First, apologies for the long silence here at Archaeogaming! You can expect good things from AG HQ this summer as I play Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar MMOs in anticipation of Destiny and ultimately No Man’s Sky, all of which offer massive environments to explore while documenting the archaeology in them.

I’ve been looking for an archaeology-centered game, something with archaeology and archaeologists as the focal point and not just a random non-player character, side-skill/profession, or excuse to find “treasure” and “magic” by way of looting ancient monuments and artifacts. I was (pleasantly) surprised by what I found: Buried. You can play it here for free.

Buried Splash ScreenBuried was created by Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham as part of the July 2014 Heritage Jam, an event “bringing heritage, visualisation & media specialists together to collaborate, curate & create new imagery.” Copplestone (concept, writing, coding art) is part of the world-class talent vortex in York and describes herself as an “archaeological information systems person, VR enthusiast, and video-gamer devloping interactive archaeology games in VR.” Felixstowe-based (UK) Botham (coding, game elements, art) is a junior game designer at Guerrilla Games Amsterdam.

Created using Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories, Copplestone and Botham built Buried is a proof-of-concept game for “using ergodic literature for archaeology”. “Ergodic” is a fancy way of saying “choose-your-own-adventure” (remember those, kids?), where the reader can follow many different paths during the course of a story, following a thread wherever might lead, where re-readings of the story can lead to alternate endings.

Buried is intentionally lo-fi. It is text-centric and populated by charmingly Old Skool ASCII graphics, occasionally animated. The player clicks through the splash screen and learns that s/he is a field archaeologist, one concerned with death and burial of humans and human material. After a warning about potentially macabre scenarios (none of which are gratuitous), the player continues. We learn about the framework of the story, where Buried becomes a teaching game, story-based, using player engagement to instruct about archaeological theory, methods, and research. Even though the game is a “proof-of-concept”, there are 248 choices to be made, 17 conclusions, and 50 outcome modifiers. The game as it is has a robust, clever narrative structure, some intriguing storytelling twists, and a complex sense of humor. Just like in real life (and unlike most modern games), there is no backtracking or reverting to a previously saved version. You are committed until the story ends. Replay is encouraged. The archaeology is well researched and clearly presented.

tara15There is a brief tutorial instructing players about the user interface. Some of the text is interactive in occasionally unexpected and delightful ways (e.g., waving your pointer over text on one frame make text bold, and you can watch it fade back to normal — and this happens for a reason!). Click on white text for definitions or options to progress in the story.

You then enter your name (real or fictitious), select a title (Dr., Mr., Mrs., Miss, Lord), a drink (water, scotch, soda, coffee), and the location of your fieldwork (Frankfurt, Rome, York, Atlantis), and off you go. You are immediately beset with choices including procrastination. In fact, procrastination features heavily in many of the story’s threads. Such is archaeology research and writing. You get email and opt to read or ignore, reply or not. You can choose theory or practice. You can be drawn in to your work, or drawn away by personal issues. You can accept or pass on projects. As playful as the story is, it does strike close to home to practicing archaeologists, and could serve as a warning to those considering the field.

Human death, burial, and human and material remains form the second act of the story, and as you play, emotions resonate, something many professionally produced games attempt to capture, yet often fail to do so. The humor masks deeper feelings surrounding death and loss in some scenarios, and also highlights professional successes in others. We play and feel, and we learn.

I have played the game several times, all to different outcomes. Some threads are longer and more complex than others, and as if to mimic real science, the more work the player puts into the story, the more one gets out of it. In this case, we learn about archaeology, theory, and practice (Michael Shanks is invoked at one point). In other cases procrastination wins. It’s neither good nor bad. The outcomes just are, and we move on.

tara19Buried is both a game and not a game. It is a playable book, and one with exceptional replay value. Archaeologists and archaeology are both portrayed realistically, and at the same time are neither boring nor sterile, proof that archaeology can stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks or stereotypes.

Once finished, click on the “Paradata” link to read more about the underpinnings of the game and concept. It is extraordinarily interesting. Copplestone writes, “the overall goal of the project was to explore the extent to which text (including hyper-text, ascii and text generated images) could be considered a visualisation media, whilst also exploring the impact player agency and choice has on the development, understanding and personal visualisation of a narrative.” There is more to the story than the story. It explores how readers “see”, text as visual tool as opposed to mere words on a screen. The story itself is an allegory for burial, something I had missed until reading the Paradata section. Buried is playful, but also provides plenty to discuss regarding what is a game, and how our personal experiences are brought to bear on choices made within this kind of media, and on this story specifically.

If more gaming companies and developers would spend as much time on story as they did on graphics and audio, the entire gaming community would be better served. This is why indie games are succeeding where their juggernaut cousins fail. Buried is deceptively complex in rendering the visual, and does so in subtle, clever ways. I find myself wondering what kind of data Buried collects from its users, namely choices made, threads followed, drinks chosen, time taken between choices, time spent with media in the game, time spent reading, etc. What patterns appear, and what does that say about us as gamers, as archaeologists (real or imagined)? I’m eager to see Copplestone’s results when they are ready to share.

Now stop reading, and go play Buried for yourself.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming





I am extraordinarily happy to announce that the Xbox Wire published its press release today about the April 26th excavation of the Atari Landfill (aka Atari Dump Site, E.T. Burial Ground, etc.) in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

I’m part of the team of archaeologists referenced in the press release, and will be joined by archaeologists Richard Rothaus, Bill Caraher, and Lindsay Eaves, with support from historians Bret Weber, Raiford Guins, and others. I’ll post more information later, but if you find yourself in southern New Mexico on April 26th, the public are invited to watch as the team uncovers what Atari buried in the desert in 1983.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

Below is a post that I was told to take down by Zenimax Online during the beta testing of Elder Scrolls Online earlier this year. I am reposting it now, but unfortunately the original images are no longer available. Hopefully the text is enough for now. I am looking forward to joining the full game soon for months of archaeogaming. -Andrew


I had the opportunity to participate in two full weekends of beta testing of the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), the MMO slotted for release on 4.4.14 by ZeniMax Online based on the hugely entertaining, lore-heavy Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks. This post details my archaeological experience in playing the beta over the weekend of January 11th and 12th, and is not intended to be a review of the game (which I thought was quite fun to play for the short time I had access to it). I shot images of my display with my iPhone, so apologies for the dubious quality, but there should be enough detail to show you a bit of what I saw. Although I do not think that this post violates the Terms of Service for the beta, readers might want to copy/paste for later reading.

Going into the ESO beta, I wanted to accomplish a few things, in no particular order: 1) explore the world to see if there were ruins, 2) identify threads of lore connecting this world of the past with the world of Skyrim set 1,000 in the future, 3) learn if archaeology was part of the game, and if so, to what extent, 4) perform actual archaeology (both real and experimental). In my brief hours in Tamriel, I was not disappointed in meeting every goal, even if some of what I found was disappointing. More on that later.

Players start off in the dark, otherworldly Oblivion as part of a massive jailbreak. All are in either rags or the uniforms of veteran soldiers. Rags in one century pretty much look like rags in another. As we fled down torchlit corridors pursued by skeletons, we armed ourselves with rusty weapons typical of Level 1 in any dungeon crawler. Crappy bladed or staff weapons change little over time, too. Ultimately the player emerges into a great hall to assist “The Prophet” (voiced I believe by Michael Gambon . . . really) rematerialize into human flesh and then escape to Tamriel. The Deadric Hall was gloomy and gear-filled, but not overtly dwarvish/Dwemer, window-dressing for fast action into the guts of the game.

I followed the Prophet’s lead and emerged aboard a ship moored on the Redguard island of Stros M’Kai and its Port Hunding. It would appear that the technology of wooden ships changed little over 1,000 years. The same could be said of, erm, crate-and-barrel technology. But as soon as I stepped off the boat, I was gobsmacked by an architecture alien to me and likely to the rest of the Elder Scrolls games.

I was in a palm desert, and set among the trees were walls and buildings resembling Arabia with curves and peaks, towers, and the rich colors of red and gold. The port looked new, hardly lived in, and having lived in Phoenix for a time, I know that even if something was built decades ago, it still looks new in the desert light. A palace, a bazaar, shops, and inns, the port bustles. Having limited experience with the Redguard from my time playing Oblivion and Skyrim, I was unsure what to expect regarding architecture and design.

I half-expected to hear a muezzin make the call to worship, and to see lines of Arabic-looking script wrap around each building’s walls. As I explored Port Hunding, I noticed that there was no writing anywhere. I began to suspect Redguard illiteracy until I began finding books and letters.

One letter looted from a corpse led me directly to archaeology in ESO: “A reward is hereby offered for all Dwarven relics delivered in good working order. Monies paid depend on condition, rarity, and usefulness of said relic. Pieces of relics are also accepted, depending on condition. –Rulorn”

This note was found with a gear of Dwarven manufacture. I took both from the body and set off to find Rulorn, no doubt a shady dealer in Dwarven antiquities. I already had a sinking feeling that the archaeology in ESO would mirror that of other games: relics equate to money, and stealing relics makes for good quests. But this is a virtual world, and I am looting from a fictitious race. And because this is an MMO, the relic I just looted returns to its findspot for the next player to discover. And steal. And so on. The ethics of this kind of iterative looting has me quite confused and a bit conflicted on what it is I’m doing with these artifacts.

In any case, I collect three other gears and return to Rulorn in the port. Already I feel dirty as the dialogue with him begins:

Rulorn: “Yes? Do you have something for me?”

Me: “I found something you might be interested in.”

And so it goes until I give him the goods, and he gives me the cash. In a wrinkle, though, he turns out to be a scientist who needs these ancient parts to create an automaton that he’s built from other artifacts he’s collected. I pull the lever and the machine activates. Rulorn and I have a partnership now, not unlike Indiana Jones and his various handlers. It’s time to discover more ruins, and the island of Stros M’Kai is dotted them, mostly Dwemer, a dwarven race, master machine-builders and miners.

On my way, I pass by discarded astrolabes half-buried in the sand and elevated roads with the appearance of Roman aqueducts. I meet up with another non-player character (NPC), Noramo, who gives me my marching orders: “Despite the age of these ruins, I suspect the usual defenses are in place. As I am averse to danger, would you explore the ruins to locate any Dwemer generators inside?”

Of course I agree. He unlocks the doors into the Dwemer tomb, and I, like so many other gamers before me, enter to avoid traps to find the loot, stealing it for my handler so that I can have a payday, and so that Noramo (in this case) can have his generators for science. It’s a familiar trope in science fiction film, fiction, and games: scientists stealing unknown technology to reverse-engineer it for their own ends. But who am I to argue? I’m just the gopher in this quest. Along the way I see ancient halls crowded with pipes and ducts and machinery. I fight and destroy clockwork beetles. I discover the mundanity of a smoking pipe, a quill pen, an ink pot. Later I find a table topped with the tools of a blacksmith, left behind and looking brand new.

I complete the quest and then decide to just explore the island. My time is limited. One of the best things about the Elder Scrolls games is that one can choose to just walk around in the world stumbling upon things. I treated this rambling as an archaeological surface survey. I found more Dwarven artifacts, made a note of them, and then decided to either collect a diagnostic piece, or to leave it in situ, photographing it only, moving on. I came to the realization that I was actively role-playing an archaeologist, which is strange, because I am one in real life. Very meta.

As I explored, I continued to look for evidence of writing outside of books and papers. I wanted to find markers and monuments and was not disappointed. I found the Tower of the Singing Sun, and next to it the skeleton of a looter, his pickaxe nearby, and his journal in his tent where he’d written about breaking into the monument to find treasure. I sighed again.

