Current preservation of games criticism is insufficient. Can Critical Distance help?

on Friday, August 19, 2016
In this post, I'll be discussing Critical Distance extensively. For those unaware, Critical Distance is a website that promotes, aggregates, and solicits video game criticism. It is crowd funded, and I have at various times supported it monetarily.

A few weeks ago, Zoya Street concluded Critical Distance's weekly "This Week in Videogame Blogging" feature (retrieved 2016-08-19) with a question: "how do you see the current state of games criticism?" I don't know if anyone else responded, because it hasn't shown up again since then in the weekly posts. In any case, in this post, I'd like to highlight what I personally see as the most distinguishing feature of video games criticism. Street asked for one or two sentences, so here's my attempt: "Video game criticism is poorly preserved and rapidly being lost, and this problem is compounded by the absence of any way to efficiently index or search existing criticism. Critical Distance is currently the best-positioned entity to address this problem, but it has not yet made any meaningful progress in that direction." That's the summary, but I'll spend the rest of this post elaborating.

Critical Distance has on numerous occasions highlighted writers that discuss the urgent problem of preserving the history of games, but the focus of such statements has largely been on (the very important) software and hardware preservation. Among many others, Kris Graft has written about the emulation efforts of the Internet Archive (retrieved 2016-08-19), and Gita Jackson reacted (retrieved 2016-08-19) to the loss of P.T. (dev. 7780s Studio, dirs. Hideo Kojima & Guillermo del Toro, 2014). That latter article is particularly instructive because it makes an analogy to silent film. It rightly recognizes that games have something to learn from how so many silent films were lost in the early years of cinema's history. the film industry eventually learned its lesson and stopped destroying every copy of most of its films once the cultural importance of the medium began to be understood in more depth. As film grew up, the dialogue with critics was often quite important. Perhaps the most famous examples of this dialogue are the early Soviet montage essays or, decades later, the founding of the seminal Cahiers du cinéma magazine in 1951. Film history and our understanding of the function of film was shaped by these and many other critics. By default, because film grew up in the pre-digital era, these writings were not destroyed by link-rot or unpaid server fees. Their longevity, both in terms of their physical persistence and their critical importance, is attested to by just how common they remain today. The textbook assigned to me in my first ever introductory film class way back in college was Leo Braudy's and Marshall Cohen's classic anthology of historical film criticism, Film Theory and Criticism, now in its eighth edition.

Video game criticism is not published in state-sponsored tracts or a widely distributed French magazine; it is published on the internet. One need not delve very far into Critical Distance's archive of blog roundups to begin to find dead links or links with dead links within them. If one is lucky, one might find the article somewhere on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine in varying states of completeness. Though I have no way of knowing the statistics for sure, I imagine that less popular articles that did not enjoy the signal-boosting of a Critical Distance plug are even more likely to be inaccessible. The critical history of video games is being lost.

But do we even know which history of video games is being lost? For that matter, can we even reliably and comprehensively find niche criticism that is still accessible? Critical Distance's Patreon page (retrieved 2016-08-19) points out that it is a great "starting place," and it is. I often do a quick search there for for playing or writing about a game, to see what people have said about it. Critical Distance, however, is curated; it is a thin slice of the video game criticism that the world produces. That's great for a research starting place or for a weekly roundup to keep your readers current, but it is insufficient for in-depth research or preservation purposes. We need something more before we have lost so much that we can't even tell what was lost. The Patreon page alludes to archival projects, but they are ill-defined and certainly haven't happened yet. The proposed print anthologies, an even thinner and more easily lost slice of the criticism landscape, certainly aren't the solution.

The solution is two-fold. First, games criticism needs an uncurated (but still moderated), searchable index. Professionally, I am an astrophysicist, so I spend a great deal of my time browsing and searching the astronomy and physics literature. The astronomy academic community has two main tools to browsing the literature: arXiv (pronounced AR-kive - the "X" is a Greek "Chi") and the Astrophysics Data System (ADS). Though there are more differences than similarities, in some ways, arXiv is analogous to Critical Distance. Researchers post freely-accessible preprints of their papers there, and other researchers browse them daily to see what's new. A digest gets sent out via email. ADS, however, fills a very different niche. It is a searchable, tagged index of the published (and some unpublished) literature in astronomy, physics, geophysics, and science education. For older literature, it also serves as a historical index of scanned pages. Using ADS, one can quickly find nearly anything that has ever been published in these fields based on nearly any criteria. ADS was one of the first such data systems and its colossal importance to research is well studied (there's even a summary on Wikipedia, retrieved 2016-08-19). Games criticism needs something analogous to ADS. There needs to be a way to search and filter more than just was is featured on the Critical Distance homepage. The database could be implemented as a web crawl of known likely sources of criticism that also allows manual submission to the database.

Second, games criticism needs that searchable index to double as an archive. It needs to mirror lost webpages (when those webpages don't prohibit archiving via the well-defined methods for doing so). Ideally, the index itself would serve as the mirror, but other possible solutions exist, such as a collaboration with the Internet Archive to automatically make a Wayback Machine clone upon addition to the database, a feat that could be quickly implemented with a simple script that uses the Wayback Machine's API. Even if such an index database was never created, this solution could be easily implemented for every link ever posted on Critical Distance with a single Python/Perl/whatever script that either downloaded a copy of each link or queried the Wayback Machine to make a clone. Links to these backups could be automatically used to replace dead links throughout Critical Distance via another script, assuming that Critical Distance's current backend doesn't prevent doing so. None of these procedures should be undertaken manually, however, as that is an unsustainable approach. A series of server-side scripts should be used to manage these projects.

The solution to preserving games criticism requires both simple and difficult, expensive steps. It is not out of reach at the present time to archive, simply and automatically, all criticism referenced on Critical Distance. Is is substantially more difficult to create a long lasting, searchable index. These efforts will never be an exciting project that galvanizes the community, and half measures will not suffice in the long term. If we care about preserving games criticism, however, there is little choice; these are necessary steps, and they require careful planning with community involvement. I am not involved with the running of Critical Distance, but it seems to be a natural place to host these projects. In lieu of that, I hope that some enterprising website, university, or library one day decides to tackle this little-publicized problem.

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