If archaeologists want to contribute directly to making archaeology-themed games or games with archaeologists as the main characters, then I would recommend developing new titles for the massive mobile market. While there are some laudable individual efforts in promoting more real and ethical archaeological narratives in game development via one-off games, game jams, indie games, and conversations with indie and AAA developers, these will take years to bear fruit, changing the industry from within.
Mobile games, however, allow for fast development and rapid deployment to a market of literally billions of smartphone users. If archaeologists want to have a direct say in 2017 in how archaeologists and archaeology are represented in games, then mobile platforms seem to me to be the most obvious route. I have limited experience in app development for iOS, developing one app for Latin proverbs in 2009 where I provided the content and worked with a freelance developer to bring my vision and spec to life, finding its way onto hundreds of Apple devices through the App Store. I have hope that my archaeologist colleagues will find similar success.
Why develop archaeology games for mobile platforms? First, iOS and Android phones connect users with content in an immediate and inexpensive way. If I read about a game that sounds interesting and fun, I can click to the game’s page in the App Store or in Google Play and download it as an impulse buy, typically for free (or up to $2.99 based on archaeology games I’ve seen). This is cheap entertainment, and occasionally provides quality. Development costs—especially for independent developers whom are self-taught on the software development kits (SDKs)—are in the hundreds to low thousands of dollars, cheap and easy when compared to building games for computers (including Steam games) and for consoles.
Second, the marketplace for archaeological mobile games is largely empty of any titles with quality content, so there is room to expand, growing the market by providing archaeological entertainment that doesn’t suck (or deal with dinosaurs). On June 11, 2017, Apple’s App Store had four games (apps that their developers classified as “games”) found with the “archaeology” keyword, and 15 games found with “archaeologist.” There are other games that feature ancient cultures and occasionally rewarding gameplay (see Evolving Planet) for iPhone and iPad, but there are only 19 that self-identify as archaeology. So what do these look like?
“Archaeology” Games for iOS
For the four “archaeology” games, two use the word “treasure(s).” There is a non-archaeological puzzle game, Temple Tiles: Mythic Ruins, which contains eight levels set in ancient “worlds.” No archaeology is done.
Big Dig Treasure Clickers includes a male and female archaeological team who dig for treasures in the North Pole, Borneo, Egypt, and the moon. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only game that features archaeologists talking in a pub, the Dog and Spade. The app also features a museum to house what you find, and a store. Archaeology here is a very loose mechanic based on the discovery trope.
Can U Dig It! is an app from Dig-It Games, an educational software company owned and operated by an archaeologist. Set amidst Mayan ruins, students solve math problems in order to recover and learn about artifacts, information-as-reward. Here, as with other Dig-It titles, archaeology is woven underneath non-archaeological educational content, offering an engaging setting in which to study. Archaeology-as-reward.
One app makes a serious effort to bring real-ish archaeology to players. Secrets of the Past: Excavating the City of Zeus is an archaeology simulator set in the villa of Dionysos in the ancient Greek city of Dion. The game incorporates planning, excavation (albeit for “hidden treasures”), interpretation and labwork, and museum exhibition design. Secrets of the Past also features a woman archaeologist front-and-center, and an archaeologist of color, plus an aging white guy in glasses and suspenders/braces.
“Archaeologist” Games for iOS
So much for “archaeology” games. But what about those iOS app featuring archaeologists? The landscape is depressing. Of the 15 games I found, seven feature only male archaeologists to play, most of whom wear fedoras, the others pith helmets. Two apps do feature a female archaeologist, although one excavates dinosaurs. The other six apps are played from the gender-neutral first-person perspective.
Nearly all of the apps feature “relics” and “treasure” in their descriptions, and nearly all feature tropes about archaeologists and academia: clothing, alcohol, deadly peril, results-oriented success, and a desire for fame. The apps display an almost willful ignorance of who archaeologists are and what we do, basing lazy character creation largely on other mass media portrayals. Most of the apps available in the App Store are for children. Based on all of the games below, surely archaeologists can do better at creating engaging archaeological entertainment for mobiles and tablets.
Ben Jones the Archaeologist: “Ben is a young archaeologist . . . sent to explore an ancient temple hidden in an unexplored are of the Peruvian Andes. . . . Let’s see if you can help Ben avoid the fires [sic] balls.” This run-and-jump platformer pits archaeologist Ben against temple defenses, which were constructed to keep out tomb-robbers and looters. Assuming Ben is neither of these, why must he tackle the defenses? Brief educational content is available only in the game’s description in the App Store.
Ben Jones 3: The Young Archaeologist at the Nazca Lines in Peru. Ben Jones is back, now a post-graduate, running and jumping to “collect as many diamonds and jewelry as possible before the grave robbers or huaqueros, as they are called in Peru, destroy and steal the new founds [sic].” Another sidescrolling platformer, Ben Jones 3 does make the archaeogamer consider the ethics of artifact collection, in this case removing all of the artifacts to protect them rather than let looters get them, destroying context.
