the Media Archaeologist will not just want access to a software library, but to original media and hardware in working order. These are tall orders for institutional repositories such as libraries and archives, though possibly a better fit to the museum or digital history centre.

In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, James Newman is not optimistic about software preservation and he describes how the marketing of software has in some ways made this a near impossibility. He is not as pessimistic about video game history, however. In a section of his book provocatively called “Let Videogames Die,” he argues that a documentary approach to gameplay might be a more pragmatic enterprise than the effort to preserve playable games. He sees this as a “shift away from conceiving of play as the outcome of preservation to a position that acknowledges play as an indivisible part of the object of preservation.” (Newman 160) In other words, what happens when we record contemporary use of software to create historical documentation of that use? Does this activity potentially reduce the need for services that provide for use at any given time in the future? This strikes me as a plausible historical use case, but not one for re-enactment or media archaeology.

Software archives or software libraries? That is the question. Is it nobler to collect documentation or to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous software installations? The case for documentation is strong. The consensus among library and museum curators (including myself) is almost certainly that documents from source code to screenshots are a clear win for historical studies of software. Historians, however, will not be the only visitors to the archive. But there are other reasons to collect documentation. One of the most important reasons, which I briefly noted above, is that software preservation requires such documentation. In other words, successful software preservation activities are dependent upon technical, contextual and rights documentation. And of course, documents tell re-enactors how software was used and can help media archaeologists figure out what their machines are showing or telling them. But does documentation replace the software library? Is it sufficient to build archives of software history without libraries of historical software? As we have seen, this question was raised nearly forty years ago and remains relevant today. My wish is that this question of the relationship between documentation and software as key components of digital heritage work stir conversation among librarians, historians, archivists and museum curators. This conversation must consider that there is likely to be a broad palette of use cases such as the historian, media archaeologist and re-enactor, as well as many others not mentioned here. It is unlikely that any one institution can respond to every one of these use cases. Instead, the more likely result is a network of participating repositories, each of which will define priorities and allocate resources according to both their specific institutional contexts and an informed understanding of the capabilities of partner institutions.



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Bearman, David. Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives and Museums. Archival Informatics Technical Report #2 (Spring 1987).

— “What Are/Is Informatics? And Especially, What/Who is Archives & Museum Informatics?” Archival Informatics Newsletter 1:1 (Spring 1987): 8.

Cross, Scott. “The Art of Spooning.” Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society. 13 July 2016. Web. Originally published in The Company Wag 2, no. 1 (April 1989).

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. (Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press, 2012). Kindle edition.

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Hedstrom, Margaret L., and David Bearman, “Preservation of Microcomputer Software: A Symposium,” Archives and Museum Informatics 4:1 (Spring 1990): 10.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Kindle Edition.

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Shustek, Len. “What Should We Collect to Preserve the History of Software?” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 28 (Oct.-Dec. 2006): 110-12.

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— “The Analytical Engine: Is the Emulator Authentic?,” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

— “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In: History and Theory 23: 1 (Feb. 1984): 1-33.



Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and for Film & Media Collections at Stanford University. He has led the How They Got Game project at Stanford University since 2000 and is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader and Debugging Game History, both published by MIT Press. Contact: