A koan in Zen Buddhism is an unsolvable enigma, a question wrapped in paradox, to be pondered in meditation to help unlock enlightenment. A koan calls into question the limits of human perception and logic. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Here is a new one: What is a game without a player?
Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill, co-directors of the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive at the University of Arizona’s College of Humanities, have wrestled with this very question. LGIRA is one of the world’s largest archives devoted to computer games and gaming culture. It holds over a quarter of a million items, including computer games and game systems from around the world and thousands of game-related artifacts like films, publications, memorabilia, corporate documents, game-themed foods and clothing.
“Any product you can imagine on the face of the Earth, if it has a connection to games, we have it in the archive,” Ruggill says.
McAllister and Ruggill have been co-directing LGIRA since its inception in 1999. In 2020, they launched an undergraduate game studies emphasis in the College of Humanities.
“We were both interested in how strange and wonderful video games are. And not just playing them, but actually thinking about them,” McAllister says. “How did these things come to be important? How is it they get marketed? How do they get distributed? To whom do they get distributed? All these kinds of historical, cultural, political and economic questions.”
When the two created LGIRA, they questioned whether to archive and preserve the physical objects of the game, the cartridge or disc for instance, or the gaming experience itself. Consider: Is the object really the game?
“Games require interaction. There is no game without the player,” asserts Ruggill. “Unless somebody is actively playing it, the game doesn’t proceed.”
“We tried to imagine a way to preserve games and their experiences that wasn’t tied to materiality. And we thought, as problematical as it can be, the human memory is much more robust than the things that game materials are made of,” says Ruggill.
“So, instead of having preservation or use, we have preservation through use.”
According to Ruggill, when people interact with and use the games in the archive, the gaming experience is preserved in their minds. This happens, in part, when the archive is shared and distributed. LGIRA fields requests from professors and scholars in higher education and arranges exhibits on the history of games for libraries and museums. They also assist with inquiries from the general public, such as fourth graders doing research projects.
“Anything they’re interested in, we pack it all in the box and send it off to them,” McAllister says.
Materials can get lost or damaged in transit, and over time, wear and tear from things like oils and moisture take their toll.
“We do our best to preserve the materials we have. We have climate-controlled environments, acid free storage containers; you name it, we do it,” Ruggill says.
While the materials some games are made of may deteriorate over time, LGIRA ensures the experience of these games will not be forgotten.
Gaming aficionados interested in visiting the archive can learn more at lgira.mesmernet.org.