On haunts & low-friction AR – thinking out loud

The frightening news is that we are living in a story. The reassuring part is that it’s a story we’re writing ourselves. Alas, though, most of us don’t even know it – or are afraid to accept it. Never before did we have so much access to the tools of storytelling – yet few of us are willing to participate in their creation.

– Douglas Ruskhoff, ‘Renaissance Now! The Gamers’ Perspective’ in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, MIT Press, 2005: 415.

Haunts is about the secret stories of spaces.

Haunts is about locative trauma.

Haunts is about the production of what Foucault calls “heterotopias”—a single real place in which incompatible counter-sites are layered upon or juxtaposed against one another.

The general idea behind Haunts is this: students work in teams, visiting various public places and tagging them with fragments of either a real life-inspired or fictional trauma story. Each team will work from an overarching traumatic narrative that they’ve created, but because the place-based tips are limited to text-message-sized bits, the story will emerge only in glimpses and traces, across a series of spaces.

– Mark Sample, “Haunts: Place, Play, and Trauma” Sample Reality http://www.samplereality.com/2010/06/01/haunts-place-play-and-trauma/

It’s been a while since I’ve delved into the literature surrounding locative place-based games. I’ve been doing so as I try to get my head in gear for this summer’s Digital Archaeology Institute where I’ll be teaching augmented reality for archaeology.

Archaeology and archaeological practice are so damned broad though; in order to do justice to the time spent, I feel like I have to cover lots of different possibilities for how AR could be used in archaeological practice, from several different perspectives. I know that I do want to spend a lot of time looking at AR from a game/playful perspective though.  A lot of what I do is a kind of digital bricolage, as I use whatever I have to hand to do whatever it is I do. I make no pretense that what I’m doing/using is the best method for x, only that it is a method, and one that works for me. So for augmented reality in archaeology, I’m thinking that what I need to teach are ways to get the maximum amount of storytelling/reality making into the greatest number of hands. (Which makes me think of this tweet from Colleen Morgan this am:

…but I digress.)

So much about what we find in archaeology is about trauma. Houses burn down: archaeology is created. Things are deliberately buried: archaeology is created. Materials are broken: archaeology is created.

Sample’s Haunts then provides a potential framework for doing archaeological AR. He goes on to write:

The narrative and geographic path of a single team’s story should alone be engaging enough to follow, but even more promising is a kind of cross-pollination between haunts, in which each team builds upon one or two shared narrative events, exquisite corpse style. Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views. Different narrative and geographic points of views. Eventually these multiple paths could be aggregated onto a master narrative—or more likely, a master database—so that Haunts could be seen (if not experienced) in its totality.

It was more of a proof of concept than anything else, but my ‘low-friction AR‘ ‘The Ottawa Anomaly‘ tries to not so much tell a story, but provide echoes of events in key areas around Ottawa’s downtown, such that each player’s experience of the story would be different – the sequence of geotriggers encountered would colour each subsequent trigger’s emotional content. If you hear the gunshot first, and then the crying, that implies a different story than if you heard them the other way around. The opening tries to frame a storyworld where it makes sense to hear these echoes of the past in the present, so that the technological mediation of the smartphone fits the world. It also is trying to make the player stop and look at the world around them with new eyes (something ‘Historical Friction‘ tries to do as well).

I once set a treasure hunt around campus for my first year students. One group however interpreted a clue as meaning a particular statue in downtown Ottawa; they returned to campus much later and told me a stunning tale of illuminati and the secret history of Official Ottawa that they had crafted to make sense of the clues. Same clues, different geographical setting (by mistake) = oddly compelling story. What I’m getting at: my audio fragments could evoke very different experiences not just in their order of encounter but also given the background of the person listening. I suggested in a tweet that

creating another level of storytelling on top of my own.

