Help make sure my film about game preservation isn't stupid!


I’m currently working on a short film called Preserving Worlds. It’s about the preservation of online games. It’s an interesting subject because online games have a robust social component that you can’t preserve in the same way you can preserve the software itself. I interviewed a random dude who’s taking efforts to document the player culture of an old Second-Life style chat program. The film begins with intro narration followed by the interview, and is then concluded with outro narration.

This is where you come in! Before I record this narration, I’d appreciate it if anyone who’s interested could look it over and let me know if I’m leaving out anything important, or if I got anything wrong here. I’m especially interested in thoughts from resident archives experts @felix and @LaurelSoup!

So, here’s the script:


In 1994, a piece of software called Worlds Chat was released. It was one of a wave of 90’s virtual environment chat programs inspired by cyberpunk science fiction. It was an early ancestor of today’s Second Life. Worlds allowed players to explore a vast network of 3D environments using customizable avatars, and converse with each other over a text-based chat. Worlds was deeply customizable. Players frequently created their own environments from scratch and linked them to existing areas. Over time, the game developed into a vast network of dreamlike rooms and secret corridors.

Today the Worlds servers still run, and the decades-old user-generated environments and avatars still exist, but the original players have mostly departed. 23 years after the program’s launch, it has been rediscovered and repopulated by a new generation.

I spoke with one of these newcomers, an amateur archivist operating under the name GradualDIME.

Interview with GradualDIME takes place here, the bulk of the film


The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of silent films no longer exist in any form. Today, software faces a similar threat. Digital archivists have to preserve a huge number of files of varying formats that have been altered across versions and patches. They must future-proof these files against rapidly obsolescing operating systems and hardware. They have to set up stable backups and guard against bitrot. They have to take into account overbearing intellectual property laws that make their jobs difficult and in some cases impossible.

But preserving the software alone isn’t everything. Even if an offline copy of Worlds is accessible in 100 years, a historian booting it up may have very little idea of what the experience of playing it in the 90’s was actually like. Documenting the player culture of an online game is essential if we want to create an accurate historical record.

Though Issac cannot substitute for trained archivists and their institutions, the work he is doing is essential. He and other future-minded players are working to rescue the software they love from historical oblivion.


@gary too


@gary are you an archives expert?? Did not know that.


I mean, I can recover media files from/digitize many varied things and organize them, it’s a kind of narrow skill set. ??? Someone I forget the name of ??? is more laser-focused on game preservation.


A few quick thoughts:

  • mentioning second life at all is like its own drinking game at this point, I’d try to slow roll that or use a different example or just say online games

  • “bit rot” is kind of a technical term and it’s going to read like a generic one the way you’ve used it here, or just be confusing

  • “future proofing” isn’t necessarily an accurate description of file level digital preservation work (it’s more documentation and proactive migration); developing emulation environments is closer to literal future proofing than is other preservation work. this is a minor point though.


Also you don’t need to state as though it’s an accepted fact that hobbyists can’t replace academic institutions; in many cases they do, and have to. I imagine the intent is to acknowledge academic practise of preservation so as not to be remiss but I’m not sure you’re doing justice to your subject this way.

Along the same lines the reference to “a historian” seems potentially heavy handed


thank god we have all these VRML files backed up on all these sturdy, reliable jaz drives


You must be thinking of somebody else, I haven’t lifted a finger to help preserve games unfortunately…


It’s OK I’m an authority on everything and I’m already here


Fudge, who was it that was running that giant image site and pursuing a library masters in either Canada or New York

I may be combining two people also


@talbain iirc. And they’re in Seattle? Which is kind of like combining Canada and New York but in a bad way


Thanks for the feedback @Felix, this is immensely helpful!

-Worlds really is a LOT like Second Life. I know that bringing up Second Life in this kind of context is a total cliche, but it’s a real shortcut to an unfamiliar viewer understanding what I’m talking about.

-I take your point about bit rot. I was kind of laying this part on a little thick I think.

-You’re totally right that emulation is much more like “future proofing” than migration. And now you’ve got me realizing that my narration was almost totally focused on migration and completely left emulation out, even though emulation is probably a more viable preservation technique.

-As a librarian, I am very sensitive about people trying to replace academics with laymen, so I really wanted to include that note about the value of actual archivists. I’ll have to think about whether this is necessary or perhaps find a better way to express it.


