(image: allgame.com)
(image: allgame.com)

Call me crazy, but I am applying to do an archaeology PhD at the University of York. Working on this Archaeogaming blog, and continuing to explore the intersection of archaeology and video games has led me to want to do this with serious, academic intent. I also want to conduct my research and writing transparently, opening my ideas and hypotheses and conclusions to the world in real-time, asking for comments, critiques, references, etc. I’m not (too) proud, and I think a project like this begs to be done out in the open. So I’m putting my Septims where my mouth is: below is my DRAFT PhD thesis proposal. It’s due on 29 September 2014, but I’m sharing it now in case anyone wants to read and lend a helping hand publicly in the Comments section. Go ahead; I invite you to be a part of this grand experiment in Open Research. And if you find an idea here that’s good enough to run with, do it. You have my permission. If I had an idea that’s worthy of borrowing, then I’m doing something right. Have fun with it. Now on to the proposal. Let me know your thoughts! (Trolls, behave.)


The focus of this proposal is derived from my deep interest in exploring the intersection of archaeology and video games, and is a blend of archaeology, media archaeology, and video game and reception studies. This nascent discipline has grown over the 2-3 years, especially at York through the recent research completed by Emily Johnson and Tara Copplestone. Mine is a different kind of dirt archaeology, and explores formally for the first time in the history of the discipline how archaeology and games interrelate and can be used for serious science as well as a tool for communication of what archaeologists do (and what archaeology is) to the gaming public.

As an archaeologist, I am interested in how the game-world is built. This includes everything from architecture to humble pots. This also includes the story of the cultures within whatever game I play. Playing World of Warcraft was extremely satisfying to me because of the wealth of lore created by the team at Blizzard (and by the fan community), and the depth of design for armor, weapons, and more. I was smitten. And when the Archaeology skill was unveiled within the Cataclysm expansion pack, I was elated. And then deflated. Mastering the skill was boring, generally recovered artifacts of little value, was repetitive, was time-consuming, but on occasion turned up something wonderful. Despite the Archaeology fail in WoW, I found it fascinating to be a part of history as the games expansion packs came out and altered the world. But now I want to dip back into pre-MMO Warcraft itself. And the archaeologist in me wants to document everything, draw conclusions, and play with pattern recognition.

Since 2012, the thing that has pinned me to my basement office chair is playing Skyrim (200 hours so far) as my first Elder Scrolls game, and then going backwards into Oblivion (no pun intended). As a “proper” archaeologist, I’m all of a sudden understanding more lore, and I must confess a preoccupation with Imperial accoutrements (pottery, armor, etc.), and how they appear in Oblivion when compared to Skyrim where the Imperials have made headway into the land of the Nords. How does the design change, and why? I do plan on playing Morrowind next, going farther back in time, exploring a new geography, trying to follow threads within the lore while at the same time observing material culture of the non-player characters (NPCs) and cultures in the game.

Surely there is a lore-master or game archivist at both Blizzard Entertainment and Bethesda Softworks. After reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde and seeing one of these as a character in the novel, I thought it was likely the case, unless the companies are relying on chat rooms and reddit, vel sim, to make sure they’ve got their story straight. After connecting with a representative at Bethesda Softworks, I was informed this was not the case, that the game developers work with online communities to get the lore correct. But what of the design of simple pots, of peasant clothes? Where do the designers go to see what came before, and how do they make decisions to carry those designs forward into the next world, or to abandon them for something new? We ask the same of ancient artisans as we study what was left behind.

When I begin playing a game like Elder Scrolls IV or V, the archaeologist and explorer in me do a couple of things. First, I do a few quests and talk to everyone in that virtual world, all of the NPCs in a village or town, to learn, learn, learn. I study. I collect. I read all those books (and in Skyrim there are hundreds). And then it’s off to the wilderness. My eye is always caught by unnatural (i.e., not nature-made) construction, so I investigate. I document.

In an MMO, I like to go off by myself to explore. I level up my characters so they are strong enough and geared enough to survive attacks and the environment, and then I go play. I dawdle inside instances (dungeons), explore every nook and cranny, loot everything I can find (shameful behavior for an archaeologist, I know), but I also do try to help my guild or pick-up-group (PUG) defeat the bosses if only to find an epic or legendary piece of gear. One of the best compliments I ever received when running around Orgrimmar was from a random player who complimented me on a vintage axe that had dropped in Karazhan. I liked it because it was old. At level 85, it’s certainly useless for me as a weapon, but I like it. I found it. And it reminds me of an earlier time.

The archaeology of games is a very real thing and deserves discussion that can include (but should go beyond) reception studies. If a game has archaeology in it, that archaeology should be discussed, critiqued. But real-world archaeological methods should also be applied in exploring how in-game cultures change between game iterations.

