Archaeogaming at the Society for Historical Archaeology: A Response


Point Lookout, Maryland, as seen in the Fallout 3 add-on. (source:

The 50th anniversary conference for the Society of Historical Archaeology was held from January 4–8, 2017, in Fort Worth, Texas. Archaeogaming featured in two sessions. L. Meghan Dennis (University of York) spoke on “Unethical Pasts, Uncertain Presents, and Potential Futures: The Evolution of Archaeological Representation in Video Games” as part of the general session on advances in archaeological method and theory. The placement of her work in the context of others doing real-world archaeology is supremely important, and marks yet another milestone in archaeogaming, breaking down boundaries to achieve equivalence within the general archaeological community.

There was also an organized session on archaeogaming, “Archaeogaming: A New Frontier in Public Archaeology,” co-sponsored by C. J. Idol of the Kömer’s Folly Foundation, and Katherine D. Thomas of Helix Environmental Services. The organizers invited me to introduce the concepts of archaeogaming to a general audience, which I based on the map I created (with design help from Shawn Graham). Other papers presented were on Assassin’s Creed and using the series to interact with the past (Idol), Mass Effect and a future for archaeology via its NPC Liara T’Soni (Thomas with Diana L. Johnson), and the representations and apologies for looting in both the Tomb Raider and Uncharted series (Thomas). Not presented was a paper on a non-archaeologist’s “enlightenment” on using video games as a way to better understand archaeology (Cory Fogg, International Society of Automation).

Following the program were two invited discussants, Prof. Julia King of St. Mary’s College of Maryland (anthropology), and Prof. Charles Ewen of East Carolina University (anthropology). King discovered archaeogaming by accident through finding a representation of Point Lookout, Maryland, in and add-on for Fallout 3. She graciously gave me permission to reproduce her discussant’s remarks here:

Discussant’s Remarks on the Session, “Archaeogaming: A New Frontier in Public Archaeology”
Julia A. King, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I had the opportunity to serve as the discussant on an archaeogaming session at the recent Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The session, “Archaeogaming: A New Frontier in Public Archaeology,” was organized by C.J. Idol and Katherine Thomas and included four presentations, including by Idol, Thomas, Andrew Reinhard, and Diana L. Johnson. I was asked to serve as one of two discussants because, last year at this time, I happened to show a slide from the role-playing post-apocalyptic video game, Fallout during my SHA paper presentation in Washington, DC. Fallout is a video game that has as one of its add-ons, Point Lookout, a real landscape in Maryland located where the Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Today a state park, Point Lookout had served as a hospital for the Army of the Potomac and a prison for captured Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. I had completed a study of the Point Lookout landscape and a colleague, Scott Strickland, had told me about Fallout and the Point Lookout add-on. The representation of the post-nuclear war Point Lookout landscape in Fallout drew on some interesting facts about the landscape there, developed by someone with a dark humor and understanding about Point Lookout today (King 2012). While I never played the Fallout game, I was hooked on the idea of videogaming as a way by which some people experience landscape, and how this particular game may have operated to imbue a place like Point Lookout with meaning, especially for people like my students.

The SHA session also reminded me of Janet Murray’s book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Murray 1998), a gem of a book now almost 20 years old. Murray received her Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard in 1974, having saved to pay her way through school as a systems programmer at IBM. She became interested in the potential of immersive digital learning environments to alter – radically to hear her tell it – how we tell stories. Just like the fabled holodeck in Star Trek, videogames offered endless possibilities for changing vantage points, altering plot lines, or remaking outcomes. Cybernarrative, Murray argued in her book, had the power to be transformative; perhaps as transformative as when the printing press changed the nature of oral storytelling. The source of this transformation? She finds it in the potential for interactivity.

