Recently, I’ve thrown myself into writing my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Whether this is a response to the chaos playing out each day in the news and in my email or simply a way to pass the time, it’s hard to know. But I’m doing it almost compulsively.
The second section of the chapter that I’m working on this month focuses on archaeogaming. This is a term coined by Andrew Reinhard to describe the archaeology of and in video games. Since my book will begin with a description of the archaeology of the Atari dump in Alamogordo, this chapter will emphasize how archaeological methods allow us to understand video games in new ways. If you want to read the first part of this chapter, go here. I’ve posted a draft of the second part of the chapter here.
Here’s the draft, rough and ready and fresh from my laptop.
The physical components of digital technologies may represent the most obvious object for archaeological research, but the hardware, circuits, cabinets, cases, infrastructure, and context contribute only one aspect to how video games contribute to contemporary American culture. The blurred lines between games and other media, whether through transmedia franchises where films, book, and games develop interrelated plot lines, characters, and world or through toys, clothing, or other products that constitute consumer culture. Games like Mortal Combat, for example, have inspired films and film franchises like Star Wars, Tomb Raider, E.T., and Indiana Jones have led to video games. The beloved Danish toy company, Lego, has spawned both video game and film tie-ins that involve iconic characters such as Batman portrayed though Lego blocks and appearing across multiple platforms. The increasing ubiquity of videogames in American life has given rise to a wide range of critical voices who take games seriously as cultural products. From Ian Bogost’s widely read reviews of games (e.g. Bogost 2015) to treatments of games which consider their role in promoting certain values, practices, and notions of play (e.g. Dyer- Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Crogan 2011; Paul 2018; Muriel and Crawford 2018). Moreover, scholars have recognized videogames as art (e.g. the contributors to Clarke and Mitchell 2013), forms of literature and film with their own distinct narrative potential (Cremin 2016; Kerner and Hoxter 2018; Jayemanne 2017, and as offering unique was of experiencing time and understanding the past (e.g. Champion 2015; Hanson 2018).
While video games have received critical attention for decades, the role of archaeology in the study of video games has only started to emerge over the last few years. In part, archaeology’s interest in games is an extension of the field’s recognition that any understanding of the material manifestations of digital media require us to understand the digital media itself. This presents challenges that archaeology has long encountered in more traditional environments. Digital media, for example, have proven to be particularly ephemeral. As streaming music, books, and games has become increasingly common, it is possible for digital content to change or disappear without a trace from a consumer’s collection. Archaeology has long emphasized methods to document ephemeral relationships, media, and experiences in the field making it possible to trace formation processes even even as events and processes overwrite previous situations. Archaeologists likewise concern themselves with recovering or, at very least, attempting to imagine the relationships between past technologies, practices, and experience (citations here). The vintage cabinet games documented by Raiford Guins and wide range of home gaming consoles manufactured and sold over the past 50 years underscored the close link between the games as digital media and the often difficult to preserve, maintain, and reproduce technologies. Further complicating our ability to understand and recover the experience of game play is that games are also valuable intellectual property. As a result, effort to preserve, maintain, or reproduce the code and the technologies are limited by copyright restrictions. Recently, archaeological approaches to documenting digital media, particularly games, through careful description of digital worlds, landscapes and gameplay, attention to social and cultural context, code, and technologies has produced a small, but thriving field of “archaeogaming.”
The field of archaeogaming has sought to explore the potential of archaeology to document video games. Andrew Reinhard (2018; 2019) has used a range of archaeological methods to document computer games as archaeological objects and spaces. In his dissertation, he demonstrated the potential for using archaeological reasoning to disentangle the multiple strata of code that developed around the computer game Colossal Cave Adventure originally . Programmers have continuously modified this early game, originally designed to run on a mainframe computer, for over 40 years. Reinhard used a suite of contemporary programs to explore the metadata, to compare the various bodies of code, and to quantify changes over time. This allowed him to trace the code and to identify some of the original code base that has persisted in later versions in more modern programing languages suitable for game play on a home computer or over the web. He was also able to situate the code socially, noting that most of the programers were males based on either the US or Europe. He noted that the music programmed into early versions of the game remains relatively unchanged in terms of the code, but would have sounded quite different as computer audio technologies developed over time. The stratigraphy of code for Colossal Cave Adventure deployed archaeological sensibilities and metaphors and techniques from the digital humanities to understand the development of a long-running game
The relationship between professional archaeological practices and those depicted in popular video games like the Tomb Raider or Raiders of the Lost Ark is relatively straight forward. While professional archaeologists have debated the relative merits of glamorizing fictional character who violated many of our discipline’s core ethical positions by looting archaeological sites (Holtorf xxxx; Meyers and Reinhard 2016; Reinhard 2018, 72-74), video games allow for a greater degree of agency as we control the characters in the games. Of course, playing games in such a way as to subvert their intensions does not always make an entertaining game. More open-ended games like Elder Scrolls Online involved a museum designed to display images relevant to the in-game narrative and as the basis for various quests which users can chose to engage in ethical or less ethical ways (Reinhard 2018, 83-86). Reinhard documents how engaging the quest in an ethical way by recovering relics and turning them into the museum reveals that the quest was a complex hoax. The cynical view of archaeology presented in the game was only apparent to players who completed the quest in an ethical way by depositing the relics in the museum. Whether this is a commentary on the ethically complicated character of modern archaeological practices and museums remains unclear in the game, but Reinhard’s description certainly leaves that possibility open.
The most ambitious effort in archaeogaming involves documenting a procedurally created world in the game No Man’s Sky. This space-based video game involves an almost infinite number of worlds populated with strange creatures, ruins, artifacts, and technologies. Moreover, various updates to the game after some disappointing initial reviews, created a series of intriguing glitches where graphics associated with older versions of the game were visible or displaced in updated versions. Reinhard and a team of “archaeogamers” initiated a project dubbed the “No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey” and developed methods to document this virtual world through a series of surveys conducted on a number of the procedurally generated planets. This work also prompted an ethical discussion about archaeogaming that manifested itself as a code of ethics written by Catherine Flick and L. Meghan Dennis and published as an appendix to Reinhard’s 2018 book (Flick and Dennis 2018). The relationship between games as culture, the material culture in games, and the role of in-game rules, ownership, agency, and ethical judgement in games pushes archaeologists to consider both the definitions of archaeological practice and the context for ethical behavior in the discipline (Graham 2018). If a game is a site suitable for research, it also becomes a place to reflect on the ethics of archaeological practice as they relate to the intent of the game designer, the rights of other players, and disciplinary responsibilities to document, preserve, and report our work. To this end, Reinhard archived the results of his NMSAS with the Archaeological Data Service in the UK to ensure that the documentation of the game and its sites is preserved irrespective of the fate of the game itself (Reinhard 2019).
For now, it would appear that the larger implications of archaeogaming on the traditional haunts of historical archaeology remain unclear, although it is easy enough to imagine archaeogaming as a method suitable for critiquing of capitalism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism as well as the role of gender in archaeological practice. The use of archaeological methods to document game play, games, and even code contribute to the preservation of videogames as digital media and extend our notion of the built environment from the physical spaces of our material world to the graphic spaces of the virtual world. As relationship between the material and immaterial world comes to define our encounters with a growing array of digital technologies and media that shape our culture, it seems appropriate that archaeology follows.