As I traveled on the island, I did find several luminescent cairns which contained runestones within them. Digging them up revealed the quality of each rune. The runes are likely used for crafting arms and armor, and require translation, something I was unable to do or find over my weekend of play.

Ultimately I had an inventory of the runes Ta, Okori, Okoma, Jora, Jode, and Dekeipa, but was unable to discern anything of linguistic merit. I’ll have to wait to buy the real game to go further there.

Farther along into the central desert stood stone markers taller than I was, incised with repetitive design elements, an attempt at art, but communicating little (to me anyway). On occasion, I discovered large amphoras buried in the sand and decorated in various geometric patterns. These could not be collected, but their contents were available for the taking, mainly grains.

After taking a break from study to kill a bunch of mobs and complete some quests to level up my toon, I hopped aboard a ship for another island, Betnikh, home of Orcs, and ancient home to a race new to me (and perhaps to the Elder Scrolls lore): Ayleids, the Wild Elves. The Orcs I met in Skyrim were largely confined to enclaves of primitive huts and camps walled with logs. Entering the Orc city in ESO, I was overwhelmed by the Cyclopean walls and massive stone buildings befitting this brawny, proud warrior race.

I was in for a surprise, however, as I stepped out of town.

I met my first “orcheologist” — an Orc archaeologist. Azlakha told me the following: “The Ayleids–Wild Elves as some call them–have always fascinated me. They are long gone but their ruins remain on Betnikh. From these we glean how they lived and died, so many years ago.”

My response (chosen from a list of two things, one being “Goodbye”): “Isn’t research a strange occupation for an Orc?”

She laughed off my condescension and gave me some quests to do, namely to explore ruins. The good news: I did not have to loot anything as I learned about the Wild Elves. The bad news? The ruins were populated by ghosts and monsters and contained evil magic. So archaeology-as-gateway-to-evil-stuff rears its head in this game as it has in so many others. I went off to find the ruins anyway, curious about this new culture, its art, and architecture. Along the way I found the skeleton of another dead looter and his shovel.

I dropped down into an underground tomb and photographed the bones of the warrior-king Targoth. He was laid on a bier surrounded by grave goods of weapons and armor and a sack of grain.

His ghost asked me to return his warhorn to him if I wished, to restore some dignity to his death, and the deaths of his people. I did so and was left with a good feeling having repatriated the artifact. Had I kept it, I could have sold it for money.

Later in the day, I came across a series of pyres. I’d met a priestess earlier who had told me how to activate these to see visions. I cared more about their location in the world, and what these pyres would look like. In my real-world job, I just published a book on saucer pyres from the Athenian Agora. What would ESO‘s look like? Upon arrival, I noticed a stone platform holding a bowl of fire, and next to it some nautilus shells. I’m not sure why these shells were chosen or what purpose they served, but the universal fire-in-a-bowl was present. I received my vision. It had something to do with werewolves.

I spent my remaining moments in the game searching for plants, performing a kind of palaeobotany. I wanted to see if I could find plants similar to those found in Skyrim, to compare properties as well as shape. Then I kicked myself when all of the plants on these two islands were wholly different from Skyrim: different ecosystems. That was a satisfying feeling.

I was also keen to see what would happen to the trash items I discovered and no longer needed (e.g., rags, poor-quality weapons, etc.). In World of Warcraft, players can discard items and collect them later if they have not yet logged out of the game. Players can keep items on their person, can share them with others directly, or can keep items in the bank. In ESO, I could carry items or could store them in places that I owned, and could trade directly with others, but to drop something to the ground was to destroy it. There will be no in-world trash middens and rubbish heaps. This also puts a damper on my hope of crafting something unique and then tracking it as it moves across the game. I was also hoping to identify real trade patterns in ESO, but that looks doubtful.

At the conclusion of my two days (maybe 10 total hours of play total out of the 48 I could have had in theory), I am keen to explore the full world from an archaeologist’s perspective. There are still ruins, but largely Dwemer, and now Ayleids. There is archaeology actually in the game, but trending towards looting, traps, and magic. I found that there is a lot to study as I compare cultures then and now, and that there is a new language to learn in the runes that I find. I’m also curious to see if players can complete quests and level up while being respectful towards in-world cultural heritage. I’ll blog more about this starting in April 2014.

