Archaeogaming Unconference 2

POSTPONED! Due to a bug in our unconference platform (which prevents some people from accessing the breakout rooms) we’ll be postponing the unconference until February. Our apologies!

We’ll do this on January 25th, 2017, between 9 am and 3 pm Eastern time. Watch this space for the proposed session topics. We will begin with some opening remarks.

First session will then run from 9.10 – 9.50;

second session 10.00 – 10.50;

third session 11.00 – 11.50.

In the afternoon we’ll reconvene at 1pm-1.50;

final session will run – 2.50.

The hashtag on twitter will be #archaeogaming2. As always with an unconference, you’re free to take the conversation elsewhere! There will be a code of conduct however if you join us in the actual ‘unhangout’ space.

Until Tuesday Jan 24th, click on ‘all our ideas’ to suggest or vote on potential session topics.

See this post to see what happened in #archaeogaming1; also, I think there are some other blog pieces out there which I’ll link to once I find them.

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.

Teaching History in/with/via Video Games

Prompted by Lee, I’m collating here materials that I’ve put out there regarding my teaching/thinking related to video games & history and archaeology. The list below is in no recognizable bibliographic style (mostly because I’m tapping this out and can’t be bothered this AM).

2006 The Year of the Four Emperors – CivIV scenario that started it all

2012 Stranger in These Parts—v01

2009 Kee, Graham, et al. Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming. Canadian Historical Review 90.2

2010 My Glorious Failure

2010 Kee, Graham, and Vaughan The Haunted School on Horror Hill: A Case Study of Interactive Fiction in an Elementary Classroom

2014 Kee, Graham Teaching History in an Age of Pervasive Computing: The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom Pastplay–pastplay-teaching-and-learning-history-with-technology?g=dculture;trgt=div2_ch13;view=fulltext;xc=1

2014 Graham Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals Pastplay–pastplay-teaching-and-learning-history-with-technology?g=dculture;rgn=div1;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=Rolling+Your+Own%3A+On+Modding+Commercial+Games+for+Educational+Goals

2015 Pulling Back the Curtain- Writing History through Video Games Web Writing

I think that’s everything.

Syllabi, websites, random presentations etc

Playing Pedagogy: Videogaming as Site and Vehicle for Digital Public Archaeology

An introduction to writing history through videogames (for High School students)

HIST3812a 2014 version, Minecrafted History worlds:

HIST3812a 2014 version, playable syllabus

HIST3812a 2014 version, course blog

HIST3812a 2013 version,

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].

an #archaeogaming unconference



Mark June 1st on your calendars folks!

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. 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.

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. 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 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?

Play along at home with #hist3812a

In my video games and history class, I assign each week one or two major pieces that I want everyone to read. Each week, a subset of the class has to attempt a ‘challenge’, which involves reading a bit more, reflecting, and devising a way of making their argument – a procedural rhetoric – via a game engine (in this case, Twine). Later on, they’ll be building in Minecraft. Right now, we have nearly 50 students enrolled.

If you’re interested in following along at home, here are the first few challenges. These are the actual prompts cut-n-pasted out of our LMS. Give ’em a try if you’d like, upload to, and let us know! Ours will be at

I haven’t done this before, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Introduction to #hist3812a

Challenge #1


  1. Fogu, Claudio. ‘Digitalizing Historical Consciousness’, History and Theory 2, 2009.
  2. Tufekci, Zeynep. ‘What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson. MediumAugust 14 2014


A basic Twine that highlights the ways the two articles are connected.


Put your Twine build (the *html file) into the ‘public’ folder in your Dropbox account (if you don’t have a public folder, just right-click and select public link – see this help file). Share the link on our course blog:

  1. Create a new post.
  2. Hit the ‘html’ button.
  3. type:
  4. Preview your post to make sure it loads your Twine.


Explore others’ Twines and be ready to discuss this process and these readings in Tuesday’s class.

A history of games, and of video games

Challenge #2

Read & Watch:

Antecedents (read the intros):

Shannon, C. A Mathematical Theory of Communication  Reprinted with corrections from The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October, 1948.

Turing, Alan Mathison. “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” J. of Math 58 (1936): 345-363.

Cold War (watch this entire lecture):


Dillon, Roberto. The golden age of video games : the birth of a multi-billion dollar industry CRC Press, c2011.

