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87% Of Classic Videos Games Are Endangered According To New Study

As technology continues to evolve, the games many players grew up with are becoming increasingly difficult to access.


A new study conducted jointly by The Video Game History Foundation (VGHF) and Software Preservation Network (SPN) has revealed that 87% of classic games in the United States are "critically endangered," meaning they are either entirely inaccessible or extremely difficult to play, and unable to be purchased in physical or digital form via their publisher's online storefront.

Both VGHF and SPN work to preserve digital media, and the study--which is the first of its kind--demonstrates just how difficult that task is, and how easily much-loved interactive media can disappear into the ether. The study found that the selection of games currently available for official purchase (digital or physical) represent only 13% of video game history, with the rest either being unavailable entirely or requiring the use of unofficial downloads, emulators, and/or fan remakes to play.

"For accessing nearly 9 in 10 classic games, there are few options: Seek out and maintain vintage collectible games and hardware, travel across the country to visit a library, or… piracy," the VGHF stated in the report it released alongside the data. "None of those options are desirable, which means that most video games are inaccessible to all but the most diehard and dedicated fans. That’s pretty grim!"

So what's the solution? According to the groups behind the study, it's complicated.

"Anyone should be able to easily explore, research, and play classic video games, in the same way that they can read classic novels, listen to classic albums, and watch classic movies," says the VGHF report. "But outdated copyright laws are preventing institutions like ours from doing our jobs."

The study's stated goal is to get libraries and archiving organizations the legal rights to preserve games in a playable form. According to the VGHF writeup, gaming lobbyists fight this using copyright laws to protect their bottom line, even though, ultimately, only about 13% of any given publisher's library is available to play. The Video Game History Foundation and Software Preservation Network want to change that, and are hoping that the results of the study will lead to changes in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), allowing game archivists to more easily do their work. A new DMCA rulemaking proceeding is scheduled for 2024.

But VGHF and SPN aren't the only entities in the gaming space trying to preserve classic games--many small groups and individual players are also working behind the scenes to make sure that games for older platforms are still accessible. YouTube is full of channels focused on endangered or extinct games, with users archiving gameplay footage of everything from Commodore '64 classics to obscure gaming sensations from the more recent past, like beloved Tamagotchi knockoffs, nostalgic online virtual worlds, and now-defunct Flash game hubs.

The fight against abandonware is only just beginning, and it's likely to get worse before it gets better. As more console makers produce digital-only consoles or migrate to cloud gaming/game streaming, the potential for more games to fall by the wayside grows. Although the VGHF/SPN study focused on classic games, more recent games are at risk of becoming lost, too. One need look no further than Nintendo's recent removal of its 3DS/WiiU storefront for a modern example of this issue in action. Even with ample warning, attempting to make sure your favorite games stay accessible can be quite a pricey endeavor, and simply porting these games to newer platforms is often easier said than done. When it comes to defunct mobile games, things get even trickier. Still, not all hope is lost, and large collections of technically-unplayable games can be found online thanks to the hard work of players-turned-archivists who want to preserve their favorite games for future generations.

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