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Arcadia - Emulation and retro gaming

Emulators came very early to Linux, to run games or applications that hadn't yet come over from the other side. Emulators are important to gamers, and gaming is big business, sometimes running on old hardware, sometimes on emulators that mimic the APIs and the hardware. Collecting old hardware is a popular pastime, sometimes for the curiosity value and sometimes to evoke a memory, but it is relatively scarce.

So emulators are the best way back to the arcade games of the eighties and nineties, and the best of the arcade emulators is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME). MAME is often described as open source, but although the source code and binaries are resolutely free, for legal reasons the MAME license does not allow the code to be packaged and sold, which makes it ineligible as a free or open source software license. The purpose of this restriction is to prevent the unscrupulous from wrapping games in MAME cabinets and reselling them as original work. It also serves to protect MAME from the accusation that opening the code is equal to approving illegal activity.

Reviving the past is beset with legal hurdles. Although the software has become redundant, someone owns a copyright here, or a trademark there, and the naive coder has to beware.

MAME makes it possible to run many different operating environments in one machine. The user runs a graphical front end such as GMAMEUI, and can download ROMs, effectively game executables, from CDs or the net. Examples can be found on the MAME website. There are different rules about the legitimacy of downloading ROMs in different jurisdictions. There are also issues of data preservation for games on older media. Many copyright holders choose to waive copyright on games that may be twenty or thirty years old. Many gamers see themselves as archaeologists and archivists of the past, and a lot of gamers are avid collectors of ROM images.

Power at our fingertips

All of this may seem like pointless activity, but fun often is, and not everything has a purpose. There are other reasons why it is important to have the means to recover the programs and data of the past. The computer on our desktop was sold to us as a productivity enhancer that would improve our lives, give us power at our fingertips, improve communication, and rid us of the stiff embrace of bureaucratic control. However, as Natalie Ceeney, chief executive of the British National archives, points out, we have also lost our entitlement to our data and control of the store of our memories, our photographs, personal and business data, which is too often stored in ephemeral and proprietary data formats on short lived physical devices.

"We assume our personal records are secure, we expect our pensions to be paid, but anyone with a floppy disc even three or four years old is already having a hard time finding a computer that will open it."

Emulators written to scratch an itch or play a game may yet turn out to have a greater role in the longer term, at both the personal and the cultural level.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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