Many critics have concluded that Murray’s predictions of revolutionary narrative have not been borne out — but the flexibility and speed by which individuals can narrate stories into being has indeed altered, radically so. For those of us who teach about the past, the ability to generate many narratives is not a bad thing given that one of our principal points about the past is that it is messy and not subject to neat little plotlines – even if, in our interpretations, we wrap history of as narrative, with tidy beginnings, middles, and ends. Digital storytelling – including videogaming – can allow us to imagine and re-imagine different pasts from the same evidence.

So, what are the implications for archaeology?

Andrew Reinhard, who maintains a website devoted to archaeology in video games, reminds me of the literary critic who writes about, for example, the concept of honor in Shakespeare’s plays, or some similar thread or strain within a larger narrative work or collection of works. Reinhard reviews archaeology in these games, reporting on a range of issues of interest to archaeologists, from such everyday things as survey methods to efforts to theorize archaeogaming and, by extension, digital storytelling. Reinhard challenges us to see just how much we are really committed to crossing disciplinary borders by admitting archaeogaming as an innovative and growing subfield within the discipline.

Diana Johnson and Katherine Thomas’s presentation concerned the Mass Effect series, and suggested the flexibility of digital narrative: the ability to manipulate characters and play around with outcomes. Given that narratives essentially use plots to move through time, having an archaeologist is perhaps not surprising in this or in any video game (for a great read on the importance of plot, see Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot [1992]). The archaeologist can help with describing or interpreting the “artifacts” that appear in the game, artifacts that in their visual quality can have an arresting effect not unlike all those objects we archaeologists stand mesmerized by in Dutch art (King 2007). But these artifacts are obviously more than eye candy, as the archaeologist and the artifacts help to drive the plot. It serves the distinction drawn by the Russian formalists between fabula and sjužet, with fabula the chronological order of events in a story and sjužet the way the events are presented in the story. Having an archaeologist around allows one to introduce – and explain – chronologically earlier events later in the narrative, and this reordering is what helps make for a compelling narrative. In fact, the fabula/sjužet distinction is often used in the analysis of “crime fiction,” or the detective story, not unlike many if not most archaeological narratives.

CJ Idol focuses on Assassin’s Creed, intrigued by why UbiSoft, the company that produces this game, funded excavations of the grave of the pirate, Amaro Rodríguez Felipe, even though Felipe ultimately played little to no role in the game. Idol, knowing full well that archaeology ain’t cheap, wanted to know more about this. Idol’s description suggests that Assassin’s Creed apparently forces players to develop historical thinking skills – surely not a bad thing – and what good narratives do as they “play” with time (see: fabula/sjužet). From what I can tell about these games (you can see I really don’t play them!), they employ a device not uncommonly seen – going back in time or even forward in time – to stop something bad from happening in the future, not unlike the movie, Twelve Monkeys or, more recently, the movie, Arrival.

There seems to be, in Idol’s description of this game, a real tension between “authentic” and “fake.” The Hudson River, for example, is apparently shown on the west side of Albany when, in the real world, the river is found on the east side, but an Oneida village is represented surprisingly accurately. It even appears some effort may have been expended to study someone’s study of these towns. More on this divide between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ in a minute.

Katherine Thomas examines representations of archaeologists in two games, Uncharted and Lara Croft. First off, let me just say that I think the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology would have a collective stroke if they played Uncharted – this is the game that wrongly calls treasure hunters archaeologists. I know I started twitching simply hearing about it. Lara Croft is more in the vein of Indiana Jones but it is also the case that tombs get raided and stereotypes persist. Thomas concludes that archaeologists should just go ahead and make our own games, make them exciting, but stay within the bounds of our practice.

These four presentations give us a taste of the relationship – or potential relationship – of archaeology as a discipline to videogaming. This is obviously a growing field – the Archaeogaming session was the last session of the last day of the SHA conference – and it was full. For those of you who are members of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), you know the most recent issue of the SAA Bulletin concerned videogaming, covering some of the topics touched on today as well as others, including the ethnographic study of people who play videogames (Morgan 2016).

