Archaeogaming: Reception and Application of Archaeology In Video Games

Here’s my revised PhD proposal as submitted to the University of York’s Department of Archaeology on 3 October 2014. Thanks to Lorna Richardson, Colleen Morgan, Alison Atkin, Donna Yates, and Katy Meyers for their help during the revision process.


This proposal has been developed via my deep interest in exploring the intersection of archaeology and video games from an academic perspective, pursued through a multidisciplinary approach involving traditional archaeology, media/digital archaeology, and video game and reception studies. I am interested in exploring how the game-world is built from an archaeological perspective. This includes the representation of everything from sacred and secular architecture to humble pots, and perhaps more importantly, the story of the cultures within the games which will be selected for study (and play).

For example, World of Warcraft is a fully imagined world, with a wealth of lore (detailed, often ancient history invented specifically for a game) created by the game’s developers and by the fan community. The depth of the game’s architectural design and the attention spent on designing the in-game artifacts, including armor and weapons, has yet to be equaled. Yet when the “Archaeology” skill, which allowed players to conduct surveys and excavate artifacts, was introduced in World of Warcraft, there was relatively little engagement between the players and actual archaeological practice. As the game’s expansion packs continue to be published, altering the gaming world of Azeroth, I want to document these changes archaeologically, to analyze the varied in-game artifact assemblages, and to record how virtual natural disasters and warfare have an effect on the cultural landscape.

The archaeology of virtual worlds addresses critical questions about identity, heritage, placemaking and dwelling that are broadly relevant to the discipline (Morgan and Polson 2009; Boellstorff 2008). My thesis will critically examine the previous interactions of video games and archaeology, develop a methodology for the archaeological documentation of virtual worlds, then propose an enhanced interdisciplinary framework that will bring together archaeological practice and video game development.

The Archaeology Department at the University of York has been instrumental in the development digital archaeology over the last 20 years. Recent research within digital heritage, including initiatives led by Julian Richards and Gareth Beale at the Centre for Digital Heritage, Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry’s experiments with Minecraft and media archaeology, and several video-game focused student heritage projects demonstrate the continuing leadership of the department in digital archaeology. The research outlined below would explore the history the relationship between archaeology and video games and interrogate how video games can be used to improve archaeological investigation and engagement with the public.

Background and Context

I graduated with a B.A. in classical archaeology in 1994 and an M.A. in classical archaeology in 1996, and since that time I have excavated on two continents at ancient, modern, and even contemporary sites. Most recently I led the excavation of the “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamogordo, New Mexico where my team and I conducted research into the archaeology of the recent past, and, for the first time in history, of video games. I am 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.

I began researching and writing about the intersection of archaeology and video games at my blog, Archaeogaming ( two years ago. This interest originally derived from exploring the use of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMOs) as places for Latin pedagogy. My work on the subject was published in the multi-author volume Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age (Trondheim Studies in Greek and Latin, 2013, included with my application as my writing sample), and I 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 to my own gaming, 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 the material culture of these gaming worlds changes over time.

The literature on “archaeogaming” is severely lacking—according to, nothing has yet been published with that neologism despite its growing prominence online. However, my proposed work is informed by several interdisciplinary research strands that are being developed in various areas of academia. Recent books on the history of video games include Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (Guins 2014), and Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (Wolf 2012). Also relevant to this study area is MIT’s Games-to-Teach project. Current research in combining archaeology and virtual space has been conducted by Bernard Frischer regarding the Rome Reborn Project, and Alyson Gill and her work with 3D reconstructions of ancient Greek architecture via Unity and Second Life (pers comm.). The blogs of Tara Copplestone (Gamingarchaeo) and Martin Rundkvist (Aardvarchaeology) are also influential for their thoughts on archaeology and video games. The literature for media archaeology includes Jussi Parikka’s 2012 book, What is Media Archaeology?, Erkki Huhtamo’s Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011), and A Companion to Classical Receptions by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (2008). The review of literature on both “archaeogaming” and media archaeology has identified a gap in our knowledge on archaeology in (and of) video games, its reception, and its application. The research proposed for this PhD study would begin to fill this lacuna.

