I like to think of archaeology as the science of things and their relationships to the people who make/use them. These things, some of them old, are actually timeless. They have a seemingly endless present from the time of their creation and throughout their history of use. Thinking of artifacts as being both part of a continuous timeline of the present, and also as being out-of-time, physical anachronistic reminders of what is, but also of what once was, plays with the traditional idea of history. As Bjørnar Olsen once wrote, “the past superimposes itself in the present as things, bodies, habits, and thoughts. History is not a projected stream leaving the past behind, but bends and twists in a disorderly manner.”
When considering video games as artifacts, this dualistic nature of thing and history comes front-and-center. We actively play a video game that may or may not be a new creation, yet it behaves as if it was the first time it has ever been played, and depicts an avatar/agent that itself might have been created in the past, yet is itself being manipulated by the player in the present without being conscious of any time having passed between the characters first creation and use and the present state of play. Ola Wikander notes this in her “God and the Machine” essay: “…something only gaming can embody so poignantly: the relationship between the governing mind and the governed body as projected through the dichotomy between the player and the main character.” There is both a convergence and a divergence of player and character, and of the actual video game and the gamespace itself.
Going back to Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, he defines what he considers to be the core function of archaeology: “archaeology reveals the place where two branches of the alternative join and localities diverge. Archaeology describes different spaces of dissension. Contradiction as a general function.” To simplify, the only reason why we have sites and artifacts in the first place is because they were created out of a state of conflict. We have archaeological sites because at some point in time, a group of people decided that they were hungry and thirsty and tired, that the weather was bad and getting worse, and that here was as good a place as any to settle down for a night, a week, a season, or for good. Conflict against nature could have necessitated settlement, or conflict within the group determined that movement should cease and stakes be put down.
All things are also created from conflict, following Foucault’s logic. People got tired of chasing animals, so they developed weapons with which to hunt them. People needed to stave off boredom, so they invented games. Competition for market share drove (and ultimately buried) Atari, its hardware and its games. If people were satisfied with what they had, there would be no innovation, no competition, and no creation of new things. Even creating replacement items is a result of conflict, this against time, use, and breakage.
When considering the things people have produced, we can look at them simply as objects that can be observed through our senses, and can be manipulated. This simplistic view, while quite valuable, ignores wholesale the context in which (and from which) the thing was produced. Something caused the production to occur, and this production was initiated and completed by people for the eventual use by other people sometimes for purposes completely alien to the initial intent of the thing. This is called “entanglement,” and is a web of context, time, people, and objects the threads of which cannot be easily separated. What we have then with any thing is a complex system that births the object as the physical manifestation of emergent behavior. As Ian Hodder wrote in 2012, “archaeology shows an exponential increase in the rate of change as entanglements increase in scale and complexity.”
He goes on to define “entanglement” as it pertains to archaeology:
- Entanglement is the dialectic of dependence and dependency between humans and things;
- Central to human-thing entanglements are the temporalities of things, their scheduling and sequencing. Things have to be done in a certain order;
- Entanglement is compounded by conceptual abstractions and bodily resonance (mind, body, and the world of things);
- Entanglement occurs between humans and all things but the physical processes of material things contribute an entrapment;
- Entrapment of heterogeneous entanglements determine direction of change;
- Human-thing dependence is unruly and unstable leading to untying which leads to emergence;
- Things evolve/transform because they’re fitting within particular entanglements;
- Entanglements are irreversible; we dig ourselves into holes;
- Entanglement allows a fuller interpretation of the humanities, social science, biological/material sciences in the study of things.
Pick a video game, any video game, and you will find that all nine of the above parts of entanglement apply to the game as an artifact, and even to artifacts within the gamespace itself. Let’s take Pac-Man as an example, although any game past or present for cabinets, consoles, or computers, will follow a similar entangled path. Pac-Man was released in 1980 by Japanese developer Namco, coded by Toru Iwatani. The arcade market had not seen a game like Pac-Man, a game which included neither a pixelated ball, guns, nor aliens. Instead, players move their yellow avatar around a board avoiding ghosts while eating dots and the occasional “power pill” allowing the eponymous hero to eat the ghosts instead, all the while accruing points and advancing to more complex boards/levels. Pac-Man is entangled in the video game arcade culture of the 1970s and 1980s as a commercial enterprise and social phenomenon, the game relying on people to play it, which in turn gave it popularity, which in turn sold merchandise and licensing from Namco of its intellectual property for later games, a television cartoon, and more. One cannot get more entangled than when considering people, things, and the marketplace.