I imagine my low-friction AR as a way for multiple stories within the same geographic frame, and ‘rechoes’ or ‘fieldnotes’ as ways of cross-connecting different stories. I once toyed with the idea of printing out QR codes such that they could be pasted overtop of ‘official Ottawa‘ for similar purposes…

Low Friction Augmented Reality

But my arms get tired.

Maybe you’ve thought, ‘Augmented reality – meh’. I’ve thought that too. Peeping through my tablet or phone’s screen at a 3d model displayed on top of the viewfinder… it can be neat, but as Stu wrote years ago,

[with regard to ‘Streetmuseum’, a lauded AR app overlaying historic London on modern London] …it is really the equivalent of using your GPS to query a database and get back a picture of where you are. Or indeed going to the local postcard kiosk buying an old paper postcard of, say, St. Paul’s Cathedral and then holding it up as you walk around the cathedral grounds.

I’ve said before that, as historians and archaeologists, we’re maybe missing a trick by messing around with visual augmented reality. The past is aural. (If you want an example of how affecting an aural experience can be, try Blindside).

Maybe you’ve seen ‘Ghosts in the Garden‘. This is a good model. But what if you’re just one person at your organization? It’s hard to put together a website, let alone voice actors, custom cases and devices, and so on. I’ve been experimenting these last few days with trying to use the Twine interactive fiction platform as a low-friction AR environment. Normally, one uses Twine to create choose-your-own-adventure texts. A chunk of text, a few choices, those choices lead to new texts… and so on. Twine uses an editor that is rather like having little index cards that you move around, automatically creating new cards as you create new choices. When you’re finished, Twine exports everything you’ve done into a single html file that can live online somewhere.

That doesn’t begin to even touch the clever things that folks can do with Twine. Twine is indeed quite complex. For one thing, as we’ll see below, it’s possible to arrange things so that passages of text are triggered not by clicking, but by your position in geographical space.

You can augment reality with Twine. You don’t need to buy the fancy software package, or the monthly SDK license. You can do it yourself, and keep control over your materials, working with this fantastic open-source platform.

When the idea occurred to me, I had no idea how to make it happen. I posed the question on the Twine forums, and several folks chimed in with suggestions about how to make this work. I now have a platform for delivering an augmented reality experience. When you pass through an area where I’ve put a geotrigger, right now, it plays various audio files (I’m going for a horror-schlock vibe. Lots of backwards talking. Very Twin Peaks). What I have in mind is that you would have to listen carefully to figure out where other geotriggers might be (or it could be straight-up tour-guide type audio or video). I’ve also played with embedding 3d models (both with and without Oculus Rift enabled), another approach which is also full of potential – perhaps the player/reader has to carefully examine the annotations on the 3d model to figure out what happens next.

Getting it to work on my device was a bit awkward, as I had to turn on geolocation for apps, for Google, for everything that wanted it (I’ve since turned geolocation off again).

If you’re on Carleton’s campus, you can play the proof-of-concept now: http://philome.la/electricarchaeo/test-of-geolocation-triggers/play  But if you’re not on Carleton’s campus, well, that’s not all that useful.

To get this working for you, you need to start a new project in Twine 2. Under story format (click the up arrow beside your story title, bottom left of the editor), make sure you’ve selected Sugarcube (this is important; the different formats have different abilities, and we’re using a lot of javascript here). Then, in the same place, find ‘edit story javascript’ because you need to add a whole bunch of javascript:

(function () {
if ("geolocation" in navigator && typeof navigator.geolocation.getCurrentPosition === "function") {
// setup the success and error callbacks as well as the options object
var positionSuccess = function (position) {
// you could simply assign the `coords` object to `$Location`,
// however, this assigns only the latitude and longitude since
// that seems to have been what you were attempting to do before
state.active.variables["Location"] = {
latitude : position.coords.latitude,
longitude : position.coords.longitude
// access would be like: $Location.latitude and $Location.longitude
positionError = function (error) {
/* currently a no-op; code that handles errors */
positionOptions = {
timeout: 31000,
enableHighAccuracy: true,
maximumAge : 120000 // (in ms) cached results may not be older than 1 minute
// this can probably be tweaked upwards a bit

// since the API is asynchronous, we give `$Location` an initial value, so
// trying to access it immediately causes no issues if the first callback
// takes a while
state.active.variables["Location"] = { latitude : 0, longitude : 0 };

// make an initial call for a position while the system is still starting
// up, so we can get real data ASAP (probably not strictly necessary as the
// first call via the `predisplay` task [below] should happen soon enough)

// register a `predisplay` task which attempts to update the `$Location`
// variable whenever passage navigation occurs
predisplay["geoGetCurrentPosition"] = function () {
} else {
/* currently a no-op; code that handles a missing/disabled geolocation API */

(function () {
window.approxEqual = function (a, b, allowedDiff) { // allowedDiff must always be > 0
if (a === b) { // handles various "exact" edge cases
return true;
allowedDiff = allowedDiff || 0.0005;
return Math.abs(a - b) < allowedDiff;

The first function enables your Twine story to get geocoordinates. The second function enables us to put a buffer around the points of interest. Then, in our story, you have to call that code and compare the result against your points of interest so that Twine knows which passage to display. So in a new passage – call it ‘Search for Geotriggers’- you have this:

<<if approxEqual($Location.latitude, $Torontolat) and approxEqual($Location.longitude, $Torontolong)>>
<<display “Downtown Toronto”>>
<<display “I don’t know anything about where you are”>>

So that bit above says, if the location is more or less equal to the POI called Torontolat,Torontolong, then display the passage called “Downtown Toronto”. If you’re not within the buffer around the Toronto point, display the passage called “I don’t know anything about where you are”.

Back at the beginning of your story, you have an initialization passage (where your story starts) and you set some of those variables:

<<set $Torontolat = 43.653226>>
<<set $Torontolong = -79.3831843>>

[[Search for Geotriggers]]

And that’s the basics of building a DIY augmented reality. Augmented? Sure it’s augmented. You’re bringing digital ephemera into play (and I use the word play deliberately) in the real world. Whether you build a story around that, or go for more of the tour guide approach, or devise fiendish puzzles, is up to you.

I’m grateful to ‘Greyelf’ and ‘TheMadExile’ for their help and guidance as I futzed about doing this.

[update May 22: Here is the html for a game that takes place in and around downtown Ottawa Ontario. Download it somewhere handy, then open the Twine 2 editor. Open the game file in the editor via the Import button and you’ll see how I built it, organized the triggers and so on. Of course, it totally spoils any surprise or emergent experience once you can see all the working parts so if you’re in Ottawa, play it here on your device first before examining the plumbing!]

archaeogaming unconference – logistics



The #archaeogaming unconference will take place here: https://unhangout.media.mit.edu/event/archaeogaming at 11 am, EST, June 1st; y’all are welcome to throw together other spaces (hangouts, skype, collaborative docs, etherpads, what have you) to extend or push the idea further. Ideas that have come in so far can be found/voted on here: http://www.allourideas.org/archaeogaming/.

In terms of how the day will unravel (unroll? play out?) I’m imagining say 3 sessions with 3 breakout rooms, at 45 minutes each, 10 minutes between for refreshment. Unlike in-person unconferences, I think trying to agree a schedule on the morning might be too difficult, so I’d take the top voted topics, slot them into a google spreadsheet-schedule template, say next monday – and then people can leave comments on the the desired layout. I’d leave that open for the week, then adjust/publish the schedule that weekend, according to what seems like the majority will.

Then, morning of, I’ll remind/repost the URL to the unhangout, and we’d be off to the races. The unhangout can be broadcast via Youtube too (though I’m not entirely sure how that happens or what the channel will be – guess I should go and see which of my many accounts is plumbed into what service).

Sound good?

Update May 25th: proposed schedule may be commented on here.

Fumbling towards Virtuality

With apologies to Sarah.

