Videogame History from 2024
2023 will be remembered as an important year in the history of videogames, and in culture and curatorship in general. Instead of caving in to Disney once again lobbying to extend copyright duration and expand the remit of trademark law on the eve of the first animated film featuring Mickey Mouse entering the public domain, a new, expanded US Court system stunned the world with a radical reinterpretation of how intellectual property laws and public domain should exist for the benefit of cultural life. Copyright was rolled back, from its most recent status: life of the creator plus 70 years, and past its original US legislation, established in 1790, of an initial 14-year term that could be renewed once, for a total of 28 years. Works were now subject to copyright for 10 years, and after that were public domain to be reproduced, distributed, and iterated on freely.
Lovers of public domain from all around the country gathered at the capital for an unusual New Year’s Day celebration, remembered as the Free Culture Jubilee, where, at the stroke of midnight ringing in January 1st 2024, a symbolic guillotining of Mickey Mouse was held on the National Mall, surrounded by cultural institutions that would be transformed by all works from before 2014 entering the public domain. It was a fitting end to the reign of a fictional character who had become all too historical. Amidst the party, celebrants dizzy with the potential ramifications of the new rules later climbed onto the prop guillotine and disposed of other merchandise representations of corporate control of culture. For his ruthless crackdowns on the creative speedrunning and homebrew communities, Mario was soon next in line.
Beyond simply increasing the rate at which new media, stories and characters enter the public domain, the changes in copyright law were swiftly accompanied by a reversal of the consolidation of money and influence in a few international corporations under new anti-monopoly laws. Further, arts and cultural funding was not simply topped up after years of brutal neoliberal cuts. In an attempt to make amends for years of laws which favoured the interests of wealth and intellectual property hoarding media corporations, the means through which this funding was distributed to artists and organizations was overhauled away from opera houses, established names, and the cornering of artistic production into reports about its visitor metrics or shallow theorizations of its social good.
Instead, small grants of amounts that would give aspiring artists money for equipment and supplies, or time to take a few months off of work, were widely distributed to those who wanted them at the local level, and underserved counties were newly able to establish networks of independent galleries and zine fairs in places where the only option had previously been to make an expensive trek to major cities.
The ramifications of this ruling also had a knock-on effect of global reconsideration of copyright and intellectual property laws in general, due to so many multinational media distribution and creation pipelines starting or moving through the US. What was once an audacious proposal, completely against all imperialist-exported “common sense” about how the entertainment industry worked, became an opportunity for the global networks of cultural and historical heritage to rethink the human relationship to culture in a way that caught up to niceties of contemporary technology and distribution.
Videogames, as a form of media highly engaged in marketing hype about the futuristic new, channels of digital distribution, and the shortcomings of rapid technological obsolescence are of course affected strongly by this development. The cost of the encryption of culture, through copyright law, through controlled broadcasting technologies, through consequences on the health of the creativity of culture and the general ill effects of monopolies and billionaires on the rest of the populace, was essentially accelerated by how the entertainment industry decided to use digital technologies.
At first, ridding yourself of the plastic cartridges and disks that media came on felt like a breezy, minimalist-chic and environmentally friendly choice. You hung on to a few for nostalgia or replay value, but being able to download tons of new games, stream whatever music, movies or TV shows you wanted, even the potential of cloud gaming, seemed like a utopia of cultural access. In fact, when the titles available shift and byzantine DRM, storefronts and server shutdowns unpredictably altered what you had access to, it started to feel like you didn’t really own anything at all.
The higher energy and emissions cost of distributing media via streaming, or multi-gigabyte files that could only run on power and resource-intensive advanced PCs and consoles were easy to identify as indefensible ways of controlling who could access culture, making it exclusive while also driving up CEO profits, once the copyright law changed. There was a mass revitalization of torrenting as a more effective and energy-efficient way to move digital media, (especially newly sharable retro game roms,) and re-usable physical media to copy, distribute, and re-distribute work through local meet-ups and zine fairs. Further, new tech regulations like Right to Repair being formalized into law, with high sanctions on companies making non-recyclable, black-boxed items destined for landfills, meant that people could now happily use the same sturdy and user-friendly device for years.
