Space Invaders might not immediately come to mind when considering academic materials, but educators in the video game field recognize the value of accessing vintage games for research, and University of Toronto Mississauga has won big.
The university acquired the Syd Bolton collection — which includes more than 14,000 titles and around 5,000 magazines from the last 50 years of video game history, along with dozens of consoles and systems.
"We have Atari 2600 game titles, some from the more familiar Nintendo entertainment system, Sega Genesis, all the way up to the modern PlayStation and Xbox game titles," explained Chris Young, head of Collections and Digital Scholarship at University of Toronto Mississauga.
"A feature I find most valuable is the fact that most of the games we have include all the packaging and game manuals," he said.
Syd Bolton was a programmer in Brantford, Ont., who also founded and curated The Personal Computer Museum. Bolton was an avid collector and made his materials accessible to the wider public. He died in 2018. Young says Bolton's wife reached out to the university because she wanted to ensure the collection was properly maintained and accessible to the public. As the video game industry grows, Young says the collection will provide an incredible opportunity for more course development and research for both students and the public.
"In terms of academic study, it's really important to look at the history of something that has such a pervasive impact on everyday life," Young said. He says he wouldn't be surprised if there were vintage titles in the mix worth tens of thousands of dollars.
"On our campus in particular, there's been a growing interest in … offering courses that teach students how to study game artifacts, to study the histories of games and the social cultural impact of games."
Public access helps diversify field, researcher says
Stephanie Fisher, a research officer at the university, says she's excited about the collection being accessible to the public through the library.
"The Syd Bolton Collection provides an unprecedented level of access, and that type of access in turn supports research and collaborations focused on increasing equity and inclusion in video games," Fisher explained. She's also the co-director of Pixelles, a non profit dedicated to improving gender diversity in the games industry.
"Over the last 10 years, you've seen an improvement in getting more women and under-represented groups into the games industry. The problem now is keeping them in games, the retention problem."
Fisher hopes having this collection in Canada helps foster more talent in the industry from various backgrounds.
WATCH | New videogame collection a big win for U of T Mississauga:
"Thousands of games will generate thousands of ideas from students and scholars and anyone who interacts with them," she said.
"There's huge potential for things to come and it's great that its here in Canada."
Siobhan O'Flynn, an instructor in the department of English and Drama at the U of T Mississauga, says she was elated when she heard the collection was coming to the school.
"This is extraordinary to have as a teaching resource on campus," she said, adding the collection will provide opportunities to do archival research, as well.
"To be able to go back and play these titles with perspective from 2022, and to think about the impact of these games in their own moment and their cultural moment and in the context of design but also how we perceive this today, is going to be incredibly enlightening."
O'Flynn teaches a class where students learn about game history, game ethics and design, and says a couple of new video game courses at the university are in the works.
Collection currently being catalogued
Young and his team have a lot of work ahead of them — they're processing and cataloguing the massive collection, which also includes careful cleaning, packaging and some light repairs. Most of the collection is stored offsite, in a temperature-controlled space.
But it's not all work and no play.
The U of T Mississauga Library has video monitors in its reading room so that students,
staff and the public can make an appointment and request to play a game.
Reflecting on his own childhood memories, Young says it's the storytelling and interaction that keeps the video game industry booming.
"I think that sort of interaction is what pulls you in," he said.
"That's why so many of us might look back on these consoles with fond memories. We may not have played it in 20 years, but we remember the people we were with and the time in which we played it."