This means that Pong will be in the public domain, freely available for students of videogame history to enjoy, in 2067. But can they?
An Art form is Born
When prospective English students begin studying the fine art of English literature they start at the beginning. They study how the language evolved from Beowulf to the Canterbury Tales and to Shakespeare, how poetry gave way to prose, and how the form of the novel evolved from Jonathan Swift to J.R.R. Tolkien. In order to begin to understand any given art form, one must study its roots, its evolution, and its present form.
Few would argue that videogames are due to become the dominant cultural art form of the coming generation. Connoisseurs of serious, culturally relevant videogames will praise games for their deep stories and their handling of controversial subject matters, while pushing aside graphically superior gorefests as the shallow and profit driven entertainment they ultimately are.
If the academic trends of the last hundred years or so don’t suddenly take a u-turn, Universities are readying themselves to start offering courses designed to teach students about the art that videogames have become. And to do so, they will have to start at the beginning. Yet videogames are consumed in a less straightforward way than books. Many gaming technologies are already obsolete and unavailable. So how then, will students of the art of gaming study the history of their subject?
No one will expect students to find a working model of Tennis for Two, or go out and buy themselves a Magnavox Odyssey, an Atari 2600, a ColecoVision or any of the countless other consoles that marked the birth of this immersive art form. At the same time, every student – will – be expected to experience the art as it was in its infancy. The importance of reading Shakespeare in order to understand the way his work influenced poets like John Keats will be mirrored in the importance of playing games like Mystery House to get a deeper understanding of the history influencing games like the recently released L.A. Noire. Emulators will be the student’s window into the past. There are, however, many obstacles in his way.
Let’s face it: students of English don’t always buy the books teachers ask them to buy. They’re living on a very limited budget and every cent that can be saved by finding literature online for free will mean fewer worries about finances at the end of the month. Much of the literature they have to study is no longer protected by copyrights and can be found online as part of public domain collections such as the Gutenberg project. Emulators, most of whom are available for free online, will do the same for games even if many are still protected by copyright laws. For more contemporary pieces of videogame history, projects like Good Old Games are doing amazing work at preserving videogames that were designed to be played on outdated platforms by making them compatible with modern hardware.
This practice, however, is not without dangers. Google has been heavily criticized in the past for allowing emulators to run on the Android operating system and some have even stated that until they take control of the situation, they will never enjoy the respect and success of the App Store. I for one applaud them for keeping the system open for third party software and by doing so, giving people the opportunity to play legacy hand held games the way they were meant to be played; on hand held devices.
A challenge to All
Emulators recreate the hardware configurations of a legacy device inside a virtual environment and allow users to play games that would otherwise have had to be completely reprogrammed. They open up the world of Atari’s Adventure, the NES’s original Mario Bros., and countless other invaluable gameplay experiences to anyone willing to pay for the cartridge (you only need to own the cartridge to legally download a game in any form you want according to copyright laws). The programmers donating their time to create emulators are ultimately the heroes that make sure the legends of old will never die.