I’ve been looking at archaeogaming all wrong since 2013. Well, okay, maybe not all wrong, but today something clicked in my tiny little Pooh-sized brain. Until today, I thought that archaeogaming had three — possibly four — dimensions to it, from which descended various tendrils of possible study:
1) Archaeogaming is the study of the archaeology of video games. This is the media archaeology approach where we look at a game as the artifact. We look at the box, the manuals, the disks/cartridges. We explore its history of use on a personal level as well as at its commercial level and everywhere in between. The Atari excavation in 2013 took this idea to the most literal of extremes. From this concept, we can now study hardware and software and how they combine for gameplay. We can compare the use of gaming on physical media to downloading our content from places such as Steam. We can explore modding communities and how games change through ownership. We can explore how games change within a series, and how they affect other games in a long tradition of flattery and theft.
2) Archaeogaming is the study of archaeology in video games. This is the reception studies approach where we see how games, game developers, and gamers perceive what archaeologists are and what they do. We can explore the phenomenon of looting. We can see how games let players conduct archaeology. We can examine the tropes of popularized archaeology and how they contribute to the gameplay experience.
3) Archaeogaming is the application of archaeological methods to conducting archaeology in virtual space. This is where we do our in-game fieldwalking, our artifact-collecting, our typologies, our understanding of context, even aerial/satellite photography. Instead of studying the material culture (and non-tangible heritage) of cultures and civilizations that exist in “meatspace”, we instead study those in the immaterial world.
4) Archaeogaming is the approach to understanding how game design — done either by people directly or indirectly through the virtue of artificial intelligence and algorithms written by people — manifests everything we see in-world.
And the — dare I say — 5th dimension/element of archaeogaming? It is the entire game itself, one level deeper than actual gameplay. To explain further: many archaeologists are focused with what is under them. We dig or we dive. Gravity has drawn our collective past meters and kilometers below the surface for us to find. In a video game, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing dirt archaeology. Our avatars/toons/characters walk around. In most cases there is gravity to reckon with. Normal physics applies. Even in space games, we (as humans) learn how to orient ourselves, and immerse ourselves in these play-spaces.
What we need to do is to remove ourselves from working in a virtual space where we deal with up and down and with cardinal directions. We should go even further to suggest that there is no difference between earth and sky, that the horizon line is artificial, and that the ship we pilot is no different from the sea on which it sails. It’s all pixels and math. And when archaeogamers are able to bring themselves to this “there is no spoon” moment, I am curious to see what patterns emerge within the structure and execution of the game itself. Are there flaws (i.e., hickeys in Photoshop images are called “artifacts”)? Can we recognize the maker’s hand? And what else is at work? We have the space we can see and in which we interact, and behind that we have the dark matter of code. Behind that, the creators, or the idea of them.
When video games are taken in this perspective, as multi-sensory collections of interactive math, what deeper meaning(s) can the video game archaeologist infer? It is perhaps a new kind of archaeology in and of itself, requiring new methods and a new set of tools. This perception does not invalidate the other interpretations of archaeogaming as a subdiscipline of archaeology, but it finally lets us look at these worlds in a way that is at once completely engaging and also far removed from the literal action happening on-screen.