The Internet Arcade and the textures of emulation

A couple of weeks ago, I paid a lightning-fast visit to San Francisco to attend the digital-publishing summit Books in Browsers (where I gave this talk). I was sorting through my post-talk tweets when one came in from historian of digital culture Jason Scott:

Jason has been working on archiving software and games for the Internet Archive (whose founder and head, Brewster Kahle, had spoken immediately before me that morning). “Proprietor” and curator of textfiles.com, Jason has been archiving arcade games and computer software for the Internet Archive since 2011. Knowing him as an archivist and historian of internet culture with a rare storytelling gift, I skipped the post-lunch conference session, called up a Lyft, and headed up to the Presidio to take him up on his invitation.

After a quick tour of the Internet Archive’s digs—contained within the post-1906, temblor-resistant bones of a former Christian Science church (above). The site was in the midst of an upgrade to a beta version of a new interface (now live), and thus the place was in a happy uproar, with folks bustling about amidst heat-gushing server racks and the plaster mannequins of archive staffers that vie for space in the resplendent sanctuary; or staring intently into monitors in various shared workspaces, some cavernous, others cubbyholed. Finally, Jason sat me down in front of a wall-mounted screen in a bare meeting room and gave me a tour of his special project, the Internet Arcade, which treasures up hundreds of playable arcade games from the eighties and beyond.

Switching between keyboard and game console, Jason dove through a series of URLs on the dev server to show me some of the hundreds of arcade games that are now playable online, thanks to a carefully-orchestrated set of interoperating, open-source emulation systems and standards. The crucial move on the part of Jason and a host of collaborators is a project called JSMESS, a system that brings a great deal of emulation power to javascript, allowing all kinds of systems to run virtually in web browsers (the technical side of this is well documented; you can start down the rabbit hole here if you’re interested in the cascade of open-source emulation projects that inspire and undergird the Internet Arcade and related software archiving projects).

(Above) Back to the future, with some of the Internet Archive’s hundreds of playable arcade-game titles.

It’s technologically both antic and elegant: Jason’s system has parsed and transcoded hundreds of games, automatically playing them thousands of times to unlock levels, detect bugs, and set up screenshots to guide visitors browsing the arcade. But the technological side of the project is less interesting than its cultural dimensions (although this very dichotomy is a specious one, as the Internet Arcade itself amply demonstrates). Jason showed me a bit of this depth by taking me to the page for Marble Madness, a maze game from mid-eighties. “Now this game is deep,” Jason said, flicking through URLs to find the stable page. “And it forged a relationship with the player right away.” As the game started up and the “insert coin” legend blinked, Jason continued. “If you didn’t start right away, watch this”—we regard a moistly-rendered ball at rest in a landscape of gridded slopes and steps, the timer counting down—”watch this: if you don’t do anything, it gives you a push.” And with that, a sliver of the grid tongues upward and the ball—the player’s avatar in this eight-bit Escherian world—starts rolling, gently and inexorably, towards its fate. “But look,” Jason continues,” here’s what I mean by deep.” And in a few more keystrokes, he’s virtually opened up the back of the Atari arcade cabinet and flipped a switch: at a swipe, the ball maze is replaced by a severe table of fat alphanumerics, an owner’s interface offering more fundamental control over the game than I ever realized was possible during my adolescent sojourns in the local pizza parlor. The proprietor could see what levels people had the most trouble playing, and which ones made them slip another quarter in the machine; it coded gameplay by score, time of day, and a host of other metrics—big data before the fact, measured out in the local Bally’s franchise.

Whipping through a series of games—Pac-Man and Phoenix; Quasar and Qwak—Jason went on, extolling connections to art, design, business, and culture, all discernible across the landscape of the arcade. “By putting them all up here, making them all playable in the browser,” he explained, “we get people thinking about these connections right away.”

Earlier in our tour, Jason had offered a telling remark on the philosophy of emulation. We were standing in front of a rack of early videotape decks, which the Archive is using to play and digitize old media. I asked if the hardware should receive the same kind of curatorial attention as the data. “It’s an interesting question,” he mused. “All of this represents relationships, working methods, ways of doing things,” he said, passing an explanatory hand of the machines’ many buttons and sliders. “And eventually, we’ll be able to read the data from the media and know what the relevant hardware would have been, and we’ll know about all those relationships as well.” As Jason writes at textfiles, “you won’t find many of the reasons why people spent night after night, grinding their eyes and their minds to post rebuttals to BBSs, by picking up a pile of hardware at a tag sale and plugging it in.” The data themselves are artifacts, transmissible across material and format, curatable in vast aggregates. I’m eager for the stories that will spring from it all.