Space-Time_Absorption

I’ve been looking at archaeogaming all wrong since 2013. Well, okay, maybe not all wrong, but today something clicked in my tiny little Pooh-sized brain. Until today, I thought that archaeogaming had three — possibly four — dimensions to it, from which descended various tendrils of possible study:

1) Archaeogaming is the study of the archaeology of video games. This is the media archaeology approach where we look at a game as the artifact. We look at the box, the manuals, the disks/cartridges. We explore its history of use on a personal level as well as at its commercial level and everywhere in between. The Atari excavation in 2013 took this idea to the most literal of extremes. From this concept, we can now study hardware and software and how they combine for gameplay. We can compare the use of gaming on physical media to downloading our content from places such as Steam. We can explore modding communities and how games change through ownership. We can explore how games change within a series, and how they affect other games in a long tradition of flattery and theft.

2) Archaeogaming is the study of archaeology in video games. This is the reception studies approach where we see how games, game developers, and gamers perceive what archaeologists are and what they do. We can explore the phenomenon of looting. We can see how games let players conduct archaeology. We can examine the tropes of popularized archaeology and how they contribute to the gameplay experience.

3) Archaeogaming is the application of archaeological methods to conducting archaeology in virtual space. This is where we do our in-game fieldwalking, our artifact-collecting, our typologies, our understanding of context, even aerial/satellite photography. Instead of studying the material culture (and non-tangible heritage) of cultures and civilizations that exist in “meatspace”, we instead study those in the immaterial world.

4) Archaeogaming is the approach to understanding how game design — done either by people directly or indirectly through the virtue of artificial intelligence and algorithms written by people — manifests everything we see in-world.

And the — dare I say — 5th dimension/element of archaeogaming? It is the entire game itself, one level deeper than actual gameplay. To explain further: many archaeologists are focused with what is under them. We dig or we dive. Gravity has drawn our collective past meters and kilometers below the surface for us to find. In a video game, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing dirt archaeology. Our avatars/toons/characters walk around. In most cases there is gravity to reckon with. Normal physics applies. Even in space games, we (as humans) learn how to orient ourselves, and immerse ourselves in these play-spaces.

What we need to do is to remove ourselves from working in a virtual space where we deal with up and down and with cardinal directions. We should go even further to suggest that there is no difference between earth and sky, that the horizon line is artificial, and that the ship we pilot is no different from the sea on which it sails. It’s all pixels and math. And when archaeogamers are able to bring themselves to this “there is no spoon” moment, I am curious to see what patterns emerge within the structure and execution of the game itself. Are there flaws (i.e., hickeys in Photoshop images are called “artifacts”)? Can we recognize the maker’s hand? And what else is at work? We have the space we can see and in which we interact, and behind that we have the dark matter of code. Behind that, the creators, or the idea of them.

When video games are taken in this perspective, as multi-sensory collections of interactive math, what deeper meaning(s) can the video game archaeologist infer? It is perhaps a new kind of archaeology in and of itself, requiring new methods and a new set of tools. This perception does not invalidate the other interpretations of archaeogaming as a subdiscipline of archaeology, but it finally lets us look at these worlds in a way that is at once completely engaging and also far removed from the literal action happening on-screen.

Discuss.

Today’s guest post is by Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber who is an eSports & video game archivist. In her writing, she focuses on media archaeology, digital preservation, and gaming history. Follow her on Twitter @8BitBecca.

Overworld Map: On the Defensive

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock and roll.”

–Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo

When a visitor enters a historical or cultural museum, there is no disclaimer poster awaiting their initial inspection. No statement attempting to validate the importance of historical artifacts greets the casual visitor, no valiant defense for the maintenance of such objects. It is taken for granted that artifacts of historical or artistic value therefore have value to future generations, and that is the entirety of the matter.

This acceptance of the normalcy of preservation is not limited to museums or cultural institutions. Pick up any written work devoted to preservation, whether that be a magazine or academic journal, and defenses of the concept of preservation are altogether rare. It seems that wherever we turn, society has more or less decided that caring for objects from our past matters. They may disagree on just how much such a thing matters, or who is responsible for paying for it, but one is hard-pressed to discover individuals who would sneer at Tutankhamun’s Mask or the Mona Lisa as silly objects unworthy of preservation.

It is therefore all the more bizarre that disclaimers and defenses of the very act of video game preservation are so common. For example, when the Museum of Modern Art announced its upcoming acquisition of video games, the public reaction was vitriolic:

Headline Courtesy of Wired Magazine

Headline Courtesy of Wired Magazine

Headline Courtesy of The New Republic

Headline Courtesy of The New Republic

Headline Courtesy of The Guardian

Headline Courtesy of The Guardian

It is slightly ironic that such a reaction seemed appropriate in response to a museum that routinely hangs a suit off a wall and nonchalantly labels it art. As a response, cultural institutions remain on the defensive.

“Video games matter!” their disclaimers tell us, attempting to convince skeptics that a media form enjoyed by over half of most modernized countries might possibly be culturally significant. The sheer absurdity of it is laughable.

