The collectors who save the history of video games from oblivion

Michelle Flitman, a recent art school graduate living in a Chicago suburb, grew up in a home filled with video games. For her father, Mark, it was the odds and the end of corporate life: he was a producer and game designer who worked on NFL Blitz 2003, Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage and WWF Raw. But for Michelle, they were part of the fabric of childhood and she thought her father deserved some recognition.

Michelle tried to interest YouTube hosts and website owners in the heirlooms she grew up with, but nothing came of those efforts. Later, in college, she took a course on the history of video games, and her professor encouraged her to write a research paper. When we spoke recently, she recalled that she realized that she had realized: “Historians care about these things.” She decided to post photos of her father’s collection (shelves of games in black and red boxes, some of them still in her original packaging) on ​​a subreddit dedicated to collecting games. “My dad was a video game producer for various companies in the 90s and 2000s,” she wrote. “We plan to sell most of his collection. Here is a fraction of what it contains.”

The thread quickly filled with commenters who clearly saw the value of Mark’s stuff. “You can make a living playing these games,” one person told him. Someone else said, “I want that boxed copy of Castlevania 4. I’ll give you all the money for it.” The most popular comment joked: “Do you need kidneys? I have kidneys. Another said: “I think I have some unwanted family members lying around here somewhere.”

Of one hundred and forty-nine comments, one or two urged Michelle not to sell the games and preserve them for posterity. One of these comments referenced an organization called the Video Game History Foundation. It was rejected so many times that it appeared at the bottom of the thread, but Michelle decided to email the foundation.

Two days later, he was on a Zoom call with Frank Cifaldi, a Bay Area conservationist who incorporated the foundation in 2016 and opened it to the public in 2017. He runs it along with Kelsey Lewin, co-owner of Pink Gorilla Games, a retailer. that sells retro video games in Seattle. Cifaldi and Lewin agreed to fly to Chicago to go through Mark’s hundreds of games and dozens of dusty boxes. They have been working to archive his collection ever since.

The oldest video games are now about seventy years old, and their stories are dying out. The companies that created the first games left behind design documents, production schedules, and story bibles, but these kinds of ephemera, and even the games themselves, are easily lost. Paper molds. The discs are demagnetized. Bits are said to “rot” as small errors accumulate in the stored data. Hard drives die, as do the people who produced the games in the first place.

Generations of children grew up playing these video games and helped fuel the digital revolution. But the games aren’t always treated as a serious part of the culture, and historians and archivists are just beginning to preserve them. (One museum curator even told me that a federal grant for his game preservation work ended up on a US senator’s list of worthless projects.) The challenge is not only technical: it is also about convincing the public that the history of gaming it is history, and well worth saving.

In June, Cifaldi and Lewin traveled to Chicago to visit another game designer’s hoard and took the opportunity to revisit Mark’s material. I accompanied myself to witness the work of the Video Game History Foundation. The Flitmans live just down the street from a suburban high school, and their two-story brick house is so nondescript that I initially walked past it. When I finally found the place, Cifaldi and Lewin were already hard at work in the living room, hunched over piles of old documents. I noticed that the house was full of cat-themed decor.

Lewin, who is compact and laser-focused, suddenly pulled a magazine from a stack and exclaimed, “Year of the dinosaur!” He had discovered his all-time favorite number from game informerof the nineties.

“The first days of game informer they were very disconnected,” Cifaldi, who is tall, told me with an air of intense concentration equal to Lewin’s.

The dinosaur article was buried on the back cover of the magazine, and it wasn’t even really about video games. Cifaldi summed it up for me: “Some things about dinosaurs are coming out here. ‘Jurassic Park’ looks great. Here are some dinosaur facts, kids.”

“This is the longest-running and most-subscribed video game magazine in the United States,” Lewin observed. Listening to them, I felt like a child on an unaccompanied hike.

Mark amassed his collection over two decades in the video game industry, first as a QA tester and later as a producer. He worked for numerous game makers: Mindscape, Acclaim Entertainment, Konami, Midway Games, Atari, and NuFX, which became EA Chicago, at a time when Chicago was the video game capital of the world. The city was the birthplace of familiar arcade games like Rampage, Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam. But when the arcade era ended, the biggest game makers in town began to die out, leaving lots and lots of stuff behind.

