Whatever your opinion on the interminable Games as Capital-A Art debate, hopefully one thing we can all agree on: games are an art form in the sense that they're creative works.
Games are an unusual art form, though, because they're one of the few creative mediums that is thoroughly dependent on technology. Books don't expire (though their ideas might), we can still watch old movies and TV shows, and the entire classical music business is based largely on pieces of music that have been around for literally hundreds of years, played on instruments whose designs have changed very little -- if at all -- for centuries.
Games, though? Outside of navigating the murky waters of the emulation scene, if you want to play an "old" game -- and by "old" I mean "from a generation prior to the one that is currently readily available" -- you'd better have an appropriate piece of hardware ready to play it. You can't shove a NES cartridge into a SNES; you can't put a Saturn disc in a Dreamcast; although you can put a PS1 disc into a PS3.
While there are ways around the backwards compatibility issues of modern platforms, both Sony and Microsoft have made it abundantly clear that it's not particularly high on their respective lists of priorities for the next generation. Nintendo lets you play Wii games on the Wii U, but if that console follows the same pattern as the Wii -- which used to support Gamecube games, but which removed this functionality from more recent models -- then it's entirely possible this feature will quietly disappear at some point in the future. Then what happens to those old games?
Well, old hardware doesn't just magically disappear, of course. Dedicated collectors will keep old game systems around rather than trading them in, thereby ensuring that they'll always be able to play their old games so long as the hardware continues to work. And even then, if the hardware itself breaks, it can usually either be repaired or emulated.
Archiving physical media, then, is easy enough; put it on a shelf or in a box, keep it safe, treat it with respect, get it out every few years to make sure nothing horrendous has happened to it, perhaps fire it up and remind yourself how good it was -- or, occasionally, realize that things have moved on a great deal in the intervening years.
Where the issue gets a bit more thorny is when it comes to digitally-distributed media.
"Deep down, nobody cares about not having CDs any more," said Assassin's Creed creator Patrice Desilets, speaking at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona recently. Desilet's point in making this statement -- which was primarily directed at the backlash Microsoft suffered regarding the Xbox One's proposed DRM and used games restrictions -- was that an all-digital future would help the famously struggling triple-A sector become more profitable with more reasonable sales targets. Fighting said all-digital future, Desilets suggested, is a waste of time, because it is necessary, practical and efficient for the industry to adopt this model going forward.
Desilet's statement brought some of my own concerns regarding this issue to mind, though. While it's true that many people have embraced the digital-on-demand nature of modern electronic devices -- particularly on PC and mobile platforms -- what we haven't yet encountered is the archival issue when it comes to digital content.
Here's what worries me a little about the supposed all-digital future, you see: what happens to digital-only games when, at some unknown point in the future, Sony decides that the PS3 incarnation of the PlayStation Store is no longer viable to keep online? Or when Microsoft decides that no, you can't download your Xbox Live Arcade Games any more because dammit, it's been fifteen years and you should have played these games by now? Or when, heaven forbid, Steam shuts down, leaving you with a bajillion games acquired through various Humble Bundles that you can potentially no longer access easily, or perhaps at all?
It's at this point the standard response is to point out that, according to the standard end user license agreements you "sign" by installing a game, whether that's from disc or digital download, you don't actually "own" anything. Instead, you are simply purchasing a license to use the software -- a license that, theoretically, can be revoked. And yet in the past, this wasn't something that could be enforced: you owned a SNES cartridge, you could always play that game; you owned a PS2 disc, you could always play that game. So long as the physical media was intact -- and the game didn't require any sort of online authentication, which was unthinkable in generations prior to this one for the most part -- you could always play your games, regardless of how old they were. Nintendo wouldn't come around and smash up your cartridges when it released a new generation of hardware.
Digital distribution is fantastic for one big reason, besides its inherent "instant gratification" nature: it allows smaller developers the opportunity to release their games to a public who would never have seen their hard work even just a few years ago. And yet at the same time it carries a big risk, both for players and content creators: the risk of making games feel like "disposable" creative works, rather than something that should be archived and treasured for years to come. How many times have you bought stuff in a Steam sale, then promptly forgotten about it for years at a time? When was the last time you looked at the Xbox Live Arcade games on your 360 -- particularly as with each Dashboard update, Microsoft seems dedicated on making them as hard to find as possible?