The internet was also made into a utility, breaking up data-hoarders like Google and Amazon, freeing people from both their constant advertising and surveillance. With all of the ad media and tracking scripts stripped from the internet, it became a quieter, more focused, more efficient place, which more people could access, and where they could afford to build and maintain a site of their own. And your hand-made HTML homepage didn’t have to change at all. :) Internet sources and internet archives were more stable on a decommodified net, and many hobbyists were now free to revive personal servers of online games that had previously been shut down, bringing these past experiences to life in new ways.
Of course, physical backups were still a good idea, and large archives tried to have several forms of a source, but the boom and bust cycles of massive spikes of creativity and production taking place on new platforms, and then being suddenly swept away by the whims of ever-increasing profitability had finally ended, and harried digital researchers and curators could take at least a bit of a breath. Even if corporations still tried to control the distribution, fan culture and afterlife of their games, keeping tabs on them for 10 years was a much easier hurdle to clear, especially with right to repair and the requirement that DRM removers are also released when a work enters the public domain, when compared to the eternal rights limbo almost all videogames were in before 2024, which prevented them from being acquired and studied by libraries, arts and historical institutions.
As a consequence, within a few years, how we preserve videogames and think about them historically began to transform beyond recognition. Most importantly, discussions of important videogames no longer defaulted to measures of commercial success or industry influence to determine their relevance. Subgenres like visual novels, multimedia CD-ROMs, phone games, flash games, and hidden object games were finally given proportional representation alongside arcade classics and AAA games in a way that acknowledged the specific craft that went into them and how they impacted a wide variety of players. The exhibitions and books on the subject don’t totally represent your childhood favourites, of course not, but it at least feels like you were there now, rather than looking in on the games that you couldn’t, didn’t want to, or were told you shouldn’t play. You hope everyone gets a little bit of this happy recognition now, rather than it being wholly reserved for a very specific subset of fanboy.
More attention could then also be directed to the speedrunning, homebrew, and fan art communities and their role in videogame history, because their activities were no longer in a legal gray area which could attract the ire of corporations. Because corporate NDAs were no longer important to protect public domain works, more persectives on the various roles that went into developing a game could also be recorded, and things like concept art and design documents were also newly possible to archive. ROM sites became flourishing public domain goldmines, and the sheer bounty of what these previously lawless archivists had managed to save led to a massive reconsideration of the priorities and principles of the entire discipline of Game Studies, which, it suddenly seemed very obvious, was based more on the analysis of commercially successful games and industry claims than a broad view that incorporated the plurality, digressions and contradictions and all, of these historical truths.
New writing, research and criticism projects building on these insights flowered, and often self-publishing and gallery endeavours to present these findings were eligible to be funded by the small-scale local grants. You have less moments of feeling futile or guilty for writing things you can’t easily sell to a major news site. More chances to do things in real or digital space that let you connect with people who totally turn on when you put something new and weird in front of them, in the best way… Instead of chasing after a discourse led by venture capital trends and inescapable new releases, a variety of conversations about aesthetics, narrative, representation, form, little known historical movements, and re-thinking historical dead ends intersect in a lively way across federated social media platforms, forums, and reading groups.
Videogames are finally played, discussed, pondered, argued about, performed, preserved, displayed and studied, just about everywhere, like a true mass art and a medium with multiple histories, movements, and counter-movements. Just like they have always really been.
This is a fantasy. Quite frankly, in the current chokehold companies like Disney, Rockstar, Nintendo, and Blizzard have on the discourse, our attention, our time, our culture, it is a wild fantasy. But it’s also completely possible. Human culture was adapting to new technologies, distributing new work, and creating livelihoods for all types of artists well before the first copyright laws were instituted, and copyright laws have wholly failed to adapt to the new qualities of digital media, instead existing as a hurdle to them functioning and being distributed efficiently, and being preserved. The idea of what can be won is vital to winning it.
Written by Emilie Reed, for Speculation Jam 2020 (https://itch.io/jam/speculation-jam)
Background image source (https://www.cartoonbrew.com/artist-rights/day-75-years-ago-disney-animation-changed-forever-140103.html)