It’s official: Computer Games are a part of modern culture. Now what?

The Computerspielemuseum in Berlin is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. One of the events commemorating this occasion was an international conference titled “Computer Games as Cultural Artefacts…”, which took place on the 14th-15th of  September. Of course, many interesting topics have been discussed and it’s impossible for me to cover them all, but I’ll try my best to sum things up.

Here’s some good news though: All of Friday’s talks and panels have been recorded and made public on voicerepublic.com. The bad news: Only half of the audio recordings are in English. Still, there should be plenty of interesting stuff for our readers in there.

The conference was kicked off on Thursday the 14th, which served as a general introduction to the issues discussed in more depth the next day. Front and centre of it all was of course the concept of computer games as cultural artefacts – rather than being merely negligible entertainment software. For if games are a part of our culture, then the logical conclusion is that they must be preserved for future generations as well.

In two keynotes and a round table talk, the audience was then introduced to what issues and considerations result from this assumption. If games are worth of preservation, how exactly do we accomplish that? Which role do games play in our culture and which social responsibilities might arise from this? Though the answers might differ from country to country, the questions themselves are universally applicable.

Another of Thursday’s highlights was the Neuro-space performance, which was first introduced to the audience in the form of a roleplay scene, before a “Neuro-experiment of a Computerspace console” was conducted. This experiment included getting hooked up to a retro console from 1971 and, via a brainwave measuring device, attempting to play the game essentially with thoughts alone rather than actions. It was quite interesting and of course I had to give it a try myself.

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The Neuro-space experiment was conducted in its own retrofuturistic tent.

Skipping ahead to Friday, this day was jam-packed with content. Attempting to give in-depth accounts of each event would go beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll rather sum up what I considered to be the most prevalent issues.

One group of panels and talks dealt with the ethics in games, responsibilities and potentials of using games for educational purposes. Moral systems within games were scrutinised, as well as works like “One Chance”, which were explicitly created to present the player with a perhaps unsolvable ethical dilemma. With the emergence and increasing popularity of Virtual Reality games, developers and players alike also find themselves confronted with new problems, such as preventing harassment in a VR environment.

Another big aspect here was the combination of games and real-world conflicts. We were introduced to both good and… well, bad examples of this combo. On one side, we have projects that aim to reduce stereotypes, distrust and animosity via a shared love for games. On the other end, we have the plethora of games that rather perpetuate the hostility towards specific groups of people instead. I strongly recommend to give the panel “Ideology and politics in conjunction with computer games” a listen.

Of course, as this conference was organised by the Computerspielemuseum, the preservation of games was an important and very complex topic to be discussed as well. Several experts from all over the world enlightened us about their efforts in both libraries and museums and the many pitfalls they face along the way. For example, how can we preserve games that we’re no longer able to play due to outdated technology? Is it wiser to transfer them to a newer medium, although at the cost of authenticity? How can we put phenomena as MMOs and other online games in a museum, even when those often thrive off their communities, or are no longer available to play? What happens to the games, whose development studios no longer exist? These were but a few of the technical questions discussed.

But let’s not forget about another can of worms: copyrights. Very often, legal issues can get in the way of obtaining games for a collection and obviously, adjustments to both local and international laws would be necessary to improve this situation. Just how exactly they should be adjusted, however, that is what the present experts simply couldn’t agree on. Many concepts were proposed, each with their own up- and downsides – this discussion is far from over.

In the meantime, here are some conclusions I can offer to any developers from SEA or other places as well. If you’ve made a great game, do consider sending a copy to a library or museum that collects computer games. If there are no such places in your own country (yet), perhaps getting in touch with those abroad is an option. Dr. Henry Lowood from Stanfort Libraries for example stated that they are potentially looking for any relevant content, if it’s not collected elsewhere already. Just make sure you truly own all rights to your game first – no one wants to deal with those pesky legal complications after all.

Lastly, another panel I greatly enjoyed was “Global gaming cultures”. I suspect this topic could fill another conference all by itself. Here, we had four speakers, offering us a glimpse on the gaming cultures of their three respective nations: the UK, South Korea and Iran, all vastly different from each other but equally fascinating. And, giving one possible answer to one of the above questions, Solip Park showed us a project by the Nexon Computer Museum Korea, aiming to reconstruct Nexon’s first game, The Kingdom of the Winds, to its full 1996 release glory. It is back online to play in this version now and demonstrates one way to preserve a MMORPG – although this certainly isn’t possible for games of the genre. Which brings us back to the aforementioned legal issues…. but I digress.

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The Kingdom of Winds, 1996 edition! … Yeah, I’m not a pro photographer.

All in all, the conference has given me plenty of food for thought. Here is hoping for many more years of our Computerspielemuseum in Berlin, which made this whole conference possible in the first place.

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