Rhizome, Digital Conservation and Adventures in Virtual Machines!

I’ve written about how vital digital conservation is to keeping the visual culture and new media art of the past alive before, and as a practice it often demands creativity and improvisation, since the methods are far from as tried and tested as the ones used in physical or preventive conservation for more traditional art objects. Rhizome’s first Kickstarter is a bold experiment to see how these important projects could potentially be funded and presented to the public in the future, and I encourage everyone to check it out and consider backing! Here’s why it’s important to me:

Rhizome is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in new media art or net.art, and cloud emulating, which Rhizome plans to implement to allow anyone with a modern browser to play a Windows98 application has huge and exciting potential beyond the great pieces of software Rhizome has picked out for this initial test. At least, I hope many more follow! A lot of art exhibitions on gaming history and writings on the subject focus strongly on console paraphernalia from before the 90s, or console and PC games in the present day. They also sculpt the narrative of the history of games, making it look as if it has always focused on action-based games, often with clear win and lose conditions and aimed at the 18-30 year old male demographic. However, as a kid who spent most of her childhood parked in front of a Hewlett-Packard home PC with limited graphical and processing power, this history of gaming, while it may reflect some peoples’ experiences, hardly says anything about the games I remember.

The idea that games should primarily be for “fun” not only pushes out expressive games based on personal experience or a single creator’s artistic vision, as we’ve seen with the controversy around accessible engines like Twine, it also leaves several genres of software and games essentially ignored. ‘Edu-tainment’ games, for example, are usually dismissed as a perversion of the ideal form of gaming, because they have the seedy ulterior motive of teaching kids something while they have some fun, but they were my first exposure to computers and gaming.

‘Edu-tainment’ and ‘girls’ games,’ (a gaming movement to create games that celebrated more feminine sensibilities, like communication, cooperation and artistic expression) were the only games I had for most of my childhood, until I was allowed to finally, finally get an N64 late in the console’s life cycle. These games were rarely considered blockbusters or critical darlings because they were most often bought for kids by their parents or by schools. However, the persistence of .iso files of these old games across many download sites, and the comments on databases like MyAbandonware, show that there’s a whole generation of people who enjoyed and have strong memories surrounding these games! I guess educational content isn’t so insidious.

Maybe we’re simply not old enough and established enough yet, as the gamers of the 1980s are now, to tell this history. But if no one is proactive about conserving and emulating these games, they may disappear by the time we want to write books on them. I’ve taken it on myself, partially due to nostalgia but also to teach myself a new bag of tricks, to teach myself the basics of running a virtual PC within my modern laptop. It’s been rewarding, fun, fascinating and has taught me a lot about digital conservation methods, and how difficult it can be.

win98

These games have their problematic aspects, and they’re far from perfect pieces of software, but that should hardly disqualify them as worthy of conservation. These games were influential, perhaps on the micro level, but for the study and preservation of video games and new media to be truly comprehensive, showing the micro-influencers alongside the big names is a must. If we want to assert that including games in the programming of arts institutions is worthwhile, and not just a sort of commercial expo opportunity, delving into neglected genres and forms away from the commercial mainstream is absolutely vital. Rhizome is taking an important first step with this project, which will, in a sense, mainstream emulation and its role in digital conservation. Their picks are a great start, and I hope their catalog of 90s CD-ROM games only grows.

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