Game on: University of Arizona professors build one of the world’s largest video game archives

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 4:22 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Two professors at the University of Arizona turned their passion for video games into a profession, building one of the world’s largest archives devoted to video games.

Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill are co-directors of the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive, which they started in 1999.

The archive is an international, transdisciplinary, and multi-institutional research collected that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games in educational contexts.

“We pulled our collections together and that was sort of the start of the archive. Of course, it’s turned into something much more substantial these days,” Ruggill said.

The archive now has more than a quarter million items, including 15-thousand games, more than 200 gaming systems, and more.

Designed around the concept of “preservation through use,” LGIRA makes accessible to researchers all over the world and of all ages, a constantly expanding collection of computer games, systems, peripherals, memorabilia, scholarship, and other game-related materials.

From game-branded food to lab notes by early game developers, the archive contains items from all over the world.

“Researchers, they will be on vacation, and they will say, ‘Oh! The archive would love this.’ And they will pick something up from Turkey or Iceland, or wherever they happen to be and they will send it to us,” McAllister said.

The collection also a handful of Soviet era knock offs of Nintendo Game and Watch.

“The IP rights were not recognized by the Soviet Union so they would get the Nintendo product, reverse engineer them and create these systems that they would sell in the store totally legally,” McAllister said.

While a lot of the items were donated, McAllister and Ruggill have gone to extremes to grow the collection, like when they visited the unearthing of Atari games from a New Mexico landfill.

“So that was buried for 30 years,” Ruggill said as he pointed to an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 game.

Ruggill and McAllister said the game documents the crash of the game industry in the early 1980s.

Ruggill and McAllister said in 1983, there was an urban legend that Atari decided to bury a surplus of games in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Fast-forward to 2014, and Ruggill said a group of archeologists and a filmmaker went digging in the landfill to see if there was any truth to the story.

Sure enough, they unearthed cartridges.

“If you watch the documentary, they pan by all of these people waiting to get in, we were there,” Ruggill said.

Ruggill and McAllister took a cartridge back to the archive, sealed away in a plastic bag.

“There’s all of this mystique around it, but people forget it’s garbage,” McAllister said.

Since 1999, McAllister and Ruggill have partnered with researchers in Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Utah, Germany and Australia.

Both gaming aficionados, McAllister and Ruggill still cannot believe they turned their passion into a career.

“I wouldn’t spend my lunch money just so I could sneak to the arcade and play some games for a little while. No way could I imagine I would be making a living some day surrounded by games,” McAllister said.

The LGI Research Archive is open to all game researchers, not matter their ages or institutional affiliations.

“If they contact us and say they are working on a paper, we will put things in a box and send it to them. One of the things we really like when we do that is it is not uncommon they will put something else in there to donate,” McAllister said.

McAllister and Ruggill worked for more than two decades to partner with researchers across the country, even in Australia and Germany to grow the collection.

To set up an appointment or to consult with an archivists by clicking here.

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