« Antiquarianism and Hardware Ideology and rhetoric of video game emulation. The case of MAME » by Riccardo Fassone (Università di Torino)

Matières à jouerA l’occasion de la parution du numéro 28 de Tracés, « Matières à jouer », nous publions la version originale en anglais de l’article de Riccardo Fassone, « Antiquarianism and Hardware, Ideology and rhetoric of video game emulation. The case of MAME ». Ce texte original est paru dans le numéro en français sous le titre « Archiver les jeux d’arcade : rhétorique et idéologie de l’émulation vidéo-ludique ». La version française est accessible sur CAIRN.

Cet article est consacré à l’analyse de l’émulateur appelé Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), un logiciel qui vise à recréer le fonctionnement interne de jeux vidéo d’arcade. MAME permet aux utilisateurs de jouer à des jeux qui ont disparu, et les discours qui l’accompagnent et son positionnement à l’égard de l’histoire du médium jeu vidéo méritent d’être discutés. D’une part, sa prétention à l’authenticité minore le rôle de la matérialité dans l’expérience de jeu sur des bornes d’arcade. D’autre part, dans le contexte des jeux vidéo d’arcade, son obsession de la reproduction exacte soulève plusieurs questions concernant la valeur et l’étendue des pratiques archivistiques, archéologiques et de conservation. L’article critique ainsi la rhétorique implicite de MAME, selon laquelle le « code du jeu vidéo est source de vérité » (Murphy, 2013), pour lui opposer une approche plus nuancée de l’expérience du jeu vidéo, qui intègre la matérialité, le hardware et le contexte social.

Antiquarianism and Hardware

Ideology and rhetoric of video game emulation. The case of MAME[1]

Riccardo Fassone (Università di Torino)

  1. Introduction

In the last decade, debates over the cultural legitimacy of video games have been slowly waning, as a result of a series of initiatives aimed at establishing or reinforcing the presence of the medium within archives, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions. This surprisingly sudden process of musealization conjures issues of preservation, archival curation and cultural heritage in regards to artifacts that, in some cases, were produced over half a century ago. For this reason, a number of disjointed conservative practices devised by grassroots communities of developers, game historians and fans have come to the fore of scholarly interest. Among these vernacular archival methods, emulation has drawn the most attention due to its complex and ambiguous relation with issues such as nostalgia, video game historiography and game preservation. Both in magazines devoted to game culture (McDonald, 1999) and in scholarly publications (Conley et al., 2004), emulation is often discussed from a jurisprudential standpoint, where the pressure of video game industry towards copyright protection and trademark integrity is challenged by emergent practices of playing old or classic video games in their emulated versions.

While issues of property and copyright are central to the current debate on video game preservation, I will confront the issue of emulation from the standpoint of its impact on the materiality of video game play, its relation with original hardware and its implicit and explicit rhetorical stances. In the first part of this paper, I will describe and analyze MAME, one of the most popular and widely used emulators for arcade and classic video games. In discussing MAME’s rhetoric I will confront its peculiar approach to hardware preservation and its interaction with current theories in video game preservation and archiving. In the second part of the paper I will discuss what I will term transformative nostalgia, a series of experimental practices aimed at re-using and re-imagining pieces of gaming history – both material and immaterial – openly contrasting the rhetoric of disembodied, abstract preservation present within the discourse of emulation and in more ‘traditional’ forms of preservation.

  1. The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator

The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) is a computer program developed by Nicola Salmoria and released in February 1997. MAME aims at reproducing as precisely as possible the inner functioning of various arcade machines by emulating their hardware components within the environment of a multi-purpose computer. In other words, MAME conforms to the definition of emulator provided by Conley et al. according to which

An emulator is a piece of hardware/software that allows a user to execute game software on a platform for which the software was not originally intended. For example, video game emulators allow a personal computer to function almost identically to a video game console or an arcade game system. (2004, p. 3)

