by Eugen Pfister and Adrian Demleitner
From 28th to 30th June 2023, the German Literature Archive Marbach has organized a conference on “Games & Literature. On the literacity, research, collection, and archiving of computer games”. The idea for this conference came because, since 2019, the Literaturarchiv has been collecting not only German-language literature but also digital games if they “contain narrative structures to a high degree.”1 In the words of the call for presentations: “The substantive reasons for this decision are numerous, but, fundamentally, computer games have long been part of our cultural memory, which must be archived appropriately and examined in relation to established cultural forms.”2 Accordingly, the self-imposed goal of the conference was to discuss with international colleagues issues of collecting and archiving digital games, as well as research questions concerning the nexus between digital games and literature. Even if the claim turned out to be a little too ambitious in retrospect, a very exciting and fruitful exchange took place. Over three days, more than thirty colleagues from three continents presented their research, and we were honoured that our project was represented by four colleagues: The second day was opened by René Bauer and Beat Suter from the ZHdK with their keynote “Considerations for Archiving Games. From the Perspective of Game Design”. And on the third day, Eugen Pfister and Adrian Demleitner from HKB presented our joint historical database of games developed in the DACH region up to 2000: “Why we thought it was a good idea to build a DACH games database.”
Considerations from the Perspective of Game Design
In their keynote presentation, René Bauer and Beat Suter shared their experiences from more than 20 years of game design studies. Above all, they showed insights into the manifold problems of archiving games that they have encountered and made experiences with. They pointed towards, for example, the question of different approaches to the game. In addition to “reception access”, i.e. player experience, there is also “design access”, i.e. developer experience, to consider. A holistic access would require “multiple accesses simultaneously”.
Bauer and Suter then looked at the different materials that needed to be archived. After all, it’s not just the games but also game design documents, concepts, sketches, storyboards, prototypes [!], etc. As if that were not enough, one would also have to ask whether the underlying development software should also be archived, i.e. graphic programmes, text programmes, 3D programmes. The next challenge is that here, especially in contrast to novels, there were big teams behind games early on. How do you archive the work and especially the cooperation of teams in a meaningful way? While correspondence used to be archived and published, how should we deal with telephones, faxes, emails or Discord channels in the future? Network visualisations, such as the one we are undertaking in our project, are particularly suitable for the representation and investigation of cooperation.
But, just the preservation of the software itself presents us with various challenges. As mentioned further up, how do you deal with prototypes? How do we deal with recent releases without physical data carriers (e.g. on Steam)? But even dealing with physical data carriers is not self-evident; after all, you need the hardware to make them work or emulators. Furthermore, the question arises in dealing with advertising for games: How should trailers, advertisements and press kits be stored? Next question: How can we keep budgets and financial models relevant to multi-million projects? What happens to user and play data? After all, thanks to ongoing patches, there are now countless versions of one and the same game. Because we tend to forget in all this what a major role the (historical) environment of the game has played, the ZHdK has developed an innovative approach here: experimental archaeology: “Independent development with today’s knowledge of a game with the possibilities of that time.”
Why we thought it was a good idea to build a DACH games database
Our second contribution to the conference was based on the recent work of collecting digital games developed in the German-speaking (DACH for short) countries up to 2000. This database was initiated by Eugen Pfister in 2022 and led to a first release of the dataset in 2023. At the origin of the database stood a problem that most research projects on local game cultures have in common: most researchers know in principle, often from their own experience, about games from the area in question. But, there are only a few incomplete lists or databases of these games, and sometimes none. Such rudimentary data sets are, however, a basic prerequisite for most historical research questions, even if they are not primarily quantitative studies.
Details about the process of becoming of this database can be found in the blog post Historische DACH-Spieledatenbank (Gamma-Version) (German).
In our work on the DACH-corpus, we relied heavily on existing platforms, databases and online archives. Most of these are informal places, crowdsourced by amateurs and community-based. The knowledge acquired by these communities, however, is priceless. Nonetheless, we also had to deal with a lot of uncertainty and a good amount of messiness in our own inquiry. The design and organisation of these platforms is not aimed for scientific or journalistic needs, their content varying enormously in quality, standardisation and scope. These spaces should rather be read as communal spaces of ritual, attempting to keep game history alive, as a cultural heritage through shared practice. In this respect, it is a reassuring feeling that the need to examine our digital game history is no longer a consensus only within Game Studies.
Our database was created out of an emergency. To be able to write a research proposal on the history of digital games in Switzerland, we had to get a first cursory overview of the games made here. At the same time, we were interested in the international exchange (firstly in the German-speaking area.) Since the database was not created in the context of a funded research project but on the side, it was also a concern for us to address its incompleteness and errors. All the more, we were pleased about the many positive feedbacks, which showed us again how many colleagues have to struggle with the same problems as we do.
The conference was not only a nice opportunity to present our research project, it was above all a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of our colleagues. Policies for the preservation of cultural heritage were discussed, experiences of collections and exhibitions in libraries and museums were presented, as well as issues of emulation and literacity. In part, of course, it was also disconcerting to see how far at the beginning we all are. So many questions are still unanswered.
More detailed reports on the conference can be found at the bottom of this text. What we learned in any case is that we are still at the very beginning of collecting, archiving and preserving digital games and that these are issues that concern all our cultures. At the same time, however, the magnitude of the task ahead of us has become clear: there are still no standards or best practice examples as far as collecting, archiving and preserving games is concerned. Therefore, it is all the more important for us to have a constant exchange with colleagues about our respective positive experiences and setbacks.
The DLA collected reviews and blog posts under “Tagungsberichte (plural!) zu “Games & Literature” am DLA Marbach”, of which some are in German, some in English
Recommended citation: Eugen Pfister, Adrian Demleitner, “Confoederatio Ludens at the Games&Literature Festival in Marbach”, in: Confoederatio Ludens, https://chludens.hypotheses.org/1399, 26.10.2023.
Header Image: Photo (c) 2023 by DLA Marbach.