No, I didn’t misspell “morality”.
Some people are probably wondering why this is a topic. After all, since emulation is just running a bunch of code, wouldn’t that just be an issue of storing the code somewhere? As long as one copy of the code survives in this world, it’ll be good right? Games are immortal since as long as there’s one copy left, the game lives.
However, having one copy surviving is an issue. If there is really only one copy left, if anything happens to that hard drive that stores the game, that game is dead. Gone. Nothing left of it except maybe a record on Wikipedia. Thus, storing them online, in a cloud, is probably a good idea.
But who in the world will be willing to maintain the servers and pay for it to store old games? Especially if the person in question has no feelings whatsoever about the games. For example, does anyone here cares about this Atari 2600 game called Centipede? It’s quite unlikely. Ten years from now, no one probably would’ve cared about games such as Metroid Fusion and Kirby & the Amazing Mirror, and those are genuinely fun games that’s pretty hard to buy now! Not to mention, with some game companies being rather trigger-happy with cease-and-desist letters, lawyer letters may just remove the files for good.
Aside from that, if for some reason the emulator program doesn’t work with the newest OS, having a copy of the code doesn’t matter since you can’t run it anymore. The only way out is for someone to update the emulator, or write a new one that can be run by newer devices. But just like the issue with no one being interested enough to maintain copies of old games, who will have enough interest to ensure that emulators for old consoles still work? Aside from that, keeping a program constantly updated for newer systems is much more work than merely maintaining a copy of a piece of code.
And there is a reason why this is important. Old games are the legacy of gaming. They are a record of mistakes, triumphs, blunders and ingenuity. We can see how game devs make the best out of what they have and deliver experiences that never ages, and how they made something that seemed good at the time but ended up being outdated a few weeks after launch. Old films are kept as records for film students to learn from. Old books teach literature students the beauty of words. Old games are what that is going to educate current and future game developers on the beauty of games, and build up the stairway that allows them to scale new heights.
And remasters do not cut it. The original, warts and all, serves as a better teaching tool since it also reflects the culture and technology of its era. Every single new texture or gameplay tweak ruins the value of having the old game in the first place. And considering the lifespan of hardware, emulation is going to be the best we can get. And relying on companies to decide what to update and maintain does not work here, since common business practice will advice them to only remake or sell the most popular games of its time. The value of having the full library, with its gems and trash, is that mistakes are as good a teacher as successes. And who is to say that a game that only sold decently well doesn’t have a good lesson for developers?
There is value in emulation. But I don’t know if there are enough people that appreciate it. And whether there are enough people among them with the means to keep it alive.