Archaeogaming: Reception and Application of Archaeology In Video Games

Here’s my revised PhD proposal as submitted to the University of York’s Department of Archaeology on 3 October 2014. Thanks to Lorna Richardson, Colleen Morgan, Alison Atkin, Donna Yates, and Katy Meyers for their help during the revision process.

Introduction

This proposal has been developed via my deep interest in exploring the intersection of archaeology and video games from an academic perspective, pursued through a multidisciplinary approach involving traditional archaeology, media/digital archaeology, and video game and reception studies. I am interested in exploring how the game-world is built from an archaeological perspective. This includes the representation of everything from sacred and secular architecture to humble pots, and perhaps more importantly, the story of the cultures within the games which will be selected for study (and play).

For example, World of Warcraft is a fully imagined world, with a wealth of lore (detailed, often ancient history invented specifically for a game) created by the game’s developers and by the fan community. The depth of the game’s architectural design and the attention spent on designing the in-game artifacts, including armor and weapons, has yet to be equaled. Yet when the “Archaeology” skill, which allowed players to conduct surveys and excavate artifacts, was introduced in World of Warcraft, there was relatively little engagement between the players and actual archaeological practice. As the game’s expansion packs continue to be published, altering the gaming world of Azeroth, I want to document these changes archaeologically, to analyze the varied in-game artifact assemblages, and to record how virtual natural disasters and warfare have an effect on the cultural landscape.

The archaeology of virtual worlds addresses critical questions about identity, heritage, placemaking and dwelling that are broadly relevant to the discipline (Morgan and Polson 2009; Boellstorff 2008). My thesis will critically examine the previous interactions of video games and archaeology, develop a methodology for the archaeological documentation of virtual worlds, then propose an enhanced interdisciplinary framework that will bring together archaeological practice and video game development.

The Archaeology Department at the University of York has been instrumental in the development digital archaeology over the last 20 years. Recent research within digital heritage, including initiatives led by Julian Richards and Gareth Beale at the Centre for Digital Heritage, Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry’s experiments with Minecraft and media archaeology, and several video-game focused student heritage projects demonstrate the continuing leadership of the department in digital archaeology. The research outlined below would explore the history the relationship between archaeology and video games and interrogate how video games can be used to improve archaeological investigation and engagement with the public.

Background and Context

I graduated with a B.A. in classical archaeology in 1994 and an M.A. in classical archaeology in 1996, and since that time I have excavated on two continents at ancient, modern, and even contemporary sites. Most recently I led the excavation of the “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamogordo, New Mexico where my team and I conducted research into the archaeology of the recent past, and, for the first time in history, of video games. I am a lifelong gamer, beginning with the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, then moving to games for DOS and Macs, and onwards to Xbox One, Playstation 4, Wii U, and Steam for Mac and PC, not to mention casual games for mobiles and tablets.

I began researching and writing about the intersection of archaeology and video games at my blog, Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com) two years ago. This interest originally derived from exploring the use of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMOs) as places for Latin pedagogy. My work on the subject was published in the multi-author volume Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age (Trondheim Studies in Greek and Latin, 2013, included with my application as my writing sample), and I was amazed at the amount of Classical reception present in games that the other authors had noticed. This grew into a serious application of archaeological methods to my own gaming, and I became curious as to how archaeology and archaeologists are perceived by both developers and players. I also began exploring the concept of lore within game franchises, and how the material culture of these gaming worlds changes over time.

The literature on “archaeogaming” is severely lacking—according to Worldcat.org, nothing has yet been published with that neologism despite its growing prominence online. However, my proposed work is informed by several interdisciplinary research strands that are being developed in various areas of academia. Recent books on the history of video games include Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (Guins 2014), and Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (Wolf 2012). Also relevant to this study area is MIT’s Games-to-Teach project. Current research in combining archaeology and virtual space has been conducted by Bernard Frischer regarding the Rome Reborn Project, and Alyson Gill and her work with 3D reconstructions of ancient Greek architecture via Unity and Second Life (pers comm.). The blogs of Tara Copplestone (Gamingarchaeo) and Martin Rundkvist (Aardvarchaeology) are also influential for their thoughts on archaeology and video games. The literature for media archaeology includes Jussi Parikka’s 2012 book, What is Media Archaeology?, Erkki Huhtamo’s Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011), and A Companion to Classical Receptions by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (2008). The review of literature on both “archaeogaming” and media archaeology has identified a gap in our knowledge on archaeology in (and of) video games, its reception, and its application. The research proposed for this PhD study would begin to fill this lacuna.

Research Questions

How are archaeology-related themes, material and approaches used in video games, and how are archaeologists portrayed? How are these subjects received by real-world players, characters played by the computer (i.e., “non-player characters”), and game developers? How can traditional archaeological methods (e.g., recording, typologies, excavation, and the like) be applied within gaming environments to produce data and conclusions on material culture as presented and used in-world?

I have developed the following hypotheses through which I intend to approach research into the phenomenon “archaeogaming”:

  1. archaeology is rarely the explicit focus of video games, and if it is present in them, it is for entertainment value and/or set-dressing with little regard to “real” archaeology;
  2. explorable tomb/grave/temple environments in games exist solely for the purpose of looting;
  3. “significant finds” in games exist to earn players money or to enhance player skills (or curse them) via magic;
  4. even though most games set in vast virtual worlds were never intended to be used archaeologically, “real” archaeology can be conducted within them and can provide data and even new methods to use in the real world.

These hypotheses are derived from my personal experiences playing games as an archaeologist, as well as from what other scholars have published on the presentation of archaeology “archaeo-appeal”: archaeological theater and the use of archaeological tropes to advance a storyline (Horltof 2005).

Research Objectives*

  1. Establish a definitive history of archaeology/archaeologists within video games from the 1980s to the present.
  2. Explore the current reception of archaeology/archaeologists by game developers and by the general gaming community.
  3. Conduct real archaeology in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and virtual worlds, exploring the dissolution of the “fourth wall” between what is “real” and what is digital, playing with augmented reality via games and gaming devices (Jurgenson 2012).
  4. Explore and define the history and culture of looting and destroying cultural heritage in video games, and to arrive at a proposal of how archaeologists can lobby the gaming industry to mitigate the looting culture it promotes.
  5. Explore and define serious games that are used for crowdsourcing archaeological projects, and the gamification of archaeology in the real world.
  6. Determine if (and how) games advance archaeology (including 3D modeling and data management).
  7. Case study: Apply current numismatic methodology to study the history and current state of the use of coins, currency, and medals in video games.
  8. Case study: Apply current archaeological methods to examine the diversity of pottery types, use, and context within major MMOs, specifically Elder Scrolls.
  9. Case study: Explore and define the roles of lore and history of antiquarianism in major MMOs, specifically World of Warcraft.
  10. Case study: Archaeology of video games in the real world, specifically the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

*Each of the above items will be a chapter in the thesis. It may be that my supervisor recommends cutting some of these to make the project more manageable in the three years I have to complete my research and writing.

Methods

The study will require:

  • Use of scholarly literature both in print and online in peer reviewed and popular works as well as blogs on gaming and various types of archaeology
  • Immersive game-play-as-research in MMOs and current/legacy standalone games (i.e., primary sources) to conduct in-game archaeology
  • Creation of new and use of traditional archaeological methods and theory (i.e., secondary sources) for documentation in gaming environments
  • Frequent engagement with online gaming communities and wikis for the purposes of dialogue and research into lore and community-driven game modification/customization
  • Creation of various databases/wikis for recording purposes
  • Communication with (and/or visits to) game developers in the US and UK to discuss archaeological elements and stories in games
  • An ethnographic study of archaeological gamers and gamers who happen to be archaeologists.

I see this research overlapping with (and integrating) the work of various research clusters at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, namely Digital Archaeology, Historical Archaeology, and Heritage & Conservation, as well as with the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies, and the Department of Computer Science (see Paul Cairn’s work on immersion in video games).

Scope of and Limits to the Research

The scope of this PhD proposal will start with the history of archaeology in video games created for second generation home consoles which began to be produced and sold in 1976, and will continue into the present with popular MMOs such as Elder Scrolls Online and Destiny. Many games will be evaluated together as discrete series (e.g., Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Uncharted) specifically to explore how lore evolves, and how the material culture within these games changes (or doesn’t) between numbered games in a series, and their expansion packs. For this thesis, my dataset will be restricted to studying games created for the English-speaking market, and will focus most heavily on MMOs and large virtual worlds rich in lore, artifacts, art, and architecture (which is often already in ruins by design).

Regarding limitations, I might have limited access to legacy gaming hardware and video games, although I can arrange to visit the Strong Museum of Play and the Computer History Museum and other video game archives, or can purchase what I need via auction websites. It is also possible to find many games on “abandonware” sites or as Java-enabled emulators online. With all of these resources, I am confident that I will have access to the games and hardware I need to complete the proposed project.

