What retrogamers can teach the museum

Helen Stuckey, Flinders University, Australia, Nick Richardson, ACMI, Australia, Melanie Swalwell, Flinders University, Australia, Denise de Vries, Flinders University, Australia


The design of engaging digital access to collections and the creation of opportunities for richer collaborations with an informed online public are key recommendations for developing the GLAM sector’s digital future (Mansfield et al., 2014). This presentation discusses Play it Again’s Popular Memory Archive (PMA) (http://playitagainproject.org/), an online exhibition of Australian and New Zealand videogames of the 1980s, which is intended to elicit recollections from those who played their way through the era. We propose that curatorial practice of videogames can be advanced through an examination of the vernacular models and practices developed by online retrogame communities. Play It Again is an Australia Research Council-funded game history and preservation project focused on locally written digital games in Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s. Researchers from Flinders University (Adelaide), The University of Melbourne, and Victoria University (Wellington) are working in collaboration with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision (formerly the New Zealand Film Archive), and the Berlin Computerspiele Museum. In October 2013, we launched the Popular Memory Archive, an online collaborative research portal and exhibition. The site provides a way to disseminate some of the team’s research, but as important, it provides a mechanism for collecting information, resources, and memories from the public about 1980s' computer games. Conceived of as both an exhibition about local games and a research tool that capitalizes on participatory culture, the online archive is an example of what a local collection of games might look like and how Museum 2.0 might work with online knowledge communities. It addresses the need to look beyond the conservation of the physical objects to document the experiences of play, as well as a sense of the social and cultural reception of these works.

Keywords: Digital Heritage, Games Preservation, Videogames, Museums, Curation, Fan Communities

1. Introduction

Museums need to develop processes to both collect and display born-digital material. Whereas museums have been more focused on the possibilities of the digital to showcase their existing collections, retrogamers have been developing techniques to preserve and share historic videogames online. The practices of retrogamer communities to document and display videogames provide a valuable resource for curators of born digital culture. This research uses the case study of the Popular Memory Archive (PMA), an online exhibition and archive of Australian and New Zealand videogames of the 1980s. The design of the PMA reflects on the collaborative practices of retrogame communities to generate and share knowledge online. In recognising that it is gamers who know and understand this history, the PMA invites contributions from members of the community who played their way through the 1980s to share their recollections of games for microcomputers.

This paper begins by acknowledging the challenges of exhibiting historical videogames and the importance of understanding videogames as experiences. We propose that in seeking to address these challenges, museums might learn from the practices of retrogamers who for decades have been collecting and displaying material online. Two retrogaming sites are discussed in relation to their approaches to documenting videogames and their opportunities for community participation. The potential of community contributions for developing museum collections is then explored through an analysis of selected memories and artefacts contributed to the PMA. These are discussed in relation to the opportunities that online collaboration creates for developing meaningful local collections and understandings of what people did with videogames. In concluding, the paper discusses how exhibiting playable videogames in the browser can present further opportunity for engaging audiences: how presenting historical games as experiences in this context—surrounded by material describing their history and how they were played—might make them more accessible to contemporary audiences than historic hardware in the gallery.

2. Vernacular histories

The curation of videogames and their collection and preservation create new challenges for the Museum. Until recently there has been considerable resistance amongst institutions to embracing an art form that is poorly understood, difficult to collect, and not associated with existing museum expertise or audiences. But as the cultural significance of videogames has become increasing apparent, museums around the world are looking at how to both collect and display games. The most obvious challenges for a collection of historic videogames are the fragility of old hardware and software that threatens ongoing access to these games. It’s just a matter of time before the software of computer games of the 1980s will no longer be executable. The passion, enthusiasm, and technical skills of videogame fans have meant that rather than waiting for an institutional solution to preservation, communities of retrogamers have developed emulators and refined techniques to copy game files. Retro game communities have also worked together online to document old videogames (even unpublished ones) with encyclopaedic zeal.

It is through its pioneering work in emulation practices that the retro game community is most renowned. Retro game communities grasped the threats to digital games’ longevity before the fragility of digital media was widely appreciated. Operating outside institutional structures, they have been able to progress their work with minimal bureaucracy. They have been able to experiment more freely with preservation solutions with less regard for the legal quagmire that surrounds issues of copyright and the preservation of digital works. In the face of rising recognition of the importance of digital artefacts, cultural institutions—whose collections and preservation strategies are built around the preservation of material objects—are increasingly looking to the successes that gamer communities have had in developing emulation software and developing techniques for salvaging files from redundant storage systems.

The Play It Again research team recognises that knowledge about the history of digital games is currently held by the games’ community. In considering our approach to exhibiting information about—and seeking to collect documentation of games—we have looked to the databases created by retro computer game fan sites such as Hall of Light, World of Spectrum, and Lemon64. Some sites have existed for nearly two decades and have evolved over time, refining their catalogues and the opportunities they present for engagement as the Web has grown to support more complex data and more possibilities for participation. Having engaged in this protracted iterative design process, these sites set the standard for how games’ archives should function. They have produced archives that strive to address the complex nature of videogames and also reflect how an active user community searches and engages with this material. We argue that sites such as these—built around digitally native content by a digitally literate community—can provide memory institutions with a blueprint for what online sites seeking to exhibit games might look like (Stuckey et al., 2014).

In this paper we reflect on how the vernacular histories produced by retro game fan communities have informed the ambitions of the Popular Memory Archive (http://playitagainproject.org/). How do they address the needs of audiences for historic games? What kinds of opportunities do they offer for participation? And how might they change the way collection artefacts are accessed and understood? We then discuss some of the contributions from the user community to the PMA and their value to the site, as both research and exhibition. We conclude with some reflections on the exhibition of digital games online, speculating on how playable emulated games online—located within the materials and discourses collected by retrogamers—have the potential to enrich interaction with historic games.

3. Exhibiting games

Inspiration for the PMA arose in part from Stuckey’s experiences curating historic games in the gallery. The 2006 exhibition Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world for the Games Lab at the ACMI featured the games of Beam Software, Australia’s first game development studio. The focus of the ACMI exhibition was the revelation that Australia not only had a games industry in the 1980s, but had a highly successful one. In the gallery, selected games were predominantly emulated. Some games were also provided on original hardware, next to the emulated versions, a display technique intended to draw attention to the act of emulation rather than offer an “authentic” experience.

What was most striking about the display was how challenging the games were for audiences, which encountered only unfamiliar gameplay and outdated software. The historic status that made it such a strong subject for investigation within a cultural institution also made the games less accessible to audiences as actual games. Historic media is confusing in the gallery, as Lisa Gitelman (2006) observes: old technology becomes unacceptably unreal, and users can no longer see the content for the unfamiliar protocols. Hits of the 80s raised a number of questions about exhibiting historic videogames, including what types of information could be displayed to assist audiences to appreciate the significant characteristics of historic games. How could a display work to inform visitors about a game’s gameplay and represent the broader culture in which these games’ design and reception were enmeshed? And would this information support more meaningful gameplay encounters with these historic works?

The manner in which an object is acquired and documented for a museum’s collection will, to a large extent, determine how current and future generations understand it. The meanings of videogames are not found in the hardware and software objects themselves. As Steven E. Jones (2008) explains, their meanings are polysemic “functions of the larger grid of possibilities built by groups of developers, players, reviewers, critics, and fans in particular times and places and through specific acts of gameplay or discourse about games.” Recognising that videogames only come into being through play, Newman (2011) and Lowood (2004) have argued for the need to focus on the preservation of gameplay as well as games’ software and hardware. Newman (of the United Kingdom’s National Videogame Arcade) has suggested that the associated materials created by fans documenting gameplay may have more value for understanding historic games than access to emulated games.

