Interview by Ben Meredith, for his article on procedurally generated archaeology sims

I was interviewed by Ben Meredith on procedurally generated game worlds and their affinities with archaeology, for Kill Screen Magazine. The piece was published this morning. It’s a good read, and an interesting take on one of the more interesting recent developments in gaming. I asked Ben if I could post the unedited communication we had, from which he drew on for his article. He said ‘yes!’, so here it is.

Hi Ben,

It seems to me that archaeology and video games share a number of affinities, not least of which because they are both procedurally generated. There is a method for field archaeology; follow the method, and you will have correctly excavated the site/surveyed the landscape/recorded the standing remains/etc. These procedures contain within them various ways of looking at the world, and emphasize certain kinds of values over others, which is why it is possible to have a marxist archaeology, or a gendered archaeology, or so on. Thus, it also seems obvious to me that you can have an archaeology within video games (not to be confused with media archaeology, or an archaeology of video games). A great example of this kind of work is Andrew Rheinhart’s exploration of the beta of Elder Scrolls Online – you should touch base with him, too.

On to your questions!

What motivated you to become an archaeologist?

Romance, mystery, allure, the ‘other’, the desire to travel… my initial impetus for getting into archaeology comes from the fact that I’m ‘from the bush’ in rural Canada and as a teenager I wanted so much more from the world. I now recognize that there’s some amazing archaeology in my own backyard (as it were) but I was too young and immature to recognize it then. The Greek Bronze Age, the Mycenaean heroes, the Minoans, Thera… all these captured my imagination. And there was no snow!

Personally, what single facet of archaeology captures the spirit of the field most effectively?

Check out the work of Colleen Morgan and Sophie Hay and Lorna Richardson If there is a ‘spirit of the field’, I think these three scholars capture it admirably. They are curious, reflective, aware of the impact that the doing of archaeology has in the wider world. Archaeology produces powerful narratives, powerful ways of framing our current situation regarding the past and the present. I aspire to be more like these three remarkable women.

Which game do you think, so far, best achieves this?

A hard question to answer. But I think I’d go with Minecraft, for its community and especially its ability to be adopted in educational circles, for the way it requires the player to build and engage with the environments created. The world is what you make it, in Minecraft. So too in archaeology.
If a game attempted to procedurally generate ancient civilizations, what do you think would be the three most important elements that had to be generated?
I’ve done a lot of agent-based simulation. . Such a game would have to be built on an agent-based framework, for the NPCs. Each NPC would have to be unique. Those rules of behaviours that describe how the NPCs interact with each other, the environment, and the player would have to accurately capture the target ancient civilization. You can’t just have an ‘ancient civilization’; you’ll have to consider one very particular culture in one very particular time and place. That’s what a procedural rhetoric is all about: an argument in code about how this aspect of the world worked/is/existed.
Would investigation play an integral part in a video game interpretation?
I’m not sure I follow. Procedural generation on its own still is meaningless; it would have to be interpreted. The act of playing the game (and see the work of Roger Travis on on practicomimetics) sings it into existence.
Conversely, for you would stumbling blindly upon a ruin diminish the effect?
If the world is procedurally generated, then there would be clues in the landscape that would attune the attentive player to the presence of the past in that location. If there is no rhyme or reason – we stumble blindly – then the procedures do not describe an ancient (or any) civilization.

Do you think an archaeology simulator would be best implemented in first person (e.g. Minecraft) or third person (e.g. Terraria)? Would it be more important to convey an intimate atmosphere or impressive scale?
I like first person, but on a screen, first person can just induce nausea in the player. Maybe with an Oculus Rift that’s not a concern, in which case I’d say go first person! On a screen, I think third is better. Why not go AR and put your procedurally generated civilization into the local landscape?