Christiansen, Peter ‘Dwarf Norad: A Glimpse of Counterfactual Computing History’ Play the Past August 6 2014


A Twine that imagines what an ENIAC developed to serve the needs of historians might’ve looked like, ie explore Christiansen’s argument.


Put your Twine build (the *html file) into the ‘public’ folder in your Dropbox account. Share the link on our course blog by:

  1. Create a new post.
  2. Hit the ‘html’ button.
  3. type:
  4. Preview your post to make sure it loads your Twine.


Explore others’ Twines and be ready to discuss this process and these readings in Tuesday’s class.

Historical Consciousness and Worldview

Challenge #3


Kee, Graham, et al. ‘Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming’ The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 90, Number 2, June 2009 pp. 303-326.

Travis, Roger. ‘Your practomimetic school: Duck Hunt or BioShock?’ Play the Past Oct 21 2011

Owens, T. ‘What does Simony say? An interview with Ian Bogost’ Play the Past Dec 13, 2012

Travis, Roger. ‘A Modest Proposal for viewing literary texts as rulesets, and for making game studies beneficial for the publick’ Play the Past Feb 9 2012

McCall, Jeremiah. “Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Some Guidelines for Criticism”. Play the Past

(Not assigned, but more of Travis’ work:


A Twine that exposes the underlying rhetorics of the game of teaching history.


Put your Twine build (the *html file) into the ‘public’ folder in your Dropbox account. Share the link on our course blog by:

  1. Create a new post.
  2. Hit the ‘html’ button.
  3. type:
  4. Preview your post to make sure it loads your Twine.


Explore others’ Twines and be ready to discuss this process and these readings in Tuesday’s class.

Critical Play Week

Challenge # 4


Keep notes on the discussions from the critical play session; move around the class, talk with people about what they’re playing, why they’re making the moves they’re doing, and think about the connections with the major reading.

(nb, I’ve assigned all the students to bring in video games, board games, in both sessions this week that we’ll play. We might decamp to the game lab in the library to make this work. This group will observe the play. I’ve also pointed them to Feminist Frequency as an example of the kind of criticism I want them to emulate).


Devise a Twine that captures the dynamic and discussions of this week’s in-class critical play. Remember, for historians, it may be all about time and space.


Put your Twine build (the *html file) into the ‘public’ folder in your Dropbox account. Share the link on our course blog by:

  1. Create a new post.
  2. Hit the ‘html’ button.
  3. type:
  4. Preview your post to make sure it loads your Twine.


Explore others’ Twines and be ready to discuss this process and these readings in Tuesday’s class.

Material Culture and the Digital

Challenge #5


Montfort et al, ‘Introduction’, 10 Print (download the pdf)

Montfort et al, ‘Mazes,’ 10 Print (download the pdf)

Bogost, Ian, Montfort, N. ‘New Media as Material Constraint: An Introduction to Platform Studies.’ 1st International HASTAC Conference, Duke University, Durham NC


Make a Twine game that emulates Space Invaders; then discuss (within the Twine) the interaction between game, platform, and experience. Think also about ’emulation’…


Play one of these games, reviewing it via Twine, thinking about in a way that reverses the points made my Montfort & Bogost (ie, think about the way the physical is represented in the software).


Put your Twine build (the *html file) into the ‘public’ folder in your Dropbox account. Share the link on our course blog by:

  1. Create a new post.
  2. Hit the ‘html’ button.
  3. type:
  4. Preview your post to make sure it loads your Twine.


Explore others’ Twines and be ready to discuss this process and these readings in Tuesday’s class.


Historical Maps into Minecraft: My Workflow

The folks at the New York Public Library have a workflow and python script for translating historical maps into Minecraft. It’s a three-step (quite big steps) process. First, they generate a DEM (digital elevation model) from the historical map, using QGIS. This is saved as ‘elevation.tiff’. Then, using Inkscape, they trace over the features from the historical map that they want to translate into Minecraft. Different colours equal different kinds of blocks. This is saved as ‘features.tiff’. Then, using a custom python script, the two layers are combined to create a minecraft map, which can either be in ‘creative’ mode or ‘survival’ mode.