So the Oculus Rift arrived some time ago. What with conferences and illness, I didn’t really get to play with it until today. I followed all directions, and eventually got the damned thing wired to my 5 yr old Windows 7 machine.

I know, I know.

I have dual monitors. Dual VGA monitors. My box does not have VGA ports. Or rather, it does but they don’t hook to anything (curse you pimplyfaced Best Buy salesman). So, five years ago, I had to hunt high and low for dvi and display port adaptors. At the time, dvi and dp monitors were more than I had coin for. I tell you this to explain part of this morning shennanigans; hooking the Rift up to the hdmi port upset the delicate balance that keeps my monitors working (seriously – there’s  wire loose somewhere, which happened after I had to replace the power supply).

I know, I know.

Anyway, once everything was hooked up, the cool blue light of the Rift’s eyepieces beckoned me to put the thing on. Did I mention I have astigmatism in both eyes?

I know, I know.

Behold – my desktop upside down, and my two monitors no longer in position left and right. They inverted. So all alerts, buttons, windows etc were in the Rift view. I should mention that when I went to download the SDK & the runtime, my antivirus freaked right out about trojans (thank you, 360 total security). False alarm. But the auto-quarantine thing had the effect of buggering up the download, so I had to figure out what was going on there before I could get it all downloaded. Anyway, after much futzing, I got the desktop to display correctly in the Rift, even though it would no longer mirror to my monitors. ‘I can work with this’, I thought.

I know, I know.

When I tried the demo, I started getting all sorts of error messages. After more futzing and googling, I arrived at that point that all of us eventually get to:

…and I reinstalled the bloody sdk, and the runtime. And lo! the demo ran, appearing on my screen. The headtracker appeared to work as well, for on the screen as I moved the Rift around the ceiling of the tuscan villa would appear, then the walls, then the floor… except, not within the bloody Rift itself. No, the Rift was showing an orange ‘trouble’ light.

And then the viewer crashed, and the graphics all buggered up, and… and… I blame my graphics card & its software (whether rightly or wrongly, something’s gonna take the blame). It’s an AMD Radeon HD5570, but yeah, something’s up. And I’ve lost the better part of this morning futzing with this.

Things are getting dire.

Why I’m doing this: I want to do something like what these folks are doing, immersive network viz & navigation.

Anyway, it’s probably time to replace my box and when I do, surely most (all?) of my issues will automagically disappear.

(Well, this issue here is probably the culprit and I need to run in extended desktop mode, but still).

Update: I switched it to extended desktop mode; nothing. Back to normal mode. Then hot damn, the thing works! So I am now fully oculus rift’d.

Let’s do something cool.

an #archaeogaming unconference



Mark June 1st on your calendars folks! https://unhangout.media.mit.edu/event/archaeogaming

This is probably madness, but what the hell. Given the interest this past week in the intersection(s) of archaeology and gaming that seemed to be happening across various blogs & across the twittersphere, it occurred to me that this was a really good opportunity for me to learn how to throw a virtual unconference. (Wasn’t that everyone’s first thought?) So, in order to get a sense of what people might be interested in talking about, I cooked up an ‘all our ideas’ voting page which can be found here. It presents you with pairs of ideas, and you simply click on the idea you like better in any given pair. Don’t like the ideas at all? You can add your own, no registration required. Now, to host the unconference, I’m thinking the MIT ‘unhangout’ is the way to do it. I’ve never used it, but I like the look of it, and I think it’ll be useful for my teaching next year, so again, a good opportunity. Anyway, it allows for breakout rooms via some clever coding on top of the regular google hangout. The video explains more. https://player.vimeo.com/video/90475288 I’ll leave the ‘all our ideas’ page running for a few more days. When I’ve settled on a day & time (probably this month, likely a monday or tuesday) I’ll update this post. All welcome.

