I’ve been pretty excited to follow Andrew Reinhard’s ongoing exploration of archaeogaming, which he defines broadly as the archaeology of and in and with video games. I stands firmly at the intersection of media archaeology and the archaeology of media (and probably the larger archaeology of knowledge project explore by Michel Foucault). It’s a provocative and expansive place to situation oneself as video games are becoming an important – perhaps the important – form of 21st century popular culture and speak to larger trends in the media (not just digital media) toward convergence, interactivity, and participatory culture (to draw upon ideas formulated by, among others, Henry Jenkins). In other words, archaeogaming is significant because we are not merely consuming culture, but – to some appearances, at least – we are co-producing it. Check out his new article, “Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeologists in Video Games,” with Kathryn Meyers Emery in Public Archaeology to get a sense for what he’s been up to.
Reinhard’s recent effort to conduct an intensive pedestrian (style) survey within the world of No Man’s Sky, a procedurally developed gaming universe. If I understand correctly, the survey itself is not designed to discover anything – after all the worlds of No Man’s Sky are procedurally developed and the procedures are already known to developers, coders, engineers, and creative folks who produced the game – but to engage the game through the lens of archaeology. In other words, Andrew seeks to demonstrate that archaeological methods are as valid a way to engage a procedural universe as, say, the methods of warfare, diplomacy, building, or competitiveness, that tend to shape our engagement with such open-ended computer universes. All games require us to suspend disbelief and co-create a world with the game developers by embracing certain conceptual frameworks imported to the game. A first person shooter game, for example, expects the player to view warfare and killing as a valid way to solve a problem and to “win” the game. Likewise an educational game – say the venerable Oregon Trail – expects the player to want to reach Oregon and not long to settle down to an early death in Montana or wherever. The expectations that a participant brings to the game playing experience co-creates the game play with the plot, narrative, graphics, and “rules” created by the game designers. When such rules are incompatible with players expectations, hilarity can ensue (see the popular Breaking Madden series), but much more frequently, game players become frustrated and fail to engage game play. Andrew hopes to introduce archaeology as a valid method for engaging and co-creating the experience of gaming. The No Man’s Sky survey project is the first step in that direction.
This is interesting for archaeologists because it follows a larger trend toward thinking about archaeology as a way to organize our engagement with the modern world. If archaeology is a lens through which to grasp “culture” (however broadly construed), then archaeogaming is nothing more than a particular focused way to excavate technological, social, and conceptual affordances prevalent among game developers and their audiences.
Players interact with games through various kinds of controllers, for example, that offers only a limited range of haptic, visual, and aural feedback. The sound of a trowel against the soil, the thump and feel of a pick as it moves through strata, and the subtle variations in texture and color dictate stratigraphic changes and these things are not yet simulated by video games.
At the same time, there are certain kinds of social expectations. Game play is typically fast paced and challenging escapism. Archaeology is tedious, detailed, routine stuff. The daily grind of field walking, excavating, ceramic analysis, or even data management that is the core of archaeological field work hardly lends itself to engaging game play. Moreover, archaeology is bound by so many rules ranging from methodological concerns to basic ethical concepts. Of course, one could argue that the hours of training to become an elite basketball or football player is boring and translates poorly to game play, but in a football or basketball games, the video game can simulate the excitement of playing the game itself. Likewise, first-person-shooter style war games rarely depict the years of training needed to become a weapons expert or trained at hand-to-hand combat. The heat of battle, however, provides a compelling and exciting trope for game play. Even crime provides opportunities for game playing excitement. Like war games, sports games, and even quest games, there is an obvious opponent, enemy, or goal that makes game play compelling. Archaeology, historically, lacks such compelling moments. Our goal is writing and, ultimately publication. Our opponent is time and the limits of our imagination. And in this way, archaeology is not unique. From my experiences, there have been few compelling games based around, say, literary criticism, archival research, or bench science. This isn’t to say that these kinds of games are impossible – obviously game designers increasingly recognize that open-ended, multiplayer games can be engaging and attract audiences of millions (for example, Minecraft) – but they do not neatly conform to certain expectations for how video games should work.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the most appealing mass market video games featuring archaeology fit into certain, rather predictable and sensational, models. For example, the openly transgressive Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider characters of both traditional and digital media represent a kind of anti-hero that appears throughout the cannon of world literature. These figures defy expectation and break the very systems established to reinforce the mundane, productive, predictable existence of archaeological work and our everyday lives. On this, albeit very basic, level, they aren’t archaeological at all any more than Allen Iverson was distinct to basketball, Dale Earnhardt was distinct to NASCAR, Robin Hood was distinct the Sherwood forest, or any number of anti-heroes represented in a meaningful way a particular time and place. The thing that makes Indiana Jones or Laura Croft compelling is their rollicking, renegade, and largely amoral way of living in the world. The routine, mundane work that constitutes the bulk of archaeology is the opposite of what makes these anti-heroes compelling, and rarely does it culminate in some grand conflict or moment of euphoria, but instead produces more routine work (writing, analyzing, interpretation, publishing). Daily life is rarely the stuff of legend or video games.
Despite the rather banal character of archaeological research, the concept of archaeogaming remains intriguing, and it’s exciting to see Andrew’s deepening engagement with the idea. I think it blends nicely with the growing interest in the idea of archaeology of the contemporary world and every day life. If we can conduct archaeology by simply observing the world around us in a systematic way, then I think the archaeology of a video games is not only possible, but probably inevitable.