Tutorial: Why Video Games Matter

Sometimes we need to step back and understand the power of video games.”

–Rob Manuel, b3ta.com

As an archivist, my ethical duty is to maintain those objects of intrinsic value to future generations. I’ve often found that others assume my profession is focused on facts and figures, the hard data from which a census or otherwise lifeless historical record can be drawn. Such data will inform one on how a people survived. As important as this data is, it cannot tell you how a people dreamed.

The stuff of humanity is comprised of what we aspire to, how we relate to the world, the forms of expression we utilize and interact with. If the purpose of the archival profession is to ensure an accurate record of a people exists in the future, then it follows that a focus on cultural or artistic expression is a natural portion of the archival calling.

Consider this: fifty years ago, when film was the dominant media that formed the dreams of countless individuals, Mickey Mouse was the most recognized character among children. This is no longer the case. Who is now the world’s most recognized mascot? That would be Pikachu, lovable mascot of the Pokémon video game franchise.

Let’s consider the figures. According to Newzoo’s 2014 Global Game Markets Report, the number of video game players in 2014 was approximately 1.7 billion individuals. That same year, the top 100 countries in the world by game revenue (comprising 99.8% of those purchasing games) spent twice as much on video games than on cinema.

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

If we had any doubt of the sheer numbers invested in this artistic form, Newzoo’s 2013 Global Game Markets Report is a stark reminder.

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Infographic courtesy of Newzoo

Video games have quickly become the dominant cultural and artistic form of expression of the 21st century. This is no passing fad. What we are witnessing is the growth of a new medium, akin to the birth of cinema in the 19th century and television in the 20th. For better or worse, video games have infiltrated the world. They have become both cultural artifacts and reflections of our hopes and dreams. It is no longer a question of whether video games matter but of when those refusing to acknowledge this fact finally wake up.

If video games matter, if they are such culturally important artifacts, it stands to reason that an argument can be made for ensuring continued access to such materials in the future. Yet not only are we losing these objects more quickly than society is learning to value them, we aren’t particularly sure how to preserve them in the first place.

Level 1: What’s Our Mission?

“There are big lines between those who play video games and those who do not. For those who don’t, video games are irrelevant.”

–Shigeru Miyamoto

Audiovisual and digital artifacts such as video games require a complex set of interrelated hardware, software, and peripheral devices to continue to function. Placing a video game cartridge on a lovely shelf is insufficient; digital preservation is required. As defined by the Library of Congress, digital preservation is the “active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access.” Such a simplified definition underscores the challenges inherent in any task that involves technical, creative, and legal efforts. Digital preservation is difficult, but if we wish to continue access to video games as cultural artifacts, that is the mission.

Like all missions, however, the preservation of video games is not a single goal. Instead, two related but slightly different missions are required for video game preservation. First, video game preservation requires continued access to the video games as cultural artifacts in their own right. This would include access to video games as technical and/or artistic works within a particular historical context. Secondly, video game preservation requires continued access to video games as significant objects for particular subcultures. This would include access to video games as objects with specific ritualistic value to their cultures.

It is a subtle difference between video games studied for their own merits and video games as representative of other cultural processes. These two missions have a great deal of crossover, but they require a more complex view into the preservation of these objects. This difference is best illustrated through an example, such as the video game Pokémon Red and Blue.

Images Courtesy of Bulbapedia

Images Courtesy of Bulbapedia

The first North American releases of the now world-famous Pokémon video game franchise, Pokémon Red and Blue are critically significant in the history of video games. This video game was developed for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy system. A unique feature of this handheld was a peripheral device known as the Link Cable that, unsurprisingly, linked two Game Boy systems to allow two players the chance to interact within their video games.

Image Courtesy of Eggplante!

Image Courtesy of Eggplante!

Prior to Pokémon Red and Blue, those video games that utilized the Link Cable did so to facilitate competitive matches. In contrast, developer Satoshi Tajiri invented a revolutionary new way of using the Link Cable: to facilitate communication. Each of the two Pokémon games contained a number of collectible creatures available only in that version. To acquire all possible creatures, players were forced to use the Link Cable to trade with one another. What had been a piece of hardware used for violence was transformed into one for communication and cooperation.

Preserving this video game requires slightly different actions in each of our two missions. If our mission is to preserve the video games Pokémon Red and Blue for their own merits due to their global popularity and the resulting controversy, preserving any version of the titles is sufficient. There would be no need to ensure original hardware, software, or other contextual items. As long as the video game is accessible and functions as it was supposed to, the mission is complete. But if our mission is to preserve Pokémon Red and Blue as representative of other cultural processes, such as the appropriation of violence into communication, or Tajiri’s commentary of the violence of video games, these titles are not enough. Our mission is expanded to include preservation of the Link Cable and, by necessity, the hardware that can access features found within the Link Cable.

Essentially, our two missions of video game preservation force us to look at multiple aspects of video games and consider various methods of preservation. There is no single goal or answer. It is certainly a complexity that challenges us. Unfortunately, it is only the start of the complexity of preserving this medium.

Level 2: I Choose You!

“Everything not saved will be lost.”

–Nintendo Quit Screen message

To determine what mission the preservation of a video game must meet, it is first necessary to select that video game for a collection. Archival appraisal is the process by which objects are examined to determine whether they are of sufficient value for preservation by an institution. Officially, archival appraisal is said to consider a wide range of factors such as uniqueness, importance, authenticity, completeness, or condition and preservation costs. In reality, determining the intrinsic value of any object is as much informed guessing as anything else.

It is far easier to decide what cultural objects have importance with the luxury of distance. History often uncovers the importance of a work long after its initial release. Stories abound in cinema of vilified, forgotten works brought to light by diligent historians and archivists decades after they were hounded from the public sphere. Without the luxury of time, selection is a far more difficult endeavor.

There are some who would argue that there are far too many video games to preserve in the first place, therefore some culling of the masses is required. Should you counter such arguments by stating that not all films or works of literature should be preserved, the same individuals would likely throw up their hands in terror. Films, literature, even sometimes television, those are important objects worthy of wholesale preservation. Video games are entirely different. We must separate the wheat from the chaff. And yet, considering the Library of Congress holds a copy of Justin Beiber’s Never Say Never yet has barely put a dent into video games, I’m not altogether convinced we are focusing our selection efforts on the correct medium.

"Justin Bieber at Easter Egg roll - crop" by Daniel Ogren Photography

Image: “Justin Bieber at Easter Egg roll – crop” by Daniel Ogren Photography – originally posted to Flickr as 100405_EasterEggRoll_217 by Daniel Ogren, Washington DC metro area. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At this moment in time, video games are barely recognized as objects of cultural importance. We are losing that heritage on a daily basis. When a war is ongoing is not the time to stop and consider which patient to remove from the line of fire. That is the time to grab those you can and run. Perhaps, one day, we will reach a state of selection. This is not that time. Too much of video game history has been lost, and too much will be lost before the endless cultural hand-wringing ceases.

I’d like to think we can all debate selection over a nice cup of tea after we’ve managed to save something we can select from. Until such a moment, selection sounds more like the usual depiction of only some video games as worthy of preservation of others; such opinions cannot be tolerated if this history is to remain accessible.

Final Boss: Where Do We Go From Here?

Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.

–Andy Serkis

To say video games have no value is to argue that the most critical artistic form of the last fifty years is meaningless. It is an untenable position. Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, video games are a significant interactive media form. They are a global force and a reflection of society’s hopes and fears. To look at video games is to look at society itself and understand what it values and what it does not. All art is reflective of the society it is a part of. That reflection is as central to video games as it has been to every media that has come before and every media that will come again.

King Botan (played by Andy Serkis) in Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007)

King Botan (played by Andy Serkis) in Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007) for Playstation 3. Image: MeriStation.com

Preserving video games within their technical and historical contexts, grasping the nuance of preservation, refusing to cull from what is saved until a respectful distance is achieved, these are no mere technical acts. These actions are ethical responsibilities to past and future generations who wish to understand what video games are but, most importantly, what they say about us.

There should never be a question about whether communication or art is saved, and so long as we must focus on this question, the actual preservation of video games becomes all the more precarious.

8My brother bought me an Intellivision Flashback. It was half-price at Sam’s Club. He knew exactly what he was doing, too: fueling my interest in archaeogaming and retrogaming while reminding me of the fun we used to have playing the original Intellivision back in the 1980s. It was our first console. The Flashback console is easily half the size of the original unit and weighs mere ounces.

9It plugs into the A/V ports in my Old Skool Panasonic television, although it might plug in to flat screens, too. But why do that when you are seeking the ultimate retrogaming experience?

10I remember crying when I was unable to play Auto Racing (this was after getting over not receiving an Atari 2600 for Christmas like my other friends).  I used to annihilate my brother in Sea Battle. When I unboxed the Flashback at his house on Feb. 1, 2015, we were delighted to see that overlays were included. Anyone who played the original Intellivision will recall that all games came with a couple of plastic sheets that would slip into the controllers, overlaying the keypad, adding extra dimensions of complexity Atari could only dream of. We were the prog rock to Atari’s Sabbath, sacrificing a bit of muscle for intellect in how we chose to kick each others asses.

11

Even though we had great fun with Super Pro Football and the fancier, exotic titles from Imagic such as Microsurgeon and Demon Attack, what my brother and I truly enjoyed were the dungeon-crawlers, specifically Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. Really. Once we got good enough at it, we spent an entire day going down to level 255 (the maximum depth) only to discover that level 256 was actually the first level repeated. We felt somehow cheated, but what could you expect when the biggest loot in the game was a treasure chest you couldn’t even open?

Imagine my delight in seeing that Treasure of Tarmin was included with the Intellivision Flashback. The game’s working title in 1981-82 was Minotaur, the eponymous monster guarding the ultimate treasure. To reach one of the first real boss-fights in RPG gaming, you had to explore dungeons, kill baddies, while upgrading armor and weapons. Sounds familiar, yes? So I played it through for the first time in over 25 years, and I was surprised how much I remembered about the video, audio, and controls, something a Java emulator on a Mac or PC cannot hope to replicate. I believe (as Rebecca HG, video game archivist has articulated on Twitter) that in order to experience a video game as it was meant to be played, it must be done on the hardware for which it was designed. This might be especially true for Intellivision games because of the truly alien nature of the keypad controllers, disk wheels, and side buttons. And when you think about it, these controllers have more in common with Xbox and Playstation than Atari ever did.

