Old books, films, sound documents… And also old video game consoles: with some 20,000 preserved video game objects, the French National Library (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 essential escort of a curator to pass the various security checks.
Among the gramophones and jukeboxes in the Charles Cros reserve, two showcases house a dozen emblematic consoles from the history of video games, such as the famous Nintendo Game Boy, the Atari Lynx, the Sega Saturne and especially the extremely rare Magnavox Odyssey , marketed in 1972 in the United States. “We keep these consoles so that future researchers, tens or even hundreds of years from now, will understand how these video games can be played, what hardware was used”explains Laurent Duplouy, head of the multimedia service in the dedicated department of the French National Library.
“For the BnF, the video game is just as valuable 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 video game heritage can be explained by the law on the “legal deposit” of multimedia documents, which dates from 1992. Although the text does not directly mention video games, it has included in this interactive software conservation device, and therefore by extension video game productions. Each title or version of the game must be deposited with the BnF in two copies: one for conservation and the other for consultation.
With a team of 20 people dedicated to this mission, collection managers, stockists 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, shrouded in darkness at a constant temperature of 19 degrees and protected from humidity. Repackaged in neutral boxes, each game is qualified to be indexed in the library’s general catalog. From Adibou, the famous educational game, to the first work of Tomb Raider, which made the character of Lara Croft famous throughout the world, through the latest episodes of the adventure game Assassin’s Creed, all genres are represented on all media possible (cartridges, diskettes, CD-ROM, etc.).
But how do you keep these games forever when physical media degrades over time and technological obsolescence threatens them? Thanks to the digitization of analog games and “emulators”, this software developed by communities of enthusiasts that allows old games to be played on recent computers, explains Laurent Duplouy. “We have two engineers in the multimedia department constantly monitoring these issues to find emulators, get them working, and pair them with our collections.” indicates.
Another topic to come for the BnF curators: the dematerialization of gaming (“cloud gaming”), which is becoming more and more established as the dominant video game model, like the gaming phenomenon Fortnite, accessible only on online on a dedicated platform and through regular updates. . “We are in negotiations with publishers and certain platforms to find a way to retrieve games on legal deposit in their dematerialized form,” assures the manager, admitting the technical limits posed by this new model.
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