At a time when the largest industry in entertainment is focused on the next big thing, it’s easy to forget the past of video games. Who is helping ensure that our gaming heritage is preserved for future generations to enjoy, study, and learn from? The answer is Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

Dyson is leading the charge to protect our past by curating a unique museum that includes an extensive library and archives, over 140 arcade cabinets, 12,000 console video games, every major home console produced since 1972, dozens of personal computers, and more than 200 different handheld electronic game systems. For his efforts, he was recently named in Game Developer Magazine’s prestigious “The Game Developer 50” listing. Jeffrey DiOrio recently interviewed Dyson about the museum and its role. Here’s an edited transcript.

GamesBeat: What is (your) mission?

J.P.Dyson: ICHEG’s mission is to explore and preserve the history of video games and their impact in the world, and the way people play but also the way they live, the way they learn, and the way they relate to one another.

GamesBeat: How did ICHEG get its start?

J.P. Dyson: ICHEG itself is a natural outgrowth of the collections of The Strong. The Strong has the most comprehensive collection of toys, dolls and games (in the world), and as we were looking at how play was changing, we realized that video games were having a bigger impact on play than anything else. And not just at play, but so many aspects of human life. So we began collecting video games in 2009, and we launched ICHEG. And since then the collection has grown from a very small collection of about 10,000 games and related artifacts to more than 36,000 games and related artifacts today.

GamesBeat: Did the idea to create a museum dedicated to video and electronic games experience any resistance?

J.P. Dyson: First of all, there’s a natural correlation or connection between older forms of play and newer forms of play, such as between a doll house and The Sims, Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft. And any time you get a new form of media or new form of play, there are controversies.  For instance in our exhibit ‘American Comic Book Heroes’ we explore some of the controversies over comic books. And the ways that people thought comic books were threatening and caused problems.

You see the same issues with the rise of Film and the rise of Television.  So with video games you have some of those same issues.  Worries of ‘What are the contents of the material?’, ‘Are people wasting their time playing it?’.  So we’re interested in exploring those issues, not just dismissing them. Issues like violence.  Issues like the educational benefits, or not, of video games.  And so within the broader community of people concerned about play and children there have been sometimes when people have said ‘Well, I’m not sure if people should be spending as much time as they do playing video games’.  So I think it’s more from that stand point that we’ve gotten, at times, questions.

But I think, when articulated, even people suspicious of video games still understand the impact they are having.  So once you understand the impact they are having I think that people get the importance of why we need to do this. That if we don’t act to preserve a record of video games, there’s a chance much of this will be lost.

GamesBeat: So really it’s never been a question of the breadth of impact of the video gaming industry and whether that warrants its own center, but really maybe some of the more philosophical questions on whether this (gaming) is a good thing, or not.

J.P. Dyson: Yea, I think so. I mean, I imagine there are probably some people who resist the idea of preserving video games in a museum.  It seems like ‘Well, is that what museums are for?’. But I think that we’ve been able to make a really compelling case that this is what museums need to be preserving.

GamesBeat: How is ICHEG preparing to conserve gaming history at a time when games and gaming content are increasingly distributed digitally?

J.P. Dyson: If I look at the bigger picture of ‘how do you preserve a video game’, it’s a hard problem as you raise some of these issues.  So let me take a step back and talk about our approach. At the moment we are pursuing a 5-fold strategy for preserving video games. The central thing that we’ve been concentrating on, initially, is collecting the physical copies of games and hardware.

But we recognize that alone is not (enough). The second thing we’re collecting are printed materials, or mass manufactured materials without the games. So this would be things like game guides, gaming magazines, ephemera that’s produced related to the games, that sort of thing. They give you insights into the games, how the games were played, how they were created, interviews with authors. Preserving those are really key, that’s why we’ve built this collection of over 10,000 video game and computer magazines.

Going further into this, you go from these mass-produced printed materials to the 3rd thing, archival materials. This would include game designer notes, business records, marketing materials, oral histories. These are all important things, such as Will Wright’s notebooks or Ralph Baer’s notes, those unique archival materials. The 4th thing is doing video capture. So capture a record of the game at play. Now this is not the same as being able to load the game up and play it. But at least it gives you some sense of what the game was like, what was the feel of the game. So historians who wanted to know a game from 20 years ago, they could look at a video record of that. So that’s where we have this grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to capture video from about 7,000 games in our collection.

GamesBeat: That’s the goal, to get all 7,000 of those eventually play recorded?

J.P. Dyson: Yea, so we’re doing usually a final cut of between 10 and 20 minutes. So it’s not comprehensive, it’d be impossible to do that for every game, a complete play through. But at least it gives you a record of the game. And then eventually we’d like to link that with our online record of that artifact. So video capture is the 4th thing.  Games and Hardware, Mass Manufactured Printed Materials, unique Archival Records is the 3rd one, Game Capture is the 4th one. Now you get to the fifth one, which is Emulation and Migration of Code. And that’s where it gets real tricky. That’s the one, to be honest, we’ve done the least with.  We’ve built up slowly, we know we need to be dealing with that, and we have plans to be dealing with that in the future.

GamesBeat: So it’s really something that’s been given a lot of thought, and that’s actually closest to its infancy as far as how best to do it, and what direction to go in.

