Developing the Digital Preservation Handbook for Video Games and Digital Archives at the Strong National Museum of Play

Hillary Ellis and Julia Novakovic
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


Since 2016, the Strong National Museum of Play has implemented major digitization policies to preserve the history of electronic games. Our archive collections include the personal and business papers of key individuals and companies in the electronic game industry, which includes a large amount of digital media. The collection of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games comprises 60,000 items and is growing.

Beyond game hardware and software, we collect the platforms on which they are played, original packaging and advertising, related press and publications, game-inspired consumer merchandise, and other items that illustrate the impact of electronic games on people’s lives. There are practical challenges to short-term and long-term preservation planning in this context. Not all formats and carrier media in the collection have established preservation practices in the museum and library professional community. Many existing methods and technologies for preserving video games originate from game collectors and players rather than the conservation community.

The subject of our current study explores how we have adapted multimodal techniques and video game community-supported digital transfer methods in video game preservation at the Strong. In 2016, the museum’s digitization working group performed major condition assessment surveys of digital and audiovisual media and wrote the preservation policy for the video game collection. Additionally, we established a digital asset management plan for the museum, devising the RAVE standard (Rare, At-Risk, Valuable, and Engaging) to prioritize collections items for digitization or migration. For example, these condition surveys informed two pilot projects in digitization and transfer of floppy disks and U-matic tapes—the formats identified as most at-risk.

This continued prioritization assists in organizing a sustainable approach to digital projects that centers staff resources and our mid-size institution’s data budget. This year, creation of the Digital Preservation Handbook aims to establish institution-wide guidelines for each type of digital and audiovisual media. As part of the museum’s strategic plan, the handbook identifies and documents preservation approaches and decision-making models for video games, archival materials, and collections objects that have a digital component. Produced by the digital preservation team, the collaborative document draws from the expertise of the museum’s archivist, digital curator, collections manager, and conservators. In the past two years, the digital games curator has performed condition surveys that examine playability and capture data from 200 randomly selected games each year. The archives have implemented a similar condition survey to identify endangered media formats in existing collection materials. In drafting the preservation handbook, the team members tested creative problem-solving methods for each carrier media and digital format to develop case studies with documented preservation actions.

As an internal document, the Digital Preservation Handbook communicates to staff the methodology and rationale for digitization actions. An external brief summarizes the work as a document that can disseminate the Strong’s capacity for digitization to donors and fellow institutions. For our collective preservation efforts, this document improves our ability to continue to collect and preserve video games, digital games, and born-digital archives.