So far we’ve discussed the multiplicity of formats and technical issues that make preserving a digital work and accurately recreating it tricky, as well as the difficulties involved in determining what is significant about a work of digital art. This question becomes even more complex when we consider the interactive, socially constructed, performative, and ephemeral nature of much digital art. While this aspect is present in a lot of digital and web art, video games and similar virtual spaces invite users to get particularly involved in creating the story, history, and meaning of the work.
As a result, the meaning the work holds for its user community and for society at large is likely to vary widely; indeed, many games are designed specifically to allow for this diversity of experience. Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire’s research (PDF) explores this by interviewing three groups of teenagers about their experiences playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. They focus in particular on the participants’ views on the portrayal of race and violence within the game. The variety of views here, even within just a few focus groups, points to the huge multiplicity of possible meanings users can draw from an interactive work. The broader media discussion about the game represents yet another viewpoint on the work and its impact. What makes this complicated from a preservation standpoint is that these meanings are created largely outside the game’s code or other technical details–they emerge through player actions and interactions in the course of gameplay. How can we preserve what’s important about a work when meaning is generated on the fly, by each user or group of users?
Lessons from other fields
While digital art is a relatively new field, these types of preservation questions are not entirely novel. Other fields, such as music, theatre, dance, and performance art, all face challenges in dealing with the necessarily ephemeral quality of a performed work, and the ways in which that aspect can nonetheless be crucial to the meaning of the work for its creators, performers, and viewers. Libby Smigel’s Documenting Dance (PDF) and Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins’ “Performance Anxiety” (PDF) present overviews of how these challenges can be confronted in dance and performance art respectively.
Both articles stress the need for the flexible use of a wide range of approaches to the works. In Documenting Dance, the authors survey several different documentary techniques, then show how these can be adapted or combined to suit the needs of different types of documenters, documented works, and cultural situations. In “Performance Anxiety”, likewise, a documenter is encouraged to be flexible and creative in applying a range of potential documentary solutions to the individual project. This flexibility is presented as important both for accurate and useful preservation, as well as for accomplishing that preservation with sometimes limited resources.
Tools and techniques
How does this performative and interactive aspect manifest itself in digital art? David R. Hussey’s article on Twitch Plays Pokemon and Josh Howard’s piece about Oral History and MMOs provide more examples of how differing meanings emerge from interactive game worlds, and begin to suggest some possible techniques that could preserve these meanings. Hussey suggests message board posts, news articles, and fan art collections as sources of evidence for community culture, while Howard goes into detail about the potential usefulness of oral histories as a way of providing essential context for a preserved virtual world.
Henry Lowood pulls together many of these ideas and applies them to real-world preservation projects in his article “Are Virtual Worlds History?” He considers virtual worlds such as Second Life or Everquest as places whose meaning is historical in a sense, insofar as it involves the stories and events that take place inside the virtual world. This means that preservation focused on software and game data misses critical information for understanding a virtual world’s impact and history. As he notes, “Installing Everquest in 2050 will not reveal much about the virtual world that emerged from the software, even if future writers and historians have access to everything needed to run a fully functioning version of the game” (p. 124). Lowood, like Hussey and Howard, stresses the importance of collecting digital information about the virtual world’s history from outside the game world itself, in sites like wikis and message boards, as well as through game data such as videos and “demo” files (which allow a user to view a replay of a previous game from within the game engine).
Virtual preservation in the real world
How do all these ideas work in practice though? Lowood discusses research on these issues through the Preserving Virtual Worlds project (the project’s main website is, ironically, a dead link, but the project’s final report is available here) and the Sirikata project, which explored using an open-source virtual world platform to preserve and provide access to 3-D objects and environments (while this project is still available to download, it appears that active development ended a few years ago). Both projects suggest useful paths for future exploration, but also reveal that there’s a lot of work yet to be done.
A big takeaway that emerges from for me this conversation is the need to be open to a full range of preservation tactics, and to be creative and flexible in combining and adapting them to the materials and context at hand. However, while this seems promising, and has been effective in other fields, it’s also potentially very time- and resource-intensive. How well will this approach scale as we deal with a growing and diverse range of digital art materials? Is it possible to automate any part of the process? Or will this scaling issue sort itself out as we grow more familiar with digital art preservation techniques?