The nature of video games and other software is that they will eventually be rendered obsolete. However, today you can resurrect even old software with relative ease. Unfortunately, the law is not necessarily on your side if you choose to do this.
Emulation is the process by which a computer of any kind is convinced from a software standpoint to believe that it is another computer and behave accordingly. Computers of all varieties have been emulated, with more advanced computers being able to run the software of earlier models. When one type of system emulates another, the original hardware’s operations are simulated perfectly instead of merely being imitated.
What Systems Can Be Emulated?
Literally any kind of system can be emulated, provided the programmer has specific details about the system to be emulated. This generally requires hardware schematics and a deep understanding of the code that forms the basis of the hardware’s operating system. The less complicated an emulated device is, the easier it is to emulate that device’s operation.
Typically, the systems that are emulated are classic video game systems such as the Amiga, the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo. However, any kind of classic computer regardless of its original function can be emulated, and most types of systems have at least one emulator devoted to them.
What Systems Do Emulators Work On?
An emulator can be programmed for any kind of system. So long as the CPU is sufficiently fast to accurately model the original hardware’s operation, any more advanced computerized device can emulate a less advanced device. With emulation, the limitations are primarily the imagination of the developer as well as his or her skill level in bringing an emulator to the device itself.
For example, many early emulators were only available on personal computers. However, as time went on more emulators became available for second, third and fourth generation console game systems such as the various Play-Stations. Over time, even T-mobile cell phones and tablet PCs became the hosts of emulators. Literally any kind of computerized device can theoretically host an emulator.
Why is Emulation Valuable?
Emulation carries value for two main reasons. For one, there is considerable value in nostalgia. The second reason is because video games are now recognized as an art form, in the same way as works of music and literature are. Thus, preserving video games is useful for historians and for amateur history buffs.
Emulation preserves games that hearken back to a bygone age. While it is easy to wax nostalgic about the history of anything, for many people the emotional connection to their favorite childhood games is a strong one. This is why companies such as Nintendo will frequently re-release games from an older console on a new one. The market for such games still exists among older gamers, and it can be created anew in younger gamers who will experience such games for the first time.
As well, a game that is not preserved will tend not to last very long. Since many games carry historical value, even as cautionary tales, keeping the games around is useful.
Why is This Even Necessary?
There are two main reasons why preserving games through emulation is necessary. The first reason is a physical one, while the second is a stylistic one. Both have some degree of validity to them.
Video games have traditionally been stored on magnetic media. Magnetic media such as cartridges have a relatively short shelf life, typically measured at around 10 years. After this time, the medium begins to demagnetize and the code can become too corrupted to be readable. The games may not only be unplayable, but may have nothing but the physical console and corrupt cartridges to point out that it ever existed at all.
The second reason why emulation is necessary is a stylistic complaint many gamers posit with game companies. Namely, many games that are re-released on new systems have been changed from their original form. While updating the graphic and sound quality and adding extra content is fine from the perspective of a new experience, genuine nostalgia demands authenticity.
Is Emulation Legal?
In a sense, emulation is legal in some countries if one owns an original copy of the game and system. However, the legality of emulation is a complicated matter. Lawyers love to charge money to debate issues, so the debate on the legality of emulation is a hot contest.
Why Does the Law Care About Emulation?
There is a lot of money on the line when classic games are concerned. On the one hand, there are consumers who desire a pure experience or to play a game for free. On the other hand, there are game companies that will own the intellectual property on games for 75 years after the original date of publication. Since many games’ original media will have long since broken down by that time, this creates tension.
Why is There a Gray Area?
The fact of the matter is, anyone who wants to play emulated games can find the necessary software to do so. As well, plenty of individuals who use emulators do own copies of the original games, and are only using emulation to avoid damaging the games or because their original copies no longer work. As well, often outdated intellectual property is not re-released and is not a question of denying a company its rightful profits.
Will Emulation Eventually Be Allowed By Law?
The saying goes that history is written by the victors. In time, emulation of extremely old games will be legal because eventually copyrights will lapse. As well, there will come a time when governments realize that preserving games is preserving a part of our global and societal heritage, much like preserving works of literature and music is. In time, even game companies may eventually be persuaded to loosen their hold over their old intellectual property.
The process of emulation is a complex one. However, the legal process of emulated games is an even more complicated matter.
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