Old books, films, audio 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 itself” which she carefully preserves.
To access the BnF’s video game treasures, you must go to one of the four towers of the François-Mitterand library in Paris, with the necessary escort of a curator to go through the various security checks.
Amidst 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, Atari Lynx, Sega Saturne and especially the very rare Magnavox Odyssey marketed in 1972 in the USA. “We are keeping these consoles to allow future researchers, ten 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 just as valuable as the other types of preserved documents. We attach the same importance to it, it is a cultural heritage in itself“, he adds.
Still a rather 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 unit interactive software, and therefore by extension of which video game productions. Each game title or version must be deposited with BnF in two copies: one for safekeeping 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 every year.
After the consoles, you can go a few floors below to discover the thousands of games stored in the preservation galleries, thrown into the dark at a constant temperature of 19 degrees and protected from moisture. Repackaged in neutral boxes, each game has its rating to be indexed in the library’s general catalog. 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, floppy disks, CD-ROM, etc.).
But how do you preserve these games forever when physical media degrades over time and technological obsolescence threatens them? Thanks to the digitization of analogue games and “emulators”, this software has been developed by communities of enthusiasts which allow old games to be played on newer computers, explains Laurent Duplouy. “We have two engineers in the multimedia department who are constantly monitoring these issues to find emulators, get them working and match them with our collections”, he states.
Another problem for BnF’s curators: the dematerialization of games (“cloud gaming”), which is increasingly establishing itself as the dominant video game model, like the game phenomenon Fortnite, only available online on a dedicated platform and via regular updates. “We are in talks with publishers and certain platforms to find a way to recover legal deposit games in their dematerialized form”, assures the manager, admitting the technical limitations posed by this new model.