Archives of the University of Arizona dedicated to the study of video games
TUCSON, Ariz. – When it comes to games, Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill don’t mess around.
The two University of Arizona humanities scholars have spent the last two decades quietly compiling what is probably the world’s largest archive for the study of video games and gaming culture.
The Learning Games Initiative Research Archive now contains more than a quarter of a million items, including at least 15,000 individual games, 200 game systems, and thousands of documents, books, promotional materials, and other artifacts from the ever-growing universe of the games industry.
The catalog ranges from a 1948 patent for the earliest “cathode ray tube entertainment device” to the latest Playstation console.
And unlike other university archives where you need “white gloves and a wand with an acid-free cotton ball on the end” to handle the relics, McAllister says everything in this collection is meant to be touched, plugged in, and used .
After all, you can’t read a book without opening it, and you can’t understand a game without playing it.
“I mean, what’s that?” says Ruggill, pulling a game cartridge from any shelf. “It’s a piece of plastic and some other petrochemicals and stuff like that. It only becomes something when you activate it and interact with it.”
“Without the player there is no game,” he says.
Ruggill is a Tucson native who used to fill his bags with quarters and walk to the video arcade in his 1980s neighborhood of Foothills.
McAllister grew up in Chicago and played Pitfall on a friend’s Atari 2600 and electronic hand soccer on his commute to school.
The two met through their shared interest in gaming research and soon realized something was missing in their burgeoning corner of the media studies world.
“It struck us that there was a need in this area to actually make these objects accessible,” says McAllister. “We would go to academic conferences where people were lecturing about games, and it turned out they had never played the game they were lecturing on.”
“It’s like saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to talk to you about Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth,’ but I haven’t actually read it,'” adds Ruggill.
It was not laziness of these lecturers. At the time, McAllister says, certain game systems and titles were almost impossible to find in working condition outside of private collections.
Today, if a researcher needs to plug in and play a 1977 Telematch Panoramic Pong console from Argentina, the Learning Games Initiative can make it happen.
Or if a graduate student wants to pull off a few harmless shots from a 1972 Magavox Odyssey rifle, the first gun interface ever sold for a home video game system, the archive already has one locked and loaded.
The collection prides itself on being open to all game researchers, regardless of age or institutional affiliation.
Most inquiries come from university scholars and professional researchers, but Ruggill says they’ve also worked on educational projects with elementary school classes and met with clubs for seniors “who are interested in better understanding what their grandchildren are doing.”
About a fifth of the collection is housed in a few crowded rooms on the top floor of a dated three-story building on the east edge of the UA campus.
The remainder is held in camps and small satellite archives at partner institutions in Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming, Australia and Germany.
“Periodicly, there are discussions at the university level about getting a space that’s the right size for the collection and opening a museum,” says McAllister. “It never quite makes it onto the top priority list.”
He and Ruggill officially launched their Nerddom collection in 1999 by merging their own personal video game collections into a fledgling library.
They admit that they weren’t always taken seriously at first.
“In a way, it was a very strange experience,” says Ruggill. “We had a colleague over in what was then the Department of Media Arts[who]was studying pornography, and somehow that was more socially acceptable than games.”
Academic attitudes have evolved significantly since then.
According to Ruggill, UA now offers three different game-related majors, and the research opportunities in this area are nearly limitless. Video games can be used to explore questions related to psychology, physiology, education, geopolitics, art, economics, marketing, engineering, technological advances, and cultural change.
Simply put, “There are many, many reasons to have an archive,” says Ruggill.
But browsing the collection is more than just an academic exercise. A sense of nostalgia is almost inevitable, even for the men who assembled it.
It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of what they’ve built, says Ruggill: “To see people being transported by things here.”
And new stuff is being added all the time – so much of it these days it’s hard to keep up, especially with COVID restrictions on staffing.
The archive relies heavily on a team of interns, most of them UA students, to help document new arrivals, repair equipment, update the database, curate exhibits, and send out loans to other researchers around the world .
Your assistants are between 11 and 60 years old. Multilingual interns are particularly helpful when it comes to cataloging objects with foreign titles that would otherwise be impossible to file and retrieve.
Right now, however, several file drawers full of fresh artifacts are waiting to be processed.
McAllister says “accidental donations” make up most of the backlog. “It’s not uncommon for us to come into the archives and discover a hefty bag full of random things with no attribution whatsoever. You know, maybe just[anotethatsays’Ithoughtyoumightwantthat'”hesays
Occasionally they get a request for an item they don’t already have, so look it up at a collector or on eBay.
“We have a tiny little acquisition budget, and if it’s important enough, we’ll buy it. But that’s pretty unusual,” says McAllister.
They also try to keep duplicate items on hand so they can fix or replace things that wear out or break during use.
They’re also not particularly picky about submissions.
Last week, on his way to work, Ruggill fished some Playstation games out of his neighbor’s garbage heap and brought them with him.
“We take a random approach to collecting because we’re so interested in everything,” he says.
That much is clear.
On a shelf is a kid-friendly Singer sewing machine that came with a Gameboy so users could type words on the screen and have them sewn onto fabric. On another shelf is a vibrating device only sold in Japan that could turn a popular music-based shooting game into something more, erm, more stimulating.
There are boxes of floppy disks that are actually floppy disks, and stacks of cassette tapes that play computer games instead of tunes.
Quality Guitar Hero controllers and Rock Band drum kits are tucked away in instrument cases you might expect to find on a real rock band’s tour bus.
An entire bookshelf is devoted solely to strategy guides, including some hardcovers that span hundreds of pages.
“That’s another fun thing about games: people who need or want help,” says Ruggill.
The archive also collects glossy trade displays aimed at arcade owners, kits designed to convert old arcade cabinets into newer titles, and showcases filled with tokens, collectibles, expired game themes, and original artwork for both amateurs as well as for professionals.
Even pirate copies have ended up in the collection.
Ruggill says a filmmaker from China once visited the archives and gave them the battered yellow game cartridge he and friends would have passed back and forth as children. It contains knockoff versions of 21 popular Japanese games, all of which are still playable.
Not to be outdone, McAllister reaches into a nearby filing drawer and pulls out several clones of 1980s Nintendo handheld electronic games with Cyrillic script on them. He says the games were reverse engineered and then mass-produced by the former Soviet Union, which had no intellectual property deals with Japan at the time.
Although physical items make up the bulk of the collection, the archive also maintains a server filled with thousands of software and other purely digital relics.
McAllister and Ruggill could never hope to try everything, but they still try to make time for games when they’re not attending to their administrative duties.
In addition to managing the archive, McAllister is associate dean for research and program innovation at the College of Humanities, while Ruggill is founding director of UA’s Department of Public and Applied Humanities.
Playing is part of Ruggill’s job.
“I try to play regularly, just not at the level I was able to before,” he says. “It’s really hard to talk about the medium if you’re not involved.”