A Grand Challenge: Applied Archaeogaming


Chinese mobile game BigBang (Tencent)

There are three major braids to archaeogaming: external, applied, and reflexive (hat-tip to Tara Copplestone for this elegant demarcation of the discipline). As she defines them: 1) external archaeogaming examines how archaeology is portrayed to the world and questions if we use games to educate/entertain external audiences; 2) applied archaeogaming uses archaeological methods to do things in games that can include creating in- or extra-game typologies, and conducting actual excavations either physically or digitally; 3) reflexive archaeogaming uses games to think about archaeology and develop critical/new paradigms, creating games to explore multilinear narratives natively.

I fall squarely in the applied/practical archaeogaming camp, sharing that space with Prof. Raiford Guins who focuses on the history and historiography of arcade cabinets (among other things), Prof. John Aycock who reverse-engineers computer games and hardware and code, and others. My current interests lie in treating video games (and indeed all software) as landscapes and archaeological sites and then figuring out how to conduct archaeological investigations in those spaces.

With No Man’s SkySkyrim VR, and Colossal Cave Adventure serving as the games for my PhD case studies at the University of York, I am taking baby steps, keeping things relatively simple and also comprehensible for my thesis committee and those who will ultimately be sitting in on my viva. These case studies make sense, focusing on three very different kinds of games and ask a broad suite of research questions to establish a baseline in the application of archaeological tools and methods to built digital environments. But I don’t think they go far enough in really testing the concept of applied/practical archaeogaming. What do I mean by that?

I play games that I like, and I’ve been guilty of studying and writing about games that I know. That creates a bias in my work that I would quite like to shake. And by doing something utterly new, I think we can really push the envelope of applied/practical archaeogaming to the absolute limit to see if, in the end, it can be meaningful, or if it is merely fluff. Both outcomes have value to archaeogaming as it continues to grow as a subject. But after 15 years, it’s time to teach archaeogaming how to drive.

A Grand Challenge to Applied/Practical Archaeogaming

I would like to see video game archaeologists of all stripes pause each year to reflect on what we’re doing and where we’re going with archaeogaming. So here’s the challenge I’m setting for myself, and perhaps others will find this interesting enough to try:

One grand challenge facing applied/practical archaeogaming is to conduct an archaeological investigation of a game we’ve never played (or better yet, never even heard of), written in a language we can neither read nor speak, and (for bonus points) it should be played on hardware we’ve never used. Archaeogaming (at least to this point) has focused too much on English-language games and games created for an English-speaking, Western market. Granted, this is a good entrypoint for the field, but I cannot think of anything being done with video game archaeology and games for players for whom the Latin alphabet is second, third, or last on the list of alphabets they know. By playing and studying games we know, we don’t escape our comfort zones, and are not taking the risks we need to take now in order to make a leap forward. This is already changing with post-graduate students such as Guarav Kalyani (currently at Durham University) considering games produced and played in India. But we can all do this. The benefits are many:

  • We learn new hardware, and in doing so can consciously think about how important the body is, and how important memory is in what we do when we play, and when we explore. Archaeology itself is a form of play. We learn our tools and train our bodies on how to use them. We develop a feel for the tools until they become second nature. We can reflect on how we adapt to using a new toolkit, and how that hardware affects how we perform within any game we choose.
  • We are forced to teach ourselves how to operate in a new world on the surface level, through confronting an alien interface (alien to us), interacting with it, and teasing together meaning through words and symbols we do not immediately understand. How do we navigate this new architecture? How does its design reflect those who made it, as well as those who engage with it? What can we learn about maker and player and also about ourselves?
  • We must move within a new landscape, interacting with a new geography, unlearning the habits formed by playing our favorite games, and learning how to read new signposting, and engaging with the new landscape on its own terms, identifying desire lines and determining the rules of a literally brand new world. How does the landscape affect our movement and action? Does our cultural bias and habit get in the way of seeing the space for what it is?

The challenge then is to select a game that fits the above criteria, and then archaeology the shit out of it. For the first run, maybe treat it as a salvage excavation to complete over a single weekend or week. Make it a speed run, immediately writing up your findings and impressions. Then come back to the game for a month for more reflexive practice. How much can we learn the longer we play? And once that’s done, maybe we can return to that which is familiar to us, seeing it in a different light. That alone should make this challenge worthwhile.

What game will you use to challenge yourself?

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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