Background and Context

I have been an archaeologist since 1994 when I graduated with my B.A. in classical archaeology, and I have excavated in both the Old and New Worlds at ancient, modern, and even contemporary sites. Most recently I led the excavation of the “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamogordo, New Mexico as my team conducted research into the archaeology of the recent past, and of video games for the very first time in history. I have also been a lifelong gamer, beginning with the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, then moving to games for DOS and Macs, and onwards to Xbox One, Playstation 4, Wii U, and Steam for Mac and PC, not to mention casual games for mobiles and tablets.

Over the past two years I have been researching and writing about the intersection of archaeology and video games at my blog, Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com). This interest originally derived from exploring the use of MMOs as places for Latin pedagogy. I was published in the multi-author volume Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age (Trondheim Studies in Greek and Latin, 2013), and was amazed at the amount of Classical reception present in games that the other authors had noticed. This grew into a serious application of archaeological methods when gaming myself, and I became curious as to how archaeology and archaeologists are perceived by both developers and players. I also began exploring the concept of lore within game franchises, and how material culture within these gaming worlds changes over time.

The literature survey on this topic is slim-to-none when focusing on “archaeogaming” (according to Worldcat.org, nothing has yet been published with that neologism in the title/subtitle). I have read recent books on the history of video games, including Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (R. Guins, 2014), and Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (M. J. P. Wolf, 2012). I have read (and played) much of what was produced by MIT’s Games-to-Teach project. I have corresponded with Bernard Frischer regarding the Rome Reborn Project, and with Alyson Gill and her work with 3D reconstructions of ancient Greek architecture via Unity and Second Life. I follow the blogs of Tara Copplestone (Gamingarchaeo) and Martin Rundkvist (Aardvarchaeology) for their thoughts on archaeology and video games. For media archaeology, there is Jussi Parikka’s 2012 book, What is Media Archaeology? and Erkki Huhtamo’s Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011). I have read A Companion to Classical Receptions by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (2008), and am in regular contact with Prof. Monica Cyrino, an expert in Classical reception. Through this literature review, however, there is nothing yet dedicated to archaeology in (and of) video games, its reception, and its application. It is my hope to fill that lacuna with my own research. There is much to publish on the subject.

Based on my personal gaming experience, and in speaking with other archaeologists who play games, as well as with gamers who play in archaeology-rich worlds, I have created a few hypotheses to test through a more academic approach to the research: 1. archaeology is rarely the focus of video games, and if it is present in them, it is for entertainment value and/or set-dressing with little regard to “real” archaeology; 2. explorable tomb/grave/temple environments in games exist solely for the purpose of looting; 3. “significant finds” in games exist to earn players money or to enhance player skills (or curse them) via magic; 4. even though most games set in vast virtual worlds were never intended to be used archaeologically, “real” archaeology can be conducted within them and can provide data and even new methods to use in the real world.

Research Questions

How is archaeology and how are archaeologists expressly used in video games, and how are they received by real-world players, non-player characters, and game developers? How can traditional archaeological methods be applied within gaming environments to produce data and conclusions on material culture as presented and used in-world?

Research Objectives

  1. To summarize the history of archaeology/archaeologists within video games.
  2. To define the current reception of archaeology/archaeologists by game developers and by the general gaming community.
  3. To demonstrate that one can conduct real archaeology in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and virtual worlds.
  4. To detail the history and current state of numismatics in video games by applying numismatic methods used for “real world” currency to coinage used in-game.
  5. To explore the diversity of pottery types, use, and context within major MMOs, specifically Elder Scrolls.
  6. To explore and define the roles of lore and history of antiquarianism in major MMOs, specifically World of Warcraft.
  7. To explore and define the history and culture of looting and destroying cultural heritage in video games, and to arrive at a proposal of how archaeologists can lobby the gaming industry to mitigate the looting culture it promotes.
  8. To explore and define serious games that are used for crowdsourcing archaeological projects, and the gamification of archaeology in the real world.
  9. To present a case study of the archaeology of video games in the real world, specifically with the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
  10. To determine if (and how) games advance archaeology (including 3D modeling and data management).


The study will require:

  • Immersive game-play-as-research in MMOs and current/legacy standalone games (i.e., primary sources) to conduct in-game archaeology
  • Creation of new and use of traditional archaeological methods and theory (i.e., secondary sources) for documentation in gaming environments
  • Frequent use of online gaming communities and wikis for the purposes of dialogue and research into lore and modding
  • Creation of various databases/wikis to record and openly pre-publish data
  • Creation/distribution of surveys and the use of social media to solicit responses
  • Communication with (and/or visits to) game developers in the US and UK to discuss archaeological elements and stories in games, as well as the predominance of looting and destruction of cultural heritage and what might be done about it
  • Communication with other archaeologists who self-identify as gamers to get their thoughts on conducting archaeology in games, and what might be applicable to real world archaeology as a result of these in-game explorations and data collection
  • Use of scholarly literature both in print and online in peer reviewed and popular works as well as blogs on gaming and various types of archaeology.

