Michigan's Video Game Librarian
(Originally appeared in Concentrate, June 6 2010)
Depending on how you feel about video games, David Carter either has one of the coolest jobs at the University of Michigan or is a glorified computer camp counselor. Carter is the head of the University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive, which houses over 2,000 games and 30 different video game systems in the Duderstadt Center. Twenty-five percent of Carter’s job description as an engineering and computer science librarian is spent curating the archive – acquisitions, helping students with projects, occasional repairs, and running the public archive – while the rest of the time he goes about his regular library duties.
So why is the University of Michigan library system treating video games like books or film or works of art?
"It’s an idea whose time has come," says Carter.
Roger Ebert recently wrote that video games can never be art. To be fair, Mr. Ebert did back off his "never" claim by a few steps, but he still holds video games in ill regard. Let's make one thing clear - video games are already art. One of the many definitions of art states that it is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. Art encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings. Then why not video games?
Though video games have only been around for the last 30 years or so, games and the consoles they're played on have become more sophisticated each year. Graphics, storylines, and the overall experience itself has evolved and improved year to year, allowing developers to build works of art on par with the plot of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or the visuals of James Cameron's Avatar.
Video games arrange story, music, sound, visual elements and a tactile experience to affect the senses and stir emotion. They aren’t all Grand Theft Auto, first-person shooters, and sports titles. There are levels of art, just like any medium. Space Invaders is a much different experience than Heavy Rain and Jungle Hunt is a cave painting compared to Flower, but these early games are no less important than sophisticated new releases. That's where Carter, the video game preservation movement, and the University of Michigan come in.
The computer and video game archive is tucked away on the second floor of the Art, Architecture and Engineering library at the Duderstadt Center on North Campus. The public room is ringed by video game consoles arranged into small work areas. On one side is a giant flat screen TV for the newer systems. Next to it is a shelf lined with video games of all shapes and sizes, from old NES cartridges to the modern CD cases that dominate the market. There are more games in the archive in the back as well (the full catalog is available online). On three separate visits, the room always had at least a few people playing games on the systems. Carter wouldn’t have it any other way.
"We're a public archive," he says. "We aren't like a traditional archive, which sometimes feels like a vault. They'll let you touch the stuff, but you might have to wear gloves. Here, we're not just preserving games but preserving the experience, especially with the older games. You can’t experience a game unless you can play it. We have old TVs for the older systems and we don’t use any emulators. Right now, we've got everything but the shag carpeting and lava lamps."
The 40-year-old Michigan graduate didn't intend to be the head of the archive. He grew up in White Lake, Michigan, a suburb of Pontiac. Carter’s father fostered his love for video games, buying Carter an Atari 2600 and taking him to the arcade. One of his favorites was Space Invaders. He liked video games, but he wasn't a hardcore gamer. He studied engineering at Michigan during the golden age, when the Sega Genesis, NES, and Super NES reinvented the industry, but was too busy with school and his social life to keep up. He fell behind the swift gains made in the industry.
"As an adult I bought my first Playstation, then a PS2 and PS3, but I’m not a huge gamer," Carter says. "I lack the time, patience and manual dexterity. I can't play a first-person shooter for the life of me."
A member of the art school faculty suggested to David that he might investigate starting a video game archive similar to one that had opened at Stanford. Carter wrote up a proposal, formed a small group with a few other librarians, and their plan was quickly approved. "It took a lot less convincing than I thought it would," says Carter. In September of 2008 the archive opened, becoming one of only a handful of public video game archives in the world.
Carter is perhaps the ideal person to run the computer and video game archive. He appreciates the area of study without being obsessed with it. Every once in a while a game will suck him in for a weekend, but he generally finds himself too preoccupied with other pursuits to take his work home with him. He treats the collection seriously and his passion to acquire games and working consoles is infectious.
"I want one of everything," Carter quips.
There's some debate about what the first video game actually was, but the industry is less than three decades old. Nevertheless, there are many games out there that Carter is looking to add to the archive, while at the same time adding new ones as they are released.
Despite the technology available to designers today, the medium is still relatively new. Early popular video games like Pac Man and Centipede were pixillated task-based programs with simple rules and controls. As the technology improved and the field evolved, graphics became more realistic and game developers concentrated more on story and experience.
"Video games are at the same point that film was in the 1920s and 30s," says Carter.
The movement to treat them with more respect is slowly gaining momentum. Archives at Stanford, the University of Texas, Maryland, and Illinois are all working to preserve video games and their systems. The Library of Congress is also getting involved, developing standards for preserving games and virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. The movement is growing, but Carter says there’s still a lot of work to be done.
"In three or four years I'm sure we'll all come together to share what we've learned and develop best practices," says Carter. "But first, we have to practice."
Currently, 90 percent of the archive's use is recreational. Students come in to play games they may not own or revisit older consoles they may have played when they were younger. "Duck Hunt is very popular," says Carter. He likens this use of the archive to people checking out new books at a regular library.
Carter's hope is that students will learn of the existence of the video game and computer archive so that when there are projects to be done or a thesis to be written, they have a unique opportunity for original research. Students have used the archive to study censorship in video games or explore the evolution of gender through avatars. Video games are becoming as much of a cultural marker as film, art or literature.
Carter's archive is not the only entity on campus taking video games seriously. The University of Michigan Press is launching the Landmark Video Games book series, which is the first English-language series dedicated to these works. The Michigan Press web site states that the series will provide a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the most important video games of all time and help teach undergraduate and graduate students how to see, read, analyze, study, situate, and appreciate the art form. Together with novels and film, gaming is part of the contemporary cultural landscape.
Carter is satisfied with the relatively new archive and donations have been steady. "About 50 percent of our games have been donated," says Carter. "Most of our budget is spent on newer titles because those are much less likely to be donated. We want to have as broad a representation of games as possible. I want the most celebrated games as well as Hannah Montana, the video game.”
Like any good curator, Carter doesn't base his acquisitions on taste.
"The more games we get, the greater the chance that something will survive," says Carter. "Video games are perishable. The physical media deteriorates faster than books and the hardware breaks down – parts become obsolete. One of our biggest issues is finding systems to run some of our older computer games. We're backing everything up but each day that passes increases the chances that we won’t be able to save something."