13So with not a little nostalgia, I selected Minotaur from the menu and got to the friendly welcome screen, something I hadn’t even thought of for decades.

14Although I was awash in nostalgia, I did want to undertake Minotaur under the banner of archaeogaming. Having spent literally years of my life in virtual dungeons (aka “instances”) in MMOs and in RPGs, how did we get there from here? Minotaur was informed by the rules of AD&D, and I’d been playing that for longer than I had the Intellivision. I had character sheets and understood stats. And I was already well acquainted with the tropes of this kind of gaming: gear up and kill stuff to get treasure. Minotaur was up to the task. The folks who produced the Intellivision Flashback also posted the manuals online as scanned PDFs. Here’s a snippet from Page 1 where players are instructed to “grab the loot,” already a time-honored tradition in tabletop gaming:

Minotaur1What kind of loot? Coins, necklaces, ingots, lamps, chalices and crowns. As a 10-year-old kid, I could give a damn about why there were crowns lying around in the dungeon, or why the loot types weren’t more diverse, or even what a loot table was, or the fact that the monsters never dropped anything after the thorough beat-down you’d just given them with your 3 x 6-pixel sword. You earned a treasure-score at game’s end, but to no real purpose unless you wrote it down to show your friends. No screengrabs or leader boards for proof. I remember taking a Polaroid of my TV after finishing an exceptionally good game.

Minotaur2I wanted to start off easy, and chose the simplest dungeon, two levels deep, armed with only a simple bow my wits. I am in a nameless castle, and the treasure is always at the bottom level.

15Teleporting in, the dungeon is realized as it might have been drawn on my old pad of grid-paper, each square representing 10 x 10 feet. There is perspective in this game, and limited visibility adding to the randomness of each square level and the monsters and treasure within. In 1982, this was serious stuff.

16Patrolling the outer corridors, I find my first door. They are all blue, except for the hidden doors, something that predated Castle Wolfenstein by almost ten years. Instead of a joystick, players pushed the disk on the controller to move. Holding the disk down kept the motion almost smooth, hopping from square to square.

17Opening a door caused the game’s only real animation to happen: a portcullis opened, allowing me in to the inner corridors.

18My first wandering monster (classed in the manual as a “nasty monster”) was a Level 2 cloaked skeleton, which I hastily dispatched with my bow in a single shot. In Minotaur, the fighting happens in something close to real-time, and if you are fast enough, you can get off the first shot to stop the fight before it starts. Most monsters seem to be hanging out waiting for this kind of action. And death.

19As you explore, you find various loot, some of which is not treasure, but is rather what is now called a “consumable”. In this game, sacks of flour that appear to be branded by Purina, are lying around. You pick them up, and when you press the “Rest” button, your stats increase. This is also true after fights.

20You also find sacks of money that when activated, reveal cash prizes. More advanced levels also contain crates and chests.

21To interact with these items, one does not point-and-click. This pre-dated the mouse, at least in my home. Instead, you have to center the item in the depression on your stats area and then activate it with the keypad.

22Sometimes weapons will be lying on the ground, establishing another video game trope of . . . weapons lying around. There are no bodies. This is not an armory, nor is it a battlefield. It’s just a throwing-axe in the hall. Just like at home.

23There are magic items, too. In days of yore, dungeon-delvers could opt to specialize in the magickal arts of kicking ass. In Minotaur, one need not specialize. Fireballs and lightning bolts were there for the taking and for the using by anybody. Different colors of weapon and magic item signified its power.

24Fanny packs (aka bum-bags) also abounded, full of money.

25I found necklaces, perhaps of pearl. And Krull stars.

26And ultimately I would round a corner to find a ladder to take me down to the next level. Since playing this game, I must have climbed down thousands of ladders and stairwells in countless other games. The ladders, like the doors are blue. Why not brown? And I wonder if the designers thought that coding ladders and doors as blue meant that they were used for travel. Perhaps not.

27After about ten minutes of wandering corridors that looked exactly the same, and taking the same wrong turns and ending up in the same places (which is great practice for excelling at navigating maps that make sense in later video games), I found the Minotaur who was guarding what appeared to be lunch. Unlike the previous monsters who were white or yellow or blue, the Minotaur was purple to signify his bad-assery.

28So I killed him. My reward? A handsome chest of booty.

29 But when I picked it up, I was returned to the home screen where night had turned to day. I had won with a treasure-score of 50.

30Having bested the Minotaur (and I’ll be back because this time, it’s personal), I wanted to play a more “recent” dungeon-crawler. Tower of Doom was the third AD&D title for the Intellivision, released in 1986-87, about four years after Treasure of Tarmin. Sadly, despite “Doom” in the title, there was no BFG to be had. The opening screen already showed promise in an improvement of graphics, and a light-year forward in game music.