Yeah, games are one thing that are much less viable to migrate than to emulate, and a lot of academic software development is only just coming around to accepting that emulation is much more realistic is many cases (and often has a more reasonable maintenance burden)


As thanks for my suggestions I will only ask that you not include frank cifaldi because he’s an ass


Hah, don’t worry. It’s just a short film with the one interview. I’ve never met Cifaldi and I doubt he’d be interested in being involved anyway.


I used to play around on one of these virtual world things when I was a kid back in the 90s. This one was called Active Worlds, and I learned how to build stuff and got recruited into some kind of builders’ club. I remember at one point someone vandalized our parcel because we forgot to lock part of it, and the way construction was set up was that, for some reason, only the person who built something could take it down, so it was sort of a big deal to us.

I quit shortly after that though.

what weird times those early days of the web were.


My main domains are video tapes and photographs, so I’m sure there’s some software specific stuff that’s over my head.

I did like that you noted that while the front end can be preserved and the back end can be recreated, the players’ experience will never match what it was when this was first released. Games are kind of a performative medium in that way.

As for the amateur/pro divide there’s some fuzziness at the border. Without cracks and other ways of circumventing DRM from the freewheeling amateur world, the job of legit archivists is much more difficult.

I’m interested in following your progress on this project!


Thanks @LaurelSoup! That’s a good point, about the porous border between professional and amateur preservation work. I’m going to think about representing that in the outro, I think it’s a more nuanced take on my subject’s role.

I’ll be posting more about this project as I go, and when it’s done I’ll be posting the film to SB! I’ve gotten solid advice in this thread, and recording advice from @B_coma, and I commissioned animations for the film from @HOBO (they turned out great), so I’m thinking about this film as a very Selectbutton project.


@OneSecondBefore Am also personally really interested in this. The most relevant work I know of in academic work is the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, led by UC Illinois: (and of course the main site is down because academia is terrible at actually keeping their own damn websites active)
Regardless, this article is also interesting, if you haven’t seen it yet: (in particular, check out the Patterns of Interaction Across Communities sub-heading)

Their interest is more technical, and while I’m also not a specialist in this, I do have an interest in process-oriented preservation, rather than product. Which is to say, I’m much more interested in the experiential and creative process of preserving digital materials, materials related to games specifically. I also agree with @felix in that mentioning Second Life feels buzzword-y and given what you’ve described I’m not sure it’s as related to your work simply due to the time gap. That said, I’m curious as to what the visuals will present in particular regarding these networked creative environments. I think it would be easier to understand the context with an additional short description of how those are being presented here (or just the imagery, if you already have it). Most scripts (in my brief bout with script writing) tend to have some description of the images going along with the text.

There’s definitely a huge gap in the experiential preservation of digital materials and I personally believe process-oriented preservation can address this, but that in the end, it will likely be up to the players to preserve the end-user side of the experience (i.e., creating things like WoW servers with old versions of play available, as well as passing on stories about the value of that experience). I’m also not sure, even for all the documenting possible of these experiences, that they really represent the experience.

Emulation is a slow burn facsimile for a product, but it doesn’t really represent the experience of playing a Super Nintendo in the 90s (much less what that was like for parents, kids, and others who lived through it). I’m not sure how or if that experience is valuable enough or plausible enough to really preserve. I’d like to believe it is but I think it’s a little far out. Still, I think it’s more possible for digital materials than analog. The scale of information is different however and the question of “what’s important enough to preserve” is still a pretty open question. Significant properties of digital materials are still a pretty open question.

I think, despite the player and development community’s interest in digital process oriented preservation (such as game art, development documents, player and developer experiences in those moments), there’s been relatively little funding to make that sort of preservation possible or viable. Intellectual property issues probably being the largest reason for why it’s not happening (or not happening as much, given the scale of the work involved).

I hope at least some of this info is useful or gives insight.

Unrelated: The image archive is now a bit more than 3 million images, roughly 24 terabytes of data (and no place to really put it online - the Internet Archive said they couldn’t store it because I can’t verify the veracity of all the data - in some cases because of NDAs, in others because linking source data violates IP). My own attempts at giving or finding a home for all this information have been… fraught, at least in the academic community.

@felix I’m also back in Austin now, trying to find work (had a myriad of health problems recently). I also don’t think Cifaldi’s an ass, in my brief meetings with him, but he does come across as exceptionally dense (he “has a vision” but not a lot of actual knowledge or ability to execute on it - and doesn’t seem terribly interested in learning how).


my problems with him are mostly personal for the record