Retro gaming sites

The game preservation community acknowledges that the fans of games have not only kept old games accessible, but also documented the playing of games and the cultures that surrounded them. In our study, we were impressed by the encyclopaedia nature of sites such as World of Spectrum (WOS), which—through a combination of active community working together on shared goals and the design of a dedicated search engine—has produced extraordinarily rich resources for thousands of Spectrum titles. WOS provides an exhaustive catalogue, and each game has a lengthy list of resources that can be sifted through by the researcher. For example, the entry for the Australian-designed graphic text adventure The Hobbit by Beam Software (1982) has a comprehensive set of data fields including information on re-release, controls, other systems, and protection schemes. The “additional information” section provides information on awards and identifies that the game was sold as “bookware” (in that it was bundled with a book). Material is also provided in relation to known errors in the code—the kind of invaluable information that can save players and curators many hours of grief. As for the game software itself, six versions of The Hobbit are available from the site for download, and all can be played within the browser in a Java-hosted emulator. The browser-hosted emulator allows even the most unsophisticated user to gain immediate access to the playable game (Stuckey & Swalwell, 2014).

World of Spectrum’s taxonomy represents a strong understanding of the medium and the interests of the user community. Credits are provided for publishers and authors. Each is hyperlinked, which means that visitors are one click away from seeing WOS’s complete catalogue of entries for a selected person or entity. There are 200 items lodged for The Hobbit, including games manuals, game maps, box art, and cassette inlays. The game contains a PDF copy of the book A Guide to playing the Hobbit (1984), written by a fan who sent it to The Hobbit’s publisher, Melbourne House, which then published it as a book—possibly the first-ever official strategy guide. There are also a number of game maps and other walkthroughs of the period, plus feature magazine articles, 17 reviews, 11 letters, 34 news articles, 4 POKES (hacks to assist gameplay), and 105 play tips. Within the WOS archive, however, there is no curation of this information, and so the smallest reference in a 1980s games’ magazine is given equal weight as an engaging and illuminating developer interview. A user has to sift through the abundant resources, unguided.

In contrast to WOS’s archival approach, Lemon64’s display is much more welcoming, with a focus on graphics and the work’s reception within the Lemon64 community (Figure 1). Appreciation of the game is visible through its rating by site members, and their comments on the game quickly provide a sense of how the retro game community values the title. Classification on Lemon64 is broken down into areas such as code, graphics, design, and music. The number of players is listed, as are genre, alternative names it has been released under, and related games and conversions. As the Commodore 64 was renowned for its superior audio chip, music is featured with options (“listen,” “download”), and information about the SID available. Its interfaces are more inviting, resembling display more than archival lists, and its opportunities to participate are more personal and social, including community statistics and comments. For its entry for Beam Software’s 1985 hit The Way of the Exploding Fist (WOTEF), there are 107 comments from those who recall playing the game (Figure 1). Framed by both nostalgia and a personal past with the game, these comments offer an intimate dialogue. For example, they include people’s memories of the first time they played WOTEF. Comments focus on not just the game, but where and who they played with, the time it took for the tape to load, and their first encounters with the infamous “Bruce Lee” scream on the loading tape. Such comments offer a rich archive of players’ relationships with the game, some careful gameplay analysis, and some comparative contextualisation of the game, through reflection on how International Karate (1987)—System 3’s later, very popular (and highly derivative) game for the Commodore 64—compares. (Stuckey & Swalwell, 2014)



The two sites share a careful consideration of classification. Our research suggests that a study of retro computer sites’ taxonomies can help inform museums’ structuring of information and documentation, so that it is both more useful and more coherent. In addressing the challenges of cataloguing the Play It Again games for ACMI, collection officers Linda Connolly and Lynda Bernard surveyed museums’ classification of games. They explain how conventional cataloguing struggles to accommodate games’ existence in the collection as original artefacts and as encoded files—all with different dependencies to other items, such as hardware platforms and peripherals and emulators (Bernard, 2013). In their research, which focused on both preventing “dissociation, one of the least obvious of the ten ‘agents of deterioration’” and making the items more “discoverable,” they determined that the taxonomies of the retro game community sites were the most useful, stating that the “more user-driven vocabularies are probably the most worth pursuing in any attempts to arrive at an agreed taxonomy for games collections” (Bernard, 2013). Connolly and Bernard are not alone in their assessment. Kraus and Donahue (2012) report that the metadata and context information contained on game community sites is “at a level many cataloguers would envy.”

