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ODH Project Team Q&A: Preserving Cultural Software

August 8, 2013 | By Perry Collins

For this week's conversation on recently funded Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants, the project team for "A Unified Approach to Preserving Cultural Software Objects and Their Development Histories" came together to answer a few questions from ODH staff. Building on past research in archival science and digital preservation, project director Noah Wardrip-Fruin and collaborators Henry Lowood, Christy Caldwell, and Eric Kaltman hope to extend best practices for preserving complex digital media. As a test case, the project team will focus on Prom Week, an award-winning game developed at the Expressive Intelligence Studio at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As the team discusses below, a key goal of the project is not only to preserve the software itself, but also to gather documentation such as correspondence, prototype designs, and publications that can help future researchers better understand the game development process. At the conclusion of the project, the team will publish a white paper laying out their findings, including methodologies for archivists, librarians, scholars, and software developers grappling with the challenges of software preservation.

ODH: This project builds from past work in the field, especially a 1983 report from the Joint Committee on Archives of Science and Technology (JCAST) and the more recent Preserving Virtual Worlds initiative, funded by the Library of Congress and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. How are these efforts informing your project?

Henry Lowood: Both of these projects have inspired the approach we are taking to archiving Prom Week as an example of games produced in a research context such as at a university. The JCAST report dealt with a new problem of the 1980s: How to document new forms of research hosted by new kinds of institutions, specifically, how to archive the records of Big Science produced by national labs and huge multi-institutional collaborations.  The report guided archivists as they sought to figure out how science was being produced, what kinds of records it generated and what to do in order to save these records.  It provides a useful template for us thirty-some years later as we think about a new kind of academic work of the 21st century: game development. PVW was not only an inspiration for work on game preservation, but two of us (Kaltman, Lowood) were part of the PVW team and a third (Wardrip-Fruin) was an adviser. So the connection between PVW and this project is direct. We did cover two "university games" in PVW (Spacewar! and, arguably, Adventure), but these were games of the 1960s and 1970s, and of course the emphasis through the project was on commercial games. PVW said almost nothing about recent or contemporary game development in university or other research settings, and this project will fill that gap.

ODH: Tell us a bit more about Prom Week. How does it provide a useful case study for archiving and preserving cultural software objects?

Eric Kantwell: Prom Week is a well-regarded social simulation game developed by the EIS lab at UCSC. It features a number of technical innovations in the areas of game AI and interactive storytelling and had a significant development time of around 3 years. Our case study needed to be a significant object in the history of game development, an academic research game and something that was easily accessible to our team. Prom Week handily fulfilled all those criteria. Its underlying technical structure is rather complex for a computer game, it implements its own social simulation engine but also works in a widespread development context of its era (Actionscript within Flash). Because the game is inherently complicated and robustly developed, we felt that it represented one of the more difficult targets for archiving in the academic game space. This potential difficulty and complexity is a good thing because it will enable us to look at Prom Week deeply from many methodological angles that will definitely map to methods for archiving simpler games and software.

ODH: How do you expect the project to impact not only policies and workflows in libraries, archives, and museums, but also scholarship in fields such as digital culture, software, and game studies?

Christy Caldwell: Currently, there aren't standard policies or workflows in libraries for preserving research games. Preserving Virtual Worlds provided recommendations and frameworks, but we also needed to address contemporary "home grown" products, and their development histories, rather than existing commercial works. With Prom Week, we have access to the custom code and engine, can interview the developers, possibly include iterations of the game, and collect emails and other planning documents. Once we know what to collect, we could begin to do this early in a research game's development.

Although our use case is a research game, we fully expect our results to be applicable to a wide range of digital objects that are now being created in many academic settings.

The potential impact to scholarship is significant. If we can develop a process that is sustainable and expandable by other institutions, scholars will have dependable access to a level of information they do not currently have. It will enable greater reproducibility and attribution, which are essential pieces of academic research.

ODH: This Level I Start-Up Grant project represents one step in a longer-term effort. Where does your team plan to go from here?

Noah Wardrip-Fruin: Our team came together specifically around the opportunity provided by the Start-Up Grant program (though we'd known each other previously, in pairs and trios, from other projects). Just working on the proposal for the Start-Up Grant made us realize we had a great interdisciplinary group: complementing each others' knowledge and experience, while interested in a lot of the same core issues. One broad area we're definitely interested in pursuing further is preservation, and in particular moving beyond just the final, released build of games and other highly-interactive media experiences (though just making progress on that would be significant) but also the parts that we believe are often of greater potential interest to humanists, designers, technologists and others: "What were the paths not taken? Why didn't they end up in the final version? Was the decision based on a hunch? A technical, economic, or temporal constraint? The results of playtesting? Dictates from management? Something else?" In this project we're working on a proof of concept for an archival approach that can help people interested in such questions in the future. Another area that interests us is trying to speed the development--for computer games, digital literature, and other highly interactive forms of media--of the cycles of finding, accessing, and citing them in collections.
ODH: ODH has included your application to the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants program as a sample on our website for those interested in getting a sense of what an exemplary proposal looks like. What advice do you have for other grant writers, whether they're applying to this or other funding opportunities?
NWF: I think a lot of the strength of a proposal flows from the team. Putting together a strong team for interdisciplinary research, who can communicate and collaborate effectively, is a challenge under any circumstances... and particularly on a limited budget. But if you can focus on a subset of the goals and how to move them forward in a pilot project, I think spending can be focused where it will have the most impact, giving a good shot at producing results that will set up a strong case for bigger things in the future. Beyond that, I think there are types of questions that can be really clarifying for a team to think through before starting to write a proposal. Many people have questions they recommend, and here's the version I often use:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • What is our approach to the problem?
  • Why is that a smart approach?
  • How will we know if we succeed?

If your team has a clear set of answers to these questions, and strong agreement about those answers, I think writing a competitive proposal  gets a lot easier.