Old books, films, sound documents… And also vintage video game consoles: with around 20,000 video game objects preserved, the National Library of France (BnF) has one of the largest collections of its kind, a “cultural heritage in its own right” which she carefully preserves.
To access the video game treasures of the BnF, you have to go to one of the four towers of the François-Mitterrand library in Paris, with the imperative escort of a curator to go through the various security checks.
Amid the gramophones and jukeboxes of the Charles Cros reserve, two display cases house a dozen emblematic consoles from the history of video games, such as Nintendo’s famous Game Boy, the Atari Lynx, the Sega Saturne and especially the very rare Magnavox Odyssey, marketed in 1972 in the United States. “We keep these consoles to give future researchers, tens or even hundreds of years from now, to understand how these video games could be played, what hardware was used”explains Laurent Duplouy, head of the multimedia service in the dedicated department of the National Library of France.
“For the BnF, the video game is as precious as the other types of preserved documents. We pay the same attention to it, it is a cultural heritage in its own right“, he adds.
Still a fairly confidential mission of the BnF, the collection and preservation of the video game heritage can be explained by the law on the “legal deposit” of multimedia documents, dating from 1992. Although the text does not directly mention video games, it has included in this conservation device interactive software, and therefore by extension video game productions. Each game title or version must be deposited at the BnF in two copies: one for preservation and the other for consultation.
With a team of 20 people dedicated to this mission, collection managers, storekeepers and also engineers, the BnF manages to collect 2,000 documents of this type each year.
After the consoles, head a few floors below to discover the thousands of games stored in the conservation galleries, plunged into darkness at a constant temperature of 19 degrees, and protected from humidity. Repackaged in neutral boxes, each game has its rating to be indexed in the general catalog of the library. From Adibou, the famous educational game, to the first opus of Tomb Raider, which made the character of Lara Croft famous all over the world, passing through the latest episodes of the adventure game Assassin’s Creed, all genres are represented on all possible media (cartridges, diskettes, CD-ROM, etc.).
But how do you keep these games forever when physical media degrade over time and technological obsolescence threatens them? Thanks to the digitization of analog games and “emulators”, this software developed by communities of enthusiasts who allow old games to be played on recent computers, explains Laurent Duplouy. “We have two engineers in the multimedia department who constantly monitor these issues to find emulators, make them work and match them with our collections”, he indicates.
Another issue to come for the curators of the BnF: the dematerialization of games (“cloud gaming”) which is increasingly establishing itself as the dominant video game model, like the game phenomenon Fortnite, accessible only online on a dedicated platform and via regular updates. “We are in negotiations with publishers and certain platforms to find a way to recover games on legal deposit in their dematerialized form”, assures the manager, admitting the technical limits posed by this new model.