Whereas most emulators designed to reproduce extinct or disappearing video games technologies concentrate on mimicking the behavior of a single platform (see for example Zsnes, a popular emulator for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), MAME is capable of emulating a series of different reverse engineered CPUs and sound chips found in arcade cabinets; MAME is a collection of emulated machines grouped in a single piece of software. MAME can ‘trick’ «the game code in believing that it is running on the original arcade cabinet» (Murphy, 2013, p. 44); games running on MAME are usually read-only memories (ROM) transformed into software, a procedure known as ‘dumping’. In other words, pieces of hardware, usually composed of various chips mounted on a circtuit board, undergo a process of emulation, by being wired to devices capable of transforming the functioning of the chips into a series of coded instructions that can be later executed on different hardware. While in some cases this process can be performed by relatively unskilled users through the adoption of devices such as the Doctor V64 – a ‘dumping’ device for the Nintendo 64 –, transforming the circuit boards of arcade video game machines into readable software requires a deeper understanding of their inner functioning[1] and their often custom-made parts and sockets. When ROMs are turned into pieces of software, MAME is usually modified in order to execute the new content. A clarification is in order here: MAME does not provide playable games, but rather stands as a software that can execute emulated versions of games; MAME project aims at emulating the hardware that allowed games to be played on arcade cabinets rather than the games themselves. Games that can be played using MAME can be found on third-party websites, where they are hosted. While apparently trivial, this distinction is fundamental in characterizing MAME as a project that addresses the issue of hardware conservation, rather than that of retro-gaming, that is the possibility of playing old games that are no longer available in retail stores.

At a first glance MAME seems to act as a repository for lost, forgotten or broken hardware technology, an archive[2] for obsolescent platforms that allows players and scholars to experience once again their otherwise unplayable ROMs. MAME’s developers reinforce this stance in the ‘About’ section of their website, where they claim:

MAME is strictly a non-profit project. Its main purpose is to be a reference to the inner workings of the emulated arcade machines. This is done both for educational purposes and for preservation purposes, in order to prevent many historical games from disappearing forever once the hardware they run on stops working. (About MAME, mamedev.org)

Elsewhere, MAME’s coordinator Aaron Giles states that «MAME is to arcade games what the Library of Congress is to books» (Giles, 2008). Both MAME’s institutional presentation and Giles’ words explicitly characterize the intents of MAME as archival in nature, since MAME’s agenda of conservation – just like that of the Library of Congress – focuses on storage and preservation rather than on dissemination. While not an archive in the institutional sense, MAME is a piece of software that acts as an archive for video game hardware, by acquiring, storing and cataloging it. Like most emulators, MAME seems to actively contrast the technological teleology that drives the video game industry, by acknowledging that «much of the work of the games industry, in its broadest sense, is diametrically opposed to the project of game history, heritage and preservation» (Newman, 2012, p. 9)[3] and providing a collectively engineered solution to the lack of institutional interest in preservation. This grassroots approach to preservation has raised a number of urgent questions on the legal status of reverse-engineered platforms and dumped ROMs[4], but, while the gray area of copyright laws surrounding emulation is at the heart of various studies (Farrand, 2012, Conley et al., 2004, Pinchbeck et al., 2009), the rhetorical and ideological implications of the complex set of historical and archival practices activated by projects like MAME may need further consideration.

  1. Code is code

In an article on MAME, Murphy claims that this emulator «favors technical accuracy over ease of use» (2013, p. 50); in other words, the operations of the emulated platforms are reproduced as accurately as possible, even though this often means that emulated games «run so slowly on current hardware systems that they are virtually unplayable» (ibid.). Moreover, MAME’s clumsy interface, its general unfriendliness and the developers’ blunt statement that playing games through the emulator «is considered a nice side effect, and is not MAME’s primary focus» (About MAME, mamedev.org.), seem to reinforce the idea that the emulator’s main goal is not satisfying nostalgia for the arcade, but achieving efficient preservation of specialized hardware. Murphy relates MAME’s approach in treating the preserved material to the ideological agenda of «defining video game code as an entity that speaks truth» (2013, p. 51), a paradoxical archiving strategy that preserves not the objects but an abstract representation of their former existence as hardware. While in some cases the circuit boards, CRT screens, wooden cabinets and fluorescent marquees of arcade games from the 1970s onwards do exist somewhere (in museums, private collections, neighborhood bars), MAME’s archival project is utterly forgetful of the material artifacts supporting and surrounding video game play.

