Archaeogaming Redefined

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Image: boardgamegeek.com

What’s in a name? When I created the Archaeogaming blog and Twitter in 2013, I had a hard-and-fast definition for “archaeogaming”: the archaeology in (and of) video games. Over the past four years, I have met dozens of other game archaeologists (double-meaning intended), have started my PhD, have almost finished revisions to a book (as well as a quarter of my thesis), and have read pages and pages and pages of theory, practice, archaeology, media studies, game studies, and more, and, after all that reading and writing and talking to friends and colleagues about what “archaeogaming” might be—and what it can be—I’ve changed my mind.

Just like there are a bazillion kinds of archaeology, the same could be said of archaeogaming, which itself is a kind of archaeology. For every game archaeologist I know, there is a different flavor of archaeogaming: reception studies, ethics, game-making, in-game fieldwork, conservation. All of these flavors are “correct,” and they all contribute to the understanding of something that has largely escaped the attention of the archaeologists who came before.

I’d like to propose a revised, general definition that really has already been created and used by others, a subtle yet major change to how we work and think: “Archaeogaming” is the archaeology in (and of) games. That’s it. Games. Analog, digital, video, arcade, console, tabletop, cards, dice. It’s all material culture, and it’s all worthy of archaeological study. I regret not being able to see this before, and I apologize to my colleagues if my original, prescriptive definition put them off.

So what am I doing? My own flavor of archaeogaming, is changing, too. My personal definition for the work that I do—specifically for the PhD—is that “Archaeogaming” (for me personally) is the application of archaeological theory, methods, and tools to understanding digital games. I like doing fieldwork within a game-space. I like the idea that at some point there will be games where algorithms will create previously unknown “cultures” (that have not been designed explicitly) that create their own lifeways that can be studied archaeologically for the first time. I like the idea that at some point digital games (specifically those set in procedurally generated environments, or that contain robust ProcGen elements) will actually age. Erosion will not be artificial. Buildings will crumble. Non-human “life” will grow and evolve, and whatever material culture they create will also grow and evolve. And because this happens in a non-natural environment following rules that do not necessarily reflect the natural world, we will see things emerge from the mathematical soup that will be alien to human experience. How do we document that as archaeologists? That is my Big Question.

And then there is the question of “what’s next?” I’ve slowly come to realize over the past couple of weeks that what I’m doing does not just suit games. I’ve accidentally been using video games as a foil, as a way to think about deeper questions and then writing about them in a way that people can (hopefully) understand. It’s easy to see how a digital game set in a world with natural or urban features can be ripe for landscape archaeology. It’s another matter to apply those same methods to any software application that uses a graphical user interface (GUI). I think that’s where I’m headed ultimately: software archaeology, which includes digital games and synthetic worlds. I’m starting with games, because I (and others) understand them. I have a feeling things will get really weird when I realize that games (for me) were always a false summit, and that there is something another thousand meters up, waiting for me to apply what I’ve learned on the climb so far.

So what about this blog, archaeogaming.com? I’ll continue it as it is for the foreseeable future, basically as a scratch-pad for what I’m thinking about when considering synthetic worlds in an archaeological way. I would love to see more game archaeologists post to Play the Past about archaeological reception, about board games, classic RPGs, and more. That blog is an incredible resource featuring extraordinary content written by some of the best minds in history, archaeology, game studies, and more.

I’m glad to see what archaeogaming’s become, how it’s continued to change, and I’m happy to be able to continue to contribute to its adolescence. I’ve made friends for life as we crawled out of our holes to find each other in this shared interest in the archaeology of games, and I would not have come so far in my thinking without my colleagues’ input, criticism, support, and tough love. I’m eager to see what’s next from them, from you, and hope I can return the favor upon request, and unconditionally.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

2 thoughts on “Archaeogaming Redefined

  1. Mixed feelings: happy that you’ve had a personal epiphany, sad that you’ll be moving off in a different direction. I hope that the bibliography will stick around – I think it’s valuable one-stop shopping to point people to especially when the area is still young.

    • Thank you. I’m with games through at least 2020, so we’ll see what the PhD reveals. Maybe I’ll stick around, but I think everything that we’re doing can scale up to other software apps, etc. Archaeogaming is an excellent crucible.

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