A first-of-its-kind archive at UT’s Briscoe Center is preserving video game history.
In the summer of 1979, a teenager and incoming UT freshman named Richard Garriott started tinkering around with an Apple II computer at his parents’ house in Houston. Like many a fledgling nerd, Garriott was a devotee of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and as he taught himself basic programming on the Apple II, he decided on a whim to create a digital version of the game.
In the result, called Akalabeth: World of Doom, a king named Lord British (Garriott’s own nickname) sends players on 10 quests to defeat monsters. The game so impressed Garriott’s boss at the computer store where he worked part-time that he put it on sale. It flew off the shelves, and not long after, Garriott dropped out of UT to develop games full time. He went on to become a billionaire, and Akalabeth earned a place in history as one of the first-ever role-playing video games.
Today, an original copy of Akalabeth—a Ziploc bag containing a floppy disk, an instruction booklet, and a card promising “fantasy, cunning, and danger”—sits in the UT Video Game Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History. It’s joined by more than 2,000 other games, plus some 30 consoles, 250 feet of printed paper, and one terabyte of digital files. Founded in 2008 by Austin-based game designers Garriott, Warren Spector, MA ’80, and composer George Sanger, the archive is the first in the nation to preserve not just completed games, but also behind-the-scenes items—like notes, scripts, sketches, and audio files—that show how a game comes to be. There’s even a special collection of games produced by women.
“Gaming is a huge cultural phenomenon, but nobody else is collecting this kind of material,” says Brenda Gunn, the Briscoe Center’s associate director for research and collections. “The archive preserves nearly every aspect of game development and history.”
Shelves of game packaging from the 1980s and ’90s, stacks of floppy disks, VHS tapes, posters, audio recordings, and binders of scripts and notes: At first glance, the Video Game Archive may look like, well, junk. But increasingly, scholars are recognizing its value. After all, gaming is a big part of American life: Some 183 million of us play video games at least once a week, and we shell out $20 billion on games every year, according to data from the Entertainment Software Association.
“There are a lot of reasons to study games, from ‘This is cool and people spend a lot of time doing it’ to ‘This particular game has really good A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] and maybe we could use it in developing technology to help senior citizens who live alone,” says Ayse Gursoy, a UT School of Information graduate student who researches video game criticism. “We preserve books and movies, so why not games?”
Photo by Anna Donlan.
An Ultima character sketch in the Video Game Archive. Courtesy the Briscoe Center for American History.