Inside France’s vast video game archive

by Yassine KHIRI
Agence France Press

PARIS, France (AFP) – In the bowels of an imposing modernist tower in Paris, Laurent Duplouy meticulously handles a pristine copy of Tomb Raider before returning it to the shelves alongside thousands of other classic video games.

Duplouy oversees a vast games archive at the French National Library (BNF), one of the longest-running efforts to preserve a piece of global heritage often overlooked by cultural institutions.

“The video game can be considered a total work of art because it combines graphic art, storytelling and narrative structure,” Duplouy told AFP.

The glass and steel structure from the 1990s, just a stone’s throw from the banks of the Seine, houses room after room with archived books where researchers and students quietly go about their business.

But Duplouy insists the video game collection isn’t out of place in the lofty setting.

“Video games are just as valuable to the BNF as the other documents deposited here,” he said.

“We give them the same attention. It’s a heritage in its own right.”

The estimated collection now totals around 20,000 titles in all possible formats, from cassettes to floppy disks and CD-ROM, with a further 2,000 copies being added every year.

A team of 20 oversees the collection, empowered by a 1992 law on the preservation of multimedia documents.

Although the law did not specifically mention video games, its wording is broad enough to be interpreted as such, making it one of the oldest laws of its kind in the world.

The US Library of Congress only began its digital media preservation efforts in 2000, and there are many other initiatives led by enthusiasts around the world.

– emulator hunt –
The video games are stored on darkened shelves at a constant temperature of 19 degrees to protect them from moisture.

A few floors up is also an enviable collection of vintage gaming consoles – from the earliest examples like the rare early 1970s Magnavox Odyssey, through the Atari Lynx and Sega Saturn to the ultimate 1990s Nintendo Game Boy icon.

“We’re keeping these consoles to give future researchers decades, even hundreds of years from now, an understanding of how to play these video games and what hardware was used,” Duplouy said.

While the consoles and physical games can be stored on shelves and behind glass, there are major challenges with many games no longer found in physical form.

To do this, the library relies on communities of enthusiasts recreating old games on modern computers.

“We have two engineers in the multimedia department constantly monitoring these issues to find emulators, get them working, and make them compatible with our collections,” said Duplouy.

Archivists also face the problem that many games are now played in the cloud and never exist in physical form.

Duplouy said the library is engaged in negotiations with publishers and platforms to find a workaround.

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to own the largest collection in the world.

“It would be great for French heritage,” he said.

© Agence France-Presse