There are a number of unspoken steps in that workflow, including a number of dependencies for the python script that have to be installed first. Similarly, QGIS and its plugins also have a steep (sometimes hidden) learning curve. As does Inkscape. And Imagemagick. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just the way this kind of thing works. The problem, from my perspective, is that if I want to use this in the classroom, I have to guide 40 students with widely varying degrees of digital fluency.* I’ve found in the past that many of my students “didn’t study history to have to work with computers” and that the payoff sometimes (to them) doesn’t seem to have (immediate) value. The pros and cons of that kind of work shall be the post for another day.

Right now, my immediate problem is, how can I smooth the gradient of the learning curve? I will do this by providing 3 separate paths for creating the digital elevation model.

Path 1, for when real world geography is not the most important aspect.

It may be that the shape of the world described by the historical map is what is of interest, rather than the current topography of the world. For example, I could imagine a student wanting to explore the historical geography of the Chats Falls before they were flooded by the building of a hydro dam. Current topographic maps and DEMs are not useful. For this path, the student will need to use the process described by the NYPL folks:


QGIS 2.2.0 ( )

  • Activate Contour plugin
  • Activate GRASS plugin if not already activated

A map image to work from

  • We used a geo-rectified TIFF exported from this map but any high rez scan of a map with elevation data and features will suffice.


Layer > Add Raster Layer > [select rectified tiff]

  • Repeat for each tiff to be analyzed

Layer > New > New Shapefile Layer

  • Type: Point
  • New Attribute: add ‘elevation’ type whole number
  • remove id

Contour (plugin)

  • Vector Layer: choose points layer just created
  • Data field: elevation
  • Number: at least 20 (maybe.. number of distinct elevations + 2)
  • Layer name: default is fine

Export and import contours as vector layer:

  • right click save (e.g. port-washington-contours.shp)
  • May report error like “Only 19 of 20 features written.” Doesn’t seem to matter much

Layer > Add Vector Layer > [add .shp layer just exported]

Edit Current Grass Region (to reduce rendering time)

  • clip to minimal lat longs

Open Grass Tools

  • Modules List: Select “”
  • Select recently added contours layer
  • Run, View output, and close

Open Grass Tools

  • Modules List: Select “”
  • Name of input vector map: (layer just generated)
  • Attribute field: elevation
  • Run, View output, and close

Open Grass Tools

  • Modules List: Select “”
  • Name of existing raster map containing colors: (layer just generated)
  • Run (will take a while), View output, and close

Hide points and contours (and anything else above bw elevation image) Project > Save as Image

You may want to create a cropped version of the result to remove un-analyzed/messy edges

The hidden, tacit bits here involve installing the Countour plugin, and working with GRASS tools (especially the bit about ‘editing the current grass region’, which always is fiddly, I find). Students pursuing this path will need a lot of one-on-one.

Path 2, for when you already have a shapefile from a GIS:

This was cooked up for me by Joel Rivard, one of our GIS & Map specialists in the Library. He writes,

1) In the menu, go to Layer > Add Vector Layer. Find the point shapefile that has the elevation information.
Ensure that you select point in the file type.
2) In the menu, go to Raster > Interpolation. Select “Field 3” (this corresponds to the z or elevation field) for Interpolation attribute and click on “Add”.
Feel free to keep the rest as default and save the output file as an Image (.asc, bmp, jpg or any other raster – probably best to use .asc since that’s what MicroDEM likes.
We’ll talk about MicroDEM in a moment. I haven’t tested this path yet, myself. But it should work.

Path 3 For when modern topography is fine for your purposes

In this situation, modern topography is just what you need.

1. Grab Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data for the area you are interested in (it downloads as a tiff.)

2. Install MicroDEM and all of its bits and pieces (the installer wants a whole bunch of other supporting bits; just say yes. MicroDEM is PC software, but I’ve run it on a Mac within WineBottler).

3. This video tutorial covers working with MicroDEM and Worldpainter:

But here’s some screenshots – basically, you open up your .tiff or your .asc image file within MicroDEM, crop to the area you are interested in, and then convert the image to grayscale:

MicroDEM: open image, crop image.
MicroDEM: open image, crop image.
Convert to grayscale
Convert to grayscale
Remove legends, marginalia
Remove legends, marginalia

Save your grayscaled image as a .tiff.
Regardless of the path you took (and think about the historical implications of those paths) you now have a gray scale DEM image that you can use to generate your mindcraft world.

