DRAFT: On the ethics of video games & archaeology

This is a draft. It has non-sequiturs, typos, incomplete thoughts, and errors. Read at your own peril. But it’s getting close to the point where I’ll submit it.

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). Just as you can have ethics of archaeology, you can have an ethics of video games. What is interesting for us in the present moment is how these ethical perspectives intersect.

The obvious starting point in a discussion of the digital ethics of video games insofar as they intersect with archaeological ethics is of course the depiction of ‘looting’ as a game mechanic. Looting happens in a variety of games as a way of enabling the player to improve his or her character’s abilities by the performance of an otherwise meaningless task in the game environment. In games that explicitly frame their narrative in a way that intersects with cultural heritage, this looting is demonstrably archaeological looting, in that the objects collected represent the actual material culture of an in-game culture (or more commonly, uses a ‘real-world’ object as the model for the in-game object). Thus, the depiction of looting in games can be seen to normalize the activity of looting in the real world.

This is true, and is a serious issue. But the ethical dimension of video games, especially as they pertain to archaeological ethics, goes much deeper. In what follows, I am heavily influenced by the work of Miguel Sicart (2009), who draws attention to two extremely important aspects that seem obvious but are actually rather subtle:

1 – that the player is an ethical agent in the world

2 – that the game is both a designed object and a player experience in this world, and hence ethical.

In which case, ‘the experience of a computer game is the experience of a moral object by an ethical subject’ (5).  Too often, in discussions of video games, the player is depicted as some sort of secondary thing that is merely influence (ethically) by the game. But for Sicart, the player is an ethical creature and can make moral judgements about the experience within which she is immersed (11). So while a game that depicts unlawful acts – like looting – under a virtues-ethics perspective would be unethical, Sicart reminds us that this account does not take into account the player-agent’s ability to reflect on this (or indeed, to play in a manner that subverts it). A game that permits looting but also allows for such an act to have meaningful game play consequences for the player to act upon would be ethical, per Sicart (160). A game that permits looting, but has no meaningful consequences, is unethical (159). Sicart uses the example of Bioshock and the Little Sisters. Kill the Little Sister, and the player collects a certain amount of ‘Adam’ from the corpse, a valuable in-game resource; let the Little Sister live, and the Little Sister gives you very nearly the same amount of ‘Adam’ anyways. There is no in-game consequence, and for Sicart, this means that the game design is being unethical (160).  ‘A good computer game is that which fosters virtuous players, a game designed to create player-subjects who can understand and develop their ethical values, and where those values can be reflected. The player is responsible…’ (126). A game that features looting as a mechanic, from an archaeological perspective therefore, would be ethical if the consequences of that decision to loot gave the player a meaningful opportunity to decide whether or not to do so. It need not necessarily make the equation that looting = bad; but the consequences have to meaningful within the ludic narrative of the game so that the player can reflect on those consequences. We read novels to experience the world from another’s perspective – every decision within the novel is meaningful. So too should games be replete with opportunities for meaningful interactions and choices. The genius of Bioshock – where it is at its most ethical – is where it reveals at the end that the player never had any real choice in events anyway; that the designers have been puppet masters all along (163).

The second part of Sicart’s ethics (the first being the subtle interplay between virtue ethics and the player’s own moral agency) is drawn from informational ethics (as he interprets the work of Floridi and Sanders). In this perspective, beings are data entities. Not all beings are biological. The materiality of a pawn in a game of chess is not what is important; rather it is in its relational situation on the board and the contingent interplay of that situation within the rules for movement for pawns (Sicart, quoting Floridi 2003). Data entities make meaning, or have meaning, in terms of their relationships with other data entities. Thus, data entities exist in an ecology of relationships – the Infosphere. The practical import of this is to extend agency to the game, or to objects within the game, and to situate them at the same level as the player agent. What constitutes an ‘agent’ in this perspective depends on how the Infosphere is abstracted (128-130; see also Morgan 2009 where she argues that non-player characters are non-human manifestations of a network of computation). Informational ethics sounds rather similar, to the archaeological ear, to ideas drawn from complexity theory or actor-network theory. Objects actually do want things (Gosden xxxxx).

‘Information ethics describes a moral universe in which not only is no being alone, but every being is indeed related, morally related to other beings, because in their well-being is connected the welfare of the whole system. Agents are systems that affect larger systems with their actions, affecting themselves as well, since other systems are procedurally and informationally related to them… Information ethics considers moral actions an information process’. (130). Emphasis in the original.

The point of considering the ethics of games from Sicart’s perspective is to explore an issue – like looting, for instance – and to situate it within the the web of interrelated elements and agents to develop a weighted network. While he does not mean an actual network-analytic approach to measuring things like centrality or degree within such a representation (he is more metaphorical than formal here), Sicart provides us with a way of operationalizing our ethical analysis of games. The locus of ethical responsibility within a game (whether it is with the player, the designers, the labor system, the market, the player community structure, the non-player characters, or what have you) can be read from this weighted  network.

Let’s consider for a moment the moral agency of the player.  Sicart points out games and their narrative layer, their ludic layer can be damaging to a player’s virtue when the player is not sufficient mature (201). That is to say, if we play games for which are own moral compass is not yet completely formed or developed, then these games can be a source of harm for the player. The obligation then rests on the game designer to create games where the ethical choices in the game have meaningful consequences. Then we as ethical agents ourselves can play the game to explore and probe the limits of our own ethical understandings (205). For archaeology, this means that our codes of archaeological ethics can be operationalized, made real and consequent, and testable in the sense that a player can begin to explore the consequences for herself.  Are our archaeological ethics deontological, rule-bound and duty-bound, and not necessarily meaningful for us as individual archaeologists? In which case, how do these intersect with the ethics of games as Sicart imagines them? A game should be a safe space to explore this contrast.

This I think is one of the main avenues for exploration in the nascent area of ‘archaeogaming’. Instead of concerning ourselves with visual fidelity to an imagined past (for instance), we should actually be making games that embody our codes of archaeological ethics. When we play games as archaeologists (when we are consciously thinking as an archaeologists and using the morals and ethics of our profession) we should therefore be reflecting on what the game as a designed object is doing to how we think about the world.

In what follows, I recount a play through of Minecraft, trying to behave as ‘archaeologically’ and ethically as I can. I then follow up with some more questions about where an ethically informed ‘archaeogaming’ might usefully proceed. When I write about video games, I am the player-subject I know best (and for whom I do not need to obtain ethics research board clearance). What are the web of weighted relationships in the games that I play most often? Are they ethical games? Am I an ethical player? How can we design games where the ethics of games (as described by Sicart) intersect with the ethics of archaeology?

A Playthrough of Minecraft as an Archaeologist

Video games are simply the latest incarnation of humanity’s long history of creating virtual worlds. Whether the virtual world are the Caves of Lascaux, or the play-world of Hadrian’s Villa, one of humanity’s defining abilities is its ability to construct worlds removed from the everyday. What is perhaps unique about the current incarnation of virtual worlds is their accessibility: the ability for the virtual world I create to be shared with you; the ability for both of us to enjoy/explore/engage with that virtual world; the ability to be changed by that virtual world (provided that this virtual world is designed ethically: that is, *not* in its representation of a/the world, but rather in providing meaningful choices in how that world is experienced).

Roger Travis has argued that the playing of video games bears deep affinities to epic oral tradition, that through play and reporting on what happened, we enter into a bardic mode of making meaning from the set pieces and action of games. Note that this is very similar to how Sicart defines the ethical player: one who has a mature reflection on the nature of the game; the moral presence of a player matters (Sicart, 201-2). For Travis, how those set pieces are encountered, in what order, and in what circumstances, are defined by the game’s mechanics and story – that is, its rules. The rules of a game encode the worldview of the game’s designers. You’re good at the game? You’re performing the worldview of the game’s creators (note again the way Bioshock plays with this at the end of that game). What’s interesting is the way the player’s moral compass, and her agency in the game intersects with those rules, and merges with the player’s own story, the story the player tells to make sense of the action within the world.  Play is the act of discovery. The story we tell about that play sits at the intersection between the player’s own agency, and the god-like agency of the game’s creators to specify the rules. What happens at this intersection is emergent, and if we examine that point, we will understand something of what it means to explore a game ethically; and to see that some ethical points of view are hard-coded and cannot be challenged.

Imagine then that Minecraft is a real place. After all, if I tell you that the seed I used in Minecraft 1.64 was Double Village with default biomes, you can travel to the exact same place that I visit, a parallel world in a multiverse that has suffered my interventions, but as of yet, not yours. What story shall you tell? Here is mine. I initially told it in a series of tweets, and so added another layer of performance to the game.

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…

…desert sand gives way to a compacted sedimentary stone. Is it natural? Or is it built? I had to stop myself & remember my training.

… The next day we found the village. Much of it was above ground, including what looks to be the tower of a temple. We arrived on what appeared to be a market day. The locals go about their business, unconcerned about the ruined temple in their midst. No one stops us; but no one helps us either. Our ways are as alien to them as theirs to us; so long as they don’t get in way of Scientific Exploration!

I considered the temple, and began trying to record stratigraphically what I observed while I dug. The different kinds of blocks do help differentiate context – sand fill is quite different from the sandstone blocks the temple was built with. Unfortunately, sandstone is also part of the geology of Minecraft, and typically happens around 3 or 4 blocks down from the surface in this biome. So it became difficult to figure out where the temple ended and the local geology began. Since the temple is of a common ‘type’ in Minecraft (while the environment is procedurally generated and varied, the generated architecture conforms to a limited number of ideal-types),  and I was already familiar with it, I could just dig to exhume what I already believed to be there already: my ideas about the architecture of the place dictated what I would find. The act of excavation creates the archaeology in more ways than one, it seems.

As I dug, the sand shifted underneath me & I stumbled into the tower, breaking part of its friable decoration. “What do you see?” “…. beautiful things!” I replied

Shortly thereafter, an armed skeleton began firing arrows at me. But – in this world with no ‘rules’, no overarching ‘story’, deciding to go an an archaeological expedition forces a story on us.  Temples in Minecraft invariable contain ‘loot’, with booby-traps and revenants protecting it. Here, the influence of pulp fiction (and in particular, Indiana Jones) is clearly evident (the archaeologist-as-tomb-raider trope litters video games. The rules of interaction force me, an archaeologist trying to perform a facsimile of reasonable archaeological investigation, into the trope whether I liked it or not).  Killing the skeleton and looting the temple makes no meaningful difference in the story of the game, insofar as it gave me new materials to work with and to construct my own story. Given the Indiana Jones vibe, the moral action here is to kill the skeleton and obtain the material. After all, it “belongs in a museum!”

It’s impossible, without seriously modifying the game, to excavate in anything other than a brute-force manner. While the NPCs will gather round to watch me work, they communicate with each other in an unintelligible murmur. As night falls, they respond to their own instincts and return to the village. They are Other. The information ethics that Sicart describes means that their agency within the game is as important as my own, and yet, my interaction with the NPCs, and the crude excavation tools that Minecraft gives me, pushes me towards a 19th century frame of mind, a colonialist discourse of ignoring as less important anyone who doesn’t look like me (one wonders at the consequence of this in other games, and in the wider demographics of game players). The archaeologist-as-better-class-of-looter trope seems to emerge naturally out of my interaction with the game mechanics.

Truly surprising. As night fell, gunshots rang out over this sleepy village on the desert’s edge. We set out to investigate. The villagers were congregated in a single home, discussing amongst themselves. ‘Let us in!’ we cried. We forced the door. Their conversation and shouts stopped. We all stared. The door was broken.

The NPCs, responding to their own desires and needs, gather together inside a building to protect themselves against the game’s monsters, against whom they have no other defence. My desire to wander amongst them and my clumsiness at working the controls meant that I broke down the door. My decision to intrude – an ethical decision – has meaningful consequences for the other data entities in this game.

‘Back, men, to the camp!’ And we abandoned them to their fate.

From above, I watched the zombies and creepers and who knows what else hunt each NPC down and kill them.

Throughout the night, we heard their cries. Part of the men wanted to go help, the others huddled together in fear. As the sun rose upon my reentry to the village, I found no traces. It was as if the villagers had not existed.

My one attempt to engage the locals led to their annihilation.


I will close with a list of provocations on the ethics of video games constructed or explored by archaeologists. I will offer no answers, but rather try to frame what I see as some of the more provocative ideas that are emerging around the idea of ‘archaeogaming’. If there is anything that truly defines ‘archaeogaming’ (see Dennis, Reinhard), then it must be the act of playing where the player’s ethical being is situated in the professional ethics of archaeology. Games do not have ‘ethics’ on their own, but their ethical nature emerges at the intersection of play and design. I expect to be wrong, to be challenged, and to be overcome. This too is in the nature of playing games: games challenge us, and provoke us, because they enhance or alter our abilities to inhabit another space, which is all the more reason to consider them ethically.

Provocation 1: Video games are built environments and thereby invite archaeological study. In which case professional archaeological ethics apply.

If video games are built places, and we are thinking like an archaeologist (as per Sicart’s ethically-informed player), then we have to treat them as we would any other site. Given that games are a designed experience and that they are part of an informational ethics, we also have to treat other data entities with the respect that our archaeological ethics accord them. How did my play conform to accepted ethical practice? How did it break it? What are the implications?

Provocation 2: Games about the past/material culture exist in the world and draw their associations from the past and material culture of that world and so are entangled in the ethics of that world.

When a game draws on the artwork or the cultural heritage of a people in the ‘real-world’, the designers have an ethical obligation to consider how their instantiation of a looting mechanic (should they use it) has meaningful consequences in the game and for the people whose material culture is now being looted again.

Provocation 3: the ethics of making games are the ethics of labour, and power, and control.

The components that go into our electronics, that make game playing possible, are at the end of a long chain of exploitation, social and environmental damage. One need only think about the illegal and dangerous mining of rare earths in central Africa, the profits from which continue to support and prolong civil war and violence. Closer to home (as I write as a white North American academic comfortably ensconced in an ivory tower), labour laws permit exemption to number of hours of work per week in the special case of ‘information work’. If you make video games in Ontario, you can be made to work as many hours in a day as your employer desires.  Given this, should we, as ethically informed archaeologists, make games or play games at all? How do these conditions of exploitation and control of workers and resources square with our ethical codes of practice?

Provocation 4: Performance and adherence to the rules of the game are an act of submission

Urrichio (2005) and Bogost (2007) convincingly argue that the mechanics and rules of a game can be thought of as the historiography of the game, the argument itself about the past that gets performed by playing a game. If we play games not as ethically informed archaeologists, if we do not write about games or critique games from an archaeological perspective, we are submitting to the power of the game publisher and the game maker to set the terms of reference about the past.

Provocation 5 Modding and Fan Forums are an act of resistance

The most ethical act we can perform as archaeologists confronting video games is to mod them. Very few of us have the skills, time, or safety to build and release a game from scratch. But we can use the tools of the commercial games themselves to literally reprogram their message, to add that ethical dimension of meaningful consequences, to confront games not just as designed objects but rather as a shared experience that can be ameliorated. We can and must be active in fan forums, Reddit threads, Twitch streams, Youtube ‘let’s play’ videos, blogs, journals, conferences, and teaching.

My final provocation:

Ultimately, the ethics of archaeogaming are the ethics of digital public archaeology.