Your Video Game is My Cultural Heritage

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April 28, 2017, marked the first ever Public Archaeology Twitter Conference (#PATC), which was organized by Dr. Lorna Richardson and featured 50 “papers” of 12 tweets each on all aspects of archaeology. You can read all about the online, free, and open conference here.

My presentation, “Your Video Game is My Cultural Heritage”, attempted to address the fact that gameplay is intangible cultural heritage. It’s difficult to make the case for that in 140 characters x 12, so I thought I would reproduce the tweets here, and then try to explain myself. Ultimately I hope to turn this into a peer-reviewed article for an Open Access journal, but until then, this is what you get:

1 #PATC “Your Video Game is My Cultural Heritage” Andrew Reinhard, University of York and archaeogaming.com #archmedia #archaeogaming

I’m currently working on my PhD at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, supervised by Prof. Sara Perry. My thesis focuses on the idea of “machine-created culture” (MCC) as well has developing/improving archaeological tools and methods to document digital built environments (i.e., video games).

2 #PATC I’m a 44yo American, & I grew up playing video games. My favorite arcade games were made for Japanese companies by [largely] Japanese authors.

Taito, Namco, Atari, Nintendo, Capcom. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, Pole Position, 1942, and more. I remember going to the arcade with my dad and playing Space Invaders when it was brand new.

3 #PATC I didn’t feel like I was being assimilated by a culture, or that my cultural identity shifted with games. Playing was the thing.

The kids wanted new, good games to play, and didn’t care where they were coming from, although some kids loved anything Sega put out, or maybe had an allegiance to Konami.

4 #PATC I played everything I could get my hands on. It was neither Japanese nor American culture, but rather a universal culture of play.

In these instances of fandom, it was less about America and Japan, and more about having a favorite company that produced quality games that were fun to play. Players belong to their own country’s culture, and they also buy into the corporate culture of game developers. This holds true today, with players loving or hating BioWare or Bethesda or Rockstar. You can also spot this with players who are diehard PlayStation console junkies, or Xbox, hearkening back to the days of Atari vs. the world in home entertainment systems. We love brands and have a loyalty to them that either rivals or surpasses love of country. I’m personally an agnostic player, playing on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC (as well as on my phone), and maybe this reflects my citizen-of-the-world attitude.

5 #PATC I didn’t know it then, but I was interacting with video game material culture, something shared across international boundaries.

Kids in the 1980s and beyond love to play, and a lot of kids loved (and still love) to play video games. A lot of the games I played in the US were also played in Japan and elsewhere. And even though some of the titles were different, we still had consoles, cartridges, and cabinets. Transplant a kid to a foreign country, and they would still be able to speak the language of video games.

6 #PATC I’ve met & talked to intl players about our shared experiences w games & gameplay; it’s a lingua franca, nostalgia. Oral histories.

I can talk to my Dutch friends about the first time they played Doom or Myst or any of the King’s Quest games. Even Tetris. It breaks the ice, forms common bonds, and is an entrypoint to friendship and long trips down memory lane. Citizens of the (digital) world speak Starcraft. The games have a grammar to them, and a vocabulary (e.g., “zerg”). Games are our Esperanto and our Latin.

7 #PATC I worry that histories will be lost. How many of us still speak Sega Saturn? We need to preserve games, & also the heritage of play.

One of the core tenets of archaeogaming and retrogaming is not only the preservation of games, but also of gaming hardware. The playing experience is authentic when you play Combat on an Atari 2600, or when you play Daytona USA on a Sega Saturn. Different consoles, different controllers, all effecting gameplay. While one can play many old, retired games for any console via emulators, or in the case of arcade cabinets via MAME, the experience is not the same as that which is felt when playing on original hardware. Playing on that hardware also formed communities (such as rabid Amiga user groups) centered around the love of particular consoles, computers, handheld game systems, etc. This all combines to form a heritage of play.

8 #PATC We turn games into shared histories, as impt to players in virtual space as other histories are to people in the non-virtual world.

Some people are battlefield nuts. They love the histories of the American Revolution, Civil War, Great War, World War II, and beyond. Others have a vested interest in in-game history and lore, especially when they have participated directly in these events (take the EVE Timeline, for example, chronicling everything that has happened in that game over the past 10 years, which approaches an eternity in video gameplay).

9 #PATC Do we dis-count our virtual histories as something less than real, even though we experience the virtual in real time, w real effort?

This is a real problem I’ve encountered when pitching the ideas of archaeogaming to SOME of my archaeologist colleagues. What we’re doing within video games and virtual worlds cannot possibly be “real” archaeology. But of course I disagree. I put in hundreds and thousands of hours into the games I play seriously, and that does not come close to the time some of my friends put in. If we’re spending that much time in-game, especially in those games where events happen, and/or things are built/destroyed, then that is archaeology-in-the-making and should be documented as such.

10 #PATC Billions of us play/have played. Should our game media be lost post-apocalypse, our ephemeral history would disappear as well.

Because of this vast amount of gameplay time and resources that create and effect our collective cultural heritage, it would be grossly negligent to let this pass into the aether. Where are the loremasters and game archivists who not only document the history of the games themselves, but also the history of the gamePLAY? There are usergroups and forums, fan wikis, and other sites either run/maintained by game developers, but largely by the Fandom. To the best of my knowledge, there is no collective effort to find and preserve these histories of play, which run a real risk of disappearing if we let them. Digital gameplay in the 2000s largely archives itself on places like YouTube (see the Leroy Jenkins video for an example), but YouTube IS NOT AN ARCHIVE. Its a proprietary platform serving content. If YouTube disappears, granted this video is elsewhere on the Internet, but that’s beside the point. Where is our Library of Congress for digital games and gameplay?

11 #PATC “MY video game is YOUR cultural heritage,” we’d say in the Barrens. “I’m Mario Kart.” “I’m Never Alone. Let me tell you my story.”

The above clip is from François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic novel Fahrenheit 451. At the end, we find members of the Resistance memorizing and reciting the books they have adopted as their own, keeping them alive even after the last copy has been burned by the State. But without proper preservation of games, hardware, and gameplay history, we do run the real risk of losing this data and these oral histories.

12 #PATC Gameplay is universal, intangible cultural heritage. Thank you for your attention.

With games and their attendant hardware (not to mention their documentation, peripherals, advertising, and more) forming a very tangible material culture, the gameplay itself becomes “intangible cultural heritage.” UNESCO defines this as:

“…traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

To my mind, gameplay throughout history (including board games and ancient games) fits this definition. Read the entire definition on UNESCO’s website. As humanity continues to become more digital and less material, it becomes increasingly important to preserve and promote intangible cultural heritage of both the real and now of the virtual. This counts as much for games as it does for any of our other digital lifeways.

Post-Script

I realized at the conclusion of PATC that there is an entirely different—yet equally valid—interpretation of the talk’s title: “Your Video Game is My Cultural Heritage.” This title also addresses cultural appropriation by game developers who take elements from real-world cultures, and using those elements in their games. There are certainly ethical issues when this happens, especially when things are not used with permission, or when culturally sensitive traditions are “borrowed” for use in games. I defer to my colleagues on these points; it is certainly something serious to address now.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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