Converting your grayscale DEM to a Minecraft World

At this point, the easiest thing to do is to use WorldPainter. It’s free, but you can donate to its developers to help them maintain and update it. Now, the video shown above shows how to load your DEM image into WorldPainter. It parses the black-to-white pixel values and turns them into elevations. You have the option of setting where ‘sea level’ is on your map (so elevations below that point are covered with water). There are many, many options here; play with it! Adam Clarke, who made the video, suggests scaling up your image to 900%, but I’ve found that that makes absolutely monstrous worlds. You’ll have to play around to see what makes most sense for you, but with real-world data of any area larger than a few kilometres on a side, I think 100 to 200% is fine.

Now, the crucial bit for us: you can import an image into WorldPainter to use as an overlay to guide the placement of blocks, terrain, buildings, whatever. So, rather than me simply regurgitating what Adam narrates, go watch the video. Save as a .world file for editing; export to Minecraft when you’re ready (be warned: big maps can take *a very long time* to render. That’s another reason why I don’t scale up the way Adam suggests).

Go play.

To get you started: here are a number of DEMs and WorldPainter world files that I’ve been playing with. Try ’em out for yourself.


* another problem I’ve encountered is that my features colours don’t map onto the index values for blocks in the script. I’ve tried modifying the script to allow for a bit of fuzziness (a kind of, ‘if the pixel value is between x and y, treat as z’). I end up with worlds filled with water. If I run the script on the Fort Washington maps provided by NYPL, it works perfectly. The script is supposed to only be looking at the R of the RGB values when it assigns blocks, but I wonder if there isn’t something else going on. I had it work once, correctly, for me – but I used MS Paint to recolour my image with the exact colours from the Fort Washington map. Tried it again, exact same workflow on a different map, nada. Nyet. Zip. Zilch. Just a whole of tears and heartache.

Historical Maps into Minecraft

Dow’s Lake area, settlement by 1847 Map Source: Bruce Elliott, Nepean, The City Beyond, page 23, posted on

The folks over at the New York Public Library published an excellent & comprehensive tutorial for digitizing historical maps, and then importing them into Minecraft.

First: thank you!

Unfortunately, for me, it’s not working. I document here what I’ve been doing and ideally someone far more clever than me will figure out what needs to happen…

The first parts of the tutorial – working with QGIS & Inkscape – go very well (although there might be a problem with colours, but more on that anon). Let’s look at the python script for combining the elevation map (generated from QGIS) with the blocks map (generated from Inkscape). Oh, you also need to install imagemagick, which you then run from the command line, to convert SVG to TIF.

“The script for generating the worlds uses PIL to load the TIFF bitmaps into memory, and pymclevel to generate a Minecraft worlds, one block at a time. It’s run successfully on both Mac OS X and Linux.”

After digitizing, looks like this.
After digitizing, looks like this.

I’ve tried both Mac and Linux, with python installed, and PIL, and pymclevel. No joy (for the same reasons as for Windows, detailed below). Like most things computational, there are dependencies that we only uncover quite by accident…

Anyway, when you’ve got python installed on Windows, you can just type the python file name at the command prompt and you’re off. So I download pymclevel, unzip it, open a command prompt in that folder (shift + right click, ‘open command prompt here’), and type ‘’. Error message. Turns out, I need setuptools. Which I obtain from:

Download, install. Works. Ok, back to the pymclevel folder,, and new error message. Looks like I need something called ‘cython’.

I download, unzip, go to that folder, Problem. Some file called ‘vcvarsall.bat’ is needed. Solution? Turns out I need to donwload Microsoft Visual Studio 10. Then, I needed to create an environment variable called ‘vs90comntools’, which I did by typing this at the command prompt:

set VS90COMNTOOLS=C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Visual Studio 10.0\Common7\Tools\

Wunderbar. I go back to the pymclevel folder, I run again, and hooray! It installs. I had PIL installed from a previous foray into things pythonesque, so at least I didn’t have to fight with that again.

I copy the script into notepad++, change the file names within it (so that it finds my own elevation.tif and features.tif files, which are called hogs-elevation.tif and hogs-features.tif; the area I’m looking at is the Hogsback Falls section of the Rideau. In the script, just change ‘fort-washington’ to ‘hogs’ or whatever your files are called). In my folder, at the command prompt, I type and get a whole bunch of error messages: various ‘yaml’ files can’t be found.