MAME’s reliance on software emulation of hardware and on preservation rather than accessibility places the project at the heart of a number of transdisciplinary debates involving archival sciences, political discourses on digital media and media theory and history as a whole. On the one hand, MAME’s vernacular archival strategy seems to answer resolutely the issue raised by Bachimont, who claims that with digital media «La difficulté est de savoir à quel niveau doit s’exercer la préservation» (2009, p.208). MAME’s archivists locate the material in need of preservation at the level of abstract functioning: the possibility to store the operations of video game related hardware in software form is a sufficient tool for its preservation. Murphy, borrowing from Coleman (2011), claims that MAME’s modus operandi represents a continuation of the hacking practices of appropriation and reordering of technology that inform much of contemporary digital game culture, in which code is considered the main tool that needs to be appropriated by hackers. Such a rhetoric is pervasive in the wider discourse of amateur emulation, reflected in the notorious Emulation: Right or Wrong? aka “The EmuFAQ”, a pamphlet in which a proponent of emulation writes:

As I said, code is code. It doesn’t matter one whit if it’s in hardware or software, if it’s stored on permanent or non-permanent media, or whether or not it gets changed from one format to another. If you’re going to preserve that vendor’s precious program, then you have to preserve the code itself. The format doesn’t mean a damn thing, so long as you can still maintain the integrity of that code. That’s one of the consequences of the Digital Revolution – we can change formats at whim and still have a working program. Attempting to lock a program into only one specific format is a useless gesture, because you can still access and execute that code irrespective of its format. A difference that makes no difference is no difference. Data is data. Code is code. (Pettus, 1999)

In this perspective, the discourses of MAME and of the «emuscene»[5] (Pettus, 1999) describe emulation as a historical tool in the foucaultian sense, a work of collective historiography whose goal is (quite literally) «to ‘memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into documents and lend speech to those traces» (Foucault, 1972, p. 7). To MAME’s developers, this process is guaranteed by the fact that code is a «parrhesiastes» (Foucault, 1999), an entity that not only «speaks truth», but, more radically speaks what is the only possible truth.

Moreover, MAME’s interest in transforming hardware into software is characterized by scholars such as Jordan (2007) as contrasting what he dubs the «commodification» of play, a historical and economic process, started with the release of early tabletop games such as Monopoly, where games are progressively made into proprietary devices, thus rendering play a commodity that can be bought and sold. According to Jordan, commercially released board games such as Monopoly tie gameplay to a set of specific material tools (pawns, cards, board, bills, etc.), inevitably bonding play to the acquisition of such devices. Video games reinforce this process: as procedural artifacts (Bogost, 2006), they tie players both to precise material conditions (cartridges, DVDs, etc.) and to inescapable rules. Rules in video games are procedurally generated, executed and sustained by a computer, and cannot be modified at will, a feature that Jordan interprets as a historical shift in the process of commodification. By transforming video game hardware into software, thus making it potentially viable for execution on different platforms, MAME seems to de-commodify[6], at least to a degree, video games. Nevertheless, what Jordan sees as «a cultural critique and playful resistance of such commodification within the rigid legal and technological infrastructures of autonomous, executable, and copyrighted machine code» (2009, p. 708), may also be interpreted as an archival gesture that acts arbitrarily on a portion of the material it seeks to preserve, implicitly stating that the material conditions of play are not what constitutes a game. An assumption in need of scrutiny.

  1. MAME, Antiquarianism and Experience

As I have stated, MAME’s project is not strictly an archival one, since it eludes or bends some of the characteristics of the institutional archive. MAME’s developers, then, are not solely vernacular archivists; one could contend that they are also a bizarre breed of antiquarians. Wolfgang Ernst introduces the metaphor of antiquarianism in digital media studies in his essay Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines (2005). According to Ernst:

For antiquarians, history is not just text, but the materialist emancipation of the object from an exclusive subjection to textual analysis. Antiquarianism acknowledges the past as artefactual hardware, so to speak, upon which historical discourse operates like a software. (2005, p. 589)

