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The power of Wikipedia: How I became gaming's most popular and anonymous photographer.
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The power of Wikipedia: How I became gaming's most popular and anonymous photographer.
by Evan Amos on 10/29/13 07:13:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
I'm a very accomplished photographer.  My photos have been in magazines, newspapers, textbooks, blogs, online videos, television and any other medium that you can think of.  My work has been seen by millions and will be one of the most important resources for the history of video games.  The only catch is that I'm almost never credited and don't get paid for it.
 
Wikipedia is one of the internet’s most powerful sites, with its massive user base and high-ranking results in search engines. As a result, the photos associated with its articles quickly become some of the most-seen images on the internet. This massive visibility, however, comes at a cost: to place a photo on Wikipedia a photographer must give away all rights to the photo for free. This leads to massive exposure for your work, but at a price: you must release your rights so your photos can be used by anyone, for any purpose, without any compensation.
 
 
It’s a crazy trade off for a professional photographer, but this is exactly what I do, because my passion for video games and photography outweighs any potential financial gain. I take high-quality, hi-res photos of video game hardware and upload them to Wikipedia.  From there, these photos spread – showing up in videos, magazines, blogs, and news articles.
 
I didn’t realize this would happen when I first started taking pictures of game consoles. It all began because I was annoyed by low-quality pictures on Wikipedia: small, poorly composed and lacking consistency.  When I looked further, I found it was the same situation across the rest of the internet.  Why had no one bothered to take good pictures?  If no one else was going to do, I would do it.
 
Left - previous picture, Right - my picture
 
I made the jump from Wikipedia reader to Wikipedia contributor. Many don’t survive the experience: the rules and bureaucracy of Wikipedia’s formatting, along with the surprisingly unfriendly atmosphere new editors face, makes the learning curve steep. I made beginner’s mistakes and took hits for them, but my work started becoming more proficient and my persistence paid off: my photos began transforming Wikipedia articles.
 
At first I took photos of food items, candy bars and electronics, but I began narrowing my focus on video game systems. I started making lists of every console ever released.  Before the video game crash of 1983, there were numerous systems, many now barely remembered, with little information available.  Message boards and fansites had few details, with the same poor, low-resolution pictures. I realized that relatively recent history was being lost to time, all because the internet did not have good information and media about these game systems.  There was a need to document these systems and show people what they looked like before they’re forgotten to time.
 
The problem is access to the actual systems.  I only had a small collection of consoles to photograph, and it’s the same stuff everyone else owns: an NES, an Xbox and so on, but who the hell owns a VTech CreatiVision? Who has even heard of a Bally Astrocade?
 
 
I started contacting collectors and anyone willing to help.  I found a passionate collector on Long Island, so I lugged all my photo equipment and lights on the Long Island Railroad to his house to get the pictures I needed. After just a few hours of intense work I was able to more than double my previous collection of photos that I had taken over weeks. I found an independent games store Video Games New York that let me "rent" out the hardware they sold, as taking pictures in the store would have been impossible.  There was also James Baker, an enthusiast whose collection covered a large wall at his business.   With the assistance of just a handful of collectors I was able to document a large amount of video gaming history, with a gallery that including rare consoles like the Sega SG-1000 and the Casio Loopy.
 
Despite my progress there were still gaps, with systems and hardware too numerous and obscure to be covered by local collectors. Travel to other collectors was cost prohibitive – remember I’m doing this for free.  It wasn’t in my budget to purchase newer systems that needed photographs like the Nintendo 3DS, the PlayStation Vita and Wii U. (Plus, who wants to own a Wii U right now?) And as my process improved, I wished I had the opportunity to redo some of my earlier work. Facing these challenges my work halted.
 
 
It was during this lull that my pictures starting taking off. Gaming blogs and YouTube series about gaming began using my photos, especially the older consoles. Newspapers and magazine were using them as well. This took me by surprise, but the reasons were obvious:  because my photos are on Wikipedia they’re immediately available and usually what a person finds first when they google it.  Also, the photos are easy to reproduce – they’re direct and clear photos with white backgrounds – and they’re free so there's no need to find original owners and get permission, if they can even be tracked down. As a result, my photos were popular and being used around the world.
 
However, even if my photos were being used often in numerous places, it was usually without credit.  It's even happened on this site.  Maybe it's because the pictures are free, or maybe it's because of the nature of the internet.  Either way, I've come to terms with it if; I'm just happy that the work is being seen and used.
 
Even without accreditation, people found me on my Wikimedia page.  I would get the occasional thanks for my photos, like the one of the Vectrex system (an obscure flop).  I begin to realize this was less about the quality of my work and more about saving and sharing the history of gaming. It turns out that my video game gallery is a valuable resource of gaming information: one central location, easily found through a web search, with consistent and complementary high-quality images available to all for free.
 
 
I wanted to continue and expand my work with new ideas: more pictures from different angles, motherboard shots, videos and detailed descriptions. Yet the same problems remained: access to systems and money, but I now understood that there was a community of gaming fans that appreciated this work and could help close the gaps. I started a Kickstarter to appeal to the gaming community and ask for their help in transforming my current gallery of pictures into an expanded and in-depth site tailored to gaming history's needs. The funding would allow me to purchase old and obscure system and spend the time to document them in the detail they deserve.
 
There is a huge need for this.  There is no one else trying to provide this service at this level, at this quality, at this reach (Wikipedia) and in a format (public domain) that will ensure that these photos will last for decades from now.  The work that I've already created and its impact thus far is a testament to the importance of the project.  These are the reasons why I do this work, and why I do it for free.
 