With every game I explore, I will document my work with screen captures, video capture, and synthetic text. I would like to post all of my work as-it-happens for two reasons: 1. to let the online community comment on my work and suggest corrections and additions as I write, as a kind of pre-publication peer review, and 2. to stake my claim publicly to this initial foray into archaeogaming as serious archaeology. I would also like to present my preliminary research and findings in articles and at conferences for additional feedback prior to submitting the doctoral thesis for committee review in anticipation of my viva.

Scope of and Limits to the Research

The scope of this PhD proposal will begin with the history of archaeology in video games created for second generation home consoles which began to be produced and sold in 1976, and will continue into the current time with popular MMOs such as Elder Scrolls Online and Destiny. Many games will be evaluated together as discrete series (e.g., Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Uncharted) specifically to explore how lore changes, and how the material culture within these games changes (or doesn’t) between numbered games in a series, and their expansion packs. For this thesis, I will restrict myself to playing/studying games created for the English-speaking market, and will focus most heavily on MMOs and large virtual worlds rich in lore, artifacts, art, and architecture.

It is likely that over the course of refining this proposal with my supervisor that the ten research objectives will be refined to five or even three. I might also have limited access to legacy gaming hardware and video games, although I can arrange to visit the Strong Museum of Play and the Computer History Museum and other video game archives, or can purchase what I need via auction websites. It is also possible to find many games on “abandonware” sites or as Java-enabled emulators online. A massive project like this one is potentially without end, so it may be that I focus on two or three case studies for current archaeological reception and practice in popular console games.


I expect this project to take a little more than three years to research and write, starting upon acceptance, perhaps as early as January 2015. From my work as a publisher of classical archaeology, I understand that deadlines always move around, and things can take 33%-50% longer than anticipated. I also know myself, however, and have been disciplined enough to write novels and conduct independent research nearly every night for the past five years. I am confident in my ability to follow through, and am also so enamored of this topic as to want to spend as much time with it as possible.

January-May 2015 – literature survey on media archaeology, reception studies, and video game studies, as well as the histories of lore in massive gaming franchises

May-September 2015 – survey of archaeology and archaeologists as portrayed both directly and indirectly in video games past and present

October 2015-March 2016 – conduct “real” archaeology and document the looting culture in several contemporary video games

April-June 2016 – conduct surveys of online gaming communities and game developers regarding the reception of archaeology/archaeologists in games; contact/visit game developers to discuss reception and looting culture

July-September 2016 – explore serious games and gamification of archaeological research

October-December 2016 – write up the archaeology and methods used in the Atari Burial Ground excavation as a crossover from archaeology *in* video games to the archaeology *of* video games

January-March 2017 – develop and present preliminary findings and analysis

April-September 2017 – first draft

October-March 2017 – final draft

*It may be that the timeline is changed so that I write a draft chapter after completing a research objective, saving the authoring of the conclusions chapter for the end of my primary research.


Clack, T. and M. Brittain (eds) (2007), Archaeology and the Media, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

Copplestone, T., Gamingarchaeo (taracopplestone.co.uk).

Frischer, B. et al. (eds) (2008), Rome Reborn, ACM Digital Library, New York.

Gill, A. (2009), ‘Digitzing the Past: Charting New Courses in the Modeling of Virtual Landscape’ in Visual Resources, Vol 25 (4), pp. 313-332.

Guins, R. (2014), Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Hardwick, L. and C. Stray (eds) (2008), A Companion to Classical Receptions, Blackwell, Oxford.

Huhtamo, E. (2011), Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Johnson, E., Archaeology, Academia and Access (ejarchaeology.wordpress.com).

Lee, L. (ed), Abandonware Ring, (abandonwarering.com).

McCall, J. (2011), Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History, Routledge, New York.

Parikka, J. (2012), What is Media Archaeology?, Polity Press, Cambridge (UK).

Parikka, J., Machinology, (jussiparikka.net).

Reinhard, A. Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com).

Rundkvist, M., Aardvarchaeology (scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology)

Schreibman et al. (eds) (2004), A Companion to Digital Humanities, Blackwell, Malden.

Thorsen, T. (ed.) (2013), Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age, Akademika, Trondheim.

Watrall, E. (ed.), Play the Past (playthepast.org).

Wolf, M. J. P. (2012), Before the Crash: Early Video Game History, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Wolf, M. J. P. and B. Perron (2014), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, Routledge, New York.


  1. Love this idea- it must happen! Good Luck! I literally wrote a paper about this and why popular video game archaeology can be leveraged to raise interest in archaeology and improve our education strategies. I’m happy to see you’re interested in doing this topic.

    I was recently asked to do a review of archaeology video games for a peer-reviewed journal- would you potentially be interested in co-authoring it?

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