We may then think of MAME’s project as one of peculiar antiquarianism, working in absentia of material hardware, that nevertheless seem to pursue the goal of hardware historiography through documentation and emancipation. On the one hand, through the practice of dumping, hardware is distilled in a crystallized, relatively accessible, shared form; on the other hand, it is extracted from the continuum of history (and from the discourse of technological teleology imposed by the industry) and returned to its nature of technological artifact, upon which it is possible – but not necessary – to install the software of historical discourse. The fact that the developers acknowledge that playing video games using MAME «is considered a nice side effect» is thus consistent with a practice of antiquarianism whose mission is «documenting the hardware and how it functions» (FAQ, mamedev.org) rather than preserving a set of playing practices. Nevertheless, what makes MAME’s developers a paradoxical form of antiquarians is that their conservation of ‘antique’ hardware is conducted without any hardware to speak of. Not only original CPUs, sound chips and PCBs are archived in their most abstracted form (a code documenting their functioning), but a whole section of what arguably constitutes hardware in arcade games is completely neglected. According to scholars such as Giordano (2011) and Newman (2012), archiving classic games by preserving their inner functioning, as MAME does, considerably shrinks the borders of what should be considered relevant hardware in arcade cabinets. Describing the experience of playing arcade video games Carbone and Giordano (2011) argue that:

The tools for meaning making in video games, the way in which they stand as signifying machines, are not found solely in the abstractness of code, in the program or in the formal logic of gameplay, but are defined, just as importantly, by physical props, by interfaces and by the way these tools allow games to be experienced on the border between mediated and non-mediated space, between screen and non-screen. (p. 48, my translation)

Interface hardware such as specific controllers, light guns, multiple screens, often used in the arcades to enhance the player’s experience, are quite literally lost in translation when a game is reduced to its inner functioning. Additionally, a wide range of secondary non-technological materials – painted wood cabinets, fluorescent marquees – that functioned as iconic companions to the otherwise extremely abstract video games of the arcade era (Wolf, 2003), cannot be accounted for by MAME’s antiquarianism. While MAME’s mission seem to converge with that of media archaeology, that is to put to use «a curiosity cabinet kind of awe of quirky devices […] as the alternatives to a mainstream media history» (Parikka, 2012), its reliance on abstracted software data elides precisely the cabinets and their (often very meaningful) curiosities.

Other than MAME’s incapability to account for the wealth of hardware surrounding video games of the Seventies and Eighties, both Giordano and Newman seem to agree on another, more radical, stance regarding grassroots archival practices. According to Newman:

That so much of what games have to offer is based on contingencies of play must surely lead us to question the primacy of playable games in the game preservation project and encourage us to consider the possibility of a need to a shift the balance from game preservation towards gameplay preservation. (2012, p. 158)

On the same note, but with in a slightly more dystopian fashion, Giordano claims that «it can be stated that a complete, philologically credible form of game storage — especially one which recreates the original conditions of the game experience — is almost impossible» (2011). Both scholars hint at the fact that preserving games as textual instances by situating «truth at the material level of code» (Murphy, 2013, p. 47) disregards the contingent nature of digital play and its reliance on ergodicity (Aarseth, 1997), that is the non-trivial role of the player in activating and sustaining the execution of a semiotic sequence, and, ultimately, the instability and situatedness of the player’s experience.

This discourse on the irreducible phenomenology of (digital) play counters MAME’s rhetoric of games-as-code at two distinct levels. On the one hand, since MAME does not guarantee that games can be actually played, but sees play as a side effect, it might be said that the condition of existence of gameplay, that is the procedural dialogue between a player and a system, supported by the specifically situated material and technological conditions, is not present, thus rendering Murphy’s claim according to which «emulators are ludic technologies» (2013, p. 44) problematic. On the other hand, assuming that games can be played through MAME, the specific conditions of play (on a personal computer, lacking dedicated interfaces and iconographic material) arguably make playing Burger Time (Data East, 1982) on an emulator a significantly different experience than playing it in the communal space of an arcade room.

  1. Consider the broadsword: on materiality

Both Giordano’s emphasis on gaming paraphernalia and relevance of contextual data and Newman’s focus on the phenomenology of play refuse emulation’s rhetoric of hardware-as-text, But while Giordano claims that no philologically plausible form of preservation is possible for digital games, due to their inherent fragmentation as multi-situated, ergodic media, Newman proposes a different strategy altogether. According to the author, since experiential accuracy is but a well-meaning utopia and gameplay rather than games should be archived, the preservation of instances of play (e.g. video clips, ethnographies, etc.), ancillary and paratextual objects, and other non-interactive material should be privileged. Whereas, in the name of accuracy, MAME trades the preservation of the object for the preservation of the abstract conditions of its existence, Newman proposes to collect and preserve instances of play rather than games, focusing on the contingent social and cultural aspects of gameplay rather than on games as situated cultural products. In both cases, it is the inherent instability of video games, whose very existence and relevance as media objects can be situated at different levels, that generates an apparently irreducible aporia. According to Bogost and Montfort (2007) video games should be conceived and analyzed as fundamentally layered objects. The scholars introduce five categories for the study of video games that help grasp the complexity of working on issues of preservation and archival practices; according to Bogost and Montfort, video games can be studied from the perspective of «reception/operation», the situated experience of the user, «interface», the relation between the user and the game, «form/function», the formal construction and operational logic of the game, «code», the software that executes the game, and «platform», the level of abstraction beneath the code, comprised of the material and technological constraints of specific platforms (Bogost and Montfort, 2007, p. 2).

While MAME’s interest seems to be in the preservation of platforms (through their ‘elevation’ into code), Newman proposes to refuse this strategy altogether in order to focus on the layer of reception and operation, that is on the lived practice of gameplay. Once again, the problem seems to be at what level should preservation act.

According to Newman:

The continued ability to play remains a valuable and potentially useful means of contextualising and interpreting videogames, in much the same way as handling a replica or original medieval broadsword might give a sense of combat through its heft or the aura of its authenticity. However, just as the sword itself reveals little of the detail of the lived experience of knightly life, neither can the isolated playable game communicate the lived experience of gameplay. (2012, p. 158)

Newman’s analogy is particularly useful, since it conjures the elusive concept of «the aura of its authenticity», that roughly seems to relate to what Giordano describes as the «stimmung» (2011) of a game, that is an untraceable quality deriving from the interaction with the player that is lost in the trivialities of preservation. It should be noted that neither Newman nor Giordano refer to the notion of authenticity with the meaning that it bears in archival sciences, that is «the characteristic of a record that is what it purports to be» (Duranti, 2001, p. 44), but rather in the Benjaminian sense of   «a strange weave of space and time» (Benjamin, 1999, p. 518), a precise – albeit rather abstract and possibly unique – conjunction between the material condition of the game and the situated instance of play. For Newman as well, being able to play an emulated game is a nice side effect, but it is so for radically different reasons than those adduced by MAME’s antiquarians. To stick with Newman’s similitude, though, it is possible to claim that, while no replica of a sword is capable of making one experience the perils and brutality of battle, the design, construction and, ultimately, the affordances of a weapon are powerful heuristic tools. More than this, they are invaluable clues for the reconstruction (as partial, precarious and ambiguous as it may be) of that same stimmung or aura both Newman and Giordano conjure. In his essay Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm, historian Carlo Ginzburg (1989) advocates the adoption of a theoretical and historiographical practice based on clues, fragments, and apparently irrelevant details. Ginzburg quotes XIX Century art historian Giovanni Morelli, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud as prominent exponents of the evidential paradigm, «a method of interpretation based on discarded information, on marginal data, considered in some way significant» (Ginzburg, 1989, p. 101). According to Ginzburg, literary criticism and theory have strived for a quasi-scientific status by virtue of the fact that, with the invention of writing and, later, of printing technologies, «written text became purified of traits not considered pertinent» (p. 109), thus acquiring a degree of stability that allowed for rigorous analysis, interpretation and preservation, but implied discarding documents and information that were not deemed relevant.

It is precisely this process of purification that seems to bind together MAME’s rhetoric of orthodox preservation and Newman’s proposal of gameplay preservation. Impurities – which, as it seems, cannot be preserved efficiently – such as hardware material of different kinds, gaming peripherals and, more generally, material tools of (video) game play, are elided by the process of purification needed in order to obtain some degree of stability. With Ginzburg, though, one could ask «whether exactness of this type is attainable or even desirable for forms of knowledge most linked to daily experience – or, more precisely, to all those situations in which the unique and indispensable nature of the data is decisive to the persons involved» (ivi, p. 124). Or more radically, rather than preserving purified versions of video games, shouldn’t we be tinkering with the very impurities we seek to expel?