31Even the overlay for this title was bad-ass looking like something from a Man-o-War album cover, and eliminated the need for the keypad at all, relying instead on the four side-buttons on each controller.

ToDOverlay

The manual even made promises such as, “the greatest challenge any mortal has ever known,” and, “encounter the vilest creatures ever unleashed.” This kind of hyperbole is truly bait for kids, and reflects the style of marketing popular at the time that crushes you with superlatives until you just have to play the game if only to see if it lives up to the hype.

ToD1

There is of course loot in the Tower of Doom. It’s not all doom in there apparently. And in a fascinating turn of programming development, you can actually bribe monsters with the stuff you find. Or you can kill them. Your choice. The game awards you diplomacy points for successfully haggling for your life. And we also see the appearance of the Grail and the Rosary Necklace as supreme prizes in the elite levels, albeit wholly divorced from any religious context.

ToD3So of course I played Tower of Doom about two minutes after finishing Minotaur.

32Tower of Doom allows players to choose their adventure type (including something called “Wizard Hunt”, which sounds like an episode of Adventure Time).

33True to its AD&D roots, you can also choose your character class, although typical classes such as Paladin and Ranger are absent, substituted instead with “Waif” and “Friar”. Your class affects your stats for magic, life, and power, and it might be the case that certain classes are unable to use edged weapons, opting instead for projectiles or non-pointy objets-d’death.

34My warlock (which really looks nothing like a warlock — although the same could be said of my character in Destiny) runs around in great haste, looking for stairs down to other levels, and for cash, gear, weapons, treasure, and monsters. In this game, you actually map each random level, interesting because at last the dungeons are roughly randomized, and you can see where you’ve been. You also have an inventory, and your loot begins to become identifiable with a bit more detail than what was found a few years ago.

35I did find a rare large gem.

36I found the omnipresent pile-of-coins (although the gold was pictured in blue).

37I found a non-magic necklace after reducing a bat to a pile of smoldering ash.

38And the game ended abruptly when I climbed down the last ladder to find myself outside getting the hell out of Dodge. The castle from which we escape is generic, the template or Ur-castle. The dungeon levels are generic and without the character we now expect. Instead we explore the Ur-dungeons. The loot we find has no context and no history. We don’t know anything of the people who left these treasures, nor do we really seem to care. They are in the game, because that is what we expect from an RPG. Material culture without the culture. Trash without a history of use or ownership. There is one kind of sword. One kind of shield. One kind of crown. And for a time, that was enough. We played for an hour, and then we went outside.

39My final stats appeared after Tower of Doom finished, along with my XP and a treasure-score, meaningless in a way because of the inability to preserve your character for further development, taking it on future adventures such as the Wizard Hunt, or perhaps the Warlock ramble, or even the Priest Parade. To return to the main menu, you have to in effect kill yourself via the Reset button.

I found Tower of Doom to be a great improvement technically over Minotaur, two games in the same series following similar rules as sent down from the throne of Gary Gygax and then deconstructed into something a video game of the mid-’80s could actually do. As for story, both games lacked in any kind of lore or backstory. You’re a player lost in a maze and face great tribulations and violence in an effort to get rich and escape. Character-leveling is not yet present, although increasing player stats is. There are levels of gear, and I found it fascinating that purple gear in the Intellivision world hold the same elite status as that in contemporary RPGs, with blues the next level down. There is both melee and ranged combat. The maps do become random, as does the appearance of monsters and treasure. “Loot” was the active verb then as now.

With games like these for Intellivision and Adventure for Atari, we witness the creation of archetypes in video games. Better graphics and sound, the creation of stories and histories: it’s all window-dressing to the core need to explore, to fight, to collect wealth. As fantastic as these worlds began, and as fantastic as they have become, the core mechanics have remained unchanged in almost 40 years, a fact that puts video games on the same page as literature. We tell the same stories over and over, and continue to be entertained by them.

Post-Script: I am saving video game sounds for a future post on Archaeogaming. One of the best things about playing older games is the nature of the music and sound effects that charmed a generation or two of players and were then largely forgotten. Various websites and YouTube videos now serve as homes for these old sounds, but I do worry about their proper conservation and care over the long haul. I’ll leave that to pros such as Rebecca HG (@8BitBecca) to address in their roles as true video game archivists.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

Relic Repeatable Quest in Destiny

Relic Repeatable Quest in Destiny

On a lark, I started a Twitter conversation on the evening of January 27th to lament the fact that relics in video games are never really used for archaeology. This then cascaded into a conversation covering a range of topics from game development to intangible heritage to new achievements. Below is a transcription of the conversation. I’ve annotated it in places. When known, I use the real names of the tweeters, abbreviating later in the conversation thread. I received permission from everyone to reproduce their thoughts here on the Archaeogaming blog. A word of warning: some of the dialogue might appear out of order. I’ll try to edit this for a better chronology when I have the, um, time.

To see this thread and all other video game archaeology threads, use the #archaeogaming hashtag.