Grabbing data from Open Context

This morning, on Twitter, there was a conversation about site diaries and the possibilities of topic modeling for extracting insight from them. Open Context has 2618 diaries – here’s one of them. Eric, who runs Open Context, has an excellent API for all that kind of data. Append .json on the end of a file name, and *poof*, lots of data. Here’s the json version of that same diary.  So, I wanted all of those diaries – this URL (click & then note where the .json lives; delete the .json to see the regular html) has ’em all.

I copied and pasted that list of urls into a .txt file, and fed it to wget

wget -i urlstograb.txt -O output.txt

and now my computer is merrily pinging Eric’s, putting all of the info into a single txt file. And sometimes crashing it, too.

(Sorry Eric).

When it’s done, I’ll rename it .json and then use Rio to get it into useable form for R. The data has geographic coordinates too, so with much futzing I expect I could *probably* represent topics over space (maybe by exporting to Gephi & using its geolayout).

Futz: that’s the operative word, here.

Calling for #archaeogames – some thoughts on potential processes

Some months ago, I was talking with a colleague about the changing landscape of academic publishing. I was encouraging her to try some of these various open access and/or post-publication peer review and/or open peer review experiments that I’ve published in. Like any true believer, I was a bit annoying.

A lot annoying.

To which she sensibly responded: “But you were hired here to do that sort of thing. I was not. My goal right now is to secure tenure. I can’t have a bunch of ‘failed’ experiments or things that are too out-there on my cv when I go up.”

I was taken aback, but upon reflection, I realized she was entirely right. It’s one thing to be hired officially as ‘the digital humanities’ guy. I was expected from the get go – it was in the original job description – to be different, to do these odd things. Now, when I went through the tenure process, I still had to tell a good story about what I was doing and why it mattered and why it merited serious consideration. But still, I was in a position that my colleague is not. As I reflect on this, I realize that another obligation of this freedom that I have is that it is not enough for me to try things out with my own research.

My own research itself should be about making it possible for others to do this as well.

That is, in the same way I teach digital methods to my second year undergrads as just ho-hum these are just normal things that we do, I need to put whatever credibility it is that I have myself on the line so that others can try things out too. As I think of this #archaeogaming thing that I suggested in my previous post, and I consider the excellent advice that Jack & Kristen gave, along with Andrew’s thoughts and Tara’s careful responses, I see that there are a number of various deep issues that a ‘call for games’ raises. What credibility I have can be usefully expended trying to address these issues to normalize games as a serious venue for doing scholarship. Consider this post and this ‘call for games’ business as an effort to spend my academic credit towards opening up a new front for writing/making/crafting/communicating scholarship

Right now, before going any further, you should read the links in that paragraph above to the original post, then Andrew, Tara, Jack & Kristen’s responses. Ok, now that we’re all caught up- In no particular order, and not necessarily responding to any particular point raised in this conversation, here are some thoughts occasioned by this conversation:

1. archaeologists are not game designers. Game designers are not archaeologists. Agreed.  This is not a problem, when we remember that ‘a video game’ does not need to mean a triple-A title, filled with whiz bang graphics etc. I’m thinking of games here in the way that Anna Anthropy discusses in ‘Rise of the Videogame Zinesters‘. I’m talking punk archaeology. I’m talking a kind of public archaeology, zine-like remixing.

2. any game that gets created has to be using the affordance of the medium, the platform, as an integral part of the argument being made. No archaeological window-dressing. I used a zork-like interface once to decentre the top-down view of the world we are used to from Google earth, to get my students to ‘think like a Roman’, an argument about how Romans themselves saw and navigated space. (Post mortem). It doesn’t have to be ‘fun’. It doesn’t have to be complete. It does have to make an argument.

3. radical transparency. If issuing a ‘call for #archaeogames’ is to be meaningful, then every step in the process has to be clear. We don’t all have to agree, but when disagreements emerge, we have to arrive at a resolution

4. a collected ‘volume’ (for lack of a better word) of #archaeogames has to teach the ‘reader’ how to interact with it. For better or worse, I think this means that there has to be a ‘paradata’ document. Last year’s HeritageJam introduced this concept to me. I really rather like the concept. Why I say ‘for worse’ above – for the reader, a written document is a life-ring, something to cling to, that absolves the ‘reader/player’ from critically engaging with the game. It’s text – phew, I can read text!  A paradata document can be a playable thing too though.

5. thinking of paradata makes me think of the ‘feelies‘ that accompanied the first wave of computer gaming (here’s the Grail Diary, by the way). Maybe a call for archaeogames should explicitly call for feelies that can be printed, bound, pdf’d, whatever so that it is impossible to rely on the text alone to understand the argument. Bind the material with the digital.

6. which reminds me of ARGs, but we’ll leave that to one side for now (though check out this).

7. an archaeogame does not necessarily have to be a video game. Board, card games, school-yard games, ‘barely games‘, playsets… we’re materialists, are we not?

And finally, spend some time looking at Amanda Visconti’s digital dissertation, and contrast that with the draft AHA guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. The latter is very much concerned with making digital scholarship feel ‘ok’ to existing modes of scholarship (and that’s important); the former gives us a model for thinking through what the actual look of a ‘collected volume’ of #archaeogames might …look… like. I especially appreciate her approach to LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe), with web archival recordings, submission of materials to the Internet Archive Wayback machine, zips of her github repo (itself something one could also fork – copy – as well), XML for all wordpress posts.

So these thoughts are banging around in my head. I started sketching on paper:

Let’s pick that apart, because my hands are shaky, the tablet is heavy and clunky, and the picture frankly is abysmal.

Theme – a call for archaeogames should have some sort of thematic focus. I’m a Romanist (was a Romanist?). Let’s set the theme as ‘Roman Urban Spaces’. Broad to allow many voices; narrow enough for some sort of thematic unity, some sort of understanding, to emerge from our digital scholarship. The call for games would want games that explicitly use the affordances of whatever platform the creator chooses to make their argument.

Process – what was neat about the Writing History in the Digital Age project, and the Web Writing project was the way every step in the process was extraordinarily clear. What would the process look like here? Drawing on Andrew & Tara’s suggestions, I’m thinking that since we’re both a) teaching/encouraging people to write scholarship via games and b) teaching/encouraging people to read/play scholarship written in games, we have to keep things fairly simple. So –

–  a sign up form, with a one-paragraph ‘here’s my idea, roughly’

– a website with a tumblr-like page for each project, where authors would document their process; in something like this, the process itself is an extremely important scholarly output. Reader/players would be encouraged to comment here. Gitbooks.io might be a good spot, as text and code can be integrated, multiple authorship is no problem. I’m sure there are many options here.

– each author to maintain a github repo with their code (which would also mean we might have to teach people how to use github), linked from their project page.

– three months to build the game (whatever form, genre, etc that it may take).

– a due date for the paradata (guidelines to be provided) at roughly the same time, remembering that paradata could be text or itself gameful

– an open review period after that due date, where reader/players comment on a holistic-view of the entire project written by the editors.

– a subsequent round of polishing for those authors’ work deemed to move on to the next phase, the decision being based on the impact of the argument, sophistication (not necessarily technical) of the piece, the engagement with the reader/players… obviously, something to flesh out a *lot* more.

Outcome – what’s the (ahem) endgame for all this? Maybe –

– final publication as a website along the Visconti model, with the playable games made available, and with all code lodged in an open repository. We’d have to find one of these, though there are more coming onstream every day.

– perhaps approach Internet Archaeology. We have a dataverse repo here at Carleton that could work too.

Clear statements on intellectual property absolutely would need to be developed at the outset. I see no reason why the IP shouldn’t remain with the author/creators.

… ?

ludi incipiant! a call for #archaeogames?

Let’s play a game.

