The Video Game and the Archaeologist – draft

[this is a draft of a short piece I am writing for a society journal, hence not peer reviewed. I would therefore welcome comments, keeping in mind that I wrote it in one sitting this AM. When it comes out formally – if – I’ll post the link here and direct folks to read the final product there. I think it hangs together more or less ok.]

Tell the colleagues in your department, in your company, that you play video games, and you will be greeted with one of only two reactions: a polite murmur accompanied by the dying look of ‘this person is not serious’, or the enthusiastic embrace of the true believer. There appears to be no middle ground. Yet, there is a long history of using games in education, in museum outreach, and in public archaeology. There is even a (much shorter) history of using games to persuade (as ‘serious games’ or ‘news games’). But there is practically no history at all of games being used to make a scholarly argument. This is to miss an opportunity.

It is important however to ask, at the outset, what do games teach? What do games do?

“The game, or any computer game for that matter, is ultimately about mechanics, and not about content. The content is window dressing, and deep playing of a game such as Civilization teaches little about history, but everything about how to manipulate the complex algorithms that model the simulation” (Kee & Graham, 274)

Let us dispense with the notion that there is anything inherently gauche about archaeologists interested in the possibilities of video games, or any ‘natural’ reason why archaeology as a discipline should not be concerned with them. Manipulating algorithms, modelling societies through simulation: archaeologists have been doing this for years, within the ambit of GIS and Agent Based Models. The difference is, games have better eye-candy and production values. They should. Gaming as an industry generates more money than all of Hollywood.

A potted synopsis of game studies

Broadly, there are two camps when it comes to analyzing the affective import of games. The ludologists, as the name implies, are interested in the rules of the games, the possibilities (or not) for action within the game. Narratologists on the other hand consider the story of the game, the story that emerges, or the story within which the game action takes place. Both approaches are useful for situating what a game does, or what a game achieves.

Another (rather archaeological) approach is to consider typologies of games. This is not to be confused with ‘genre’, as genres (‘first person shooter’; ‘rogue-like’; ‘management sim’; ‘casual’) are largely marketing categories that conflate issues of game play, or perspective, or agency, for the purposes of gaining space in the various venues where games are bought and sold. There is a voluminous literature on the typologies of games which try to distill essential features in order to understand the crucial ways in which games differ (the better to understand their narratological or ludological aspects). In the context of ‘historical’ games, a typology that helps us consider what aspects about the past we wish to communicate, to teach, focuses on categorizing how the game treats time and space.

Within ‘space’, we can ask how the game treats perspective, topography, and the environment. Within ‘time’, we can wonder about pace, representation, and teleology. Consider the games ‘Civilization IV’ and ‘Caesar IV’ as in Kee and Graham xxxx:

Caesar IV

Civilization IV





















The value of this kind of typology is that it would allow us consider our archaeological representations of space and time in that light, to work out what conventions of game design would be most affective in communicating the argument about the past that we wish to impart.

Third Space

Despite the neat breakdown between ‘narratology’ and ‘ludology’, which would seem to capture all there is to know about video games, there is a third space that games-about-history inhabit. Elliot and Kappel’s recent ‘Playing with the Past’ (2013) neatly captures this aspect. They point out that while games are systems of rules interpreted by the computer referee, and while these systems are enveloped within a narrative, games-about-the-past have a larger historical narrative within which the game’s narrative must take place. That is to say, the players and designers are working within historical frameworks from the outset that inform their understanding of the past. Hence to make the game, to play the game, necessarily involves the kind of historical thinking (about contingency, about causality, about equifinality) that characterizes professional thinking about the past. ‘Why did that happen? What would happen if?’ are questions players ask about the game, which are very nearly the same thing that we ask of the past.

The fact of the matter is, while the content of a game is important, it is not as important as the system of rules and relationships that govern the emergent play; reflecting on why game play evolves the way it does forces the player to understand the rules of representation. This means that game players think about the past in ways that are the same as the kind of thinking about the past that we want in our students and publics. If one studies the communities of players that coalesce around particular games (especially games that allow for ‘modding’, or re-writing of the game rules, e.g, the Civilization franchise), one finds quite heated discussions about how best to represent the past, debates over the consequences and meanings of modifications to the games, and – while maybe sometimes not the most factually informed debates – a keen understanding of process in the past (Graham, rolling own article).


The training of archaeologists has long had an emphasis on the practical – we learn how to be archaeologists by doing archaeology. We perform the learning. Where, and from whom, we learn the hands-on aspects of archaeology has a deep influence on how we think archaeologically, how we understand the past. This is of course why we speak of ‘schools’ of thought. To play a video game well involves that same aspect of performance, and the ‘who made this and how did they imagine the world’ matters equally as much. When we play a game well, we have internalized how that game represents its world. We have internalized an understanding of the system of rules and relationships that we might not even be aware of. The learning that happens through video games is deep, and is tied to what psychologists call ‘flow’. Games don’t just represent a world: they actively watch the player. The best games adjust their difficulty in such a way as to achieve a flow state, a sense of mastery that sits in the sweet spot where the challenge is just hard enough to be difficult, but not so difficult that the player gives up in frustration.  The best learning, in whatever context, is tied to that same sense.

In representing a world to use, the system of rules and relationships that govern the emergent game play are akin to the systems of rules and relationships that we as scholars use to construct our ideas about the past: game rules are historiography. They are method and theory, all in one.  In the same way that an agent based simulation of the past encodes our ideas about how phenomenon x worked in the past (so that we can see what the consequences are of that idea for household formation amongst the Anasazi, say) game rules do encode ideas about (inter alia) power, ideology, action, colonialism, and empire. The game theorist Ian Bogost calls these ‘procedural rhetorics’, the arguments made by code (2007); the historian William Urrichio explicitly called code historiography (2005).  Games about the past will be played, experienced, and internalized by orders of magnitude more people than who ever read our formal archaeologies. And the experience will resonate far more deeply than any visit to a site or museum. We ignore games as a venue for our scholarship at our peril.

The Payoff

I have been arguing by omission that the content, the window dressing (the pretty graphics; the hyper-realistic depictions of textures and atmospheres, the 3d sound, the voice acting) does not matter nearly as much as close experience and engagement with the code and its emergent outcomes. That engagements allows a connection here with the kind of archaeology argued for by scholars such as Stuart Eve (xxxx) that seeks to use the mechanics of games and allied technologies such as mixed or augmented realities to focus on understanding the systems of relationships amongst the full sensory experience of the past. Eve calls this an ‘embodied GIS’ which does not focus on the archaeologist’s subjective experience of place, but rather, explores how sound, views, lighting (and indeed, smell and touch) combine or are constrained by the archaeology of a place experienced in that place.  This suggests a way forward for the use of games as both a tool for research on the past, and a way to communicate that research to our various publics.

Finally, we can turn our critical apparatus back to front and consider games as a venue within which we may do archaeology. Search online for ‘archaeogaming’. The most succinct definition of what this can be comes from Meghan Dennis:

Archaeogaming is the utilization and treatment of immaterial space to study created culture, specifically through videogames.

It requires treating a game world, a world bounded and defined by the limitations of its hardware, software and coding choices, as both a closed universe and as an extension of the external culture that created it. Everything that goes into the immaterial space comes from its external cultural source, in one way or another. Because of this, we see the same problems in studying culture in games as in studying culture in the material world.

Archaeogaming is a subdiscipline that requires the same standards of practice as the physical collection of excavated data, only with a different toolset. It also provides the opportunity to use game worlds to reflect on practice, theory and the perceptions of our discipline.

Video games are an extraordinarily rich tool, area of research, and affective mode of communication whose possibilities we haven’t even begun to explore. Yet, they are not so foreign to the archaeologist’s ‘formal’ computational experience, with ties to GIS, Agent Based Models, and reconstructions. Play on!

[yah, I need to work on that ending.]

[update Oct 28: I made a few changes, added a wee bit, nuked the table, and sent the thing off. That version lives on my open notebook].


One Comment

  1. I’m particularly caught up (in a good way) in your comment that we, as archaeologists, ignore games at our peril. Are you calling for a ‘middle ground’ between dismissive and uncritical embracing of games in archaeology? And what role do archaeologists need to play in evaluating and creating games themselves? Should we, professionally, be upset at misrepresentations of the past – of willful misinterpretation – of potentially damaging behavior (tomb raiding, for example) depicted in a positive light? Or not?

    Also, the walking simulators sit in a class somewhat outside your argument. They are not so much simulations as they are dioramas. In these, content matters more than mechanics. In these, very nuanced arguments are being set forth for the user to engage with. Would it be helpful to include these in your argument (you have a screenshot of Journey as the lead image to this post- for example. I know that it actually has mechanics (some very heart-tugging ones), but it is also a walking sim to a large degree.)

    This is very good – I think you should take it further.

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