Collectors Saving Oblivion Video Game History
Michelle Flitman, a recent art school graduate who lives in suburban Chicago, grew up in a house full of video games. For his father, Mark, it was the hodgepodge of corporate life: he was a game producer and 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 get YouTube hosts and website owners interested in the relics she grew up with, but those efforts came to nothing. Then, in college, she took a course on video game history, and her professor pushed her to write a research paper. When we spoke recently, she recalled a realization she had made: “Historians care about this stuff.” She decided to post photos of her dad’s collection — shelves of games in black and red boxes, some of which are still in their original packaging — on a game collecting subreddit. “My dad was a video game producer for several companies in the 90s/2000s,” she wrote. “We plan to sell most of his collection. Here’s a fraction of what’s inside.
The thread quickly filled with commenters who clearly saw the value in Mark’s stuff. “You can make a living from these games,” one person told him. Someone else said, “I want this 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 hanging around here somewhere.
Out of one hundred and forty-nine comments, one or two urged Michelle not to sell the games and save them for posterity. One of those comments referred to an organization called the Video Game History Foundation. It was rejected enough times to appear at the very bottom of the thread, but Michelle decided to email the foundation.
Two days later, she was on a Zoom call with Frank Cifaldi, a Bay Area curator who incorporated the foundation in 2016 and opened it to the public in 2017. He runs it alongside co-owner Kelsey Lewin. from Pink Gorilla Games, a retailer that sells retro video games in Seattle. Cifaldi and Lewin agreed to fly to Chicago to sift through Mark’s hundreds of games and dozens of dusty boxes. They have worked to archive his collection ever since.
The oldest video games today are around seventy years old, and their stories are disappearing. The companies that made the first games left behind design documents, production schedules, and story bibles, but those kinds of ephemera — and even the games themselves — are easily lost. Paper mold. Discs demagnetize. Bits are said to “rot” when small errors accumulate in the stored data. Hard drives die, and so do the people who produced the games in the first place.
Generations of children grew up playing these video games and helped start the digital revolution. But games aren’t always treated as a serious part of culture, and historians and archivists are only beginning to preserve them. (A museum curator even told me that a federal grant for his game preservation work ended up on a U.S. senator’s list of wasteful projects.) The challenge isn’t just technical: it’s is also about convincing the public that the story of the game is history, and that he is worth saving.
In June, Cifaldi and Lewin traveled to Chicago to visit another game designer’s treasure trove, and they took the opportunity to review Mark’s stuff. I followed 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 indescribable that I first walked right past it. By the time I finally found the place, Cifaldi and Lewin were already hard at work in the living room, hunched over piles of old documents. The house, I noticed, was full of cat-themed decorations.
Lewin, who is compact and laser-focused, suddenly pulled out a magazine from a pile and exclaimed, “Year of the Dinosaur!” She had discovered her favorite number of game informantnineties.
“The early days of game informant were very disconnected,” Cifaldi, who is tall, with an air of intense concentration equal to Lewin’s, told me.
The dinosaur article was buried at the back of the magazine, and it wasn’t even really about video games. Cifaldi summed it up for me: “Here are some things that come out about dinosaurs. “Jurassic Park” looks cool. Here are some facts about dinosaurs, kids.
“It’s the longest-running and most-subscribed video game magazine in the United States,” Lewin observed. Listening to them made me feel like a kid on an unchaperoned excursion.
Mark has amassed his collection over two decades in the video game industry, first as a quality assurance tester and then as a producer. He worked for many game creators – 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 has been the birthplace of such familiar arcade games as Rampage, Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. But when the arcade era ended, the biggest game makers in town started to fade away, and they left behind tons and tons of hardware.
Luckily, Mark had a habit of clinging to whatever he thought would be important later. “You know, it’s 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 issues of gaming magazines – resemble the strata of a very recent archaeological site.
In the basement of the Flitman house, down a brown-carpeted staircase, Mark dropped Cifaldi and Lewin on archive boxes filled with once-confidential documents. (While visiting his parents, Mark had come across some material they hadn’t looked at yet.) I took the opportunity to see the rest of the basement, which was filled with the remains of a quarry in games, toys, and film production. I spotted a few new Furbies in the box, and the wonder must have shown on my face.
These days, Mark is semi-retired, doing a bit of screenwriting and working on a memoir that’s tentatively titled “It’s Not All the Fun and the Games.” Mark left the video game industry, he told me, because even the success of big publishers didn’t last very long. “Midway is gone now,” he said. “Mindscape is gone. Atari is gone.
What’s left tends to live in basements like this, waiting for someone interested to come along. When you play games, they don’t feel fleeting; classics, like Tetris or Super Mario Bros., can feel like they’ve always been there. But when you see how games are produced and what they’re made of – dated computer code and scraps of paper and a thousand decisions piled up behind the scenes – it’s easier to see what Cifaldi and Lewin are trying to salvage.
Cifaldi first became interested in preserving video games when he was a teenager. He had played video games as a child, but he thought of them as little more than toys, and he stopped playing them in high school. But, in the late 90s, he got his first computer and internet access. He researched the eight-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 allowed people to use software designed to play games. 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 could not find online, Super Spike V’ball/Nintendo World Cup (1990), a pair of sport featuring volleyball and football. He sent it to someone who could get the cartridge code and on the internet. After that, he was down the rabbit hole – scouring local thrift stores for games, importing cartridges from Taiwan, and flipping stuff on eBay.
Yet Cifaldi often found these online communities unsatisfying, he told me, because games tended to be downloaded without context. “I was finding out about these complete games — like whole video games that were finished and made, 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 went live. Again and again he wondered: Who did this?
In 2003, Cifaldi created Lost Levels, which he describes as the first website dedicated to documenting unreleased video games. It shared history of featured games, along with a download link. (“For me, the documentation also includes the file,” he said.) It helped launch a career, first as a freelance writer, then as a producer and game designer. video. In 2014, he made a video game based on the sequel to the TV movie “Sharknado,” in which the player weaves through the flooded, 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 about 1.1 million of these things,” Cifaldi said.
After five years of game development, Cifaldi was ready to embark on full-time game preservation, so, with the encouragement and financial support of his wife, he quit. In 2016, he incorporated the Video Game History Foundation in the East Bay as a non-profit 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 on the challenge of selling old games, and there he made a provocative argument: that emulators should be considered a form of video game preservation. Game creators don’t get paid for games downloaded for free online, so some console makers and publishers consider emulation a bit better than software piracy. At the time, Nintendo’s corporate website described emulators as “the biggest threat yet to the intellectual property rights of video game developers”. But Cifaldi said that without tools like emulation, video games would go the way of historical films. More than half of films made before 1950 are thought to be lost, as are between seventy and ninety percent of all films made before 1929.