Archaeogaming, yes you read it correct. But, Archaeo-gaming? Is that even a real thing? Apparently, yes and there are archaeogamers out there as well. As archaeologist Meghan Dennis explains on her blog (paraphrased), that archaeogaming is the “utilization and treatment of immaterial space to study created culture, specifically through video games. Everything that goes into the virtual immaterial space of the game worlds comes directly from its external cultural source; therefore we face the same problems in studying cultures in games as in studying cultures in real world. For this reason, it is relevant and requires the same standards of practice of archaeological data collection, only with different toolsets.” You died.
Ok let’s start on level 1, level noob. To explain archaeogaming in one sentence, it is a mélange of archaeology and video games, two exciting things coming together to create something more exciting! When I played games like Assassin’s Creed, Age of Empires and Skyrim and so on, I always thought there is something more to these video games than just entertainment. My gameplay was always followed by hours of reading wikipedia pages and other online articles and sometimes even history books. To be honest, it was Assassin’s Creed which got me interested in history and archaeology in the first place. And I am sure I am not the only one like that, as I remember reading another archaeologist confessing that Lara Croft was her first inspiration which got her into the field.
So something is definitely happening here, let’s dig into that and find out (archaeology-dig into that, you see what I’m doing here? Ok yes it’s lame, I know). Archaeogaming is a fast growing sub-discipline in archaeology which is still in its beta stage. Here I will discuss the three different but interconnected aspects of archaeogaming.
1) Archaeology in Videogames
We are all familiar with the hat wearing, whip wielding archaeology professor Henry Jones Jr. aka Indiana Jones. And gamers are familiar with some more personas such as Lara Croft and Nathan Drake, when we consider archaeology in video games or popular media in general. And what they are doing is not archaeology, its treasure hunting, yet they are portrayed as archaeologist (except Nathan Drake of course). Even the archaeology you do in World of Warcraft isn’t real archaeology (and for the last time people, we don’t do dinosaurs!). Yes most of us know that, but then why it is still portrayed as such? Ask the archaeogamers.
Experts have criticised the historical inaccuracy and stereotyped portrayals archaeology and archaeologists in popular media. But as archaeogamers argue, instead of criticising, they should engage with them and address these issues. Studies have shown that video games are no longer alternative form of amusement but now rather have entered the mainstream entertainment industry with a significant capacity to shape public opinion. And according to some archaeogamers, this should be leveraged to open up meaningful discussions and correct the misconceptions. And that’s what they are doing; for example, check out this blog by archaeologist Andrew Reinhard (whom I consider father of archaeogaming and one of the few founding fathers I know who are still alive).
2) Archaeology and video games
This one is connected to the previous aspect. Some archaeologists have pointed out that many historically set video games tend to do what archaeologists are trying to achieve as well, i.e. reconstruction of the past. Sure there are inaccuracies for example, the buildings and environments in Assassin’s Creed games are designed for thrilling gameplay experience rather than accuracy but the overall feel of the city or the setting is authentic. Or the villages in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are authentic medieval settlements; I mean that’s how pretty much a medieval village looked like (if you remove magic and all). Or the language in Far Cry Primal is an authentic proto-Indo- European language, created by experts.
I can go on but you get the point. It’s not accurate but it’s authentic. But then, so are the interpretations published by archaeologists in their jargon filled journals. Yes they are much more grounded in reality but still it’s not accurate, we can never reconstruct the past ‘accurately’, because once it’s gone it’s gone, all we are doing is guesswork, unless until someone figures out the time travel. Besides, accuracy is subjective. So why not use video games for archaeological purposes?
For example, the global reach of video games can be leveraged for public archaeology. The visual impact of video games is deeper and long lasting and creates dynamic learning experiences. Archaeogamers have experimented with video games for teaching archaeology. Watch this archaeologist explaining phenomenology through Skyrim! Or using video games for public outreach and heritage management like a team of archaeogamers based at Leiden University that created a reconstruction of Temple of Bel at Palmyra in Minecraft. Even better, why not create our own games or collaborate with game developers to assist them in creating more authentic video games like Ubisoft did. The studio funded an excavation of a tomb of 18th century pirate Amaro Rodríguez Felipe as a part of the development process for Assassins Creed: Black Flag.
3) Archaeology of video games
This is where things get twisted and weird. Archaeologist Andrew Reinhard argues that potentially every video game itself can be an archaeological site and the glitches found in it are artifacts or what he calls ‘gamifacts.’ These sites in ‘virtual space’ can be excavated and studied just like the archaeological sites in what he calls ‘meat space’ but only with different toolsets. This is a concept which even I don’t understand completely yet and if you want to learn more about it then visit his blog (link above). To describe the past, archaeologists study or use what we call, material culture of that time period.
Archaeogamers take it one step further and claim that video games are part of the material culture of our digital and hyper-connected society. And they are right to think so, after all video games and the gaming communities across the world do reflect our modern lifestyle. And studying them can take us one tiny step closer to understanding being human and after all that is all archaeology is about.
A famous example of this can be the excavation of ‘Atari burial ground’ in New Mexico, where the assemblages of Atari cartridges of the video game E.T. the Extra Terrestrial were excavated, which confirmed the urban legend of dumping of cartridges by the company in 1983. The reason was that the game performed so poorly in the market that the company was ashamed of it and didn’t know what to do with the unsold cartridges, so they just dumped them in a landfill and poured cement on it. This excavation was extensively covered by the media and there is also a beautiful documentary about it called Atari: Game Over. I recommend watching it.
In the light of recent E3 2017, we have seen some pretty awesome trailers and gameplay and I am very excited about the new Assassin’s Creed Origins set in Ptolemaic Egypt. Another game to look out for that ‘authentic’ experience will be Kingdom Come: Deliverance and there is already an article published here about the upcoming medieval themed games, so better check that out.
But the game I am most excited about is Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey brought to us by Patrice Desilets, creator of Assassin’s Creed. The reason I’m excited so much is because this game is about human evolution and he has promised us that this is going to be much more grounded and scientific survival experience, which will have the feel of a documentary, and most importantly, it will not have any huge conspiracy theories or that ‘Those Who Came Before’ crap. There has never been a game which deals with evolution on such a level before.
Sometimes it’s hard for a lay person to understand evolution because it’s hard to visualise it and if this game can nail it then it will be a remarkable piece of work and will definitely grab the attention of gamers and archaeogamers both. Whether this game delivers its promise or not time will tell, but it will surely open up exciting and meaningful discussions, and that’s what archaeogamers are after. Check out its trailer here.