First thing’s first: I confess I’m not a gamer.
As an 80s baby, I naturally have a fondness for good ole Mario and its various permutations along with Donkey Kong and a few other Nintendo classics. But World of Warcraft? Grand Theft Auto? Pokémon? Not so much. I didn’t even know what Everquest was until I did the readings for this week. When I began to delve into the readings, I suddenly became concerned that I was not the right person for this blog post. Reading through the first oral history example in Josh Howard’s “The Oral History of MMOs,” I struggled with a complete disconnect with the interviewee, “Swiftarrow.” Intellectually, I knew that this individual was trying to convey the formation of deep connections and friendship. Yet, as the player described camping at “the claw monoliths around Splitpaw” and the gift of “a full set of Banded Armor,” I couldn’t find a single way to connect with this person’s experience. By the time I reached Henry Lowood’s description of player initiated 9/11 vigils with glowing virtual weapons in “Memento Mundi: Are Virtual Worlds History?,” I was downright distressed. I was desperately trying to figure out how I could relate to this large community of individuals with a very serious stake in the preservation of their digital worlds.
“Early in my adventures, maybe around level 12, I was camping the claw monoliths around Splitpaw. Two players who were passing by threw me a full set of Banded Armor and wished me well. About a month later, I would join their guild.” -Swiftarrow as quoted in “The Oral History of MMOs”
Then I read Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire’s “The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and it suddenly clicked. Reading through the descriptions of the focus groups and the meanings created within those circles, it occurred to me that I would never “understand” the world of Grand Theft Auto, or World of Warcraft, or Everquest -not in the same sort of deep, experiential way at least. Why? Because these virtual worlds are first and foremost about a specific organic culture that comes together often out of mutual interest. Qeynos will never mean anything more to me than “a big digital city” as described by Howard just as I will never truly understand the interplay between “play” violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and real life violence as experienced by the adolescents in DeVane and Squire’s study. And yet as a historian and a digital curator, the importance of preserving these worlds becomes abundantly clear when reading the emotional recollection of relationships formed between MMO players, online conflicts so heated they spill over into “in-world” attacks as described by Lowood, or the varying interpretations of race as described through demographically different groups of young men. Even unprecedented events like Twitch Plays Pokémon where over a million people participated in a game together make me appreciate that there is a massive and immediately relevant culture thriving in these digital worlds.
The same can be said of performance art as well. As indicated by Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins in “Performance Anxiety: Performance Art in Twenty-First Century Catalogs and Archives,” there is specific culture surrounding that realm with vested interests in how those worlds of art will be captured and represented for the future. L. Smigel, M. Goldstein, E. Aldrich, and D.H. Coalition echo this sentiment in Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide as they list “representing the cultural impact” as a crucial reason for preserving dance documentation along with representation of the process and of the event itself. In this instance, the community wishes to preserve not just their culture in isolation, but how it affects others as well. Much of what these authors grapple with is how to preserve the essence of the underlying culture related to virtual worlds and active art. It is a pivotal question since, as Lowood indicates, preserving the software or the recording of a performance means little if you don’t also preserve the interactions, meaning, and culture that made those moments significant to begin with.
The other complicating factor in the preservation of virtual worlds and performance art is its temporality. The fleeting nature of both genres is part of what makes them so meaningful for their respective cultures. There is something magical about being present for the moment when that act is performed or that guild was created or that world unlocked. In these cases, it’s not just the interactions which are temporal. It’s also the space itself. This is clearly evident in the gaming world when a server goes down for good. However, it’s also true in performance art when an experimental artist’s installation is dismantled or when the congregation present for a performance disassembles. The moment is gone. The space which surrounded the performer is gone. The act itself is gone like a flash. From Howard to Lowood to Manzella and Watkins- the field appears to acknowledge that the space and/or medium and the action must be preserved in conjunction with the culture of the community utilizing and producing the art. Preserving one without the other leaves behind a brittle record for future gamers and historians. Perhaps the larger question is how much focus do we place on preserving one or the other better? Where should curators cut bits if the budget doesn’t stretch? The above authors seem to lean towards emphasizing the culture around the experiential art, but I’m curious as to how gamers and performance artists/aficionados feel.
“Thinking of virtual worlds as history reminds us that our solutions to these problems will need to provide access not just to software, but to materials that document the events and activities that took place in the virtual spaces created by that software.” -Henry Lowood
I’m still not a gamer. I’ll likely never exchange goods in the Commonlands Tunnel or hang out with a troll on a train ride to Nettleville. Because of this, I am and will always be an outside observer of the culture. So that left me with a nagging question: does that matter when it comes to preservation? Can someone outside the gaming or performing arts culture effectively assist in the preservation of these worlds, or should the preservation efforts be led by someone from within the culture?