There would have been no Pac-Man had there not been a plethora of shooters and sports games in the arcades of the 1970s. These created the niche that Pac-Man would fill, and would give rise to other popular maze-chase games. Time is important in the cycle of innovation. One could apply the idea of consumerism into the gameplay of Pac-Man as a metaphor for what would become a hallmark of the 1980s, namely gross capitalism as well as 1980s recreational drug culture, namely cocaine use and its ability to give users a sense, albeit temporary, of invulnerability. It’s likely that Iwatani had none of this in mind when developing the game in Japan, but entanglement allows us to cross the temporal and metaphorical streams to understand media in new ways.
As Hodder states above, the physicality of things traps us. The idea of Pac-Man is free to hold in the mind and in memory, but it is locked (initially) in its arcade cabinet, later to be ported by Atari to its 2600 game console (which would be a titanic failure), and eventually to clones and emulators, and is now available to play for free online via a web browser. All games are trapped by their physical confines, much like the mind in a human body. As developers learn how to break physical bonds that keep a game in one place, it alters what the future will become. Had Atari failed to license and port Pac-Man to its home consoles, it might not have fallen as spectacularly as it did in 1983 by not making an inferior product and then over-producing the game by the millions. Video game history would not be as it is had there been no Atari to play with the game’s reputation and legacy. We can never go back because of these earlier decisions, and it is arguable that every video game decision made since 1980 and 1983 is impacted by the creation of a legendary game and the destruction of a legendary company. These entanglements deriving from Pac-Man not only effect the video game industry, but also media and social culture, economics, entertainment, design, and more. It is interdisciplinary, everything hinging on the creation of a thing, which was made at exactly the right time to make such a world-changing impact. Who knows how many careers in the video game or wider media industry were launched when a kid played Pac-Man for the first time? And who knows how many careers Pac-Man destroyed before they even began, as kids played the game to the exclusion of everything else? It’s not important. What is, though, is that Pac-Man is a nexus video game, something around which everything else links both in intended and largely unintended ways. Hodder again in 2012 wrote that “material things play a large part in the unraveling of linear time. People work along entanglement’s threads to fix what the past created.” As archaeologists, we do attempt to restore a narrative to history. Entanglement is what keeps the plot and characters both interesting and intertwined.
We can always go one level deeper when considering archaeology and video games. We have seen above how entanglement in the real world affects video games, their development and use. But entanglement also occurs within the gamespace itself, albeit largely because of player agency. Players interact with games and cause events to happen. With more complex games, more interesting things happen within the gamespace depending on player-action. A player could shoot something in one instance, watching the AI-governed baddie move right, and in another instance see that same baddie break left in response to the shot. Karen Barad notes this kind of action as “diffraction,” which is a quantum phenomenon: “It attends the relational nature of difference. It maps where the effects of differences appear.”
This goes back to physicist Niels Bohr and his indeterminacy principle as it can be applied to observing subatomic particles: the values of complementary values (e.g., position and momentum) are not simultaneously determinate. We (still) cannot measure where a particle is and how fast it is traveling. It cannot be observed. Add to this the “Schrödinger’s Cat” koan, that the only way to know for certain how something behaves is to observe it, and the very nature of observation impacts what is being seen by the observer. People have agency, and in video games, the exercising of that agency affects what happens in the present and future states of the game. Players cannot help but affect the outcome, or even minor actions, all of which are triggered by player activity. This is true even of glitches. It’s true that the glitch emerges from the game’s code, but it cannot be noted unless a player is able to observe the glitch.
Barad reminds us that the notion of agency should not be restricted to people, that agency also belongs to nature/culture, human/non-human, science/society. A person might cause a video game to be made, but society caused the environment to be receptive to that person to make the video game at a particular time. I can move a gold sphere in No Man’s Sky, but so can a strong wind. A game developer can write code to draw a tree on-screen, but an algorithm can cause a forest to appear in the blink of an eye. When considering things (in this case video games) as well as virtual things with the gamespace, we see these as emergent, or as Barad describes, “apparatuses are specific material reconfigurings of the world that do not merely emerge in time, but interactively reconfigure space-time-matter as part of the ongoing dynamism of being.” Just by existing, video games alter the future, and as such, alter the archaeological record. We make our own entanglements. “The past is never left behind, and is never completely finished,” Barad says. In physics, quantum entanglement shows that two particles have linked spins, even if they are far apart. Manipulating the spin on one, affects the other. One can then see how the spin of the past affects the spin of the future, and vice versa. One cannot observe the past objectively; the past is affected by our observation in the future.
Anthropologist Lynn Meskell wrote, “…our socio-political and interdisciplinary entanglements will only become more complex as archaeologists acknowledge their role and the role archaeological sites play in the global imaginary.” Video games involve and exemplify this entanglement as complex archaeological sites in both the real and “imaginary” worlds.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming