I attended the conference, Challenge the Past, Diversify the Future (#ctp2015), at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, from March 19-21, and presented my shortest-titled paper ever: “Archaeogaming”. The intent over the 30 minutes was to present a history of my thinking into this emerging subdiscipline of archaeology, and how my thinking has changed over time about the archaeology in (and of) video games. I have written about much of this theory here on the blog, but I wanted to focus on where my thinking has led me now. But first, a quick recap:
1. When I first thought about archaeogaming, I was mostly interested in the reception of archaeology and archaeologists by game developers and gamers, and to get the impression of other archaeologists on how they are portrayed in games. This really is the low-hanging fruit, but is valid to archaeology as we consider how to use our portrayal to create a dialogue with a gaming public.
2. I then thought about archaeology of video games, merging “dirt archaeology” with media archaeology to synthesize how we excavate and what we can learn from hardware, cartridges, and other game materials recovered in the real world. The case in point is of course the excavation of the Atari Burial Ground, but there are also other, newer examples of finding Gameboy material in the Midlands of the United Kingdom, or a Playstation controller in the woods behind my house. What do we learn about our media culture and history of use from these artifacts? In what context were they found?
3. I also thought of conducting archaeology within video games, and became curious as to what new methods and tools would need to be developed for this kind of science. This split into two parts, the first being actually surveying and possibly digging in alien worlds created by developers in either a static way (such as open world MMOs), or in a procedural way (using code to generate worlds and culture on the fly). That got me to thinking about what constitutes an artifact in a game, and what does it mean to treat the game itself as a relic?
Starting with the obvious, archaeologists who explore gaming environments are guilty of thinking like archaeologists. We perform this kind of role-play where we’re archaeologists who choose to play archaeologists, and explore the space to find artifacts, to examine and record these, and to consider their context, design, and function. Creating a pottery typology within Skyrim is a good example of this. Taken at this level, this study takes a look at how material culture translates into immaterial spaces. It can also serve as a kind of field school or training environment for new archaeologists, a virtual sim of actual practice.
To me, there is another, deeper level, and to reach that level, one needs to stop thinking like an archaeologist and instead consider the game from the outside looking in, perhaps as how a computer might see the game-world, where real-world physics has no bearing on the game’s code and appearance, where north and south and up and down make no difference. Going one step beyond that, one must consider the nature of a game artifact. In this case, it is not a dish or a sword at all. It is instead a glitch, perhaps in the software, or perhaps in the software as it relates to the hardware on which the game is played. Random lines on a screen, visual anomalies, and outright bugs all qualify as artifacts by this definition. And like real-world artifacts, these are found in discrete places and for a finite amount of time before they are either fixed or masked or removed by developers.
With this, we get into the realm of philosophy of the archaeology of video games as the gaming archaeologist considers what these artifacts tell us. Are we looking at human or machine error? Can we observe a game-world without considering the nature of its maker? Or by recording artifacts in games, can that tell us anything about the nature of creation based on the game’s design and flaws? Are these artifacts preserved, or are they just whitewashed over after being reported by the gaming community?
I don’t have answers as I continue to explore what archaeogaming is and what it can be, and of course all of the above begs the dreaded “so what?” comment/question. I would argue that the archaeology conducted within and upon video games can tell us much about humanity, but also about how machines interpret the instructions they are given to render playspaces. How can math create culture, or can it even? What happens to these cultural spaces in games over time, and is time accelerated therein? Does player interaction and observation interfere with how procedural gaming worlds evolve? I don’t know, but hope to begin to find out.
After I delivered the paper, I took questions from the audience, but was expecting criticism, skepticism, and doubt. I even waited to be taken aside afterwards and either dressed down or seriously questioned, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, people found me to give me suggestions for further study and research. One delegate said that there is an online museum full of artifacts from Diablo II that were only available in the game for a short period of time. Another delegate told me about an real-time event in Eve that disabled starships and left a graveyard for others to explore as a period of game history that bridges both the real and virtual worlds. This kind of blending is becoming more and more frequent, confusing the definition of what reality is.
NB: Archaeologists are a skeptical lot, and I continue to hope that one or more of my colleagues and peers will ask some really difficult questions and give some tough love to the concept of archaeology within video games. In fact, I invite all readers to ask questions in the Comments area for this post, so we can better define what archaeogaming is while attempting to prove its usefulness within the grand scheme of things.
Click here to download the slide deck for my presentation, which I am making available under the CC0 license. As I have said many times before, any idea that I have and mention in a public forum immediately ceases to become my idea and belongs to the world. Hopefully some of you will see a slide or will take away a thought that you can run with and explore better than I can. Take it; it’s yours. There’s certainly more than enough for us all to play with.
For a full reporting of the conference, read Tara Copplestone’s excellent write-up here. I would also like to thank Tara for pushing me to blog more on archaeogaming here, as she writes about the subject on her blog. The more we write and talk as a community, the better we can define and defend what it is we’re doing.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming