Mountains of Madness is a tabletop game which never mentions archaeology. Some players have suggested that the main characters are archaeologists due to linguistic and cultural tones. Archaeogaming, the study in and of games, looks at this board game to critically analyze perceptions of archaeology in gaming.
I own and often play Mountains of Madness with friends. But when watching a let’s play of the game on Youtube, I heard the characters referred to as “archaeologists” when the host was explaining the rules. So I pulled out the rulebook and searched the text for any mention of archaeology. There was none.
Mountains of Madness is a game for 3-5 players in which the group works together to discover and collect relics, specimens, and other items for the purpose of research. The trick is, however, getting off the mountain which is treacherous and what makes the game extremely difficult to win. There is the added concept of madness in which players are given madness cards which restrict them from doing something during the most critical phase when communication is extremely important. Players get madness from collecting artifacts, the items that you need to win the game, but also as a punishment for failing tasks.
The undertones of the subject matter suggest the characters you embody are archaeologists in the 1920s, though the rules never once expressly state this. According to the rulebook and theme elements, players are only referenced as “researchers” with some specializations like geology and paleontology being mentioned briefly. These references to specific professions are also not in direct reference to the characters themselves. So why do so many people assume archaeologists? Perhaps the answer can be found in simply the reference to relics and expeditions.
As an archaeologist and gamer there are constant references to archaeologists being treasure hunters. Looting is generally tied to archaeology in popular culture. The use of the words expeditions and artifacts are also used in similar ways and tend, for the average users, to bring to mind the image of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. Interestingly, this means that even when games do not mention archaeology, the use of phrases commonly associated with archaeology in popular media also evoke the idea of looting for the public without archaeological training. While the game never mentions archaeology, some players feel that they are archaeologists in Mountains of Madness due to the use of specific words. An analysis in the perceptions of archaeology can be evaluated by using Mountains of Madness. Since the game never mentions archaeology, the perceptions of archaeologists is evident in the assumption that a game involving expeditions and artifacts is about archaeology.
A comparison can also be drawn to the Uncharted digital game series. Uncharted is a third-person, puzzle platformer game series which follows a protagonist on an adventure to locate lost cities and civilizations. The Uncharted game series is similar in many respects to the new Tomb Raider (2013) trilogy. There are similar mechanics and themes. One major difference, however, is that in each game in the series, without fail, there is an exchange between the characters where it is clearly stated that the main character is not an archaeologist, just a thief (something which I greatly appreciate NaughtyDog having done). Unfortunately, it appears that this specific sentiment is overlooked by many individuals as Nathan Drake is commonly referred to as an archaeologist. The concept of looting, expeditions, and adventures that occur in ruins seems to be enough for most gamers to connect the Drake with archaeology.
This perception of archaeology can be evaluated similarly. Uncharted specifically states that it is not about archaeologists and Mountains of Madness specifically excludes archaeology from a list of professions and flavor text. The pervasive understanding of archaeology being equated to looting and treasure hunting is clearly evident in these examples. Archaeology in popular culture, regardless of analogue or digital gaming, is conveyed through linguistic undertones to words as well as subject matter associated with antiquarianism.
Interestingly, Mountains of Madness’ specific setting and theme of 1920s Lovecraftian horror further complicates the matter. The 1920s aspect of the game suggests that archaeogamers need to look more closely at archaeology as it was in the 1920s. For the most part, archaeology during this period was not as it is today. Modern scientific rigor and ethical standards which are now followed in archaeology were not commonly used during that period. This means that in the setting of Mountains of Madness, the answer to whether or not players are archaeologists is not a simple yes or no. In today’s archaeological standards, the answer is no. In the 1920s’ standards, the answer is much more complex.
When evaluating the perceptions of archaeology in games, looking at games which do not specifically mention archaeology but present the antiquarian undertones commonly associated with archaeology by popular culture proves to be interesting. It provides insight into the specific linguistic and thematic cues which might be associated with archaeology, like the words expedition and artifacts. Similar to digital games, analogue games fall into similar patterns of language and themes. Even when archaeology is not specifically mentioned, the undertones of looting and treasure hunting seem to be commonly associated with archaeology by gamers, even when game designers attempt to combat this. Future exploration on how games like Mountains of Madness may be able to influence or understand these popular perceptions would likely yield interesting results.
–Kaitlyn Kingsland, Archaeogaming
6 September 2019