Did I mention PyYaml has to be installed? Fortunately, it has a windows installer.  Oh, and by the way – PyWin is also needed; I got that error message at one point (something obscure about win32api), and downloading/installing from here solved it:

Ok, so where were we? Right, missing yaml files, like ‘minecraft.yaml’ and ‘classic.yaml’, and ‘indev.yaml’ and ‘pocket.yaml’. These files were there in the original repository, but for whatever, they didn’t install into the pymclevel that now lives in the Python directory. So I went to the pymclevel repo on github, copied-and-pasted the code into new documents in notepad++, saved them as thus:


Phew. Back to where I was working on my maps, and have my, which I duly enter and…. error. can’t find ‘tree import Tree, treeObjs’.  Googling around to solve this is a fool’s errand: ‘tree’ is such a common word, concept in programming that I just can’t figure out what’s going on here. So I turned that line off with a # in the code. Run it again…. and it seems to work (but is this the key glitch that kills all that follows?).

(update: as Jonathan Goodwin points out, ‘’ is there, in the NYPL repo

…so I uncommented out the line in, saved in the same directory, and ran the script again. Everything that follows still happens. So perhaps there’s something screwed-up with my map itself.)

The script tells me I need to tell it whether I’m creating a creative mode map or a survival mode:

so for creative mode: c:> map

for survival: c:> game

And it chugs along. All is good with the world. Then: error message. KeyError: 255 in line 241, block_id, block_data, depth = block_id_lookup[block_id]. This is the bit of code that tells the script how to map minecraft blocks to the colour scheme I used in Inkcraft to paint the information from the map into my features.tif. Thing is, I never used RGB R value of 255. Where’s it getting this from? I go back over my drawing, inspecting each element, trying to figure it out. All seems good with the drawing. So I just add this line to the code in the table:

block_id_lookup = {

[..existing code…]

255 : (m.Water.ID, 0, 1),


And run it again. Now it’s 254. And then 253. Then 249. 246. 244. 241. Now 238.

And which point, I say piss on this, and I provide you with my features tif and elevation tif and if you can please tell me what I’m doing wrong, I’d be ever so appreciative (and here’s the svg with the drawing layers, for good measure).

….when I first saw the tutorial from the NYPL, I figured, hey! I could use this with my students! I think not, at least, not yet.

(update 2: have downloaded the original map tifs that the NYPL folks used, and am running the script on them. So far, so good: which shows that, once all this stuff is installed, that it’s my maps that are the problem. This is good to know!)

Part Two:

(updated about 30 minutes after initial post) So after some to-and-fro on Twitter, we’ve got the problem sorted out. Thinking that it’s the maps where the problem is, I’ve opened the original Fort Washinton features.tif in MS Paint (which is really an underappreciated piece of software). I’ve zoomed in on some of the features, and compared the edges with my own map (similarly opened and zoomed upon). In my map, there are extremely faint colour differentations/gradations where blocks of colour meet. This, I think, is what has gone wrong. So, back to Inkscape I go…

Update the Third: looks like I made (another) silly error – big strip of white on the left hand side of my features.tif. So I’ve stripped that out. But I can’t seem to suss the pixel antialiasing issue. Grrrrr! Am now adding all of the pixels into the dictionary, thus:

lock_id_lookup = {
0 : (m.Grass.ID, None, 2),
10 : (m.Dirt.ID, 1, 1), # blockData 1 == grass can’t spread
11 : (m.Dirt.ID, 1, 1), # blockData 1 == grass can’t spread
12 : (m.Dirt.ID, 1, 1), # blockData 1 == grass can’t spread
14 : (m.Dirt.ID, 1, 1), # blockData 1 == grass can’t spread
16 : (m.Grass.ID, None, 2),
20 : (m.Grass.ID, None, 2),
30 : (m.Cobblestone.ID, None, 1),
40 : (m.StoneBricks.ID, None, 3),
200 : (m.Water.ID, 0, 2), # blockData 0 == normal state of water
210 : (m.WaterActive.ID, 0, 1),
220 : (m.Water.ID, 0, 1),
49 : (m.StoneBricks.ID, None, 3),
43 : (m.StoneBricks.ID, None, 3),

…there’s probably a far more elegant way of dealing with this. Rounding? Range lookup? I’m not v. python-able…

Update, 2.20pm: Ok. I can run the script on the Fort Washington maps and end up with a playable map (yay!). But my own maps continue to contain pixels of colours the script doesn’t want to play with. I suppose I could just add 255 lines worth, as above, but that seems silly. The imagemagick command, I’m told, works fine on a mac, but doesn’t seem to achieve anything on my PC. So something to look into (and perhaps try this instead). In the meantime, I’ve opened the Fort Washington map in good ol’ Paint, grabbing snippets of the colours to paste into my own map (also open in Paint). Then, I use Paint’s tools to clean up the colour gradients at the edges on my map. In essence, I trace the outlines.

