On Emulation

Emulation (noun) reproduction of the function or action of a different computer, software system, etc.

Something that's easy to overlook is how much history ultimately fades away. When you engage with media from past eras in history, you generally will not have the same experience or interpretation of that media as you would if you had lived during that time. You're missing the context, the environment, the circumstances. You will never be able to attend a 1960s drive-in theater, only imitations of 1960s drive-in theaters. Those imitations can certainly replicate the experience very well – but some component of it will always be lacking. You can never truly experience it as it would be experienced during its time.

Software, however, seems to have a bit of an advantage in this regard. It is not perfect – as an example, one could argue that you are not “truly” experiencing Commodore 64 gaming unless you're playing on a CRT screen. One could also argue that the act of blowing on cartridges in a Sega Genesis is fundamental to understanding the experience of owning and playing one. It is also true that unique quirks of the hardware (displays especially) can be integral to the experience of certain software, and not all emulators are going to recreate these kinds of quirks – especially when you're emulating it on fundamentally different hardware. And perhaps most obviously, it's a lot harder to replicate and preserve anything that depends on an Internet connection to function. But regardless of these details, software has two main qualities that give it this advantage in terms of preservation:

It is important to consider that software's core purpose, its experience, comes from its interactivity. The story and gameplay of A Link To The Past is still conveyed perfectly even if you're playing it in the wrong aspect ratio with bilinear filtering on a mobile phone emulator (please don't actually play A Link To The Past like this if you can help it). The game reacts to the player's actions, and that becomes the experience of playing it. While it is often impractical for us to maintain and use the old hardware, we are able to preserve and update its software in amazing ways – ways that preserve the fundamental experience of the creation even despite the increasing impracticality and scarcity of its original incarnations, and allow us to study and analyze it to an unprecedented degree.

But not only is software interactive, it is also deterministic. If a computer system is given a certain set of inputs, as long as everything is working as it should be, you will get the same outputs. This means that as long as we know how to crunch the numbers, as long as we know how to logically get from point A to point B, we can accurately recreate that software's behavior.

Save states in particular are something I find philosophically fascinating. Deterministic computer programs are built with a degree of complexity and interactivity that creates a vast amount of potential experiences and outcomes – it doesn't feel deterministic because there are simply thousands upon thousands of little variables that affect whatever ultimately ends up on your screen. But underneath it all, it's still just doing exactly what the programmers and hardware engineers told it to do.

This means that, if we have a detailed understanding of all data and operations of the system, we can not only recreate the behavior of the system – but also the state of the system. It is a snapshot that includes all of the context of a given process, every component of whatever is currently being executed. You have effectively taken a cross section of reality that can be bottled up and shared. You could even record and replay these states over a given period of time – just look at DOOM demos! There's a good chance that a DOOM speedrun demo might still be watched by a random historian several centuries from now – just think about how much detail they could glean from that.

Emulation allows us to preserve a computer system's behavior, memory, storage, and states of operation. We can recreate that operation, expand upon it, modify it, study it, share it, or improve it, and in many ways we can do those things far better than the original creators could at the time. But perhaps most importantly of all, due to the simple fact that software does things, we are able to preserve (most of) the experience and behavior of using the software.

Imagine if we had detailed schematics of every mechanical machine ever built by humanity – I'm sure that would reveal a lot of important history about past civilizations and their engineering. It would provide insight into how they reached some of the conclusions that they did. It would paint a more detailed picture of what technologies they figured out, when they figured it out, and how they figured it out.

Imagine if we had detailed transcripts of nearly every conversation ever shared in a given location. Perfectly preserved lists of exactly who lived there, what their jobs and names were, and enough information about them to build a fairly detailed image of both the individual people and the culture they belong in. We would have a direct record of the things they found to be funny, whatever was culturally relevant, the identities and expressions of these people, the manner in which common folk spoke and communicated, and who knows what else.

Fact of the matter is, that is the kind of information we are already presently leaving for future historians to study. The best example we have is probably archive.org – which is a site in which you can literally pick a specific calendar date and see exactly what a given website looked like on that day. This is absolutely insane when you consider how difficult, expensive, and time-consuming it is to transfer music off of wax cylinders, or films off of old film reels. And the simple fact those things decay with time means that many of those things will never be preserved because they simply no longer exist, or we may only be able to salvage incomplete bits and pieces.

But preserving software is virtually free, and virtually effortless – the only real limitation being storage space, which is not particularly expensive in the grand scheme of things. You could learn a lot about society exclusively by looking at a BBS backup, or an IRC server log.

From this point forward, we will potentially have a near-perfect recreation of every machine we ever build (though keep in mind that intellectual property rights can and have presented obstacles for this). Every work of art that we create on our machines, and many of the experiences that we have utilizing these machines – it can be backed up, copied, and shared for little to no cost. While all hardware will eventually decay, the software lives on. As long as we make sure to keep backing shit up and archiving our data, as long as we take steps to prevent that data from being lost to a hard drive crash or abandoned in a landfill, much of our culture will be very well preserved.

Video games in particular are especially timeless. They are far more than simple time-wasters or brainless zombie murdering simulators, despite what your parents may have led you to believe. Video games have limitless potential for storytelling, for bringing people together, for teaching you things, for encouraging creativity... among plenty of other things. And for the most part, we can make it so future generations can still experience those things pretty damn close to the ways that we have. As long as video games remain a respected form of media, there will be people playing Pac-Man.

Ultimately, preservation and archival still does not happen automatically. It is still a responsibility that we, as a society, must accept and honor for ourselves if we desire for future generations to be able to study and experience it. If you care about preserving culture and history as much as I do, consider donating to organizations like archive.org or your favorite emulator developers. Consider voting for legislation that serves to benefit the consumer and our ability to preserve these things, rather than safeguarding it solely in the name of copyright.

Super Mario Bros. is already in history books, and within literal seconds you can easily find a website on the Internet where you can play Mario with an embedded emulator that works on your phone. For the rest of your life, you can experience this work of art very closely to how the artists originally intended – and hopefully this will remain true for future generations as well. It's not always going to be exactly 1-1, but we can still always experience world 1-1.