I doubt I will ever get into videogames in the way my students or the authors do, but that is not because I think they are vacuous wastes of time. And, I have a full appreciation for the role of digital technology in moving the ball forward in archaeology (visit What I do think we all can rally around – because we are human – is narrative, and I am very interested in the function of narrative in archaeological practice – not just for compelling storytelling, but for what it can reveal about our most basic assumptions, desires, and anxieties about the world. How would we behave, for example, in the event of a nuclear annihilation, because, in truth, we live in that kind of world – where nuclear devastation is not only possible but, since 1945, historically real. Does videogaming provide a way by which narrative is used to control a reality that is as real as it is unthinkable?

I see tremendous potential for videogaming to teach historical skills, improving the ability to think chronologically, and spatially, too. Maybe videogames will be the tool by which we can finally put to rest that we dig up dinosaurs (although, if Uncharted is any indication, videogames can perpetuate and perhaps further entrench stereotypes). Further, with these games, the player is not simply a witness – a witness to actions, events, and decisions already made, but the player is actively unfolding the plot as he or she identifies characters, points-of-view, outcomes, and so on. In some ways, this is exactly how historical interpretation operates, with different interpretations narrating – and producing – the meaning of sets of “facts.” The ability to use digital technologies to imagine different pasts through a few character or temporal changes may be the shot of creativity we need to imagine different interpretations for our sites and artifacts – and make us better archaeologists.

Is this a form of “living history,” or first person interpretation, or reenactment? Is digital experience “authentic” experience? Richard Handler and William Saxton (1988) examined notions of authenticity and the role of “simulated” experience among historical re-enactors, and their observations may be usefully applied to simulated digital experience. CJ touched on the importance of authenticity in his paper. The authentic/fake distinction can be a red herring; all archaeological interpretations, whether we accept it or not, are fictions, in the sense of something made (including site reports!). Archaeological interpretations are representations of a past we can neither see nor experience. These representations – our interpretations – are but tick marks on a page and pixels on a screen. The ability to play with plot and points of view and outcomes actually allows us to imagine different scenarios with the same evidence, but none is more real than the other. This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equal, and each can be evaluated by the standards for we as archaeologists define.

One caveat: authenticity does matter when we are represented as treasure hunters. Keep the treasure hunters if that’s what sells but, for God’s sake, call them treasure hunters and not archaeologists!

As I was bragging to a colleague that some young people who play videogames had asked ME to be a discussant in their session, he smacked down my insufferability by telling me that he saw archaeogaming as just another bunch of post-modern mumbo jumbo, obscuring our efforts as real world professionals to find the truth about the past. This is the same person, by the way, who likes to say to me whenever he can work it into a conversation, “These go to 11,” which, if you get the reference, is one of the best “pomo” or post-modern films out there – and a movie that, by the way, plays with history, too — remember the Stonehenge scene?

I kind of like post modern mumbo jumbo – it’s made me a better archaeologist – and while I don’t think I’ll ever get into videogaming, I say without reservation, it matters. I can easily see not just archaeologists but museum workers and teachers and students discovering – representing – the past through digital technology. Narrative is old, it’s what makes us human, and if technology helps us explore that part of being human, it can only be for the good. I appreciate very much that I was asked to deliver these remarks, I thank the authors for their papers, and I’d like to point out that, eleven is one louder than 10.


Brooks, Peter.  1992. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Handler, Richard, and William Saxton. 1988. Dyssimulation: Reflexivity, Narrative, and the Quest for Authenticity in “Living History.” Cultural Anthropology 3(3):242-260.

King, Julia A. 2007. Still Life with Tobacco: The Archaeological Uses of Dutch Art. Historical Archaeology 41(1):6-22.

———. 2012. Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Morgan, Colleen. 2016. Special Section: Video Games and Archaeology, Part 1. SAA Bulletin 16(5):9-37.

Murray, Janet. 1998. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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