Dig Quest: Israel: Of all of the “archaeologist” game apps on the App Store, this one has the highest production value with art and content. “Dig Quest introduces children to archaeology with unique games featuring Israel’s ancient treasures, bringing scripture to life in the process.” The app lets players excavate hidden relics, find Dead Sea Scrolls and the Lod Mosaic, which unlocks puzzle games, and collect antiquities. Players can listen to people read the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew. The NPC archaeologist “Gabe” is “based on a composite of real archaeologists working in the field.” This perpetuates the idea of the “boys’ club” of Israel archaeology.
Archaeologist Day: Artifacts Search: “Get all the treasures and become the world’s most known archaeologist.” This is a “grabber” game, where players move the archaeologist at ground level and deploy a pincer-on-a-wire to grab relics and avoid bombs.
Archaeologist Dinosaur: Ice Age: The only “archaeologist” game featuring a female protagonist, “Bonnie,” players excavate dinosaur bones, put them together to form a skeleton, color the bones, and read about what they’ve found. The game notes at the bottom of the description in the App Store that “we would like to point out that the science that studies dinosaurs is Paleontology. However, the protagonists of the sage of the archaeologist will not take care only of dinosaurs.”
An Archaeologist’s Dream Quest LX: Temple Ruins and Jurassic Carnivores Expedition: Here is another “grabber” game featuring dinosaur fossils mixed in with human artifacts/relics. Players retrieve relics for cash.
Archaeologist Deep Blue: Learning Games for Kids: This kids’ game pairs players with underwater archaeologist (dressed as a cruise ship captain) Joe Diamante as they pilot the ship to 10 actual wrecks. Players dive, retrieve “relics and treasure,” and then return to the lab for cleaning and assembly. Players can listen to audio in 10 languages about each shipwreck.
Ocean Archaeologist: Here is another underwater archaeology edutainment app, but in this one players find parts of shipwrecks to assemble while also finding artifacts. Expeditions are timed, so it feels more like a salvage operation. Unfortunately there is little interpretive text to help players understand the kinds of ships they reconstruct.
Archaeologist Egypt: Made by the same company as Archaeologist Deep Blue, this ancient Egypt game allows players to excavate, clean, and assemble “ancient treasures,” learning a little about them in the process.
Escape Game: Archaeologist Room: “This game is about escaping from an archaeologist office.” Sounds accurate. Players must find hidden objects and then use them to solve puzzles to unlock rooms. There is no archaeology to conduct, but there is a T-Rex skeleton . . . .
Escape Games: The Archaeologist: “An archaeologist visits a pyramid to find out more about the history. While he was about to leave after the day’s work, he finds that the door is locked. . . . The door can be opened only by solving a puzzle.” Just like real life! This is a locked-room puzzle game set inside Egyptian-y tombs. All though lovely to look at, there is no archaeology and no information about the items you manipulate.
Lost in the Pyramid: “A weird archaeologist discovers a lost pyramid, enter it & unravel its mysteries.” The lost pyramid is in Israel. The game describes you as “an unsuccessful archaeologist, but a huge fan of Atlantis . . . .” The game mechanic features logic and point-and-click puzzles to solve, but has no actual archaeology.
Other Archaeology Game Apps
Secret of the Royal Throne
Secret of the Royal Throne: Sam, daughter of an archaeologist, explores ruins in India of a mythical kingdom featuring magic, curses, and an “evil sage” searching for treasure using black magic. This is a hidden object and puzzle game set in an imagined Indian antiquity.
To the City of the Clouds: “Search for the lost Incan city known as La Ciudad de las Nubes in the mountains of Colombia. Your fledgling archaeologist will battle venomous pit vipers, tropical diseases, and the FARC guerilla army to secure fame, fortune, and tenure at a prestigious university. Alcohol, lustful young students, and Incan spirits delight and bedevil you along the way.” This game is interactive fiction, and players can choose their persona, sexual orientation, and can wear “native” clothing.
I would encourage archaeologists to partner with technologists to create archaeological games of substance, complexity, and story. Most excavations are sponsored by one or more granting agencies and/or institutions, so surely the potential for partnering with IT departments is great. Excavations could build in game development into their grants as part of their public outreach mission.
I would also challenge archaeology departments worldwide to create archaeology games for mobile devices with an eye towards mass-distribution via the App Store and/or Google Play. It is not entirely difficult to get an account as a developer, and it is conceivable that students and teachers can work with their universities to create an educational developer account through which games can be submitted.
Games can be released for free, or for free with in-app purchases (i.e., “freemium”), or for a modest charge, which can ultimately recover development costs and conceivably create a small revenue stream to support archaeology departments and projects.
Archaeologists have plenty of stories to tell, and mobile platforms give us a place to tell them publicly.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming