“How can archaeology and video-games be related in any way? Archaeology deals with real material things that inform us about the past, whilst video-games…? Games are simply toys that people play with when they are bored.”
I used to believe this was true until one day whilst surfing the internet I discovered something which made me change my mind about archaeology and how different it was to video-games.
There is an official sub-field of archaeology called archaeogaming (archaeogaming 2013). Which encapsulates archaeology being used in the study of video-games, from the classification of video-game hardware, to using archaeological methods in game words (Wikipedia). So, for an archaeologist, video-games can tell us a lot about the world in the last fifty years not just about the games, but how the medium reflects the culture it was made in.
Playing games as an archaeologist
There have been two notable books which looks at how you can play games not through the traditional sense, but as an archaeologist. One of these books was published in 2017 thanks to a Kickstarter with academic articles on the subject (Valve Kickstarter). However, the blog is coming out with a book in 2018 which will be a complete guide to the sub-field with archaeological practices applied to the study of video games, both externally and internally (Archaeogaming 2017). But, how does one play games as archaeologists exactly? You approach the game world like the real world itself, and you can preform many common archaeological practices such as land surveys or artifact classification studies.
No Man’s Sky.
An example of a survey that took place in a game was No Man’s Sky in 2016 when they treated a virtual space like they did any real space (Culture File 2016). They saw the virtual space as evidence of a manufactured space based on random algorithms which creates unlimited encounters for the game player to enjoy. They sought to survey the game to record these manufactured virtual spaces and push the boundaries of what archaeology can achieve in virtual realities. They wanted to see if this randomly generated environment would see change overtime just like the real world. The podcast which interviews these archaeologists is quite short, but full of interesting stuff into the possibilities of these types of studies so do check it out.
Coins from Skyrim.
The next example of play games as archaeologists is classifications of artifacts from video games. Archaeogaming (2014) did a study on the coin artifacts found in the Elder Scrolls games by looking at the physical attributes of the coin and making sense of them from an in-game lore perspective. He also looked at where these artifacts were often found and what purpose each of them was for. In Tamriel he identified three forms of currency: Septims (money of the Empire), moon sugar, and Dwemer coins. He looks at how in each game these money change overtime from the evidence that can be found and how they were represented.
Archaeology and Video-Games in the ‘real world’
Apart from game world themselves video-games history through the collecting of games in personal collections. There has been an interest in game collections, and even museums popping up as people start so see the interest as importance of preserving games as technology as such things change so rapidly and get discarded there needs to be a place for these things to be remembered.
A YouTuber that I have followed for some time how has an interest in collecting old games, as well as computer hardware, is LGR (Lazy Game Reviews). This guy makes good content related to documenting and preserving the history of technology and video-games on his channel. He does a thrifting series where he goes out and collects old games and technology which is like how excavating in archaeology works. Both go out to collect material culture and bring them into a controlled environment where they can be projected as well a studied. LGR also studies his material culture through his videos focused on individual games which go into the history of the game, how it was made through to the influence it had on the game industry at the time. His channel is an example of archaeogaming where games are not just things to be enjoyed, but as things that can be studied to understand recent changes in society in the last fifty years.
lGR Thrifting series.
Now for real-life excavations we can now talk about excavations which have played a role in understanding video-games. The most famous example of real-world excavations for games is at the Atari game burial site in New Mexico which was used to uncover E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial game cartridges and in a bigger picture help understand more about games in the early eighties (Reinhard 2015). These games were not well-received by consumers at the time of their publications and as ar4esult have often been blamed for the game-crash of the 80s (Caraher, William, et al 2014). Thus, these excavations give some insight into this period in gaming history.
Atari’s dumped games unearthed (Raiford Guins) (Caraher, William, et al 2014)
So how can archaeogaming in form us about people of the past and humans in general? It is all great and all finding out about the history of games and preserving them for generations to come, but why bother in the first place? Archaeology does not often focus on recent movements in human history and is often more focused on material culture hundreds of years into the past. So, this branch in archaeology which examines the history of technology and video-games through an archaeological lense allows us to study which is often ignored. We can study these things to understand how technology and video-games have become the way they are today.
A video to leave with you:
Digging The Game: Saarthal (Skyrim) by Archaeology Soup from 2015.
Caraher, William, et al. “Why We Dug Atari (2014)”. Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/why-we-dug-atari/375702/
Culture File. “Archaeogaming? (2016)”. Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://soundcloud.com/soundsdoable/culture-file-archeogaming
Lazy Game Reviews. “Lazy Game Reviews YouTube Channel”. Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLx053rWZxCiYWsBETgdKrQ
Reinhard, A. “What Is Archaeogaming? (2013)”. Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://archaeogaming.com/2013/06/09/what-is-archaeogaming/
Reinhard, A. “Archaeogaming book (2017)”. Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://archaeogaming.com/2017/12/02/archaeogaming-the-book-whats-in-it-and-how-to-pre-order/
Reinhard, A. “The Numismatics of The Elder Scrolls (2014)”. Retrieved 2018-06-18.
Reinhard, A. 2015. Excavating Atari: Where the Media was the Archaeology. Journal of contemporary archaeology. 2 (1),
Unknown. “Archaeogaming”, Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeogaming
Valve. Kickstarter for The Interactive Past Book (2017?). Retrieved 2018-06-18. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/value/the-interactive-past-a-book-on-video-games-and-arc/description
I plan to read these two books discussed briefly in this essay on archaeogaming and will do short reviews on each one in the near future so stay tuned for those!