4. Opportunities for participation

In our previous studies, we have discussed how retrogamer communities online can operate as types of collective intelligence generating vast amounts of research, far more than that which could be achieved by a single cultural institution or researcher (Stuckey & Swalwell, 2014). Pierre Levy’s theory of collective intelligence describes the impact that internet technologies have had on cultural production and consumption. In sharing information online, each individual member’s knowledge becomes available to all members of the community, freeing them from their individual limitations of time and space and expanding their productivity (Levy, 1997). The cooperative production of retro game communities enables them to address large-scale tasks. World of Spectrum’s goal—to collect all Spectrum Software—is reliant on members of its community not just making their personal collections available, but also partaking in laborious data entry and fact checking.

Finnish games historian Jaakko Suominen (2011) suggests that retro gaming sites are characterised by three discourses: historical, heritage, and retrospective. Historical discourses are those of the grand chronological narrative of digital games history; whilst heritage discourse addresses the importance of preserving game cultural objects, representing them, and giving opportunities to reuse them. The discourses of the historical and heritage present the rich resources of information and archival objects on retro game sites that have to date represented one of the most comprehensive resources available to game scholars.

Retrospective is a term Suominen uses to describe the personal recollections of players: the short comments and reminiscences that permeate the forums and message boards of retro game sites. These personal recollections are rarely on display (as they are at Lemon64) but form part of users’ conversations on forums. He is unsure of the value of these scraps of memory of “ordinary users.” They resonate with the other discourses, and he senses their potential importance, but he fears they are too brief to hold weight as part of real research and scholarship. It is a concern that is shared by retrogamers. Mayhem—a site coordinator at both Lemon64 and its sister site Gamebase 64, a database dedicated to collecting all Commodore 64 games—explains how:

Lemon64 is a community first and foremost. It’s there for people to come together, share news, advertise releases, ask for help, spill details on the latest acquisitions, and basically bump heads with likeminded individuals. Gamebase64 is all about keeping games alive, although the forum exists as a conduit for people to report issues, correct information and ask for assistance. (Mayhem Interview, August 21, 2012)

In contrast to Mayhem’s dismissal of the value of community comments and Souminen’s unease with their brevity, we argue that retrospective discourse is significant. We contend that such discourse is able to provide a more user-centric and media-historical understanding of videogames. The memories of ordinary users document the emotional and social relations of players with videogames. Their brevity and emotive and anecdotal quality make them ideal for display. The personal and passionate voices of individuals are both “honest” and engaging in a way that the measured tones of the Museum are not.

In examining the effects of “Discussion Exhibitions” at the London Science Museum, Gammon and Mazda (2009) note that one of the motivations for visitors to read the comment of others is that the emotive language of visitor’s comments is more compelling than the display didactics. It can be difficult to appreciate the innovation and achievements of early videogames, as rapid technological change renders the most sophisticated features of 1980s games crude to contemporary audiences. For example, the revolutionary sense of fluid control that WOTEF offered players through its intuitive mapping to the joystick is lost to a generation raised on the precision and speed of current peripherals. An understanding of both the social and material conditions of the consumption and reception of these early games is difficult to collect, preserve, and display. Documenting player memories is one way to approach this dilemma and to record the experience of these games (Stuckey et al., 2013). These “retrospective” fragments capture a sense of lived experience and its importance to the user, providing a nuanced and embodied relationship with the work.

A history of use

The PMA seeks to balance a history of production, in the specific national contexts of 1980s Australia and New Zealand, with a history of use and reception. Recognising that game culture in the 1980s was highly participatory, hands on, and often characterized by a DIY ethic, the project aspires to create a history of games as they have been used and experienced. The PMA is centrally concerned with making links with a wider audience, connecting historical research into early gaming with those who lived and played their way through this period (as well as those who didn’t but are curious). Contributors have been invited to add not only their experiences but also artefacts in need of preservation, such as images, videos, documentation, and information about programmers, designers, and publishers (Stuckey et al., 2013).

