ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Let a Thousand Cartridges Play —

On the day after Christmas, the Internet Archive announced that it was going to host a second Christmas. In one big flourish, the Console Living Room revealed that there was now available, via the JSMESS interface, one thousand cartridges to play.

One thousand! In many cases, this would be nearly 100% of the total available cartridges, certainly the ultimate majority, of every cartridge released in the console’s home country.

The chosen systems were all consoles you hooked up to your TV in the living room,  and they mark the transition of the living room from fireplace to television to interactive video.

The previous set of software, the Historical Software collection, had 25 items on opening day. (It snuck quietly up past 60 items in the months since.) This new set was 40 times that.

Along with one thousand cartridges, there was the task of describing and classifying them. This took a team of volunteers working day and night, including John Vilk, Justin Kerk, and Steven Zakulec. We pulled descriptions from many sources, which we have endeavored to credit.

The Historical Software set got some press attention – but this second collection got a lot more attention. A lot.

Having half a million visitors in a few days, and the attendant commentary from people about the living room, was a great education.

First, an enormous amount of people think the best contribution to any announced new thing is to come blaring in, 30 seconds after hearing about it, blarting out some intense, screaming opinion, and then leave, never to return. That’s just the way things work in the commenting world – we’ve moved from too many chefs in the kitchen to screaming car valets. So be it.

Next, the fundamental question that people think is the fundamental question (“how can you possibly do this”) is in fact the wrong fundamental question, which is what is the role of the library in the internet age?

Remember, people have been trying to destroy, or have destroyed, all sorts of libraries for so many years. They starve them of funding, they mistreat the contents, they slap on all sorts of restrictions that make them decidedly useless unless they play a very unpleasant game of ball. Technical innovations in libraries, in more cases than people often discuss, are just used to make them less useful. Is this surprising news? Isn’t it nice to have a step in the right direction for a change?

What matters to me, swimming upstream through these comments, were the ones that actually used this for what it was intended – a reference library and living museum. They had a great time.

I was especially touched by one person who mentioned how he showed his dad the Odyssey 2 collection, and his dad got really joyful and they played games they’d last played when that son was 4. That’s powerful.

Stripped of their ads and promotion, lacking the whipped fervor of the time and the newness of their arrival, these cartridges have to stand on their own. This is particularly interesting in the case of the Atari 2600, which produced hundreds and hundreds of cartridges, some of which stink beyond belief. Truly, utterly terrible!

But when it all comes together, I think some set of them are truly well-designed classics. You put the game in someone’s hand, young and old, and they see why this thing was a huge seller. It transcends the medium.

There are non-game cartridges in there, but the vast vast majority of the cartridges are games. That seems to drive some level of the professional digital preservation community into conniptions. Don’t worry, non-game collections are forthcoming, everything will be nice and academic. Stay tuned.

But games are great for several reasons beyond entertainment. They push the emulator to the limit, they make the audience that much more discerning, and they beg the demand for ease of use. They’re nearly perfect test cases. You know in seconds if something isn’t quite right.

To be sure, things are not quite right with the JSMESS interface to the Internet Archive. Sound is not quite activated, having a slow laptop results in hella slow emulations, and keyboard mapping is scattershot (hence games, with their limited controls, sidestep this last issue). This really is a new dawn in bringing the software experience of lost days back to the forefront. Think of it as the days of early video and audio on the web and in the browser – a little clunky, best done with the most expensive and privileged computer setups, and freaking some people out. Ultimately, I expect JSMESS to work in phones and tablets as well as it works in the high-end machines. Work is being done on JSMESS (and the underlying MESS emulator) every single day, by many talented and driven people.

I also expect the capabilities of JSMESS to tune its experiences for individual machines to increase, and with it the ability to tune to the needs of individual users. This will help with a range of people who throw around terms like “context”, “medium”, “authenticity” and so on. It’s an adorable debate, and I can’t wait to have it continue to keep the project honest, but let’s be glad it boots.

Speaking of which! It doesn’t quite boot universally! There’s places we’re finding it doesn’t work at all, and that’s something that didn’t come out with the Historical Software collection. I assume it was the massive range of people who came rushing into the Console Living Room that have shown all these gaps, so that’s great notes for further improvement in later versions.

I can’t stress how much this is all the first few steps in a continuing journey, one that is likely to really change how people interact with computer history. It’s not going to slow down.

The game has just begun.

Categorised as: computer history

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