Then, I save, run the script and…… success!

I have a folder with everything I need (and you can have it, too.) I move it to

C:\Users\[me]\AppData\Roaming\.minecraft\saves and fire up the game:

Rideau River in Minecraft!
Rideau River in Minecraft!

Does it actually look like the Hogs’ Back to Dow’s Lake section of the Rideau Canal and the Rideau River? Well, not quite. Some issues with my basic elevation points. But – BUT! – the workflow works! So now to find some better maps and to start again…

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?

Why I Play Games

(originally posted at #HIST3812, my course blog for this term’s History3812: Gaming and Simulations for Historians, at Carleton University).

I play because I enjoy video games, obviously, but I also get something else out of it.  Games are a ‘lively art’; they are an expressive art, and the artistry lies in encoding rules (descriptions) about how the world works at some microlevel: and then watching how this artistry is further expressed in the unintended consequences of those rules, their intersections, their cancellations, causing new phenomena to emerge.

This strikes me as the most profound use of humanities computation out there. Physicists tell us that the world is made of itty bitty things that interact in particular ways. In which case, everything else is emergent: including history. I’m not saying that there are ‘laws’ of human action; but we do live in this universe. So, if I can understand some small part of the way life was lived in the past, I can model that understanding, and explore the unintended outcomes of that understanding… and go back to the beginning and model those.

I grew up with the video game industry. Adventure? I played that. We had a vic-20 . If you wanted to play a game, you had to type it in yourself. There used to be a magaine (Compute!) that would have all of the code printed within, along with screenshots. Snake, Tank Wars – yep. My older brother would type, and I would read the individual letters (and spaces, and characters) out. After about a week, we’d have a game.

And there would be bugs. O lord, there were bugs.

When we could afford games, we’d buy text adventures from Infocom. In high school, my older brother programmed a quiz game as his history project for the year. Gosh, we were cool. But it was! Here we were, making the machine do things.

As the years went on, I stopped programming my own games. Graphics & technology had moved too fast. In college, we used to play Doom (in a darkened room, with the computer wired to the stereo. Beer often figured). We played SimCity. We played the original Civilization.

These are the games that framed my interactions with computers. Then, after I finished my PhD, I returned to programming when I realized that I could use the incredible artificial intelligences, the simulation engines, of modern games, to do research. To enhance my teaching.

I got into Agent Based Modeling, using the Netlogo platform. This turned my career around: I ceased to be a run-of-the-mill materials specialist (Roman archaeology), and became this new thing, a ‘digital humanist’. Turns out, I’m now an expert on simulation and history.

Cool, eh?

And it’s all down to the fact that I’m a crappy player of games. I get more out of opening the hood, looking at how the thing works. Civilization IV and V are incredible simulation engines. So: what kinds of history are appropriate to simulate? What kinds of questions can we ask? That’s what I’m looking forward to exploring with you (and of course, seeing what you come up with in your final projects).

But maybe a more fruitful question to start with, in the context of the final project of this course, is, ‘what is the strangest game you’ve ever played?’

What made it strange? Was it the content, the mechanics, the interface?

I played one once where you had to draw the platform with crayons, and then the physics engine would take over. The point was to try to get a ball to roll up to a star. Draw a teeter-totter under the star, and perhaps the ball would fall on it, shooting the star up to fall down on the ball, for instance. A neat way of interacting with the underlying physics of game engines.

I’d encourage everyone to think differently about what the games might be. For instance, I could imagine a game that shows real-time documents (grabbed from a database), and you have to dive into it, following the connected discourses (procedurally generated using topic models and network graphing software to find these – and if this makes no sense to you, take a quick peek at the Programming Historian) within it to free the voices trapped within…

This is why I play. Because it makes me think differently about the materials I encounter.