UK university develops massive games emulator

UK researchers at Portsmouth University developing massive, universal games and data emulator to preserve our digital heritage
UK researchers at Portsmouth University developing massive, universal games and data emulator to preserve our digital heritage

Computer historians and researchers at Portsmouth University in the UK are developing a software emulator that will recognise and play all types of videogames and computer files from the 1970s through to the present day.

Remember all those videogames from your childhood and teenage years? Want to play them all again, without having to download umpteen different emulators?

Of course you do!

"Early hardware, like games consoles and computers, are already found in museums. But if you can't show visitors what they did, by playing the software on them, it would be much the same as putting musical instruments on display but throwing away all the music. For future generations it would be a cultural catastrophe," according to Dr David Anderson from Portsmouth University, who is heading up a remarkable new project to save all the digital info and games created since the 1970s.

"A vast bank of information needs to be catalogued and stored," adds researcher and computer games expert Dan Pinchbeck.

"Games particularly tend not to be archived because they are seen as disposable, pulp cultural artefacts, but they represent a really important part of our recent cultural history. Games are one of the biggest media formats on the planet and we must preserve them for future generations."

Digital black hole

Computer historians Dr David Anderson and Dr Janet Delve see the project as a "rescue plan to recover and safeguard the rapidly vanishing technology and cultural information about the generation born and brought up in the digital age."

They are aiming to build "the world's first general purpose emulator" which is described as "a piece of software which can recognise and 'play' or open all previous types of computer files from 1970s Space Invaders games to three-inch floppy discs."

While there are many emulators that are specific to certain types of media or platform, the unique selling point of this massively ambitious project is that it will be able to emulate media in any format.

Aiming to 'rescue' digital files from a black hole, the initiative is part of the Europe-wide KEEP project (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable), with the objective to "develop methods of safeguarding digital objects including text, sound and image files, multimedia documents, websites, databases and video games.

"People don't think twice about saving files digitally -- from snapshots taken on a camera phone to national or regional archives," comments Dr Janet Delve.

"But every digital file risks being either lost by degrading or by the technology used to 'read' it disappearing altogether. Former generations have left a rich supply of books, letters and documents which tell us who they were, how they lived and what they discovered. There's a very real risk that we could bequeath a blank spot in history."

Every computer file recoverable

By 2010 the amount of digital information created worldwide "will be equivalent to 18 million times the information contained in all the books ever written."

The researchers note that "Britain's National Archive holds the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopaedias of information in file formats no longer commercially available" and add that "research by the British Library suggests Europe loses £2.7bn each year in business value because of difficulties in preserving and accessing old digital files."

"We are facing a massive threat of the loss of digital information. It's a very real and worrying problem. Things that were created in the 1970s, '80s and '90s are vanishing fast and every year new technologies mean we face greater risk of losing material," says Dr David Anderson.

Adam Hartley