This past week I wanted to write about video game archaeology theory, to see how far I could push things with a focused period of thinking on what it means to be an archaeologist of media, software, games, synthetic worlds. Hence “jumping the shark,” which is a reference to a late episode of Happy Days where Fonzi literally jumps a shark (pictured above). The phrase is used when something that was once really good goes completely nuts and doesn’t really recover. I hope to have cleared the shark, though. And I think archaeogaming can go even farther. Maybe two or three sharks at least. Video games are our collective habitations, and after spending a week writing about little else, I am more convinced than ever that what we’re doing is legitimate archaeological work that requires a blend of traditional and new ways of thinking. To recap:
Day 1: Deism and world-building. Game developers are the prime movers of the digital built environment. They set their worlds in motion, establish rules, and then invite in the population. It is archaeology by design, and archaeologists can attempt to reverse engineer those worlds through the act of play and observation.
Day 2: Video games as complexity-created artifacts. Most modern games contain some elements of artificial intelligence, and archaeologists can document how AI behaves during player-engagement. It is in this instance when players interact with agents in a game that a new kind of artifact emerges, where the action of the game becomes the artifact itself.
Day 3: Quantum entanglement and video games. People cannot simultaneously record the position and spin of a subatomic particle. The same could be said of video game archaeology. If the archaeologist is within a gamespace, the archaeologist’s presence affects the operation of the game. The archaeologist-as-agent becomes entangled with the environment and action, so any archaeological report will be biased because of the unavoidable presence of a human agent within a game in order to record observations there.
Day 4: The archaeology of video game complexity. We continue the theme of complexity science in video games, in this instance seeing how game-rules create emergent bahavior that is mostly intended, and sometimes not. Can archaeologists use complexity theory to understand rules-based systems (like cultures), possibly treating games as agent-based models?
Day 5: Material-based communication in video games. In the natural world, people can communicate with others via signs and symbols in the landscape. This happens almost exclusively in video games. Archaeologists are uniquely positioned to recognize and understand when and how this occurs in game-spaces as things talk to players, NPCs, and other elements of digital material culture.
Day 6: Noumenophenomenology of video games. I coined the portmanteau “noumenophenomenology” to described how video games are blended examples of phenomena (things people can observe directly) and noumena (things that are there but cannot be observed directly). This gets at the heart of what it means to conduct an archaeology of the (im)material, or mediated archaeology in digital spaces.
This is what “archeogaming” is to me. Video game archaeology is delightfully, irresistibly weird, and this week’s exercise seems to prove just that. I personally don’t care if a game tries to reproduce an ancient civilization, or has a few columned buildings in it, or even attempts to portray actual (or imagined) archaeology and archaeologists. What I see in a game—any game, including games such as Solitaire and Tetris—is an artifact/site/landscape that can be understood and investigated archaeologically. King’s Quest is my Knossos.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming