image: Bruce Rolff, CC-BY

Let’s start with some definitions of “phenomenon” and “noumenon” and follow that with how they apply to video games and archaeology:

Phenomenon: An object of a person’s perception; what the senses or the mind notice.

Noumenon: A thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes. (I’m borrowing this from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.)

From these, then:

Phenomenology: The science of phenomena as distinct from that of the nature of being. An approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience. For a solid, brief explanation, see Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing.

Noumenology: The science of that which isn’t there (I’m making this definition up, but I think it’s accurate when one thinks about perception and consciousness).

So what do these concepts have to with video games, and specifically video game archaeology? I propose that video games are noumenological phenomena. Traditional archaeology deals with stuff. Things. These can be lumped under the heading of “material culture” or the stuff that people use regularly that helps identify them as a group. When archaeologists examine an artifact, they engage in phenomenology, which means that they are using their senses to engage with that thing. When I worked in Italy and Greece as a pottery person (don’t say “ceramicist” because all pottery is not ceramics), I would identify pottery by sight and touch, and could identify fresh breaks with my tongue. I could count and weigh pottery. I could find joins between sherds. I recorded my observations in notebooks and in databases. I would also photograph pottery. Archaeology is a sensual experience. An pottery sherd is a phenomenon.

What about video games? Let’s fast-forward 1,000 years. 10,000 years. I’m an archaeologist, and I’m excavating media detritus of the late 20th century. Maybe I find the dump of Atari cartridges in Alamogordo’s old landfill. The cartridges I find communicate what I can observe directly: a plastic case, paper label, and some kind of computer wafer inside. If I can read English, I might tease out a game’s title, a date of manufacture, and the game’s publisher. I might not know that the cartridge could be placed in a piece of hardware (but I might guess that fact because of the cartridge’s design). I might not know that be completing the connection between the cartridge, hardware, and another piece of hardware (a TV), that I would be able to access something I could not have perceived without this mediation.

The game contained in the cartridge is a noumenon wrapped in a phenomenon. Unless I have direct knowledge (or have been told by someone who has direct knowledge) of that fact that a thing I can see contains something that I can’t see, I will be unable to tell half of the artifact’s story. I can have a hypothesis. The artifact gives me more research questions. But it might be beyond my comprehension that a cartridge contains something more, something normally invisible. Forget being an archaeologist 1,000 years from now. What if I was an archaeologist from 1917? What would I make of the cartridge? And if you told me that in 100 years humanity would regularly occupy spaces we cannot see unassisted, I would not have believed you. I might have thought you were talking about a kind of heaven. We base our ideas of the future on our own past experiences, and something as alien as the internet, of online games, would have passed completely over my head, despite my interest in the 20 Tom Swift novels of 1910–1917, none of which deal with anything electronic or extraterrestrial.

When we deal with the archaeology of media, we take it on faith that there is something to see, to hear, to play. Artifacts give us clues as to how the access to intellectual property might happen. We experiment to retrieve that content. One wonders what we might have missed with ancient artifacts, and what they are not telling us through out direct observation. Indeed, we likely are passing above buried archaeological sites every day, sites we cannot perceive unless we excavate, unless there is some clue in the landscape to indicate that there is something more, something below. Just as it is with Earthbound sites, so it is with video games. There are entire worlds available to us if we know where (and how) to look. But until we observe these synthetic worlds directly through their (im)materialistic evidence, they exist only as possibilities in the mind, or they don’t exist at all. I guess that makes archaeogaming a noumenophenomological science.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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