The discussion on Twitter yesterday about video game archives and archive-based historical work stirred up some memories about the work I’ve done in archives myself. While I tend to fall between disciplines and currently work primarily in media and game studies and digital humanities, my real training is as an American cultural historian. Basically, that means I am interested in the practices of daily life in the United States, but it also means that my research methods rely heavily on historical sources. Historical sources means archives.
Archival research is the very foundation of the historical work I do. When I was still in my graduate program, “What is your archive?” was a common question. The assumption was that we were all doing archival research of some kind, and so the question was what exactly went into that archive. The individual archive of my work is something eccentric, built from the holdings of a half-dozen or more different kinds of archives. My frequent answer to this kind of question in relation to Coin-Operated Americans included newspapers, magazines, trade journals, oral history interviews, various old games (arcade uprights when I could find them, Atari ports when I could not), promotional materials like flyers and brochures, operators manuals, Hollywood films, a TV game show, snapshots and home videos, and a handful of television news reports. This archive — my archive — is not something anyone could have found in any one place. Rather, it is what I assembled through years of digging, hearing rumors of things and then working to find those things, or being handed things by librarians and archivists who thought maybe this thing they knew about might be useful.
My research starts in a library. The University of Texas library system has an enviable array of newspapers and magazines available, and so I started there, going through databases and microfiche to find newspaper and magazine articles. One of those articles mentioned some trade journals — RePlay and Play Meter, so I started trying to find those. I found a partial run of RePlay from the relevant period at the Library of Congress, and an only somewhat overlapping partial run in the Chicago Public Library system. Play Meter, at the time, was nowhere to be found. So, from Austin, I went to the Library of Congress and the Chicago Public Library where I spent days going through unindexed volumes and doing my best to make copies from the bound issues. I went back to Texas with a pile, a few hundred pages thick, of Xeroxed pages.
I wanted to work with a certain iconic Life magazine photo, but the UT libraries only had a black-and-white microfiche. The workings of Interlibrary Loan (one of my favorite library services) wouldn’t allow me to request a color copy or a scan of a color copy from another library. So, I solved the problem by buying my own copy on eBay. While I was lucky enough to see TRON on the big screen at one point during my research, a single screening was nowhere near enough, so I bought TRON and WarGames and a few other films on DVD. I downloaded flyers from The Arcade Flyer Archive, an online database of hundreds of arcade flyers. I combed through the Internet Archive for anything I could find, and I was thrilled to find copies of the short-lived magazine Vidiot. I played games in MAME emulation when I couldn’t find other copies. I went to every arcade, modern and historic, that I came across, in cities across the United States and a few outside it.
This past summer, as I was working to finalize my manuscript, I had the opportunity to go to the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (thanks in no small part to an archive-sponsored research fellowship). The Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play is — I am not exaggerating — a magical place. It is a conventional archive, in that you sit in a very cold room, and you write only in pencil, and helpful people (very helpful people!) bring you things from somewhere in the back in boxes. But, it is an amazing archive for what they have. The things brought from the back included early Atari promotional materials, trade journals (still rich with stale smoke) I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else, catalogs, posters, promotional photographs and company newsletters and magazines I’d never heard of. There were so many trade journals they necessitated a rolling cart. I spent two weeks going through them in detail, building another pile of Xeroces, this one so massive that I had to buy an extra carry-on bag for my flight back to Chicago. There were also the things that couldn’t be rolled out. At one point, I was led to one of the archive’s working rooms, filled to the brim with electronic games, to look at a Death Race cabinet that was in the middle of restoration.
All of this is to say that I have been building an archive for years. Some of it is copies of things, some of it is memories of experiences, some of it is notebook after notebook of handwritten notes in my very best (still not quite legible) handwriting, and some of it is the knowledge of where things might be found. Some of it I hunted carefully on my own, but much of it I was guided to by colleagues, by helpful archivists, by someone who saw something on the news last night. It is conceivable to do historical work without visiting a formal archive, I suppose, but it is much more difficult, and I would argue it is impossible to do historical work of any quality without effectively building your own archive in the way I describe here. Archives are necessary to the history of video games just as they are necessary to all history. The growing number of archives across the United States (at Stanford, for example, and at the University of Texas) that work towards preserving games speak to a growing respect for video games and the surrounding culture as historically significant. They also provide invaluable resources for those of us doing the work of history. I know who to contact now, for example, when I can’t figure out where to Quicktime 2.1.2 to run a game from 1996, and I have some reasonable expectation that at least one of the people I contact might be able to find it (thanks to Jason Scott, at the Internet Archive, who did find it for me). To me, video game archives are not an abstract thing that should happen, they are living, breathing institutions run by an array of amazing professionals; both those places and the people who make them possible are absolutely essential to what I do. I could not do what I do — I could not build my own archive, I could not write a book — without them.