In capturing and displaying player memories and artefacts, we are ideally profiling relationships that represent the distinctness of this era in computing. For example, New Zealander Kevin Phillips (2014) shared game capture of a collection of ZX Spectrum games that he discovered on an old cassette and got working again under emulation. (Figure 2) These were games he had typed in from magazines in the 1980s, as he explains:

That’s pretty much where and how I think many people (including myself) built their skills in games programming. I recall getting new magazines each week, sitting at home and typing in loooong listings of games to play. Sometimes they were awful, sometimes they were pretty cool… If it was a great game, it got saved. These days, its funny to think how much time I’d spend typing in a game to just type “NEW” and start a new one… Without saving….


These early games are missing from most histories of videogames, as they are frequently authorless, often copies of arcade games and not valued as design (Swalwell, 2008). They are, however, invaluable to historical narrative, as they were many people’s first encounters with both games and computing.

Phillips wrote many games in the 1980s, but he was not a commercial developer. He describes them as something to do on the microcomputer: “write games, play games and make pictures in Melbourne Draw.” Some of his work has survived on cassettes and others as printed-out code listings. Many were “clones,” such as his Mine Sweeper game. Others were inspired by games he had enjoyed. Gemrun (1987) is based on the popular Boulder Dash (First Star Software, 1984). Phillips has not only made his old games available to download through links accessible from the Play It Again site, but also shared a design document he created for a clone of the arcade game Centipede (Atari, 1981). This document illustrates his process of first working out his ideas on paper, including checking all the calculations before beginning to code. His old design notebooks record his techniques for addressing recurrent design issues, such as pre-shifting sprites, collision detection, and other challenges on the ZX Spectrum (Stuckey et al., 2014) (Figure 3).


Nick Marentes recalls how he in the 1980s he wrote his code, routine by routine with pencil and paper, and drew all his graphics and levels carefully on graph paper before recreating them in code, sharing examples of his code and drawings on the PMA. He explains how he wrote in assembly for the TRS-80—an unforgiving language that required you to understand what the computer was doing all the time (Marentes 2013). It required an intimate knowledge of the hardware system’s operations to avoid errors and spectacular systems crashes. These contributions are examples of a history of local games, one that has been left out of the more hegemonic history of the rise of the commercial games industry.

5. Collaborating to enrich collection material

Libraries, archives, and museums have a long history of collaboration with members of the public. Trevor Owens (2013) has argued that the move to offer online engagement should be seen as an extension of this established tradition. In the development of Museum Victoria’s Apple Computer collection, Senior Curator of Information and Communication David Demant worked closely with the Melbourne-based Internet Macintosh User Group Inc (iMug). With Demant, the group helped develop the collection themes and donated items to illustrate significant stories. Not only did their knowledge help define the collection, but the stories they shared also revealed “the personal and social as well as the technical aspects of the items collected.”

Owens states that this tradition of cooperation and value with expert volunteers and knowledge communities that has been so long applied to the local needs to be extended online. Online resources should offer engagement that enriches the relationship to collection material for both volunteer and institutions. The participation of the developers and hobbyists of the era on the PMA offer expert knowledge within both the solicited blog posts and the unsolicited comments. For example, Mark Sibly informed us that the gameplay video posted was not actually his version of Dinky Kong (1984) but another Donkey Kong clone with the same name from the era (his was for the Vic 20, not the Oric). This is a common issue confronting game historians, particularly working with games that are clones or homages to other games.

From this exchange, we were able to not only correct this error, but also identify a number of Sibly’s other games. In a response to John Passfield’s post on his start in games design, “Leon” offers a correction to the quoted RAM size of the VZ200, the Dick Smith computer that Passfield mentioned in his text. Meanwhile, Alan Laughton from the Microbee Software Preservation Project converted a listing of a game written by Australian designer Matthew Hall (Hipster Whale) that was hosted on the site. Hall’s text adventure Jewels of Sancara Island (1988) had survived the last twenty or so years as a Turbo Pascal listing. Finding the game listing on the PMA, Laughton OCRed it, correcting errors that crept in, before compiling it for the Microbee. The game can now be downloaded and played (Stuckey et al., 2014).