Here’s my initial post on relics and video games:

Andrew Reinhard (AR): Once again, relics are used to create weapons, just like in real life >.>

Justin Walsh (JW): why I’m an archaeologist

Annelise Baer (AB): There’s quite a problem with that in WoW too. Everyone’s trying to get ___ artifact for weaponized use.

AR:  Relics in games = weapon tech, magic, buffs, or cash.

Tara Copplestone (TC): Ye :( went pure collectible + uses them as core narrative – but on the whole its pretty dire

AR: One of the many things I liked about Skyrim was that there was at least one museum in one of the towns.

TC: Yes! Also loved the inclusion of non tangible heritage which is sorely overlooked in favour of tangible in a lot of

Sarah May (SM): not just in games, ask the heads of UK heritage organisations about intangible heritage and they giggle

AR:  I think there should be a “loremaster” achievement for that. Didnt Skyrim have 1 for reading X number of books

Ethan Gruber (EG): yep

AR: Hrmph. At least UNESCO takes it seriously.

TC: trying to write ICH into the protocols 4 gamedev, interesting that Sarah May pointed out it is still difficult in heritage
AB: Same. Just did a questline yesterday: final stage was to use a recently discovered/barely understood relic to stomp enemy army.
AB: WoW now has little personal museums for stuff you dig up on your own. “Pristine” artifacts only :P

AR: Interesting! How very 19th-c German.

John Lowe (JL): judging by things I find in looter backfire IRL this seems fairly accurate

AR: achievements wish-list: repatriate artifacts; run a temple w/out looting it; turn in drops to museums; don’t damage buildings

Niels Grotum (NG): A bit older and weirder: It’s been ages, but I remember rather liking the museum in Anachronox.

AR: OOoooooo!!!!!

NG: Also features Grumpos, a scholar and former curator whose special power is Yammering. And in the game.

Space Archaeology (SA): Have you checked out Elegy for a Dead World?

AR: Tara Copplestone mentioned Elegy earlier. I haven’t played it. Now I have to.

AR: Riffing on intangible heritage, it would be fun to participate in some “ancient” traditions in-game, turning that into an achievement, too.

AR: These non-destructive achievements are no different that “stealth” achievements in other games, where conflict is avoided.

TC: part of the problem w incentivised heritage in games, no matter the incentive it ends up being reduced to a commodity of sorts

AR: True. In-game heritage never seems to exist for its own sake as part of what makes the world interesting.

JW: What about a game where you’re trying to save your own heritage from predatory colonizers/merchants?

AR: I’d buy that game in a heartbeat. mentioned that there is a Crucible match in Destiny that does this

TC:  interviews with devs showed trend towards writers wanting heritage implemented as narrative but designers wanted it as mechanic

TC:  which seemed 2 reflect on how heritage profs frame CH to wider audiences + how gamedevs tried frame that 4 player expectations

AR: I don’t see why these have to be mutually exclusive. Developers underestimate their audiences perhaps. People want story.

TC: awesome idea for a game! Might try prototype something this weekend…

TC: yah! Its mostly bet-hedging in the AAA by sticking to what they did in the past that made money, indies were better for sure

JW: Like in real life, some of the looters might be your own people; there’d be economic/pol/mil disparities

JL: archaeology game for Wii using balance board and controls. could do in semi-real time and also emphasize fitness!

TC:  this is actually a brilliant idea… Really brilliant…
AR: Time to form an indie studio. I’m being kind of serious.

Gingery Gamer (GG): If you’re actually serious, I may be able to help with that.

TC: hoping to do regular hackathons / makers sessions of as part of my phd – totally keen 4 ths
JW: Well, I’m sure student coders/designers there need projects to work on…
Shawn Graham (SG): We talked in about doing exactly that, as a co-op.

JL: I couldn’t remember what other system had Mo-Cap. Could include choices of different cultures to widen appeal

Process Archaeology (PA): I’m still disappointed that nobody came out with an atl-atl hunter game for the Wii.

AR: There is still time.

AR: Which makes the game even more interesting: Who do you trust?

JW: You might not know yourself where/what some of the heritage is; have to figure out ways to save it in situ or ex

TC:  Interesting! Thnk thr is a possibly neat mechanic in there about how to stop CH loss when alot of the time is not obv

JW: Obviously, though, I am being quite tangible-centric here… :)

JW: Which we do *not* shorten to “tantric,” no sir

TC: hah :) I think theres the possibility to use the difficulty of identifying and preserving NTCH as mechanic too

JW: Good, because, I was having trouble visualizing how that would happen. But then, I don’t really play games.

AR: I would also LOVE it if a game could include a questchain or storyline that builds a case against a shady antiquities dealer.

GG: There was a mission in DA:Inq where a haunted mansion killed it’s looters.

AR: Have looters learned nothing from horror? Steal some ancient stuff. Die a horrible death.

JS: Sounds like John Grant’s Lovejoy

AR: Also, if games insist on having players loot something, it should take seconds instead of being instant. Sweat for that artifact!

GG: I just submitted an abstract on the problem w/instant looting and the “cryptarch” in Destiny. Cross fingers.

AR: I could hug you. That abstract is awesome.

Pre-CatLady (PCL): my daddyo organizes hackathons at MIT if you wanna do it for real :)

AR:  Archaeology is a physical thing. I wonder if this could be ported to Kinect for the Xbox One, too.

AB: I would play this game.

SG: we talked in about doing exactly that, as a co-op.

SG: internet of things. wire up a bunch of equipment, send folks outside to the soccer field…

JL: I couldn’t remember what other system had Mo-Cap. Could include choices of different cultures to widen appeal

JL: running with it: could add “survey” option with walking/shovel digging. Go crazy & toss in mapping/drawing/lab!

SG: your conversation reminded me of this, re heritage mechanics- totem’s sound

AR: Oh yeah! I remember this from you :) I played it through (until it glitched near the end).

SG: virtual conference on archaeogaming. Use mit unhangouts, everybody finds, plays, talks games, build…

AR: Yes! Monthly heritage jam then?

AR: Romana’s York conference could totally jumpstart this.

SG: why not?

AR: Also, if games insist on having players loot something, it should take seconds instead of being instant. Sweat for that artifact!

JL: archaeology game for Wii using balance board and controls. could do in semi-real time and also emphasize fitness!

AR: Handheld controller as trowel in one square, and as a pick in another. Wii U could totally do this.

don’t forget taking your turn at the screen! Shake the handhelds forward and back

Tilt the controller up for end-of-day beers.

NG: Probably you already know them, all this archaeogaming chat just brought them to mind.

NG: Poss. of interest: Renowned Explorers and esp. Curious Expedition

Conclusions:

1. Archaeologists need to create their own game design studio or need to lobby existing studios to improve archaeology in games, or to make some really fun and more “real” archaeology-themed titles.

2. Developers need to include new achievements that reward non-looting, non-destruction, and repatriation in games.

3. Developers and players need to pay more attention to the concept of intangible heritage in the games they make and play.

Please feel free to leave constructive comments, questions, and suggestions in the Comments area, and join this lively discussion!

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

NeverAlone

Judith Winters, editor of Internet Archaeology, asked me to review the game Never Alone from an archaeological perspective, studying how it connects to prevailing material culture while building a story via the range and formats of play. What is the broader relevance of the game for archaeologists? Can games like this be used as educational tools, and can they communicate the ideas of preservation and of archaeological research?

Read my review here.

No Man's Sky

A view from the cockpit in No Man’s Sky (beta)

One of my intents with exploring the archaeology of video games is to create a set of archaeological methods that can be applied to conducting actual survey, excavation, and perhaps even conservation of material culture within virtual spaces. As I prepare for my Ph.D Skype interview with the University of York tomorrow(!), I thought I would scribble some things unscientifically to start collecting my thoughts on this. Your constructive comments and questions are both welcome and desired because:

What we do now in creating archaeological methods for documenting virtual worlds will inform future archaeologists (next month, next year, next century perhaps) on how to operate within a set framework while adding to it.

It is also important to understand that:

Material culture (and just plain culture) within video game worlds are created by people grounded in established cultures of their own. Granted, some games such as those in the Assassin’s Creed series (Ubisoft) open with the comment: “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Other games come front-loaded with lore and canon perpetuated and debated by thriving, robust user groups that are, in turn, consulted by the game developers themselves when making new expansions within those worlds (Emily Johnson and Tara Copplestone pers. comm.). And in games such as the forthcoming (2015) No Man’s Sky, described by Hello Games as “a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy,” the thrill of which is discussed in this interview with developer Sean Murray in Digital Trends (Jan. 10, 2015), worlds, life, and perhaps even culture are created via math.

Archaeogamers must come prepared with a background in chaos and complexity theory to understand how these iterative, never-before-seen worlds are made, and if, over time, these worlds create life that in turn creates culture that starts to make stuff: stuff we’ve never seen or possibly even imagined. We have to check our preconceived notions at the door of what culture is, and can something that theoretically is not-alive actually create something that can then be studied in an effort to understand its creation. How the fuck do you do that?

We start with what we know. And while for many of the games we have played in the past, and for many contemporary games it is impossible to do any kind of real “dirt archaeology”, we can begin to explore these spaces, mapping them, filming and photographing them with software tools, creating typologies of coins and pottery, examining mortuary habits, defining religious accoutrements and documenting rituals, and coming at these places like most gamers do, with a sense of the vaguely familiar (i.e., knowing what a dwelling is, but not necessarily what it might look like in a gaming world), but with an open mind and an eye for recording detail.

The games we have now are for archaeogaming practice, and we can begin to create the manual which will guide us to those games that are coming that follow perhaps a deist model: a universe made by a creator who does not interfere with its operation post-creation. Granted, there will be patches and upgrades and expansions, but I predict that the games in the late 2010s and beyond will trap players by infinite numbers of new worlds and new life and civilizations to explore. Sound familiar?

And once we have been archaeologists for these new cultures, what then? Is the material culture of virtual spaces the same as those of our “real” world? Do we place the same values on artifacts and art and architecture? I would argue that the virtual spaces to come will teach us a bit about how to study “real” world cultures, and that we can apply what we know about “real” world archaeology to the virtual. But it could be that one day we encounter a civilization created by an algorithm that lives and breathes as we do, and that the exoarchaeology we’ve considered for Mars and beyond will actually be borne in our machines.

