Should We Preserve Important Virtual Creations?

Helm02 Virtual worlds are drawing in millions of new users, many of whom have no connection to their adopted world's original launch.

Is it worth the effort to preserve the history of virtual worlds for those who arrive late?

The Metaverse is an ethereal beast, with entire worlds flitting in and out of existence. Pixels and Policy looks at whether developers should make an effort to preserve especially important constructions for the historical record.

Should Virtual Creations Be Saved?

Since the virtual world is so liquid and content creation is a persistent part of worlds like Second Life and others, many displays of cyberculture exist only in the collective memory. Late arrivals to the virtual landscape would have to do extensive research to uncover evidence of major events, buildings, and community gatherings from the early days of a virtual world.

Wagner James Au chronicled the major debate about the role of expression and speech in the virtual world that came to a head in Second Life's Jessie region. It was here that users squared off with virtual weapons and constructed a massive wall that came to symbolize the tension of the early grid. Now the majority of the region is gone, and virtual historians are left with little to work with.

Initiatives like the Project to Preserve Virtual Worlds from the University of Illinois hope to find novel means of storing important artifacts related to community and technological development in virtual worlds, but solid efforts are sadly few and far between. The University of Illinois project understands that preservation of digital assets will require a new paradigm in historical conservation. Their take:

  • Development of beginning framework for characterizing game and interactive fiction by preservation problem
  • Surveys of existing taxonomies for documenting game behavior and interactive fiction behaviour
  • New schema to capture technical metadata and other representation information for the data formats included in our case studies

Major advances in digital communication – think Metanomics or the first mixed-media Second Life web shows – deserve to be remembered as legitimate steps forward in the development of communication in the Internet Age. Unfortunately, there is no concerted effort to preserve these importance pieces of community.

The Difficulty of Defining "Important" Virtual Structures

The University of Illinois partnered with the Library of Congress for organizational and funding support in its preservation endeavor, and it's certainly going to need it. Virtual structures are by nature artificial – there's nothing physical to preserve. Certainly no one expects Second Life to dedicate a quarter of its server space to preserving historically significant art installations or virtual film studios, but what is the "right" amount of space to devote to preservation?

Much of the load problems could be solved by creating dedicated "museums" managed by academic organizations like the University of Illinois. A recent article in Hypergrid Business suggests archiving significant creations on an on-demand server, but the idea raises unanswered questions about what will be deemed significant for preservation if such a program launched. Would areas important to one world's history be preserved, or only creations that bridge a real-virtual gap?

What are your thoughts? Should important art pieces or cross-medium facilities be preserved for future research and appreciation? Do virtual worlds owe it to late arrivals to make sure the lore and history of the virtual world is preserved?