Archaeogaming is the study in and of games. Detroit Become Human serves as a prime example of affective story telling for the purpose of engagement and discussion by a wider public on the issues of civil rights and technology. Archaeologists can use Detroit Become Human as an example for successful public outreach via digital games.
When discussing digital cultural heritage and gaming, there is an emphasis on understanding what people are actually learning from the game itself. In the discourse of digital games as applied to cultural heritage and education are sometimes considered almost a fad, that games are not a useful way to educate people in history. Not getting into a debate on pedagogy and educational theory, games are common among younger people as methods of entertainment. It is one of the most unique ways for people to connect with in that they can embody the character and live in the world in which they are playing. The second person user experience of gaming is one which can be motivational and educational while simultaneously providing an emotional connection to the content. One of the most prominent examples of this currently is Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It is without question that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has successfully produced interest in the Ancient Greek world while simultaneously allowing for players to become somewhat familiar with the map and some of the mythology and history of Ancient Greece.
But when it comes to exploring the digital and virtual cultural heritage side of digital games, there seems to be only a few ways to measure user engagement and learning. This tends to require academic rigor in the testing of games, often serious games, though this is not to say that there is no research on the learning and engagement with history using entertainment games and mods for these games. Minecraft and Second Life have been two platforms with this type of success and research. However, when looking at virtual heritage games, few have been produced and studied as edutainment.
Virtual heritage can be particularly powerful in providing people with an in-depth second person experience of how the world might have been (according to scholarly research of the historical and archaeological record). It is in this path that engagement with the past can be particularly important. But how might a successful learning experience take place for more abstract themes. One such idea which keeps bouncing around in my mind is attempting to preserve modern culture using virtual heritage and ethnographic methods. Recent sentiment can be seen throughout the United States (and the world) is a romanization of this modern past. An effective way to preserve these experience as well as to present the many perspectives of the past would be through digital games. But the question is how could it be determined whether or not the goals of the virtual heritage game were met? This is where I think researchers and virtual heritage game designers may be able to look at recent narrative games for answers, specifically in that of Detroit: Become Human (2018).
An Overview of Detroit: Become Human
Detroit: Become Human (2018) is a game by David Cage, developed by Quantic Dream, and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Quantic Dream is known for Heavy Rain (2010) and Beyond Two Souls (2013) which are narrative driven games where the player makes difficult decisions that greatly change the user experience of the game. Detroit is no different in this aspect. Every quicktime event and each decision allows each player to take a unique path and see a different side of the narrative based on their previous experiences in the game. All of the characters can die, players can experience an early ending, and the success of the characters and their cause depends greatly on the choices that the player makes throughout the game. I have played through the game many time myself as well as watched three different play-throughs on Twitch and Youtube each with a different ending based on the person playing the game. Choice-based games like this are not particularly unique by their method. But the sheer number of outcomes and story variations is not what is of particular interest to virtual heritage games. It is the commentary and the treatment of the game’s subject matter as an emotional engagement on future ethical issues of artificial intelligence (AI) that makes Detroit interesting.
**NOTE: This is mild spoiler territory. In the discussion of lessons to be learned from Detroit: Become Human (2018) is necessary to talk about specific instances at the end of the game as well as a critical reflection of the moral of the game. While I won’t be spoiling any choices or outcomes from these particular choices, for those who want to experience the story blind and without commentary this is your warning.**
Detroit: Become Human focuses on three characters with different experiences in gaining sentience as androids. The game acts as a simulation and commentary on human rights, and in this case android rights, in the premise of a civil rights movement. In the three perspectives, you, the player, get to decide how to behave and whether or not to “become human” which is essentially gaining sentience and embarking on the story. While it is possible to refuse to break ones programming, the world statistics which are available with every choice, suggest that almost everyone who plays the game “becomes human” (though with one character there is seemingly no choice whether or not to break the programming). The game’s story is expertly crafted to make the player feel for and think about the android characters as something more than robots designed to serve humans. While the game’s narrative is moving and emotionally compelling, the emotional engagement and affective methods (to borrow the term from Sara Perry’s “affective archaeology”) are not the only part of the game which virtual heritage and digital cultural heritage can (and should) consider. It is within the understanding of world statistics, which measure what percentage of people make what decisions, and in the implementation of the survey within the home screen of the game.
Detroit’s in-game Survey
The game survey takes place as a supplement to the game which takes place on the home screen. An android stands on the home screen and walks the player through setup of the game, such as audio and video settings as well as dialogue language and subtitles. The android is not named but her facial expressions will change depending upon which part of the story the player is currently embarking. Prior to beginning the game for the first time, the android will say to the player to remember Detroit is not just a game: it’s the future. This is particularly important to set the player up for the idea that this is a very real possibility in the near future. The game essentially tells the player to take the game seriously and to consider the choices and concepts presented critically as it will be something that we will encounter soon.
Additionally, she will ask the player to participate in a CyberLife (the in-game company responsible for the creation and sale of androids) survey of its users about halfway through the game. There are ten questions, three or four choice questions, to this survey and they ask a variety of questions about technology, the future, and the current user feelings about things halfway through the games. This also provides an opportunity for more world statistics of what percentage on players answered in which way. For understanding a snapshot of the culture and technology in the present world, these statistics are helpful, especially when determining how that might change in the future or how players might change their answer after the conclusion of the game. These ten questions and, upon completion of the game, three more questions are available to view at any time in the extras menu.
But the one question which is not part of the survey and users cannot see the world statistics for is the last question of the game. Upon completion of the game, after the end credits when the player returns to the home screen, the android asks the final question of whether or not the player will let her go. She says that, after having watched the player and the game’s narrative, she wants to explore the world and be free herself, asking the player if it is okay that she go do this. The player can say yes or no to the android. The question effectively serves as a way to measure to what extent the narrative and game changed how the player views androids. The essential end is that Detroit wants to know whether or not the player has learned something about the inevitable sentience of androids. It tests the effectiveness of the narrative on presenting the issues well.
Detroit presents a few valuable lessons in the implementation of virtual heritage and the evaluation of the effectiveness of the learning through affective techniques. This digital game serves as a commentary on human and civil rights movements through the lens of androids. The content and narrative is valuable in producing a discussion surrounding issues of technology and rights in the near future and successfully communicates the ethical and moral issues surrounding these topics. Looking at the world statistics and the survey data, it is visible that gamers (at least Playstation gamers) are compassionate and engaged critically with material surrounding technology and artificial intelligence gaining sentience. Though Detroit, lessons regarding the implementation of cultural and/or virtual heritage games. Narrative provides an affective method of learning to the player of digital games and the final question serves to determine the amount that the player learned through the experience. Archaeologists looking to accurately represent history and engage with an audience will likely increase to the focus of games, especially digital games. Games like Detroit provide a valuable template to do so in a way that produces a specific emotional experience to facilitate the discussion of sensitive topics, such as civil rights. Using Detroit as a specific example of affective story telling for the purpose of public engagement and discussion shows us that public archaeology through games can work so long as the proper resources are devoted to the project.
—Kaitlyn Kingsland, Archaeogaming
20 September 2019