Research Questions

How are archaeology-related themes, material and approaches used in video games, and how are archaeologists portrayed? How are these subjects received by real-world players, characters played by the computer (i.e., “non-player characters”), and game developers? How can traditional archaeological methods (e.g., recording, typologies, excavation, and the like) be applied within gaming environments to produce data and conclusions on material culture as presented and used in-world?

I have developed the following hypotheses through which I intend to approach research into the phenomenon “archaeogaming”:

  1. archaeology is rarely the explicit 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.

These hypotheses are derived from my personal experiences playing games as an archaeologist, as well as from what other scholars have published on the presentation of archaeology “archaeo-appeal”: archaeological theater and the use of archaeological tropes to advance a storyline (Horltof 2005).

Research Objectives*

  1. Establish a definitive history of archaeology/archaeologists within video games from the 1980s to the present.
  2. Explore the current reception of archaeology/archaeologists by game developers and by the general gaming community.
  3. Conduct real archaeology in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and virtual worlds, exploring the dissolution of the “fourth wall” between what is “real” and what is digital, playing with augmented reality via games and gaming devices (Jurgenson 2012).
  4. 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.
  5. Explore and define serious games that are used for crowdsourcing archaeological projects, and the gamification of archaeology in the real world.
  6. Determine if (and how) games advance archaeology (including 3D modeling and data management).
  7. Case study: Apply current numismatic methodology to study the history and current state of the use of coins, currency, and medals in video games.
  8. Case study: Apply current archaeological methods to examine the diversity of pottery types, use, and context within major MMOs, specifically Elder Scrolls.
  9. Case study: Explore and define the roles of lore and history of antiquarianism in major MMOs, specifically World of Warcraft.
  10. Case study: Archaeology of video games in the real world, specifically the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

*Each of the above items will be a chapter in the thesis. It may be that my supervisor recommends cutting some of these to make the project more manageable in the three years I have to complete my research and writing.


The study will require:

  • 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
  • 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 engagement with online gaming communities and wikis for the purposes of dialogue and research into lore and community-driven game modification/customization
  • Creation of various databases/wikis for recording purposes
  • Communication with (and/or visits to) game developers in the US and UK to discuss archaeological elements and stories in games
  • An ethnographic study of archaeological gamers and gamers who happen to be archaeologists.

I see this research overlapping with (and integrating) the work of various research clusters at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, namely Digital Archaeology, Historical Archaeology, and Heritage & Conservation, as well as with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies, and the Department of Computer Science (see Paul Cairn’s work on immersion in video games).

Scope of and Limits to the Research

The scope of this PhD proposal will start 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 present 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 evolves, 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, my dataset will be restricted to 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 (which is often already in ruins by design).

Regarding limitations, I might 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. With all of these resources, I am confident that I will have access to the games and hardware I need to complete the proposed project.


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 to conduct case studies on numismatics, pottery, lore, and antiquarianism

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

*Following a precedent set by Morag Kersel (PhD Cambridge 2006, cultural heritage and the legal trade of antiquities), I hope to publish each chapter of my thesis as they are written, presenting my findings at conferences in order to workshop my ideas prior to submitting my thesis for review.


Boellstorff, T. (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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

Copplestone, T., Gamingarchaeo (

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

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

Graham, S., Electric Archaeology, (

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.

Horltof, C. (2005), From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek.

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

Johnson, E., Archaeology, Academia and Access (

Jurgenson, N. (2012), “When Atoms Meet Bits: Social Media, the Mobile Web and Augmented Revolution”, Future Internet Vol 4 (1), pp. 83–91.

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

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

Morgan, C., Middle Savagery, (

Morgan, C. and D. Polson (2009), ‘The Figmentum Project: Appropriating Information and Communication Technologies to Animate our Urban Fabric’, in Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City, Information Science Reference, Hershey.

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

Parikka, J., Machinology, (

Perry, S., Savage Minds, (

Reinhard, A. Archaeogaming (

Rundkvist, M., 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 (

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. Always too late but “”The archaeology of virtual worlds addresses critical questions about identity, heritage, placemaking..” Sure? Hmm. I’d have gone with “raises”, maybe..

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