  1. The past as platform: transformative nostalgia

As I have tried to demonstrate, the orthodoxy of amateur archivists such as MAME’s developers seems to be insufficient, but an alternative strategy may be found in the artistic and scholarly agenda of digital media archaeology. In an article devoted to the analysis of the works of artists using discarded electronic hardware as their main material, Garnett Hertz and Jussi Parikka introduce the notion of «zombie media», ‘resuscitated’ pieces of scrap hardware concocted into unforeseen assemblages. According to the scholars, works such as those by artist Qubais Reed Ghazala[7] are not only art pieces, but proper theoretical stances, since they are similar in spirit to media archaeology and [we] propose a stronger articulation of media archaeology as an art methodology—and furthermore not only an art methodology that addresses the past, but one that expands into a wider set of questions concerning dead media, or what we shall call zombie media—the living dead of media history and the living dead of discarded waste that is not only of inspirational value to artists but signals death, in the concrete sense of the real death of nature through its toxic chemicals and heavy metals. (Herz and Parikka, 2012, p. 427)

Later, the authors claim that «Zombie media is concerned with media that is not only out of use, but resurrected to new uses, contexts and adaptations» (ivi, p. 429).

My proposal is to treat this artistic/theoretical practices, made of ingenuous but often dysfunctional assemblages, also as a historiographical tool informed by both Ginzburg’s interest in discarded, apparently insignificant clues – or impurities – and media archaeology’s tendency towards idiosyncratic montages and fascination for media wunderkammern, the cabinets of wonders of old, discarded, dead media. In other words, while an archival practice that treats games as first editions of the Don Quixote or, to return to MAME, as entries in the Library of Congress, is becoming ever less feasible, an artistic one, embracing gaming technologies’ inherent modularity may help reconfigure the past of the medium. In this sense, MAME’s strategy of preservation made of technological proficiency and esoteric interfaces could be integrated, or even countered, by strategies that aim at using the clues and traces left by technological objects of the past as tools rather than monuments. While other strategies for dealing with the heritage and history of the medium rely on purification from residual material (often at the expense of materiality), I suggest a counter-intuitive method of preservation based on disassembly, juxtaposition and experimentation with existing material, both hard- and software.

MAME’s rhetoric can be seen as one of restorative nostalgia, a periphrasis devised by Boym (2001) in order to describe the attitude of those who aim at building perfect replicas of a past that is considered lost. The approach to video game history that is proposed in this last section of the paper may be thought of as transformative nostalgia, a set of practices in which (parts of) artifacts belonging to the past of the medium are used in order to produce new works standing on the intersection of art, theory and history. MAME’s esoteric approach to the archive, directed towards what we have described as an un-archivable medium, may be countered by exoteric practices of transformative nostalgia or media zombiefication. Murphy (2013) claims that MAME’s archival drive is «hacking the institutional archive» (p. 44), since it appropriates game technology and removes it from its machinic context. Nevertheless, this supposed strategy of hacking seems to reiterate the practices of blackboxing that the video game industry – and the producers of technology in general – traditionally employs; MAME’s obsession with accuracy, inaccessibility and impenetrable interface de facto constitute a self-imposed black box. I contend that resisting the anti-historical and anti-archival drive of the video game industry might mean opening old black boxes, refashioning dead hardware or software, and ultimately using the past of the medium as a tool for expression.

  1. Frankenstein media: Combat Rock

The Atari 2600 is one of the most beloved and popular early video game consoles. Released in 1977 by Atari Inc. and discontinued in 1992, it has fostered the acceptance of specialized video game hardware as a common domestic appliance. Although the console has a dedicated emulator, Stella, a number of projects have emerged in recent years whose aim is to use the rich technological, iconographic, historical heritage of the Atari 2600 within an experimental or artistic framework. I have chosen one of these projects – Combat Rock (Paul Slocum, 2002) – as an example of an artistic and theoretical practice based upon clues and fragments, incomplete traces that are creatively reworked into new artifacts, that eschews the fever of preservation but still manages to contribute to the historiography of a long time dead platform.

