Software that can be used to play almost any computer game in history is to be developed as part of a European attempt to preserve digital cultural heritage.
The European Union has funded a €4.02 million (£3.6m, $5.2m) project dubbed KEEP, for Keeping Emulation Environments Portable, which will develop new ways to archive digital objects endangered by the relentless march of technology. As well as games, it will work to ensure that other kinds of files and software remain accessible long after the demise of the hardware and software for which they were originally intended.
Emulation involves creating a software package that replicates the functionality of a previous hardware platform, storage medium or operating system, making it possible to use old software on modern hardware. But existing emulators are usually specialised and themselves prone to becoming outdated. KEEP is intended to be the “first general purpose emulator”, designed to be migrated easily to new computing platforms.
The speed with which digital technologies become obsolete means that even programs from the 1990s are at risk of becoming lost forever, says computer historian David Anderson of Portsmouth University, who will work on KEEP with colleagues from France, The Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic.
“Early hardware, like games, consoles and computers, is already found in museums, but if you can’t show visitors what they did by playing the software on them, it’s much the same as putting musical instruments on display but throwing away all the music,” Anderson says. “For future generations, it would be a cultural catastrophe.”
James Newman, one of the leaders of the UK’s National Videogame Archive agrees. “We don’t value our gaming heritage in the same way that we do books or movies – we’re stuck with the model of everything being superceded,” says Newman. The best-maintained collections of old games can be found on auction sites like eBay or in the hands of dedicated amateur collectors, he adds.