And I am looking forward to doing the same once the new MMO from Bungee, Destiny, launches. As of January 13, 2014, people who pre-order the game are eligible to selection into the beta there.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

Archaeogaming is as much about exploring and conducting archaeology within gaming environments (virtual space) as it is about understanding the history of video games in the real world (meat space). The perfect, literal embodiment of archaeogaming was discussed for an hour in Austin as part of the 2014 South by Southwest festival. “Dumping the Alien: Unearthing the Atari Graveyard” featured the CEO of Fuel Entertainment, Mike Burns, and co-producer for Lightbox, Jonathan Chinn, speaking together about the upcoming springtime excavation and resulting documentary.


Still from the music video for “When I Wake Up” by Wintergreen in which band members travel to Alamogordo to excavate the Atari Burial Ground. Photo:

I was unable to attend, but followed the #etburial hashtag on Twitter for the hour. The Twitter roll and a curated list of tweets follows the text of this post. Stuart Dredge of the Guardian newspaper published an excellent piece on the panel, including several quotes from Burns and Chinn. Read the piece here. The session included a demo of the “worst video game ever”, E.T., played on an actual Atari 2600 console, and concluded with a random drawing that gave the console and a copy of the game autographed by its maker to one lucky attendee.

Now that the wheels are in motion on the project, you can learn more about it officially through the project’s website, Dumping the Alien. There is also an official Twitter @ataridigdoc, and hashtag: #etburial.

Regarding the documentary currently in production, fanboys/fangirls might take heart in the following (from the project’s website): “Zak Penn, writer of the Avengers, X-Men Last Stand, and Last Action Hero . . . [is] also writing and directing the documentary on our Alamogordro project.” The film will debut to users of Xbox 360 and Xbox One before a more general release.

But what about the actual archaeology? It’s clear that the project is to be a “dig”, but as of yet no archaeologists have been officially announced as being attached to the project. I’ve blogged about this project here, back on June 11, 2013, when the story officially broke. My archaeologist friends and my gamer friends and my archaeologist-gamer friends were ecstatic about the news. This is the coolest project, possibly ever. After their initial jolt of enthusiasm, they wanted to know who would actually do the digging. How would the excavation be run? How would the process and finds be documented? Five million cartridges is not unlike wading through five million sherds of pottery: it’s a lot of junk, but it can still tell us something.

My hope (and the hope of the archaeological community) is that the excavation will be handled professionally, but not without fun. After all, we’re digging into our recent past to confirm or deny an urban legend, and if confirmed, to dig, to explore, to document, to preserve. We’ll learn more about the gaming industry in general, and Atari specifically. We’ll learn if millions of cartridges really were trucked into the desert to be buried in a hole and capped by concrete. We’ll learn if Atari also chose to dump other games, prototypes, hardware, documents, and more. We almost saw the death of big, home gaming, and it will be interesting to see how close we came.

The excavation is purported to begin in the Alamogordo, New Mexico desert in mid-April or early May. I’ll certainly be watching with interest, and hope to make a trip out to New Mexico once the digging begins to see what’s happening, and to hopefully confirm that real archaeology is being done on these artifacts from our recent past.

I tweeted a few questions during the session regarding the specific nature of the dig (see below), but those went unanswered. To be fair, it appears that there was not a Q&A session following the panel. For now, the excitement remains quite high for both gamers and archaeologists. And as a kid who used to sneak out of his house to go play Atari at a friend’s, and as an archaeologist, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Useful/Interesting Tweets (selected from 101 tweets and retweets posted during the event, presented below from oldest to most recent, March 7, 2014):

Andrew ReinhardAtari Burial Ground UPDATE: Official hashtag is now #etburial #sxsw Updated info on today’s presenters is here: …

Andrew Reinhard There’s now an official Twitter for the Atari Burial Ground project and documentary: @ataridigdoc #etburial

Lightbox Happy #SXSW everyone! Lightbox Co-Founder JONATHAN CHINN talks all things #atari at panel Unearthing the Atari Graveyard #etburial

Andrew Reinhard I’ve been blogging/tweeting about the #etburial over the past few mos. & folks are asking the obv. questions of “when” and “who” re: digging

Andrew Reinhard There is also real concern from the archaeological community that the excavation of the #etburial is done correctly & documented well.


photo @kinseyv

Tim Hennessey Pro-Tip: If the ET video game phones home, hang up. #ETburial

Leandro GonzálezProbably the real cartridges are hiding in Argentina, and that’s were I should take that cartridge to meet it’s brothers #etburial

Greg Farley12 pixels nearly killed Atari and my childhood. #etburial

Michelle SLearning about Atari’s #ETburial and watching a brave soul play it at #SXSW P.S. They’re making a movie about it too

Daley ScreeningJoystick just fell off the controller, which seems fitting. The Atari just committed suicide rather than let ET be played. #ETBurial. #SXSW

No Crusts#ETBurial Filmmakers have scored permission to try to dig up the cartridges. If you don’t know the history… …

Hung NguyenThey’re trying to troubleshoot an Atari 2600 in the middle of the panel. I believe that’s a first. #etburial #sxswi #inthe80s

Dave KingE.T. for Atari 2600 was so bad that it cost the company $500m. But there’s something endearing about the story.. #etburial #sxsw

Gui AmbrosWatching the most surreal talk of sxsw: Unearthing the Atari Graveyard: The Search for ET. With rare original ET cartridges… #etburial


photo: @superpanic

Andrew ReinhardHere’s a primer on the history of the #etburial site: … #archaeogaming

Noob GalleryCurrently at sxsw watching a talk on the ET atari cartridge burial – a great bit of gaming history! Never forget! #etburial or #etrevival?

Joshua HirschKnew it was a terrible game, but didn’t realize it almost brought down the video game industry. #ETburial

Angie NewmanI like how ET looked in the Atari video game. Cute little green guy. I hope they find the cartridges. I want one. #etburial #SXSW

Marc SobierBuried Atari cartridges + old nuclear test site = ET Godzilla #ETburial, #SXSW

Andrew ReinhardQuestion for the #etburial panel: what else do they think is down there with the ET cartridges?


photo: @dannaquinn

Paul BenzonFor those interested in the #etburial, I did this piece on it a little while back: …

Thor MitchellStrikes me that the #etburial may be the earliest example of the Streisand effect… …

Jim Kidwell@doug_hanke Oh, and apparently the film makers DO plan to dig for the discarded Atari titles – kids have dug playable stuff up! #etburial

Hung NguyenThey think they’ve honed in on the section of land where the cartridges are buried. They are about to start digging. #sxswi #etburial

Jim Kidwell@doug_hanke title/website of the film is  #etburial

John Robert NixonDid #Atari bury one of the worst video games of all-time in the New Mexico desert? Film makers at #SXSW are going to find out. #etburial

Atari Dig@daveking certainly intrigued to see what we will find! #etburial #atari

Andrew Reinhard @ejohntexas #etburial Not just other games, but I’m wondering if there are hardware prototypes, too, as well as documents, etc.

Ole ReißmannWo ist ET? Das Atari-Spiel floppte, Millionen Cartridges wurden 1983 in der Wüste verbuddelt. Filmmaker wollen sie ausgraben #ETBurial #sxsw

Andrew ReinhardFolks attending the #etburial panel now at #sxsw, are there any more concrete details about the project? #archaeogaming

Stuart DredgeSearch for the infamous Atari E.T. cartridges landfill heats up  via @guardian #sxsw #etburial

Mike DaleyGreat panel on the Atari ET game cartridge graveyard in Alamagordo NM & how Atari spectacularly dropped the ball #SXSW #ETBurial

Tweeter Roll-Call (55 unique tweeters tweeted during the event):

























































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