Combat Rock is a version of the popular Atari 2600 game Combat (Atari Inc., 1977) modified to play a digital (and slightly dissonant) rendition of The Clash’s song Rock The Casbah in the background. The appropriation of video game history is here used as a tool for meaning making and experimentation and, at the same time, as a platform providing specific constraints and affordances. As a matter of fact, Atari’s main chip, the TIA (Television Interface Adaptor) is notoriously hard to use as a sound generator, since most of its sonic capabilities fall out of standard tones of western music (Bogost and Montfort, 2009, p. 131). In order to replicate Rock The Casbah, Slocum used the Synthcart, a cartridge for the Atari 2600 that he produced and released in 2002, that acts as a sound synthesizer deriving sound from Atari’s TIA chip. While other gaming consoles, with more advanced sound chips, are commonly used as synthesizers (Nintendo’s Game Boy[8] being the paramount example), Atari’s notorious inability to produce pleasant sounds seem to discourage such an option. Nevertheless the deliberate choice of working with Atari’s chip limitations and affordances seems to derive precisely from the intention of refashioning discarded, outdated and generally unfriendly materials. Moreover, Slocum’s work on the TIA is even more radical than just adapting its inconsistent tones to musical production. While designed to work only with CRT TV sets (hence its name), the TIA is indeed capable of outputting a direct audio signal (Slocum, 2002) and through a relatively simple hardware modification, it is possible to feed the signal into an amplifier without resorting to a TV Set. As reworked by Synthcart’s creator, the Television Interface Adaptor does not need a television at all. Bogost and Montfort note about the initial design of the Atari that

The Atari VCS —particularly its graphics and sound chip, the TIA—is designed to interface solely (and weirdly) with a standard CRT television, the sort common in living rooms and dens of the 1970s. Its controllers and peripherals were fashioned for use on the floor or the couch. The games made for the platform are likewise oriented toward home use—either for enjoying the arcade experience at home or for playing in different ways with friends and family. (2009, p. 14)

In reimagining the console’s use as potentially detached from its technological host – a CRT Monitor –, its domestic environment[9], and its ludic use, Slocum acts as an archaeologist rather than as an antiquarian, digging through inert and discarded hardware as a means to extract further meaning from it. When put to use in conjunction with Synthcart, the TIA itself becomes a zombie, in the sense proposed by Hertz and Parikka, a piece of ‘old’ media that has not been discarded nor archived, but rather tinkled and experimented with, and, more generally, Slocum’s work is one «that takes as its object a concrete opening up of technologies» (Hertz and Parikka, 2012, p. 427), a deliberate opening of a black box. Nevertheless, when considered in conjunction with its sibling Combat Rock, the Synthcart is more Frankenstein’s monster than it is a zombie. Made of pieces of dead or dying media patched up together, both hardware (the TIA, the cartridge, a modified Atari 2600) and software (Combat, Rock The Casbah, The Clash’s record Combat Rock [1982]), this inquiry in the history of videoludic technology, an assemblage of material and immaterial scraps, is also a compelling piece of media historiography.

  1. Conclusion. Do video games need archives?

In describing the challenges posed by the numeric nature of digital media to archive science, Bachimont uses a very effective formulation: «La préservation numérique est une ré-invention de l’archive à partir des ressources conservées» (2009, p. 221). The modularity, ephemerality and instability of digital media inevitably reconfigures the archival practices devised for their preservation. In the case of video games, I have described two radically different approaches. On the one hand, MAME’s archivists (and/or antiquarians) seem to adopt a rather orthodox archival strategy, by acknowledging that

As a result of media fragility and technological obsolescence, the term preservation as applied to electronic records no longer refers to the protection of the medium of the records, but to that of their meaning and trustworthiness as records. (Duranti, 2001, p. 46)

