At first glance, no one expected to find video games on the shelves of France’s largest library. And yet… Indeed, in addition to collections of old books, films, audio documents, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) hides a treasure: a myriad of vintage game consoles. Thus, with approximately 20,000 video game objects preserved, the institution has one of the largest collections of its kind, a “self-contained cultural heritage” that it carefully preserves.
To access the BnF video game treasures, you need to head to one of the four towers of the Francois-Mitterrand Library in Paris. With the obligatory accompaniment of a curator to cross various security checks.
These consoles and the games that “run” on these pedestals are part of the Chrales Cros collection of over “1,400 devices for recording and playing audio, video and multimedia documents.” This foundation was named after this poet who is credited with inventing the phonogram.
Thus, among gramophones and other jukeboxes, two windows hold a dozen iconic consoles in video game history, from the Atari Lynx to the Sega Saturn and, above all, the very rare Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console sold in 1972 in the US.
The collection, of course, contains major elements of video game history, such as Nintendo’s famous Game Boy, released in 1989, the first handheld console to achieve global success.
BnF could not ignore the PlayStation from Sony, which went on sale in 1994. The release of the Japanese electronics giant was sensational, selling more than 100 million copies of this first generation console.
A mine for future explorers
“We are keeping these consoles so that future researchers can understand in tens or even hundreds of years how we could play these video games, what equipment was used,” explains Laurent Dupliuy, head of the multimedia department of the special department. National Library of France.
“For BnF, a video game is as valuable as other types of surviving documents. We give it the same attention, it is a cultural heritage in itself,” he adds.
The still rather confidential mission of the BnF, the collection and preservation of video game heritage, can be explained by the legal deposit law for multimedia documents dated 1992.
If video games are not directly mentioned in the text, interactive software is included in this storage device, and therefore the production of video games. Each game title or version must be submitted to BnF in duplicate, one for preservation and one for review.
With a team of 20 dedicated to this mission, collection managers, storekeepers as well as engineers, BnF manages to collect 2,000 documents of this type every year.
How to save dematerialized games?
After the consoles, head down a few floors to discover the thousands of games stored in conservation galleries, immersed in darkness at a constant 19 degrees and protected from moisture.
Each game repackaged in neutral boxes has its own rating for indexing in the general library catalog.
From the famous educational game Adibou to the first opus of Tomb Raider, which made the character of Lara Croft famous all over the world, passing through the last episodes of the Assassin’s Creed adventure game, all genres are presented on all possible media (cartridges, floppy disks, CD-ROMs, etc.).
But how do you keep these games forever when physical media degrades over time and is threatened by technological obsolescence?
“Thanks to the digitization of analog games and ’emulators’, this software is developed by communities of ‘retrogaming’ enthusiasts that allow old games to be played on modern computers,” explains Laurent Dupliuy.
“We have two engineers in the media department who are constantly monitoring these issues to find emulators, make them work, and match them to our collections,” he says.
Another challenge for BnF curators to tackle is the dematerialization of gaming (“cloud gaming”) that has increasingly established itself as the dominant video game model, such as the gaming phenomenon Fortnite, which is only available online on a dedicated platform and through regular updates. .
“We are in talks with publishers and some platforms to find a way to restore legal deposit games in their dematerialized form,” says the manager, acknowledging the technical limitations associated with this new model.