Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 11:16 UK

Writing the history of virtual worlds

Screenshot from Ultima Online, EA
Ultima Online was one of the first popular multiplayer online games

Next time you cut down a monster in an online game or punch a supervillain into the next county remember that your actions are helping to write the history of a new world.

To ensure that the big and small events in these fledgling worlds are not forgotten, erased or overlooked, the University of Texas, Austin has kicked off a project to study the best way to preserve their history.

"It's a huge challenge for archivists to deal with digital information," said project co-ordinator Professor Megan Winget from the School of Information at the university.

Prof Winget's interest in preserving massively multi-player games grew from her involvement in digital artworks that do not hang on a wall but invite interaction, and change as a result.

"One of the most interesting problems for digital preservation is interactivity and how difficult that is to preserve," she said.

"Video games offer all of the same problems as digital art," she said. "They are interactive, very complex and a lot of people get involved in making them happen."

Oral history

The game preservation project aims to interview game makers to tease out the process of creating a game and the materials, such as sketches, doodles and early code, involved in bringing one to life. The experiences of people who play the beta, or trial, versions would be useful as their feedback often shapes the final game.

The insights from the interviews will help the project define how to go about preserving such malleable media, said Prof Winget.

"You cannot just throw everything into a box and put it in the attic so in 50 years your kids can look at it
Prof Megan Winget

"When you are trying to preserve anything you are trying to preserve the most important things about that artefact," she said. "With video games we do not yet know what is important."

The project will establish a repository that, Prof Winget hopes, game makers will come to use as an archive for games.

She also hopes that the project gets game makers thinking about the steps they need to take during game creation to preserve materials.

"We want to raise the consciousness in the industry about how important these records are," said Prof Winget. "I do not think they save anything or it's saved in such a way that they would not be able to recognise the significance of what they are holding."

Screenshot of World of Warcraft, Blizzard
World of Warcraft was hit by an outbreak of a virtual plague

As well as talking to game makers the project will conduct interviews with players who took part in or witnessed the significant world events seen in some online games.

Examples of this, said Prof Winget, were the assassination of Lord British in Ultima Online, the death of Morpheus in The Matrix Online and the "Corrupted Blood" plague that killed hundreds of characters in some parts of World of Warcraft.

Prof Winget wants to get hold of oral histories of these events plus any media that people collected while they were unfolding.

During preliminary work many people mentioned the importance of the murder of Lord British - actually the avatar of Richard Garriott, co-creator of Ultima Online.

"A lot of people have mentioned that to me as a pivotal moment in their lives," she said. "I would like to talk to people who experienced that, saw it happen or where they were when they heard about it."

"Maybe we can talk to the people who did it and whether they knew Lord British was Richard Garriott," she said.

Future proof

But, said Prof Winget, it was not just game makers and games that faced a problem when it came to preserving important documents, images or videos memories held on a computer.

Screengrab from The Matrix Online, Sega
The death of Morpheus was a big event in the Matrix Online

"You cannot just throw everything into a box and put it in the attic so in 50 years your kids can look at it," she said. "That's not going to happen, because digital media degrades so fast."

Rory McLeod, digital preservation manager at the British Library, said some webmail providers were starting to put archiving and backup systems in place to help people preserve records. However, other technologies were proving more troublesome.

"Old digital cameras do pose a problem," he said. "The RAW formats that cameras capture images in are proprietary in nature so this raises issues around accessibility if the information about that RAW format is lost.

More broadly, he said, librarians and archivists often bumped up against copyright and legal deposit legislation.

"Those are two areas that we need to address to do our jobs successfully not just for today but for the next generation," said Mr McLeod.

"As more and more information is published in e-only formats, the legislation must keep pace so that we as digital librarians can keep this information safe without the threat of legal issues hanging over us," he said.

"We are far from drowning in digital data as our skills have come a long way," he added. "It's more a case of not drowning but waving."

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