In the wake of the #saa2015 #archaeogaming hashtag (as well as #ctp2015, ‘challenge the past’), and indeed Heritage Jam, I’ve been thinking about how awesome it would be to have a collection of papers dealing with archaeogaming (as Andrew defines it). Such things exist (although, as I tap this out, I can’t link to anything in particular) though they are more ‘reception studies’ than what I think we’ve been seeing lately.

And then as I sat in traffic, imagining what a ‘call for papers’ might say, the penny dropped. Why call for papers at all?

Why not issue a call for games?

Why not use the medium we’re interested in itself to write our scholarship? Trevor talks about this in the context of history more broadly. If you haven’t read that post, you should – go on, I’ll wait. Trevor makes a persuasive argument.

Brass tacks. How would this play out? Normally, if you had a collected volume in mind, you would contact potential contributors, have them cook up abstracts, then with abstracts in hand you approach a potential publisher… I’ve been part of a couple of experiments with Jack Dougherty that do all of this in the open, via a comment-press platform. I imagine this makes the finding a publisher a bit easier (?) because you can already demonstrate interest and potential readership. What would the flow look like for a collection of archaeogames? Maybe some sort of ‘humble-bundle’ hosted on itch.io maybe? Maybe some sort of wordpress site as a wrapper? Games could be any genre, any platform -board games too, if they can be distributed say as print-outable pdfs or 3d-, as long as they make a scholarly, archaeological, argument where the affordances of the medium are used to best advantage.

Interested? Good idea, bad idea?

Somewhere in the desert…

A lost village

At the upcoming SAA in San Fracisco, Andrew Rheinhard and I are participating in a forum on digital public archaeology. Our piece, ‘Playing Pedagogy: Videogaming as site and vehicle for digital public archaeology’ is still in a process of becoming. Our original abstract:

While there is an extensive literature on the pedagogical uses of video games in STEM education, and a comparitvely smaller literature for langagues, literature, and history, there is a serious dearth of scholarship surrounding videogames in their role as vectors for public archaeology. Moreover, video games work as ‘digital public archaeology’ in the ways their imagined pasts within the games deal with monuments, monumentality, and their own ‘lore’. In this presentation, we play the past to illustrate twin poles of ‘public’ archaeology, as both worlds in which archaeology is constructed and worlds wherin archaeological knowledge may be communicated.

We had initially thought to write a game to explore these ideas, and so our entire presentation would involve the session participants playing it. But writing games is tough. In fact, it would be hard for one to top the game made by Tara Copplestone for the 2014 Heritage Jam, ‘Buried’. However, another venue presents itself. Andrew recently proposed to the makers of No Man’s Sky that he be allowed to lead an archaeological expedition therein.

“What!” I hear you exclaim. Well, think of it like this. We’re used to the idea of reception studies, of how the past is portrayed in games, movies, novels. We’re also used to the idea of games as being the locus for pedagogy, or for persuading, or making arguments. What happens then, in a game like No Man’s Sky, where the entire world is generated algorithmically from a seed? That is, no human designs it: it emerges. Rather like our own universe, eh? Such procedural games are quite common, though none perhaps are as complex in their world building as Dwarf Fortress (which evolves not just the world, but also culture & individual family/clan/culture lineages!)

What then does such  xenoarchaeology look like? How does that intersect with digital public archaeology? Well, if archaeological method has any truth to it, then in these worlds we might be faced with something profoundly alter, something profoundly different (which also accounts for why the writers of Star Trek placed such stock on archaeology)

We’ve got a month to sort these thoughts out. But it was in this frame of mind that I started thinking what archaeology in Minecraft would look like, could look like, and what it might find. Not in Minecraft worlds that have been lovingly built from scratch by a human. No, I mean the ones grown from seeds. It’s quite interesting – since no computational process is actually truly random, if you know the seed from which all calculations and algorithms are run, you can recreate the exact sequence that gives rise to a particular world (in this, and indeed in all, computational simulations). There is quite a thriving subculture in Minecraft it turns out that share interesting seeds. And so, as I searched for seeds that might prove fertile for our talk, I came across ‘Double Village’ for Minecraft 1.64. (See method 5 for spawing worlds from seeds). If you’ve got Minecraft 1.64 you too can join me on my expedition to a strange –desert land….


The texts all say the same thing. Set the portal to ‘Double Village’ and soon you’ll find the exotic and lost desert villages. I put on the archaeotrancerebretron, grabbed my kit bag, and gritted my teeth. My companions all had theirs on too. We stepped into the charmed circle…

Sherlock Holmes, Samuel Vimes, and Archaeological Equifinality


How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Sam Vimes:

… he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, ‘Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,’ and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!


The real world was far too real to leave neat little hints. It was full of too many things. It wasn’t by eliminating the impossible that you got at the truth, however improbable; it was by the much harder process of eliminating the possibilities.

For my money, Sam Vimes is the better detective. Here he has nailed the concept of equifinality, the idea that many different paths could lead to the evidence that we find. Vimes would make a good archaeologist. The problem, though, for archaeology (or history, or anthropology, or… or… or…) is that we don’t really grapple with the idea of equifinality in our writing. This is why history, archaeology, digital humanities, needs an experimental mind set. Through experimentation, we can whittle down the possibilities. Scott Weingart has an excellent post on this very issue, through analogy with astronomy:

Astronomers and historians both view their subjects from great distances; too far to send instruments for direct measurement and experimentation […] historians are still stuck looking at the past in the same way we looked at the stars for so many thousands of years: through a glass, darkly. Like astronomers, we face countless observational distortions, twisting the evidence that appears before us until we’re left with an echo of a shadow of the past. We recreate the past through narratives, combining what we know of human nature with the evidence we’ve gathered, eventually (hopefully) painting ever-clearer pictures of a time we could never touch with our fingers.

In which case, what we need is a laboratory for running different micro might-have-beens (I distrust uber-do-everything-social-models, because with so many moving parts, how the hell do you know what’s going on?). Fortunately, Scott and I have just published one over in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory(It will be part of a special issue on archaeological networks analysis; but JAMT does a thing called ‘online first’, so you can see articles before they’re pulled into a particular issue.)

The Equifinality of Archaeological Networks: an Agent-Based Exploratory Lab Approachhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10816-014-9230-y.

The agent based model itself is available on figshare at http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.92953.


In this article using this agent based model, we examine a theory of Roman economic history; we work out the kinds of generative processes for networks such a vision of the Roman economy might use; we model these; and we compare with known archaeological networks. More or less; you’ll have to read it for all the nitty gritty. Happily, if you’re paywalled-out, here’s a pre-print (the open access fee for Springer is $3000 US !!!! and I ain’t got that kind of cash – but that’s the subject for a post for another day).


When we find an archaeological network, how can we explore the necessary versus contingent processes at play in the formation of that archaeological network? Given a set of circumstances or processes, what other possible network shapes could have emerged? This is the problem of equifinality, where many different means could potentially arrive at the same end result: the networks that we observe. This paper outlines how agent-based modelling can be used as a laboratory for exploring different processes of archaeological network formation. We begin by describing our best guess about how the (ancient) world worked, given our target materials (here, the networks of production and patronage surrounding the Roman brick industry in the hinterland of Rome). We then develop an agent-based model of the Roman extractive economy which generates different kinds of networks under various assumptions about how that economy works. The rules of the simulation are built upon the work of Bang (2006; 2008) who describes a model of the Roman economy which he calls the ‘imperial Bazaar’. The agents are allowed to interact, and the investigators compare the kinds of networks this description generates over an entire landscape of economic possibilities. By rigorously exploring this landscape, and comparing the resultant networks with those observed in the archaeological materials, the investigators will be able to employ the principle of equifinality to work out the representativeness of the archaeological network and thus the underlying processes.