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Hot on the Web

YouTube as archival tool

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 22, 2008
(Issue 2608, Buying Printers)

Up there with MySpace and Facebook, I'd guess that most adults reading this column would classify as a colossal waste of time and bandwidth. From kids videotaping their pets doing dumb things to college students taping themselves doing dumb things, many of the millions of videos posted on YouTube are, frankly, not worth a lot culturally.

For for those of us interested in preserving computer history, though, YouTube is turning out to be a treasure trove of riches.

While a handful of museums are preserving the artifacts of the ongoing Computer Revolution (including the now-defunct Computer Museum of America in San Diego, the former collection of which is now stored – although not currently displayed – at the San Diego State University library), and a handful of archives are preserving as best they can many of the groundbreaking software titles of the early years of the personal computer, looking at a static display of a computer or software documentation doesn't do much to convey what it was like to use these computers of the past.

Unless you have a TRS-80 Coco computer still working, though, you can't really know what it was like to play "Donkey Kong" on it. And I suppose you still can't know what it was like to play the game from watching the video posted by "sockypoo," but surely you can know what it was like to watch someone else play.

Of course, "Donkey Kong"isn't the best example of the value of archival video, because there remain thousands if not more "Donkey Kong" games at video arcades across the country.

But what about "Karateka", the precursor to the original "Prince of Persia"? Just about anyone who came of age in the 1990s played "Prince of Persia," but how many ever played "Karateka," which was written by the same programmer, Jordan Mechner, when he was still in college?

There are thousands of gameplay videos of classic PC and home console games up on YouTube, created and posted by people with a love for early gaming. From once-popular but mostly forgotten games like "Caverns of Mars" and "Fort Apocalypse" for the Atari, to "Choplifter" on the Apple II to "Raid on Bungeling Bay" for the Commodore 64, there are everything from 30-second clips to complete play-throughs.

Gaming systems, too, are profiled, from the original Odyssey and Atari Pong home units, up through the Fairchild Channel F, Atari VCS, Intellevision, and then the Nintendo and Sega machines that ruled the roost for awhile.

By setting up a free account on YouTube, and adding various video clips to your favorites file, you could create a virtual history of PC and console gaming. (There are even hundreds, maybe thousands, of vintage TV commercials touting the above systems.

For researchers in the future, who may not have access to working game or computer systems (although given the number of units sold of the popular systems, I'd think we're at least a couple hundred years from the point that there are no Apple II or NES machines still in oepration), these digitized samples of gameplay will likely prove invaluable in showing how digital entertainment has grown in sophistication.

Where are the serious apps?

If there's a weakness in the YouTube decentralized archiving to this point, it's in the lack of non-gaming videos. For instance, before "Word," "WordPerfect" ruled the roost in terms of word processors - but only after it displaced "WordStar," a popular program that ran on pre-DOS CP/M machines. But there were only a handful of videos showing anything of the CP/M environment, and nothing on "WordStar."

What about "VisiCalc," the first-ever of the "killer apps"? "VisiCalc" sold far more Apple II computers than "Choplifter" ever did – yet there isn't a single video showing how "VisiCalc" looked while running

I guess the explanation is that games are inherently more fun than word processors or spreadsheets, yet certainly business applications did more to mainstream the desktop PC than any other type of software

Perhaps it's just a matter of time until other computer history buffs begin documenting the not-so-fun stuff as well.

Because the one advantage computer historians have over, say, automotive or aviation archivists, is that it's a lot cheaper to keep most PCs and game consoles in working condition than it is, say, a 1950 packard or a 1935 Ford Trimotor. There are still operational models of many of the world's earliest automobiles out there – any gathering of car buffs will generally turn up a Ford Model T or two – but you and I aren't going to get to drive them, nor is the Commemorative Air Force going to let you fly one of its P-51 Mustangs (although you might get up in the one of their bombers, for a couple hundred dollars – those funds help keep those birds in the air).

Playing with a flight simulator is a far different experience than flying a B-17 Flying Fortress; but watching a video of someone playing "Bonk's Revenge" on a TurboGrafx-16? That's not really too different from watching your buddy play on your TV in the living room.

Here's hoping everyone with a rare system posts some video of it in action to remind the rest of us what computing and gaming used to be like.