Other kinds of contributions include a collection of images of people’s home setups that reveal much about the changing nature of home computing in the era (Figure 4). A query regarding a joystick that proclaimed itself “as Australian as the koala” not only identified the joystick but also revealed additional information about the games people played with it, including a joystick-punishing porn game for the C64. Colin Cayne shared information on both the joystick and how two of his sons had made a side-scrolling shooter using it that was published by EA on the Gold Coast.


Playing games in the browser

For the PMA, we are working toward play-in-the-browser games. Games hosted in the browser are a feature of WOS. Like WOS, PMA’s games will be situated within surrounding paratextual material that not only documents the gameplay but also presents a media ecology that speaks to the era of games’ culture. In addition to the game reviews, interviews, and other textual resources on the PMA, player-made materials such as walkthroughs and video playthroughs ideally will operate as tutorials both to explain play and present examples of the game as played by an experienced or skilled player. We hope that play-in-the-browser games will be a provocation for more contributions and that additional player comments will help define games’ original appeals to today’s audiences. Whilst the pleasures of play may not transcend the historic gap, in this context, we are hopeful that the disjuncture will be a provocation to a greater awareness of the history of game design rather than a dismissal of the games.

There are less-performative concerns for audiences playing videogames online compared to in the gallery: no time constraints, no performance anxiety, and more opportunities for experimentation. In addition, research has shown that most audiences do not wish to engage with historic hardware and are happy to play emulated games where the interfaces are more familiar (Hedstrom et al., 2006). Online, the spatial narratives created in the gallery are lost, as are the interactions with others in the space, which can often greatly enrich a gallery experience. However, the play-in-the-browser games on the PMA will actually more closely reflect how games as media are now consumed. Today, videogame play is enmeshed in online player cultures. Gameplay videos on YouTube or Twitch TV are a form of entertainment, and many people watch these, playing vicariously before embarking on their own gameplay or referring to them for help. Online forums, walkthroughs, and strategy guides are consulted by players to help them meet gameplay challenges and extract the maximum amount of engagement from the content on offer. The comments of players on what they enjoyed, what defined the game to them, and how they played with the game form part of the paratexual material that players absorb. We hope that reflecting the protocols of contemporary games’ consumption can assist new audiences to engage with historic work in a more meaningful way and inspire original players to share their memories, building more complex and nuanced understandings of these works and the cultures in which they were created and played.

6. Conclusion

As museum culture increasingly moves online—with digitised content and virtual access to parts of the collection being offered—the types of experiences visitors have and desire to have come into sharper focus. Whilst museums have years of skill adapting to the changing needs of audiences within their exhibition spaces, many are still learning how to best cater for what audiences might be looking for online. Retro gaming websites are often very sophisticated, and there is scope for museum professionals to adopt their more inclusive practices and engage in dialogues with site creators that can potentially benefit online museum operations, informing the design of future online collections and interfaces. This includes taxonomies and metadata that have evolved from an understanding of how audiences engage with the material, and a more open approach to collections that encourages and invites a range of communities to participate and share their knowledge.

Despite the possibility for institutional anxiety around the authority of “amateur” or user-generated data, the entries on specialist micro-computing retro game sites are more rigorous than many museums’ collections data, and generally more expansive. Contributors to specialist hobbyist sites share much with the expert knowledge communities who have traditionally supported the Museum to develop collections. These communities have, however, been pioneering in envisaging how the online environment frees born-digital artefacts from the Museum’s traditional object focus. They offer models of how to display and collect for a digital future: where many works will have no material form to be collected or exhibited, and will need to be represented through the documentation of systems and individual experiences.


This research is supported under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding scheme (project number LP120100218).


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Cite as:
. "What retrogamers can teach the museum." MWA2015: Museums and the Web Asia 2015. Published August 15, 2015. Consulted .