J. P. Dyson: Yea, and there are other groups, such as Preserving Virtual Worlds, which I’m an advisor to, that are looking at these issues. And again, there are all sorts of issues, from digital rights management, to property issues, to technology issues for doing it.

GamesBeat: What has ICHEG’s success rate been in getting companies to donate other forms of gaming items such as production records and source code?

J.P. Dyson: We’ve had the most success working with private individuals. Often people who have been in the gaming industry for a long time have materials that are their own personal records. Companies, there are a couple of challenges here. One is companies’ concern over intellectual property; we want to be careful with that. Second is just a matter of focus. Companies often are so focused on the next product and meeting the bottom line that they’re not as either able or willing to spend the time to really concentrate on preserving the past, what they’ve done as a company. I’d say it’s less unwillingness than just a lack of time usually.

GamesBeat: What gaming ‘luminaries’ are represented within ICHEG’s collections?  What artifacts represent these individuals?

J.P. Dyson: So things like the notebooks of Will Wright, Ken and Roberta Williams have donated things like a lot of Roberta Williams’ design notes for games, for the Sierra games. Dan Bunten, also known as Dani Bunten Berry later in life, we have Dan Bunten poems and that sort of thing, personal items. Ralph Baer, we have a great collection of stuff related to his later career, developing electronic toys, including Simon.  And there are collections from companies like Westwood, for instance. And we haven’t announced this one, Joel Billings who was the founder of SSI, has donated materials.

GamesBeat: Are there any collections you’d like to get here at the center?

J.P. Dyson: You know, the games themselves are the easiest things to get. It’s more the things that either reflects the creation or the business of the games themselves. More of the personal design papers I think from key figures, along with more stuff representing Japanese gaming experience. Again we have that, but we tend to have the end products, the games themselves, as opposed to the design documents or other things. And then one thing that I’m very interested in is, which is not something at the top of the radar for most gamers, but development of gaming in the 60’s and 70’s on mainframe computer systems. Because what you see is laying down a lot of the foundations for the type of games like simulation games or sports games. So more things from game developers themselves are key. More international representation. And then some of the early history, which is often buried in newsletters and often obscure places.

GamesBeat: Might ‘Homebrew’ games be accepted into the Center’s collection?

J.P. Dyson: Yes, and I think that they are part of a longer history of gaming and game development. To me what’s interesting is that we’re in a ‘Back to the Future’ mode in some ways. If you look at the early years of the development of computer games, you saw that there was relatively little separation between the developer and the user. You quickly realized that if you were any good at programming and had the confidence, you could often create a game that was as good or almost as good as the games you could buy commercially. And that’s how so many developers got started. “Oh, I can create a Dungeons and Dragons game on the computer”. And you could hack games. The code was right there.  So there’s been the hacking/homebrew ethos from the very beginning.  But then when you get into, I feel the 90’s especially with CD-ROMs, there was often a real separation between what the average user could do, versus what these AAA titles were.  In recent years with the internet and more tools to create games, whether it’s hacking games or creating games in Flash or anything else, you don’t need to invent all of the tools. So you see the whole rise of independent games. A game like Minecraft for instance. Twenty years ago there wouldn’t have been a distribution network. You had Doom and the whole shareware thing going on, but generally a distribution network was much harder to get into. Now you can create a game that’s very popular. I guess the short answer is that we feel the user modification of games is part of a long history of video games. And so, yes, that would be a legitimate part of what we collect, and I think an important part of the whole story.

GamesBeat: What role, if any do institutions such as ICHEG play in educating the public about electronic games?  Does this role go beyond presenting the history of the medium?

J.P. Dyson: Well I think we do a number of things. One is what we do, and the other is what we enable others to do. So first of all, we, by gathering materials, make them available to scholars. We’re able to encourage the broader discussion on video games and research of video games here.  So we enable a scholar to do his or her work better because we’ve gathered these materials. We ourselves, I think, play a role in raising some of these issues around games and discussing the broader history of games. So that’s both in terms of exploring individual history and individual themes, but then also presenting viewpoints on scholarship related to other issues, such as violence. And the Strong’s other partners play a role in this too, especially the American Journal of Play, will publish articles on games and their impact on learning from authors such as James Gee. Or we published an article on aspects of play in MMOs.

GamesBeat: So really it’s both presenting the history from maybe a pure historical standpoint, presenting some of these questions to the museum-goers, and then also acting as an enabler for other researchers and other individuals to explore.

J.P. Dyson: Right, and so by preserving the materials, individual scholars can bring their own questions to this, that maybe we don’t think of, or their own perspective. But we present the materials that provide good scholarship and that make good scholarship possible on these subjects. We also want to interpret it ourselves, but again gathering the materials is not for our own benefit.  Part of our educational mission as a museum is to not only explore it ourselves but to encourage this. (Often) people gather incredible collections, but their goal is not to share it.  And in some ways they’re serving a great purpose.

GamesBeat: At least it’s not getting tossed in the trash, which is good.

J.P. Dyson: Exactly. But ultimately, to be really useful to society, you need to make this stuff available as well.

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat’s fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry’s latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.