Timeline*

January–May 2015: literature survey on media archaeology, reception studies, and video game studies, as well as the histories of lore in massive gaming franchises

May–September 2015: survey of archaeology and archaeologists as portrayed both directly and indirectly in video games past and present

October 2015–March 2016: conduct “real” archaeology to conduct case studies on numismatics, pottery, lore, and antiquarianism

April–June 2016: conduct surveys of online gaming communities and game developers regarding the reception of archaeology/archaeologists in games; contact/visit game developers to discuss reception and looting culture

July–September 2016: explore serious games and gamification of archaeological research

October–December 2016: write up the archaeology and methods used in the Atari Burial Ground excavation as a crossover from archaeology *in* video games to the archaeology *of* video games

January–March 2017: develop and present preliminary findings and analysis

April-September 2017: first draft

October–March 2017: final draft

*Following a precedent set by Morag Kersel (PhD Cambridge 2006, cultural heritage and the legal trade of antiquities), I hope to publish each chapter of my thesis as they are written, presenting my findings at conferences in order to workshop my ideas prior to submitting my thesis for review.

References

Boellstorff, T. (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Clack, T. and M. Brittain (eds) (2007), Archaeology and the Media, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

Copplestone, T., Gamingarchaeo (taracopplestone.co.uk).

Frischer, B. et al. (eds) (2008), Rome Reborn, ACM Digital Library, New York.

Gill, A. (2009), ‘Digitizing the Past: Charting New Courses in the Modeling of Virtual Landscape’ in Visual Resources, Vol 25 (4), pp. 313–332.

Graham, S., Electric Archaeology, (electricarchaeology.ca).

Guins, R. (2014), Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Hardwick, L. and C. Stray (eds) (2008), A Companion to Classical Receptions, Blackwell, Oxford.

Horltof, C. (2005), From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek.

Huhtamo, E. (2011), Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Johnson, E., Archaeology, Academia and Access (ejarchaeology.wordpress.com).

Jurgenson, N. (2012), “When Atoms Meet Bits: Social Media, the Mobile Web and Augmented Revolution”, Future Internet Vol 4 (1), pp. 83–91.

Lee, L. (ed), Abandonware Ring, (abandonwarering.com).

McCall, J. (2011), Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History, Routledge, New York.

Morgan, C., Middle Savagery, (middlesavagery.wordpress.com).

Morgan, C. and D. Polson (2009), ‘The Figmentum Project: Appropriating Information and Communication Technologies to Animate our Urban Fabric’, in Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City, Information Science Reference, Hershey.

Parikka, J. (2012), What is Media Archaeology?, Polity Press, Cambridge (UK).

Parikka, J., Machinology, (jussiparikka.net).

Perry, S., Savage Minds, (savageminds.org).

Reinhard, A. Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com).

Rundkvist, M., Aardvarchaeology (scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology)

Schreibman et al. (eds) (2004), A Companion to Digital Humanities, Blackwell, Malden.

Thorsen, T. (ed.) (2013), Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age, Akademika, Trondheim.

Watrall, E. (ed.), Play the Past (playthepast.org).

Wolf, M. J. P. (2012), Before the Crash: Early Video Game History, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Wolf, M. J. P. and B. Perron (2014), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, Routledge, New York.

(image: allgame.com)

(image: allgame.com)

Call me crazy, but I am applying to do an archaeology PhD at the University of York. Working on this Archaeogaming blog, and continuing to explore the intersection of archaeology and video games has led me to want to do this with serious, academic intent. I also want to conduct my research and writing transparently, opening my ideas and hypotheses and conclusions to the world in real-time, asking for comments, critiques, references, etc. I’m not (too) proud, and I think a project like this begs to be done out in the open. So I’m putting my Septims where my mouth is: below is my DRAFT PhD thesis proposal. It’s due on 29 September 2014, but I’m sharing it now in case anyone wants to read and lend a helping hand publicly in the Comments section. Go ahead; I invite you to be a part of this grand experiment in Open Research. And if you find an idea here that’s good enough to run with, do it. You have my permission. If I had an idea that’s worthy of borrowing, then I’m doing something right. Have fun with it. Now on to the proposal. Let me know your thoughts! (Trolls, behave.)

Introduction

The focus of this proposal is derived from my deep interest in exploring the intersection of archaeology and video games, and is a blend of archaeology, media archaeology, and video game and reception studies. This nascent discipline has grown over the 2-3 years, especially at York through the recent research completed by Emily Johnson and Tara Copplestone. Mine is a different kind of dirt archaeology, and explores formally for the first time in the history of the discipline how archaeology and games interrelate and can be used for serious science as well as a tool for communication of what archaeologists do (and what archaeology is) to the gaming public.

As an archaeologist, I am interested in how the game-world is built. This includes everything from architecture to humble pots. This also includes the story of the cultures within whatever game I play. Playing World of Warcraft was extremely satisfying to me because of the wealth of lore created by the team at Blizzard (and by the fan community), and the depth of design for armor, weapons, and more. I was smitten. And when the Archaeology skill was unveiled within the Cataclysm expansion pack, I was elated. And then deflated. Mastering the skill was boring, generally recovered artifacts of little value, was repetitive, was time-consuming, but on occasion turned up something wonderful. Despite the Archaeology fail in WoW, I found it fascinating to be a part of history as the games expansion packs came out and altered the world. But now I want to dip back into pre-MMO Warcraft itself. And the archaeologist in me wants to document everything, draw conclusions, and play with pattern recognition.

Since 2012, the thing that has pinned me to my basement office chair is playing Skyrim (200 hours so far) as my first Elder Scrolls game, and then going backwards into Oblivion (no pun intended). As a “proper” archaeologist, I’m all of a sudden understanding more lore, and I must confess a preoccupation with Imperial accoutrements (pottery, armor, etc.), and how they appear in Oblivion when compared to Skyrim where the Imperials have made headway into the land of the Nords. How does the design change, and why? I do plan on playing Morrowind next, going farther back in time, exploring a new geography, trying to follow threads within the lore while at the same time observing material culture of the non-player characters (NPCs) and cultures in the game.

Surely there is a lore-master or game archivist at both Blizzard Entertainment and Bethesda Softworks. After reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde and seeing one of these as a character in the novel, I thought it was likely the case, unless the companies are relying on chat rooms and reddit, vel sim, to make sure they’ve got their story straight. After connecting with a representative at Bethesda Softworks, I was informed this was not the case, that the game developers work with online communities to get the lore correct. But what of the design of simple pots, of peasant clothes? Where do the designers go to see what came before, and how do they make decisions to carry those designs forward into the next world, or to abandon them for something new? We ask the same of ancient artisans as we study what was left behind.

When I begin playing a game like Elder Scrolls IV or V, the archaeologist and explorer in me do a couple of things. First, I do a few quests and talk to everyone in that virtual world, all of the NPCs in a village or town, to learn, learn, learn. I study. I collect. I read all those books (and in Skyrim there are hundreds). And then it’s off to the wilderness. My eye is always caught by unnatural (i.e., not nature-made) construction, so I investigate. I document.

In an MMO, I like to go off by myself to explore. I level up my characters so they are strong enough and geared enough to survive attacks and the environment, and then I go play. I dawdle inside instances (dungeons), explore every nook and cranny, loot everything I can find (shameful behavior for an archaeologist, I know), but I also do try to help my guild or pick-up-group (PUG) defeat the bosses if only to find an epic or legendary piece of gear. One of the best compliments I ever received when running around Orgrimmar was from a random player who complimented me on a vintage axe that had dropped in Karazhan. I liked it because it was old. At level 85, it’s certainly useless for me as a weapon, but I like it. I found it. And it reminds me of an earlier time.

The archaeology of games is a very real thing and deserves discussion that can include (but should go beyond) reception studies. If a game has archaeology in it, that archaeology should be discussed, critiqued. But real-world archaeological methods should also be applied in exploring how in-game cultures change between game iterations.

Background and Context

I have been an archaeologist since 1994 when I graduated with my B.A. in classical archaeology, and I have excavated in both the Old and New Worlds at ancient, modern, and even contemporary sites. Most recently I led the excavation of the “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamogordo, New Mexico as my team conducted research into the archaeology of the recent past, and of video games for the very first time in history. I have also been a lifelong gamer, beginning with the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, then moving to games for DOS and Macs, and onwards to Xbox One, Playstation 4, Wii U, and Steam for Mac and PC, not to mention casual games for mobiles and tablets.

Over the past two years I have been researching and writing about the intersection of archaeology and video games at my blog, Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com). This interest originally derived from exploring the use of MMOs as places for Latin pedagogy. I was published in the multi-author volume Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age (Trondheim Studies in Greek and Latin, 2013), and was amazed at the amount of Classical reception present in games that the other authors had noticed. This grew into a serious application of archaeological methods when gaming myself, and I became curious as to how archaeology and archaeologists are perceived by both developers and players. I also began exploring the concept of lore within game franchises, and how material culture within these gaming worlds changes over time.

The literature survey on this topic is slim-to-none when focusing on “archaeogaming” (according to Worldcat.org, nothing has yet been published with that neologism in the title/subtitle). I have read recent books on the history of video games, including Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (R. Guins, 2014), and Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (M. J. P. Wolf, 2012). I have read (and played) much of what was produced by MIT’s Games-to-Teach project. I have corresponded with Bernard Frischer regarding the Rome Reborn Project, and with Alyson Gill and her work with 3D reconstructions of ancient Greek architecture via Unity and Second Life. I follow the blogs of Tara Copplestone (Gamingarchaeo) and Martin Rundkvist (Aardvarchaeology) for their thoughts on archaeology and video games. For media archaeology, there is Jussi Parikka’s 2012 book, What is Media Archaeology? and Erkki Huhtamo’s Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011). I have read A Companion to Classical Receptions by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (2008), and am in regular contact with Prof. Monica Cyrino, an expert in Classical reception. Through this literature review, however, there is nothing yet dedicated to archaeology in (and of) video games, its reception, and its application. It is my hope to fill that lacuna with my own research. There is much to publish on the subject.

Based on my personal gaming experience, and in speaking with other archaeologists who play games, as well as with gamers who play in archaeology-rich worlds, I have created a few hypotheses to test through a more academic approach to the research: 1. archaeology is rarely the focus of video games, and if it is present in them, it is for entertainment value and/or set-dressing with little regard to “real” archaeology; 2. explorable tomb/grave/temple environments in games exist solely for the purpose of looting; 3. “significant finds” in games exist to earn players money or to enhance player skills (or curse them) via magic; 4. even though most games set in vast virtual worlds were never intended to be used archaeologically, “real” archaeology can be conducted within them and can provide data and even new methods to use in the real world.

Research Questions

How is archaeology and how are archaeologists expressly used in video games, and how are they received by real-world players, non-player characters, and game developers? How can traditional archaeological methods be applied within gaming environments to produce data and conclusions on material culture as presented and used in-world?

Research Objectives

  1. To summarize the history of archaeology/archaeologists within video games.
  2. To define the current reception of archaeology/archaeologists by game developers and by the general gaming community.
  3. To demonstrate that one can conduct real archaeology in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and virtual worlds.
  4. To detail the history and current state of numismatics in video games by applying numismatic methods used for “real world” currency to coinage used in-game.
  5. To explore the diversity of pottery types, use, and context within major MMOs, specifically Elder Scrolls.
  6. To explore and define the roles of lore and history of antiquarianism in major MMOs, specifically World of Warcraft.
  7. To explore and define the history and culture of looting and destroying cultural heritage in video games, and to arrive at a proposal of how archaeologists can lobby the gaming industry to mitigate the looting culture it promotes.
  8. To explore and define serious games that are used for crowdsourcing archaeological projects, and the gamification of archaeology in the real world.
  9. To present a case study of the archaeology of video games in the real world, specifically with the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
  10. To determine if (and how) games advance archaeology (including 3D modeling and data management).

Methods

The study will require:

  • Immersive game-play-as-research in MMOs and current/legacy standalone games (i.e., primary sources) to conduct in-game archaeology
  • Creation of new and use of traditional archaeological methods and theory (i.e., secondary sources) for documentation in gaming environments
  • Frequent use of online gaming communities and wikis for the purposes of dialogue and research into lore and modding
  • Creation of various databases/wikis to record and openly pre-publish data
  • Creation/distribution of surveys and the use of social media to solicit responses
  • Communication with (and/or visits to) game developers in the US and UK to discuss archaeological elements and stories in games, as well as the predominance of looting and destruction of cultural heritage and what might be done about it
  • Communication with other archaeologists who self-identify as gamers to get their thoughts on conducting archaeology in games, and what might be applicable to real world archaeology as a result of these in-game explorations and data collection
  • Use of scholarly literature both in print and online in peer reviewed and popular works as well as blogs on gaming and various types of archaeology.

With every game I explore, I will document my work with screen captures, video capture, and synthetic text. I would like to post all of my work as-it-happens for two reasons: 1. to let the online community comment on my work and suggest corrections and additions as I write, as a kind of pre-publication peer review, and 2. to stake my claim publicly to this initial foray into archaeogaming as serious archaeology. I would also like to present my preliminary research and findings in articles and at conferences for additional feedback prior to submitting the doctoral thesis for committee review in anticipation of my viva.

Scope of and Limits to the Research

The scope of this PhD proposal will begin with the history of archaeology in video games created for second generation home consoles which began to be produced and sold in 1976, and will continue into the current time with popular MMOs such as Elder Scrolls Online and Destiny. Many games will be evaluated together as discrete series (e.g., Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Uncharted) specifically to explore how lore changes, and how the material culture within these games changes (or doesn’t) between numbered games in a series, and their expansion packs. For this thesis, I will restrict myself to playing/studying games created for the English-speaking market, and will focus most heavily on MMOs and large virtual worlds rich in lore, artifacts, art, and architecture.

It is likely that over the course of refining this proposal with my supervisor that the ten research objectives will be refined to five or even three. I might also have limited access to legacy gaming hardware and video games, although I can arrange to visit the Strong Museum of Play and the Computer History Museum and other video game archives, or can purchase what I need via auction websites. It is also possible to find many games on “abandonware” sites or as Java-enabled emulators online. A massive project like this one is potentially without end, so it may be that I focus on two or three case studies for current archaeological reception and practice in popular console games.

Timeline*

I expect this project to take a little more than three years to research and write, starting upon acceptance, perhaps as early as January 2015. From my work as a publisher of classical archaeology, I understand that deadlines always move around, and things can take 33%-50% longer than anticipated. I also know myself, however, and have been disciplined enough to write novels and conduct independent research nearly every night for the past five years. I am confident in my ability to follow through, and am also so enamored of this topic as to want to spend as much time with it as possible.

January-May 2015 – literature survey on media archaeology, reception studies, and video game studies, as well as the histories of lore in massive gaming franchises

May-September 2015 – survey of archaeology and archaeologists as portrayed both directly and indirectly in video games past and present

October 2015-March 2016 – conduct “real” archaeology and document the looting culture in several contemporary video games

April-June 2016 – conduct surveys of online gaming communities and game developers regarding the reception of archaeology/archaeologists in games; contact/visit game developers to discuss reception and looting culture

July-September 2016 – explore serious games and gamification of archaeological research

October-December 2016 – write up the archaeology and methods used in the Atari Burial Ground excavation as a crossover from archaeology *in* video games to the archaeology *of* video games

January-March 2017 – develop and present preliminary findings and analysis

April-September 2017 – first draft

October-March 2017 – final draft

*It may be that the timeline is changed so that I write a draft chapter after completing a research objective, saving the authoring of the conclusions chapter for the end of my primary research.

References

Clack, T. and M. Brittain (eds) (2007), Archaeology and the Media, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

Copplestone, T., Gamingarchaeo (taracopplestone.co.uk).

Frischer, B. et al. (eds) (2008), Rome Reborn, ACM Digital Library, New York.

Gill, A. (2009), ‘Digitzing the Past: Charting New Courses in the Modeling of Virtual Landscape’ in Visual Resources, Vol 25 (4), pp. 313-332.

Guins, R. (2014), Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Hardwick, L. and C. Stray (eds) (2008), A Companion to Classical Receptions, Blackwell, Oxford.

Huhtamo, E. (2011), Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Johnson, E., Archaeology, Academia and Access (ejarchaeology.wordpress.com).

Lee, L. (ed), Abandonware Ring, (abandonwarering.com).

McCall, J. (2011), Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History, Routledge, New York.

Parikka, J. (2012), What is Media Archaeology?, Polity Press, Cambridge (UK).

Parikka, J., Machinology, (jussiparikka.net).

Reinhard, A. Archaeogaming (archaeogaming.wordpress.com).

Rundkvist, M., Aardvarchaeology (scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology)

Schreibman et al. (eds) (2004), A Companion to Digital Humanities, Blackwell, Malden.

Thorsen, T. (ed.) (2013), Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age, Akademika, Trondheim.

Watrall, E. (ed.), Play the Past (playthepast.org).

Wolf, M. J. P. (2012), Before the Crash: Early Video Game History, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Wolf, M. J. P. and B. Perron (2014), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, Routledge, New York.

The Elder Scrolls game universe was created by Bethesda Softworks, beginning with the release of Arena (1994), then Daggerfall (1996), Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006), Skyrim (2011), before passing the torch to Zenimax Online for the MMO Elder Scrolls Online (2014), with a number of expansion packs released in the spaces between development of numbered titles. All of the games take place in the land of Tamriel with its nine regions united (at times contentiously) under the flag of the Septim (aka Third) Empire: Skyrim, High Rock, Hammerfell, Summerset Isle, Valenwood, Elsweyr, Black Marsh, Morrowind, and Cyrodiil.

The first Emperor of that Third Empire is Tiber Septim, a Dragonborn, who upon his death was deified as the god Talos, one of the Nine Divines. As in the real world where the busts of political figures often grace currency, so it is with the coin of the realm, the Septim (obverse pictured below).