Part of the solution to this is down to self-control and discipline -- don't buy things you're not intending on playing at some point; back up things you want to keep. On PC, Steam has a built-in backup function; stuff downloaded from DRM-free services such as Good Old Games can simply be burned to a disc or copied to an external hard drive. In the console space, this is an area where both Sony and Nintendo have their heads screwed on reasonably well -- it's a simple matter to back up digital downloads to external USB devices or memory cards on PS3, PSP, Vita, Wii and Wii U. Microsoft also now supports USB flash drives with the 360, but it wasn't so long ago that you were limited to the Xbox 360's hard drive or memory units and their proprietary connections.
Where this falls down somewhat, however, is in games that require online authentication to play -- a particular issue with many downloadable Xbox games, but an issue which the other platforms are by no means immune from. In this instance, you can theoretically back up your games to return to in a few years time, but if the authentication servers aren't there any more, you're stuck with either a trial version or perhaps even a completely non-functional piece of software. This is one of the main things people were worried about with Xbox One -- under the original restrictions, if you had no access to Microsoft's servers, you simply couldn't play your games at all. Thankfully, this has now been revoked.
Why does all this matter, though? Since gaming is probably the most technologically-advanced entertainment medium on the planet, surely we should constantly be looking forward, not back at old stuff?
Well, I can see why some people think that way -- progress is fun and exciting, after all -- but progress also doesn't make old stuff irrelevant. As we've seen in other art forms, something can be hundreds of years old and still be relevant today. Gaming's entire history isn't even a fraction as long as that of, say, the written word or music, and yet many of us are alarmingly quick to discount things that are just fifteen, ten, even five years old on the most tenuous of grounds -- it's not HD; it doesn't have trophy support; it's only got text, not voice acting. Looking back is important, because it can also help inform the future and show us where trends have come from -- and help us to appreciate when those trends are bucked.
Looking back also becomes more important as time passes. I don't have kids now, and presently have no intention to, either, but that doesn't mean I won't feel differently in the future; if and when that happens, I want to be able to educate them about games of the past, and share the joy of experiencing these creative works with them. I also have no doubt that at some point in the future I'll simply want to replay some of the games I'm playing today; I don't want to be left unable to revisit, say, the Ar Tonelico series and its gorgeous soundtrack, for example.
It's for this reason that I'm an unabashed collector of physical media. Given the opportunity, I'll always take a physical version of a game. Not necessarily a collector's edition, as I feel that the vast majority of those are tasteless wastes of space -- your mileage may, as ever, vary -- but at the very least, a box with a disc or cartridge in it. Or just a disc/cartridge if the box is too much to ask, which it thankfully usually isn't in my experience. I will even often go out and buy a new physical copy of a game I reviewed and liked if it was originally sent to me by the developer or publisher as a digital download.
I know it's fashionable to "declutter" one's life these days by getting rid of stuff that isn't of immediate "use," but I think of my game collection in the same way a book enthusiast thinks of their personal library, or the same way a music enthusiast would think of their record collection. I like looking at my shelf full of games that I've hand-picked, chosen to keep and proudly display to anyone coming into my home. I like occasionally catching a glimpse of a title I once had a lot of fun with, and being able to reach out, grab it and play it. I like talking about the more obscure titles on my shelf to people who ask about them; I like bonding with someone over shared recognition of something I own a copy of.
In short, if I were to get rid of my collection, I absolutely know I would regret it a year or two down the line. I already regret some past trade-in decisions from a time when I felt less strongly about this; the only things I will trade in nowadays are things I know I will be able to reacquire easily. These days, I'm not buying games as something for immediate, short-term gratification; I'm collecting games to build my own personal archive of things I've found enjoyable, interesting or noteworthy, and at some point in the near future, I'm going to be very glad I did, I'm sure.