More to follow as I think about this, but I’m out of wine.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

Introduction

Today’s post is by Aris Politopoulos, a veteran gamer and Ph.D student at the University of Leiden. He recently spoke to his friends at Leiden’s Archaeology Forum on the subject of Archaeogaming. Here’s his tale, with links at the bottom to the presentation and video of the lecture.

Politopoulos Lecture in Leiden

Archaeogaming at Leiden

Archaeology and video games is a concept that has been in my mind for the past few years. When I discovered that there other people around the world also concerned with this specific field of study, I was amazed and inspired to start approaching the topic in a more serious way. How can we approach archaeology in video games? Is it worth studying digital cultures? What can archaeology gain from the study of video games and vice versa? These are some of the questions I have been toying with. At the University of Leiden however, where I do my Ph.D, there had been no initiative so far to introduce the topic to the archaeological academic society. I figured that I should give it a shot and see whether there would be enough interest. Thanks to the archaeological forum and the organizers, who also found the topic compelling, I decided to give a lecture on Archaeology and Video Games.

Home Slide

My main concern was to introduce the topic to archaeologists and present the many academic possibilities which arise by conducting interdisciplinary research between archaeology and video games. Keeping in mind that the audience would be mainly people who had no idea about video games, the talk had to be very introductory and informative. I decided to organize the presentation into three different topics. The first topic was “video games and archaeology,” and the aim was to show how archaeology is incorporated into video games. I used Mass Effect to showcase how the concept of archaeology can bond with the narrative of a video game, and World of Warcraft, with its archaeology skill, to portray how archaeology is implemented in the gameplay.

Following that, I presented the topic of “archaeology in video games”. By explaining that video games are fully imagined worlds, which consist of cultures, spaces, lore, history, cities, and people, the idea was to reveal how we can conduct research within digital worlds. This research could include reconstruction of past spaces, using digital spaces to simulate and understand the use of space by players/population and more. In the same topic, I included historical video games and specifically the case of Civilization. Through Civilization we can see that history is presented as a colonial thing where states and Western culture, generally, dominates over what we could perceive as “uncivilized”. Archaeologists and historians can contribute heavily in order to change this kind of colonial perception of history.

Lastly, I decided to create a more provocative topic: “archaeology of video games”. The topic deals with video games as part of our material culture, and how archaeologists can contribute to the study of this material culture in forms of heritage, preservation, etc. Video game preservation is a topic which will come up in the future as company servers are going down or there is no accessibility to older consoles. It is worth studying ways in which archaeologists can contribute in the curation of this part of our material culture.

Archaeogaming

I am not going to go more in depth on the details of the presentation since you can see it in the video (linked below); I would rather discuss the reception. Overall, I got positive comments about the idea and the presentation. The main complaint was that it was too much focused on cross-disciplinary studies rather than how video games can assists archaeology directly. For example, a few people expected to go more into details concerning 3D representation and how video games can be used in order to represent archaeological heritage.

This is indeed a very interesting topic and something worth looking into and there are, however, already a lot of people around the world working with 3D mapping and design. I decided not to include it in the presentation because it could become too technical and stray away from the main goal of the lecture, to introduce the connection between video games and archaeology. However, using video game engines in order to represent archaeological artifacts or building or creating video games in spaces which represent actual ancient spaces is very interesting and compelling, but requires a full study of its own. It was too hard to go into details in only 45 minutes.

Another thing some people didn’t like was that it was targeted mainly to people who are at least aware of the video games I presented. To some degree, I tried to make it as simple as possible, but it seems some points might have not been very clear. This is something that needs to be worked on because people must see the value of doing such cross-disciplinary studies even if they are not gamers themselves.

Generally, however, people were impressed by the amount of research possibilities and they enjoyed something completely different from the usual archaeology. Thankfully there were some people who are also interested in the topic, and I am hoping we could brew something and make archaeology and video games a thing in Leiden as well. It is an open field with amazing stuff that can be done and produce amazing research and results. I am hoping you will enjoy the video of the presentation and all comments, critiques, ideas and proposals are more than welcome. Game on!

Downloads

Watch the 60-minute video of the presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mi5lw1HWzE

About the Author

Aris

Aris Politopoulos studied archaeology in the department of History and Archaeology, University of Athens from 2007-2012. The following year he moved to the Netherlands and the University of Leiden where he did his MA in the Archaeology of the Near East with the topic “From Mitanni to Middle Assyrians: Changes in the Land of Hanigalbat”. In September 2013 he started his Ph.D research at the University of Leiden as a self-funded student, with the topic “Imperial Capital Creation in Ancient Near East“. Aris has taken part in several excavations and archaeological projects around Greece.He’s also been a gamer since he can remember, playing all sorts of video games, board games and trading card games. His favorite games are: League of Legends, Starcraft II, World of Warcraft, Dark Souls, Baldur’s Gate II, Hearthstone, and Magic the Gathering (TCG).
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