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Library school to lead team that will preserve virtual worlds

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
217-333-2177; andreal@illinois.edu

avatar of mcdonough
Click photo to enlarge
Image courtesy Jerome McDonough
Team leader Jerome McDonough's avatar hanging out in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science space in "Second Life." Below, McDonough in his GSLIS office.
Jerome McDonough
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Released 8/21/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Who will rescue digital granddaddies such as “Pac-Man” and “Mario” and hundreds of other digital game superheroes from oblivion? Who ultimately will save the creative and popular virtual worlds from (self) destruction?

A team of experts from the University of Illinois, as it happens.

With help from the Library of Congress, and in partnership with three other institutions of higher education and one commercial game lab, a team from Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) will lead a two-year project to preserve virtual worlds – early video games, electronic literature and “Second Life,” an interactive multiplayer game.

The project, titled “Preserving Virtual Worlds,” is thought to be the first effort to explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction, and it comes not a moment too soon given that interactive media are “at high risk for loss as technologies rapidly become obsolete,” said Jerome McDonough, the GSLIS faculty member who will serve as lead investigator of the project. Janet Eke, also of GSLIS, is the project coordinator.

Illinois will coordinate the partners’ work on the project. Partners are the Rochester Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Maryland, and Linden Lab, creator of “Second Life.” The Illinois team’s focus primarily will be technical.

international space flight museum
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Image courtesy Jerome McDonough
The "International Spaceflight Museum."

The goal of the project, McDonough said, is to develop “mechanisms and methods” for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. “In particular, we will be looking at the metadata and knowledge management problems involved in preservation of highly interactive digital works,” McDonough said.

In addition to developing standards for preserving metadata and content representation, the project will investigate preservation issues through archiving a series of case studies representing early games and literature and later interactive multi-player game environments.

On Aug. 3, the Library of Congress announced that it would fund the project with a two-year grant of $590,000 under its “Preserving Creative America Initiative,” the most recent initiative of its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), which was authorized by Congress in 2000.

An interim project Web site for “Preserving Virtual Worlds” will go live later this month.

According to Eke, who is the project coordinator on an earlier and ongoing NDIIPP project at Illinois, the ECHO DEPository, the new project “addresses a neglected topic in digital media preservation: methods, infrastructure, standards and technology for preserving the complex software, content and interactivity in computer games and electronic literature, as well as the interactions that constitute the user’s experience of them.”

She added that the new project recognizes that hypertext, on the one hand, and computer and video games on the other, “have assumed a prominent place among media for entertainment, communication and social interaction.”

“The cultural profile of these virtual worlds has extended to education, artistic expression, social networking and political commentary,” Eke said. “Such interactive media have become an important part of contemporary cultural expression and creativity in the United States, and that importance is not only about the economic growth of computer games as an entertainment industry, which has equaled or surpassed movies, television and other media. At least as important is their impact on society and culture.”

spacewar
Click photo to enlarge
Image courtesy Jerome McDonough
A screen capture of the game "SpaceWar!" This is one of the oldest video games in existence, having been written in 1962 at MIT to demonstrate
the vector graphic capabilities of the DEC PDP-1 computer. This screen capture was made
of the original source code being run under a PDP-1 emulator written in Java. A link
to the game running on a PDP-1 is available at the Computer History Museum site.

Yet, she said, despite all the reasons for taking virtual worlds seriously, “relatively little work has been done on the preservation of them, which present particular challenges because of their interactivity, their frequent software modification and revision, networked collaboration, and use of 3-D graphics and sound. Each of these adds new complexity to the problems of preserving digital content.”

According to McDonough, the aim of the first phase of the project, which begins in January, is to ”identify the information needed to make any preservation strategy for games and interactive fiction successful.”

In the second phase, the team “will be taking the lead on trying to develop XML standards for encoding this type of information so that it can be included in digital repositories to insure that these types of work will remain accessible.”

“We’re hoping to do this in a way that will ensure that whatever we develop is widely compatible with the pre-existing standards and software systems that the library and archival world are employing for preservation of more static works, like digital photographs and texts.”

The last phase of the project for Illinois will focus on testing the technologies the project team developed in the earlier phases by attempting to “ingest several games and pieces of interactive fiction into the institutional repository systems here at Illinois and at Stanford.”

“We’re using the DSpace repository system here, and Stanford is using a system they developed around Artesia’s TEAMS software, so that will give us the opportunity to see if the approaches and tools we develop can be easily adapted to different preservation environments.”

According to McDonough, “Second Life” content participants include “Life to the Second Power,” “Democracy Island” and the “International Spaceflight Museum.”

Editor's note: McDonough can be reached at jmcdonou@illinois.edu; Eke at jeke@illinois.edu.