Skyrim Septim Obverse

Skyrim Septim Obverse

The bust of the Emperor faces right, sports a goatee and medium-length hair. The bust is set atop a starburst flanked roughly to the left and right with a diamond lozenge set on a circular band separating the field from a crenelated border. A motto runs top and bottom in all caps: “The Empire is Law” and “The Law is Sacred”. Turn the coin over:

Skyrim Septim Reverse

Skyrim Septim Reverse

The reverse of the Septim shows the stylized dragon familiar to visitors of Tamriel. It is the Seal of Akatosh, the symbol placed over a starburst surrounded by a circular border and crenelated edge. A single diamond lozenge is at the top of the circle. The seal is flanked left and right with another inscription: “Praise be, Akatosh” and “All the Divines”. The dragon symbol gives Septims their nickname: “Drakes”. Compare this to the Canadian dollar coin with the loon, affectionately called “loonies”.

The Septim is literally the coin of the realm. It has the appearance of either gold or electrum, but is considered to be gold in Tamriel. Its value is of one gold piece. Absent from these coins is the mint stamp or mark of manufacture. For a world as large as Tamriel, there are no mints to be found, not even in each region’s capital cities. The coins are theoretically limitless, and they weigh nothing in a player’s inventory, not taking up space in the adventurer’s pack (or that of his/her carl (i.e., valet)). There are no other denominations of currency, and change cannot be made. Despite the intersection of multiple cultures from regions, at least one of which joined the Empire by treaty (Morrowind), the Septim rules as currency.

Septims are found throughout the Empire, and are acquired by the player as a reward for completing a quest. Players can also loot corpses for varying amounts of gold, and have the ability to pickpocket. Septims can often be found in coin purses and loose on furniture in homes and hideouts as well as in tombs. It is curious that coins bearing the image of Tiber Septim can also be found in Nordic Tombs and on Draugr (undead, entombed warriors in Skyrim), both of which predate the Empire’s foundation.

As mentioned above, there are no mints, but there are a scant handful of treasuries scattered throughout the games: Markarth, Redoran, and Hlaalu. The gold used to mint the coins apparently comes from the hundreds of mines scattered throughout Tamriel, but playthrough demonstrates that none of these are explicitly dedicated to the mining of gold for Imperial coinage. The mines merely serve as spaces in which to have adventures and complete quests, and have nothing to do with the in-world economy or the creation of coinage to fuel the engines of the Empire itself.

For such a vast world as Tamriel, I personally would have expected a diversity of currency. On further exploration, I found that there are actually two other forms outside of the Septim: moon sugar and Dwemer coins.

Below is an image of moon sugar crystals taken from Morrowind:

Moon Sugar

Moon Sugar

Moon sugar makes its first appearance in  Elder Scrolls III, and is the ingredient from which the illegal drug skooma is made. In the impossibly vast world of Morrowind, 24 samples of moon sugar can be recovered from various locations (by looting boxes and barrels) and non-player characters (NPCs): Sarys Ancestral Tomb, Addamasartus, Yasamsi, Zanabi, Unexplored Shipwreck, Panat, and as quest rewards for “Blades Trainer” and “Inner Beauty”. Moon sugar is the underground currency of bandits and in later games by some members of the Khajiit race. Players who acquire moon sugar may opt to use it as an ingredient for alchemy, in which it has the following properties: Fortify Speed, Dispel, Drain Attribute, Drain Luck. Players may also sell moon sugar for Septims. Moon sugar in and of itself cannot be used directly to purchase goods.

The other non-Septim currency found in the Elder Scrolls universe is the Dwemer coin (pictured below).

Dwemer Coin

Dwemer Coin

Found exclusively in Morrowind, the Dwemer coin can be found in only one of the 15,000 places that can be explored in the game: Ald Sotha, a Daedric shrine for the Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon, located NE of Vivec City within the region of the Ascadian Isles, once the Home of House Sotha.

The coin appears to be of silver and only the obverse is rendered in the game and sports a “Celtic” knot pattern inside a double-ring, dotted border. The coin, unlike Septims, does have a weight of 0.05 in a player’s inventory. It cannot be used in the game as currency, but can be kept as a curiosity or vended for gold. There are two denominations of Dwemer coins, one valued at 50 gold, and the other at 125 gold. Nothing more is known of these coins, and little is known of the Dwemer race that created them long before the Third Empire.

As described in the Elder Scrolls Wiki, the Dwemer were “an advanced race and civilization, and were far ahead of other races and civilizations. They were well known for their revolutionary developments, skills and achievements in technology, engineering, crafting methods, metalwork, stonework, architecture, city-planning, science, mathematics, magic, and the academic arts.” The Dwemer disappeared in 1E 700 without explanation, leaving behind the remains of their technology, and also scant examples of their currency.

It remains to be seen (for me anyway) if Elder Scrolls Online continues the tradition of a single-currency realm, or if other coins (as real money or as artifacts) will appear. Thinking on that, I was curious to see how the appearance of these Septims changed from game to game. In Oblivion, players don’t really see coins at all, and instead add numeric gold to inventory, which is flagged with a Septim icon, a stylized version of the bust on the coin so well rendered in Skyrim:

Oblivion Coin Inventory

Oblivion Coin Inventory

Going further back to Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the graphics were such that gold coins could only be rendered in yellow and brown bits, usually in piles of loot (see below):

Daggerfall Gold

Daggerfall Gold

With Skyrim, and now with Elder Scrolls Online, the photorealistic graphics make showing detailed designs easy, which in turn drives the need for graphic design when it comes to even the most everyday thing found in the gaming world: money. For such an omnipresent object, it’s exceedingly rare for gamers to take screencaptures of the currency they find, but for those who play Skyrim and ESO, they are rewarded with something so well realized that the coins have jumped from the games and into real-world production (see below):

Ebay Septim

Ebay Septim

Several Septims are currently on auction at Ebay going for nearly US$40, most from the collector’s edition of Oblivion. With sweetroll recipes and Skyrim helmets being crafted in the real world, it is no surprise that Septims have also followed suit and arguably command their own value in a strange kind of real/virtual currency exchange.

This post is my first foray into exploring the use and appearance of coins and currency in games. Please send comments, questions, and corrections to me via the Comments, or to archaeogaming at gmail dot com.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

Numismatics is the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects. While numismatists are often characterized as students or collectors of coins, the discipline also includes the broader study of money and other payment media used to resolve debts and the exchange of goods. Economic and historical studies of money’s use and development are an integral part of the numismatists’ study of money’s physical embodiment.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Septim

Source: The Elder Scrolls Wiki

Gamers take coins for granted. We didn’t use to. In the ’80s we spent plenty of coins in the arcades, but in contemporary video games, we collect them, hoard them, exchange them, spend them. As players, though, how often do we pause to consider something as everyday as a gold piece, taking a moment to look at its design, and to consider where it came from?

Over the next few months, I do plan on embarking upon a serious research project concerning the numismatics of video games, studying the currency used to drive in-game economies, but also those coins and other media of trade/value collected for points or prizes from everything from Mario to Grand Theft Auto to Destiny. Questions that I will attempt to answer, and things to explore will include:

  1. What are the earliest appearances of coins/money in video games, and when are the earliest instances of coins being used as currency within those games?
  2. Catalogue every type of currency used in every game published.
  3. For currency found in-game, document its material of composition (e.g., gold, crystal, paper, etc.), findspot or location of a “drop”, place of production (i.e., mint or town), denomination, era (old v. new coins), image/design, if the currency is to be used as such, or if it is treated in a game as an artifact.
  4. Create a history of currency used in game series (e.g., Elder Scrolls), exploring how the currency changes from game to game.
  5. Record drops of currency as well as types and amounts retrieved from looted corpses (and from successful pickpocketing attempts). Use this information to learn about cross-cultural trade and inter-city (and/or regional) commerce.
  6. For coins with busts on them, research the history of the person depicted. For those with symbols, report on their use and interpretation. Look for mint stamps. Translate inscriptions.
  7. Can coins found in-game be used archaeologically (e.g., for establishing a secure date for something)?
  8. Are there in-game coin collectors, numismatists, and numismatic achievements that are deliberately part of the game?
  9. Do modding communities create their own currency?

There will be plenty more to do as I explore. I do plan on consolidating currency wikis from various games into a single hub, and will work with user groups, communities, and official game websites/publishers to work with their data.

The hardest part of a major project like this is to determine how and where to start? I seem to be in an Elder Scrolls rut, but at least I can start with a series I love and work outwards from there. As I consider the to-do list, I’ll likely settle into themes that draw information from dozens of different games, but in the beginning, starting simply with a series might be easiest as I work out how to apply methods from real-world numismatics into game environments. As I go, I’ll blog about what I find, refining my approach.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has taken a systematic approach to the study of currency in video games of any type or time period, from side-scrollers to RPGs to MMOs (other than creating game-wiki pages). How is gaming currency used, by whom, for what purpose, and how was it acquired, and from where? Is the currency purely functional, or is there history as well? As I publish here, feel free to comment, make suggestions, criticize, ask questions, or suggest questions that I should be asking.

ADDENDUM (Sept. 9, 2014)

I thought of some other things as I showered this morning to explore/document when it comes to currency in games:

  1. How often does currency appear in a funerary context in a game, and in what other contexts can currency be found? What purpose(s) might the currency have in such contexts?
  2. What drives a games designer’s decisions for including currency, and also for spending time on its graphic design? How do game developers consider currency within a particular title?

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

 

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

 

 

 

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