Please take a look at my existing gallery and watch my Kickstarter video.  If this stuff appeals to you and you want to see more, consider donating some money.  There's only a week left to donate, so there's little time to waste.  Some might see this work as madness: hundreds of unpaid hours seeking out and photographing gaming systems that have been lost to time.  But my work and my Kickstarter aren’t for them.  Instead it’s for the guy who would consider traveling 8 hours round trip just to visit a retro game convention or would take apart an NES controller just to see what’s inside. I admit it’s a little crazy – but I don’t think I’m alone.

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Comments


Sjors Jansen
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First of all, thanks for taking the pictures :)

I was wondering about one thing though:
"to place a photo on Wikipedia a photographer must give away all rights to the photo for free."

Is that true?
What about all the Creative Commons licenses? Like here for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mottled_Owl.jpg

Those have a lot of options and could restrict people to having to provide credit, or your photo's being re-used only for non commercial work for instance.
From the post it seems like wikipedia provides you with only black & white options.

Or do these not hold up in court? And thus have little to enforce them?
Or do you find they provide you with too little exposure?

Christian Nutt
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Well, that's a "free" license.

You have to be pretty forgiving with your license for Wiki to use it. I remember someone approaching me about changing my license on a Flickr photo I'd uploaded so they could use it for a wiki page (I said sure, and changed that photo's license.)

Evan Amos
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Wikimedia has Creative Commons licensing, but the kicker is that it has to be cleared for commercial use. It won't allow the more photographer-friendly "non-commercial" use CC license, which is the big reason many photographers won't upload to the site. There's a lot of people who want this changed, but I don't think Wikimedia will ever do it.

Evan Amos
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Also, I have used CC licenses on some of my photos, but it's been my experience that most people still disregard the credit or license aspect. Even major publications who should know better use images without credit.

Sjors Jansen
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Right, that makes sense, thanks! I wrongly assumed the non commercial license was useable. Wow, that's.. not great.
Yeah, I doubt they'll change it. It has apparently been working out.

I've also heard some complaints from a couple of photographers who get their pictures uploaded from flickr by either a bot or wikipedia users that don't bother asking. (Though I think flickr or similar websites used to have some weird licensing thing going on as well, something like only old or low res pictures were automatically cc-by-sa. So maybe it was partially the photographers who didn't bother reading all the walls 'o text.)

Not providing credit is really crappy, been there myself with the latest deus ex & tombraider for instance. Well.. as long as it's digital you could stick your credentials in the meta info of your images. It's not much and somebody might remove it, but it's something.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Just last night I was looking up pictures of the Commodore 64 on wikipedia and after going back to check the sources, the best ones were your pictures. I definitely remember seeing really bad images in the past and it's great knowing that someone has put this kind of effort into preserving a neglected part of game history, the actual hardware. Thanks for all the work you've put into this.

Carlos Garcia
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While I've been seeing (and probably using) those pictures for a while, I never stopped to think about the person who spent the time and effort to illustrate all those articles. After reading your article I know that you are doing a very noble labour. I hope you achieve the funding goal. Meanwhile I'll share your Kickstarter with all the gamers and aficionados I know.

Michael Joseph
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all this time I thought it was the magic Wikipedia gnomes providing the photographs. This article is not unlike discovering that [SPOILER] my mom is the Tooth Fairy![/SPOILER]

Brenton Haerr
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Thank you for your contribution to the hobby--it really does make a huge difference having your quality work there when crawling through the interweb archives. I hope your project gets funded.

Katy Smith
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Nice work! Your pictures really do make a difference in preserving video game history.

Mike Kasprzak
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Thank you!

Ryan Christensen
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Well you are definitely the opposite of a non contributing zero, thanks for taking the time.

Chris Clogg
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Great article!

I'd be really interested in knowing how you setup the lighting and the white background... :)

(lighting is a subject I find very fascinating)

Paul Marzagalli
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Let me just add my thanks to the mix, Evan. History and preservation of the video game artform are important, often neglected, tasks and you've done a great service. Props, good sir!

Jeanne Burch
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Thanks for posting here. I teach gaming students, and I expect your online museum will become a valuable resource for me. You have my support on the Kickstarter as well :)

Daniel Wilhelmsen
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Great article. I love reading about computer and video game history and as a result, I've seen plenty of your photographs. Great work.

Quick note: the Bally Astrocade link is broken. It href has both http and https, leading to a 404.

Alexandre Giesbrecht
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I have been contributing to the Portuguese Wikipedia for about six years, and uploaded about 40 pics, mainly of Brazilian train stations and places in São Paulo; nothing as eye-catching as videogame pics and definitely not with this level of professionalism, but a few of them have been used in other languages.

As you state, also a few of them have been used elsewhere, with and without credits. I find the non-credit thing a little odd, considering that the only thing that is asked is the credit. But I have noticed that lately credits have been more frequent.

One curious case that happened to me: My father runs a website listing every train station in Brazil. Some of the pictures are mine, including one that I took with my cell phone in 2005. Some years later, I found it on Wikipedia, with another person listing it as public domain (not even Creative Commons!). I managed to have it credited to me (it was rather easy proving I had taken it, since I had the "full resolution" — 640×480! hehehehehehe — and it was credited to me on my father's website) and left it as public domain anyway. Heck, it's not even suitable for print! It just depicted a situation that doesn't happen at the station anymore.


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