Archaeologists are obsessed with dates, or, perhaps more accurately, chronologies. What came before? What came later. What did that period of transition look like? How did that transition compare with a similar one that happened elsewhere, and earlier? What can we find to help us date an archaeological site? The soil strata? A coin? An inscription? Pieces of pottery?
For establishing a chronology, it’s the pottery. Archaeologists have found tons and tons and tons of sherds from all different kinds of pots, and have studied the clays used to make the pottery, the fineness or coarseness of that clay, the technology used to make the pot (hand- or wheel-made), the firing of the pots, their shapes, what they were found with, and over many years, archaeologists have a very good idea of how to assign at least a preliminary date to a site. That chronology established by pottery needs a naming system.
Take a look at Greek prehistory for a moment, and more specifically, the Aegean Bronze Age (about 2800 to about 1060 BCE). This Age is subdivided into three parts: Early Helladic (2800-2100), Middle Helladic (2100-1550), and Late Helladic (1550-1060). Early and Late Helladic periods are further subdivided into three parts each. And then a few of these subdivisions are further subdivided so that when a scholar reads about a site from the LHIIIB2 period, s/he knows that it’s dealing with a 40-year span.
So what do these pots look like? How did they change from period to period to period in the same place? Consider the amphora, a clay vessel for carrying liquid, typically wine or olive oil. Here is an Early Helladic example from Olympia:
And here is an LHIIIC amphora also from Olympia, about 1,000 years later:
The shapes and function are similar, but the technology of the pot’s creation has changed. The ancient Olympians were satisfied with what the amphora could do, but they continued to improve upon how that function was delivered. The clay is finer. The pot is decorated. It even has handles. The original functionality and design was modded.
We can apply the same observations to video games within the same series. We can first do this generically by title from a single company. Take a look at Final Fantasy, first published by Square in 1987 for the NES:
Compare this with Final Fantasy IV four years later for the SNES:
And then Final Fantasy X ten years later:
As with pots, gaming technology improves. The function (in this case to tell a story and to entertain and challenge players) remains the same, but how that functionality is delivered has changed greatly. Players can tell roughly when a game is produced, typically by its graphics. The same could be said of archaeologists considering pieces of painted pottery. Test yourself. Which painted pot with a warrior scene was produced earlier?
Or this one:
If you guessed the top image, you’re right. It was pretty easy. Clunky shapes and art come earlier. Most of the time. Retro games like Eden and Minecraft are intentionally clunky. But when viewing games in a series like Final Fantasy, players can create a visual chronology based on how the game looks and how it plays, and to put it into context, what the games were actually played on.
For games in a series, developers and publishers have established their own chronologies and what to call them. While archaeologists might have LHIIIA, or Late Archaic, or Hellenistic, each qualifier representing dates of production for material made during those eras, so it goes with games. Take a look at the versioning of Final Fantasy on its Wikipedia page. Compare that with the chart of the Aegean Bronze Age here. We have names and dates. By assigning these version numbers, gamers have instant recall of the art, music, gameplay, characters, and story, and add to it the context of where (and who) they were when they played a certain iteration of the game. Versioning is tied to time, and the gamer-as-archaeologist is in a unique position to be able to travel back to when they played that game for the first time, comparing it with a very human context of playing that game later, or a later version of the game in a series. And for some players whose first experience with an established series might be Final Fantasy XIII-2, they can have that added adventure and sense of exploration by going back to the earlier games if they can find the consoles on which to play them, or by playing ports of the game onto current technology (e.g., iPhone or iPad).
And what then of crossing the streams of archaeology and gaming? What does a simple bowl look like in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? Here’s an example:
And here’s a ceramic bowl from Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind:
Both bowls are made of different materials and come from different times and places. Skyrim‘s bowl has better texturing as could be expected from the later game. And bowls in Skyrim? Diversity abounds. Over a dozen bowl types exist, likely more, made of diverse materials and decorated according to the race and region in which the bowl was found.
In playing over 200 hours on Skyrim, I have yet to find bowls out of place, carried by an NPC or other traveler from one region to the next. Perhaps this will change with the release of Elder Scrolls Online, where players in-world can leave materials from one place in another for others to find, and, in effect, corrupt the in-game pottery chronology for the unwary gaming archaeologist.
Future posts will include a pottery typology of Skyrim crockery and later for all of the Elder Scrolls games, and a look at the Etsy DIY subculture of real-world craftspeople creating vessels and clothing from the virtual world to use in this one.
Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming