Justin Keverne just made a post on his blog entitled A disappearing history. In it, he talks about Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer being integrated with its singleplayer elements, and the ramifications of this integration for the preservation of the game. He argues not that multiplayer gaming, or the integration of multiplayer elements into singleplayer games should be abandoned, but that publishers should “rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers” to preserve the game.
Reading this post, what struck me was the approach to multiplayer elements being included in singleplayer games, and the way Justin positions these elements as intruding into and disrupting the static text of the singleplayer. From my perspective, tight integration of multiplayer elements into the ostensibly singleplayer experience produces a game that is indistinguishable from being a multiplayer game. Consequently, the other players are a fundamental part of what creates the game experience. Their actions contribute to the construction of the text, not just in the literary, interpretative fashion, but in a very material way. In general I conceive of multiplayer gaming as performance, and the other players are other performers. They play their parts, just as the experiencing player does, using the sets and props provided by the game software. I would argue that multiplayer gaming must be understood as performance, as a practice, and cannot be considered reducible to the sets and props (the software) involved.
So I question the value of, for example, community-maintained servers as a method of preservation. Multiplayer games, by definition, involve other people. These other people are fundamental, essential elements of the game, just as essential, I would argue, as the game software and servers. Justin cites the example of NOLF2 as a game where community-maintained servers allow the game to still be played online, long after release. But the people playing the game now are going to be an entirely different set of people to those who played it online closer to launch. This long after release, they are likely to be predominantly players with a great familiarity with the intricacies of the game, its nuances, tricks and idiosyncracies. They will approach the game entirely differently, and perform it in different ways.
Community-maintained servers support a continuing community of practice for particular instances of multiplayer gaming. There is absolutely something to be said for preserving a practice as a living practice, one that evolves and changes, and community-maintained servers do that well. They are not the Museum Fremen of the Dune novels, acting out ritualised versions of practices with no understanding of the original meanings behind them. Long-established communities of practice always evolve and change the practice itself. But they do absolutely nothing to preserve the practice itself, at least as it was practiced in a game’s hey-day.
Herein lies the problem: what is typically of most interest to historians and researchers, those to whom preservation is valuable, is not the practice as it exists today, but as it existed at whatever time and place they are interested in. I would argue that, in this sense, community-maintained servers do not actually do any preservation at all. What is notable and interesting about, say, Woodstock, is that it took place at a particular place and time, and had a particular cultural influence within that context. Community-maintained servers are the equivalent of maintaining the stage and instruments used at Woodstock, with performers coming in to play with them, less and less each year, and a more dedicated group each time. This is not particularly useful to those interested in the original event itself, what happened there, or why it was important. It is not actually preservation, as such.
Consequently, I would suggest that rather than looking to community-maintained servers and other means of continuing a community of practice, a more useful and productive way to approach the issue of the preservation of multiplayer games (including ostensibly singleplayer games with multiplayer elements) would be to adopt the means of preservation of other cultural events that are specific to a particular place and time. Live music performances are preserved through recordings of the performance, and through archiving of material and artifacts surrounding the performance (tickets, flyers, reviews, etc.), as well as, sometimes, yes, preservation of the actual sets and instruments involved. Famous chess games, such as Spassky-Fischer Game 13 in the 1972 World Championship, are preserved through a record of the moves involved – a record of the performance of the game itself. For example, here you can see that game, and play back the moves one step at a time. Even this does not preserve many elements of the performance of the game though, such as the pacing of moves, the way the players reacted and responded to each other, etc. But community-maintained servers are the equivalent of, instead, ensuring that people can continue to play chess. To claim that continuing access to the game of chess preserves the game as Fischer and Spassky played it is absurd. Even in chess, the way the game has played has changed, at least in subtle ways, since 1972. Even being able to play back Spassky and Fischer’s moves doesn’t give you the context of the game as played in 1972, what sets of moves were popular, etc. It’s like how playing on a community-maintained Quake server tells you nothing about how the game was played before the discovery and popularisation of rocket-jumping.
I’m not arguing that preserving the ability to play these multiplayer games is unimportant, any more than I’m arguing that preserving the rules of chess is unimportant. The performance and practice of multiplayer gaming cannot be understood without an understanding of the software, the props and sets involved. Without being able to see how chess is played, one cannot understand Fischer-Spassky. That EA discontinuing servers for Mercenaries 2 means the game cannot be played at all is disastrous for preservation attempts. But even in this, community-maintained servers present problems, in terms of using different versions of software than might have been used when the playing of a game was at its height. And even without community-maintained servers, all is not lost as far as preservation. What I would argue is that the more traditional ways of preserving events and performances, i.e. documentation and archiving of related materials, are much more vital for the preservation of those elements of most interest to historians and researchers. Instead of focussing on community-maintained servers, we should look to Let’s Play videos, to Starcraft and DotA replays, and to writing about the experience of playing these games at the time and place of interest. These are much more immediately productive ways of preserving our gaming heritage than pursuing and ensuring the continuing practice of gameplay.
(Since I started writing this, Justin has added an addendum to his post in response to our Twitter conversation on the subject. However, I still don’t feel he goes far enough in acknowledging the limitations of community-maintained servers and the like, or the value of documentation, for preservation.)