From Space Invaders to Super Mario, video games are one of the most influential media on the planet.
They have enchanted gamers around the world for nearly half a century and influenced mass culture with their pioneering inventions in aesthetics, storytelling, music and graphics.
“They are arguably the biggest entertainment industry in the world – with a huge impact on everyday life,” says Christopher Young, Head of Collections and Digital Research at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga Library. “Video games were the canary in the coal mine of digital life.
“Everything we do today, using phones and interactive technology, games led the way.”
Still, video games have been difficult for academics to study. Searchers trying to find a 25-year-old game often had no luck because video games were almost never collected by libraries. This is because many viewed games as disposable consumer products as opposed to crucial works of art and culture.
At U of T Mississauga, everything changed in 2020 when it acquired its Syd Bolton Collection, one of the largest and most comprehensive college video game collections with over 14,000 titles. The collection was put together by its namesake – a computer programmer from Brantford, Ontario. who spent decades filling his home with long shelves filled with games before his death in 2018.
“There are only a few places in the world, let alone North America, that have a collection of this size,” says Young, who is the collection’s first curator. In contrast, the US Library of Congress has only 7,000 games.
Additionally, U of T Mississauga now offers games ranging from iconic and famous titles – like the Atari 2600’s Space Invaders or Super Mario 64 – to rare and deep cuts that have only sold a few copies.
Christopher Young working on a game cartridge from the Syd Bolton Collection (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)
The U of T Mississauga collection also includes dozens of different video game consoles needed to play the games, including all versions of PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo consoles released through 2018. There are also several rare consoles, including the Panasonic 3DO.
The academic study of video games is booming as generations of students and scholars who grew up playing games are eager to explore everything from the history of game interface design to the gender representation in marketing materials and the business side of gambling. U of T Mississauga is even considering launching its own gambling studies program, Young notes.
“This collection would be the foundation on which all of these activities would be built,” he says.
U of T scholars are already considering ways to use the collection. Siobhan O’Flynn, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Department of English and Drama at U of T Mississauga, specializing in game studies, teaches a course in which students learn about the history and ethics of games while designing their own games. She says the Syd Bolton Collection will allow her students to experience gameplay from past titles that they would otherwise only be able to see on YouTube or read on Wikipedia.
“Obsolescence is such a tragedy in digital media,” she says. “Having been in this space for 20 years now, I can look back on all sorts of absolutely defining and influential works of which there is no longer any trace.”
Importantly, the Syd Bolton collection also includes all of the manuals that come with the games, which can be equally interesting for scholars to research.
The University of Toronto Mississauga Library has set up a space for anyone who wants to make an appointment to play a game from the Syd Bolton Collection (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)
There are also 5,000 video game magazines, including full series of famous game titles like Nintendo power and electronic game month. This aspect of collecting, says Young, is both rare and critical because it allows scholars to see how a game has been marketed and discussed. “You can gauge exactly what was going on in the industry at that time,” he says.
U of T Research Officer Stephanie Fisher wants to use the collection to launch the next generation of video game development. She is co-director of Pixelles, a non-profit organization that supports women in the gaming industry through programs and events such as “game jams” that encourage women to design games. Fisher plans to use the Syd Bolton Collection as an artistic resource that inspires creators by allowing them to experience rare old games first-hand.
“It’s really going to help game developers, especially indie game developers who are doing really cool cutting-edge stuff,” she says. “You think of the filmmakers – they go for the film to learn from it. But it’s been so hard to do that with games.
The University of Toronto Mississauga library has even installed video monitors in its reading room so that any student, professor or community member can make an appointment to review and play a game.
Meanwhile, Young and his team are currently hard at work cataloging the huge collection of games and consoles and making light repairs to get them all up and running.
It is a curious form of preservation work. Young, who worked for the U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, does a digital version of work done at Fisher on works hundreds of years old. For example, he’s spent the last few weeks opening up Nintendo cartridges and cleaning them thoroughly so that their electrical contacts work perfectly.
“These things were meant to be used,” he says of the games. “They are made to be played.”