Fortunately, Mark had a habit of holding on to anything he thought might be important later on. “You know, this is my career,” he told me. If one of his former employers solved a technical problem, he wanted to be able to share the solution with his new colleagues. The stacks of documents he kept—press kits, employee manuals, temporary rewritable cartridges, old editions of gaming magazines—are like the strata of a very recent archaeological site.

In the basement of the Flitman house, down a flight of brown-carpeted stairs, Mark unleashed Cifaldi and Lewin on file boxes filled with once-sensitive documents. (During a visit to his parents’ house, Mark had found material they hadn’t looked at yet.) I took the opportunity to see the rest of the basement, which was littered with the remains of a career in games, toys, and film production. I saw some new Furbies in the box, and amazement must have crossed my face.

These days, Mark is semi-retired, doing some screenplay writing and working on a memoir tentatively titled “It’s Not All Fun and Games.” Mark left the video game industry, he told me, because even the success of major publishers didn’t last long. “Midway is gone,” he said. “Mindscape is gone. Atari is gone.”

What’s left tend to live in basements like this, waiting for someone interested to come along. When you play, they don’t feel ephemeral; classics like Tetris or Super Mario Bros. can feel like they’ve always been around. But when you see how games are produced and what they’re made of — dated computer code and scraps of paper and thousands of accumulated behind-the-scenes decisions — it’s easier to understand what Cifaldi and Lewin are trying to salvage.

Cifaldi first became interested in video game preservation when he was a teenager. He had played video games as a child, but he saw them as little more than toys and stopped playing them in high school. But, in the late 1990s, he got his first computer and Internet access. He looked up the 8-bit Nintendo games he had played as a child and was fascinated to learn that many of them could be played on emulators or computer programs that allow people to use software designed for other machines. “I still think it’s magic,” he told me.

One of Cifaldi’s earliest contributions to game preservation was one of the cartridges he couldn’t find online, Super Spike V’ball/Nintendo World Cup (1990), a pair of sports games that included volleyball and soccer. He mailed it to someone who could get the code off the cartridge and put it on the Internet. After that, he was down the rabbit hole: scouring local thrift stores for games, importing cartridges from Taiwan, and buying things on eBay.

Still, Cifaldi often found such online communities unsatisfying, he told me, because games tended to load without context. “I would discover these complete games, like complete video games that were completed and finished, sold to people, and we didn’t know anything about them,” he said. He didn’t like that the story seemed to end as soon as the playable code was posted online. Over and over, he found himself wondering, Who did this?

In 2003, Cifaldi created Lost Levels, which he describes as the first website dedicated to documenting previously unreleased video games. He shared the story of the featured games, along with a download link. (“For me, documentation also includes the file,” he said.) He helped him launch a career, first as a freelance writer and eventually as a video game producer and designer. In 2014, he directed a video game based on the TV movie sequel “Sharknado,” in which the player moves through the flooded and shark-infested streets of New York City. The following year, Cifaldi was working as lead producer on the Mega Man Legacy Collection, which placed the first six Mega Man games in historical context. “And what a surprise, we sold like 1.1 million of those things,” Cifaldi said.

After five years of game development, Cifaldi was ready to pursue game preservation full time, so, with his wife’s encouragement and financial support, he resigned. In 2016, he incorporated the Video Game History Foundation in the East Bay as a nonprofit organization with the goal of “preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games.” He rented a physical space from his former employer and gradually filled it with historical ephemera.

Cifaldi once gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about the challenge of selling old games, and there he made a provocative argument: that emulators should be seen as a form of video game preservation. Game creators are not compensated for games uploaded for free online, so emulation is seen by some console manufacturers and publishers as only marginally better than software piracy. At the time, Nintendo’s corporate website described emulators as “the greatest threat to the intellectual property rights of video game developers to date.” But Cifaldi said that without tools like emulation, video games would go the way of historical movies. More than half of the films made before 1950 are believed to be lost, as are 70 to 90 percent of all films made before 1929.

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