The Raspberry Pi computer was inspired by the machines of the 80s, which were used interchangeably for programming and gaming. In fact, many of you will remember typing in the pages of code from a magazine to make a game. Some people used them as a basis on which to build their own games, taking the early steps into what has become an important industry.
Nowadays, computer games are a crucial part of our cultural history. We see this in the enthusiasm for retro games projects that people create with our computers.
A trip down 8-bit memory lane is a lot of fun, but there’s a serious side to the preservation of games too. The games and machines that inspired a generation of digital creatives are old and obsolete. There will soon come a time when they no longer work; a lot of work is done by organisations like the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge to preserve old hardware, but it’s an uphill battle against the moulds that find the medium inside floppy discs so attractive, the leakage of electrolytic capacitors, tin whiskers developing in solder, and a million and one other sorts of entropy. In the future, there could be no way to revisit this part of our culture in the same way we can with books and objects without the work of archivists and historians.
The cultural side of games is clear in the way they represent real places. The Museum of London are exploring this with an exhibit of representations of London in games. The earliest example is in 1982 text-based adventure game Streets of London for the ZX Spectrum; more recent ones include Tomb Raider III and Broken Sword.
You can’t understand a game by looking at it in a museum case: it has to be experienced. The museum collection includes ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 machines, but the curators found that these old computers were not robust enough for ‘hands-on’ exhibits. Long load times from cassettes, 30-year-old worn keyboards and obsolete monitor connections all hampered their efforts.
Step up the Raspberry Pi, and the resources for retro gaming provided by RetroPie and the many emulators it supports. This seems appropriate, given that the Pi is the inheritor of the DIY ethos of these early games machines. All the interactive exhibits are powered by Raspberry Pis, emulating Spectrums, Commodore 64s, and even a Windows 95 PC.
What’s on-screen is only part of the experience, so the exhibits also have authentic input devices. Adventure game commands are typed (and mis-typed) into the squashy rubber-membrane keys of an adapted Spectrum keyboard. Platform antics are controlled with a C64-like joystick (instinctive flailing of the controller to make characters jump higher is optional). Even the original manuals are included, as referring to them was so often an important part of the experience.
As custodians of cultural history, it’s also important that the museum uses the right processes to preserve the games. They have acquired copies of games on the original cassettes and disks, and carefully transferred them to modern media. This is important for copyright, to ensure the authenticity of the code, and for the completeness of the collection.
It’s easy to forget that games are important historical artefacts. They tell us about past experiences, and the way they represent places and events is a part of our cultural history. Although digital artefacts are quickly obsolete, people are going to great lengths to develop ways of preserving them for generations to come.
Seeing representations of London in video games alongside the art, objects and literature in the collection at the Museum of London shows just how much a part of life digital objects are now. It also shows how the history of the early video games era is being passed on through the Raspberry Pi. It’s not just inspiring a new generation of digital creatives. It’s also helping us all to remember and understand our digital heritage.
London in Video Games is on display at The Museum of London until the end of April, and the museum plans to continue to explore digital preservation and games emulation. We know there are lots of people in our community with expertise in emulation and archiving of retro games: let us know in the comments if you might be able to lend your expertise to projects like this.