Xbox talking game preservation is kinda weird

Recent remarks by Xbox boss Phil Spencer are a reminder that console executives are generally not the best people to be talking about game preservation. In an interview with the Kinda Funny Gamescast, Spencer got into a conversation about the matter, saying, “I do worry a little bit about losing our art form and the history of it.”

“When I think about old ROMs and MAME and these things of where these old games are going to go as the hardware that’s capable of running those games,” he added. “I really wish as an industry we’d come together and help preserve the history of what gaming is about, so we don’t lose the ability to go back.”

Spencer brought up the work of the Paley Center for Media. Founded as the Museum of Broadcasting, it famously works to archive old TV shows. “The TV industry was getting ready to literally throw away the tapes that these old shows were on, and [Paley] said, ‘Hey, I want to archive those because at some point, somebody will want to go back and watch the Ed Sullivan show or something, and those things shouldn’t be thrown away.’”

That’s really good stuff to hear from Uncle Phil. But Spencer also glosses over how current game preservation efforts are generally incompatible with the overall strategy of Xbox. He and the Xbox group have anchored their fortunes on Xbox Game Pass and the digital subscription-based future. His remarks overlook the fact that current preservation efforts are only possible thanks to people being able to own their games as physical products that can be held onto.

The collections of institutions like The Strong National Museum of Play, the MADE (Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment) and the Video Game History Foundation, just to name a few, are possible because the first few decades of video gaming history is filled with software and hardware whose existence can outlast the mercurial whims and unpredictable fates of big video game companies.

Xbox talking game preservation
The International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) Lab at the Strong Museum of Play

Personally, I don’t really care all that much for owning too many physical goods. I live in a small-ish apartment and don’t have a material attachment to physical games. I love the convenience of being able to manage my games collection digitally or stream them onto different devices, liberated from the earthly confines of optical m

Companies like Valve, Sony and Microsoft correctly guessed that there are plenty of people like me who appreciate the convenience of digital collections. But that convenience has a price. With fewer game cartridges and discs out in the world, fewer people actually own their games. And while that doesn’t matter to most, preservation is only possible when someone can donate a collection of disks shelf or a bunch of arcade cabinets that have outlived the bar that kept it.

The rise of subscription services are eroding at this concept. When you subscribe to Disney Plus, you only have access to all those Marvel movies and Walt Disney classics for as long as you’re paying and even then only as long Disney feels like making them available to stream. Movie companies have shown us that if certain content is unprofitable or politically untenable it won’t be made available.

I’m a lot happier with subscription services for sure. Netflix and Spotify have given us so much more control over our media diet and have broadened the range of what’s available thanks to previously unimaginable “original series” and niche artists getting a platform. Game Pass itself drives up access and engagement with indie games and smaller titles. So as a consumer, I absolutely love the value that Xbox Game Pass gives me.

Some Game Pass apologists might argue that there’s nothing to worry about when Microsoft continues to publish and release games on disc. But with over twenty million users, up from around ten million last year, Game Pass and services like it are delivering growth numbers that threaten to shift the game industry closer to an exclusively digital future, where distribution is controlled entirely by servers and clouds. And the fewer game discs and media people can buy the fewer games can be passed on to preservationists.

The Video Game History Foundation working with Game Informer to archive and digitize gaming history

Of course, I understand that an Xbox exec like Spencer talking about game preservation reflects a personal investment and desire for publishers to come together. After all, Spencer is famously the most ‘gamer’ of all of executive leaders in the industry, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he wants to see old games be kept alive for future generations to behold. But it’s also worth noting that no industry can ever be trusted with internal efforts at preservation.

Think about how Disney famously gatekeeps its own history, the rest is only acknowledged by old VHS tapes and LaserDiscs. Even if video game companies could get together on this matter – which would be wild as they can’t even establish a universal standard of cross platform play – they’d pick and choose what to preserve for their public image.

Phil Spencer is right to acknowledge the importance of this issue, but someone speaking on behalf of Xbox talking game preservation is kinda weird, at least not without advocating for the importance of independent collectors and curators.