On the other hand, Newman proposes the preservation of instances of play rather than games, of performances rather than objects. In both cases, the appearance, dimensions, weight, color and forms of the hardware is lost. Materiality is rendered inert, and eventually discarded, since no archive can host the heaps of fluorescent marquees, broken joysticks, and CRT monitors that constitute the material heritage of video games. If Giordano states that a «philologically credible form of game storage […] is almost impossible» (2011, my italics), I contend that an archival project for video games «à partir des ressources conservées» should acknowledge the impossibility of the task. On the other hand, a project like Combat Rock, that I have suggested employs a strategy of transformative nostalgia, resists «archive fever» (Derrida, 1995), by disregarding both the authenticity and the reliability of its sources, and exploiting their material conditions, their technological specificity and, ultimately, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. While line of codes may need archivists to store them away from players, video game hardware needs tinkerers.



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[1]    The first iteration of this research was conducted during the seminar Historical Approaches to Digital Media, held by Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology, 2012. I am grateful to Ian and to my colleagues attending the seminar for their suggestions and criticism. The second iteration of the research was presented at the 10th NECS Graduate Workshop. Media Archaeology and the Digital Era, Università di Udine, Italy, in April 2014. I am grateful to the chair of the session, Miriam De Rosa, for accepting my paper and allowing me to discuss it with my colleagues. Finally, I wish to thank Mariam Asad for bibliographic assistance.

[1]    An interesting and extensive repository of devices used to dump ROMs and of dumping techniques can be found at gurudumps.blogspot.it, the personal blog of Guru, a hacker specialized in extracting rare ROMs for emulation.

[2]    It should be stressed that MAME is not an archive in the sense conceived by archival science and conservation studies. Its records do not satisfy general conditions of authenticity and reliability, nor it is entrusted by any institution to archive its data. Nevertheless, as I will contend, MAME participates in what Cook (1997, p. 19) describes as «the Archival Discourse», a more general preoccupation with the preservation of digital artifacts emerging from the pervasivity, complexity and ephemerality of such objects.

[3]    While this is generally true, it should be noted that in some cases archives are actively sustained by developers, producers and distributors of video games. This is the case of the Archivio videoludico, in Bologna, Italy, a public institution that lists among its funding partners AESVI, the Italian association of developers and distributors of video games.

[4]    The debate over the legal status of emulation is extremely complex and cannot be addressed here. In the FAQ section of the MAME website, developers claim that «Emulating another platform, in itself, is perfectly legal. This is established US case law from the Sony v. Connectix andSony v. bleem! Cases. ROM and CHD images are a different matter» (FAQ: About, mamedev.org). In other words, emulating hardware platforms is legal, while the emulation of a video game is legal only if permission is granted by the publisher. MAME’s website hosts a small selection of games whose release in their emulated version was approved by publisher Exidy.

[5]    Pettus refers to the «emuscene» in continuity with other “scenes” such as the «demoscene», informal communities of practitioners, usually self-identifiyng as hacker or artists, who gather around fanzines, forums, web sites or newsgroups.

[6]    This is reinforced by the fact that MAME is free to download and cannot be distributed commercially.

[7]    Qubais Reed Ghazala is considered the father of circuit bending, a practice of hardware modification that consists in customizing printed circuit boards in order to manufacture new artefacts. Ghazala focuses for the most part on musical instruments.

[8]    The Game Boy is a portable console released by Nintendo in 1989. Due to the peculiarity of its hardware, it has become one of the main tools for chiptune musicians. Chiptune is a genre of electronic music that uses video game hardware as instrumentation (Márquez, 2014)

[9]    Slocum significantly claims that the Synthcart is «very portable, since all you need is the modified Atari and an amp» (2002, p. 1), alluding to the possibility of using it outside the home, for examples during live shows and performances.

Pour citer cet article / Citation information:

– En version française :  Riccardo Fassone, « Archiver les jeux d’arcade : rhétorique et idéologie de l’émulation vidéo-ludique », Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [En ligne], 28 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 13 octobre 2015. URL : http://traces.revues.org/6178 ; DOI : 10.4000/traces.6178.

– In English: Riccardo Fassone, « Antiquarianism and Hardware, Ideology and rhetoric of video game emulation. The case of MAME », Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [Online], 28 | 2015, online publication on October 13 2015. URL : http://traces.revues.org/6178.

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