The Geek Anthropologist

Anthropology Blogging 101: Archaeogaming

Anthropology Blogging 101

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In this edition of Anthropology Blogging 101, we feature Andrew Reinhard, founder of Archaeogaming. His application of archaeology to virtual worlds and digital gaming platforms like World of Warcraft has been highlighted by Motherboard and Kotaku. 

Tell us a little about Archaeogaming—how did the blog come about? When did you start making connections between your archaeological training and video games? Was there a particular game that inspired you?

I’d been making a connection between video games and Classics since 2008, presenting on synthetic worlds and oral Latin practice in Second Life and World of Warcraft for the first time at the Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age conference held in Trondheim, Norway. When the book was published in 2013, I decided to start the blog and Twitter about video games and archaeology. Literally one week after I launched the blog, the news broke about the pending Atari excavation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, with which I would become involved. When I first started writing about archaeogaming, it was very much about archaeological reception and about archaeology as visualized within games. Four years later, my thinking has completely changed. I now see games as landscapes, sites, and artifacts, all at the same time.

What archaeological methodologies do you apply to your analysis of gaming? What does ethnography and excavation look like in games like No Man’s Sky or World of Warcraft?

Even though I’m working in digital spaces, I take a traditional approach to archaeological investigation, and find that my research questions are not all that different from those asked by archaeologists working on traditional sites. I’m a fan of Hodder’s thinking regarding entanglement, but supplement that with Karen Barad. I integrate Heidegger’s philosophy on time and place with Chris Tilley’s reflections on landscapes. I’ve recently integrated Bjørnar Olsen’s thing theory with Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory. Steve Roskam’s thinking on excavation dovetails with my own field experience. I keep reading, learning, and revising my approach to working in synthetic worlds.

Regarding excavation in games, this is really impossible unless a game’s mechanics allow for it, which fortunately No Man’s Sky now does. I have been able to use the game’s “terrain manipulator” to excavate buried bases evacuated by human players. There’s no real stratigraphy, though, at least during excavation. When working within synthetic worlds populated by groups of non-player characters (NPCs) or by humans, I can engage in ethnoarchaeology as a player-archaeologist, and will attempt to write an ethnography of NMS players of a human in-game utopia, the Galactic HUB.

Can you explain the concept of a “gamifact”?

Gamifacts are in-game artifacts created by bugs in the coding that disrupt play, which are activated through player engagement. For example, when I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, my character stepped over a threshold, and I could see the wire frames used to build the environment. Moving forward, the synthetic world materialized around me. I’d found a glitch that temporarily removed the illusion of an immersive space. It’s a gamifact, and is different than if I found something on the ground that the designer had left for me to find. I’m terrible at inventing words for things, so if there are better terms out there for “archaeogaming” or “gamifact” I’d love to use those instead.

How would you define digital archaeology? What are the possibilities that virtuality presents to the discipline?

One of the things I like best about digital archaeology (aka digital heritage) is that the field is so wide open. Several definitions can apply, and they’re all valid and worthy of study. I define “digital archaeology” for my own work as “using archaeological tools and methods to conduct archaeological investigations in synthetic worlds.” Others might define it as using digital tools in support of archaeological work regardless of the environment in which that work takes place.

As for virtuality, I don’t really see things as being virtual. Humanity is largely living a blended existence between the natural world, with their interactions mediated by digital technology. Edward Castronova prefers to use the term “synthetic worlds” to define what we used to call “virtual worlds,” namely because our time and resources that we pour into the digital are just as real as those we use in the natural world. I agree with him. What synthetic worlds allow us to do is practice, perhaps building or engaging with reproductions of “real world” buildings and artifacts, or using agent-based modeling (ABM) to test theories in a digital sandbox. I’m interested in seeing what digital built environments look like from the inside out, and maybe there are lessons to be communicated from the archaeology of the synthetic to the natural.

What are some of the ethical concerns that emerge when studying digital worlds?

I defer to L. Meghan Dennis at the University of York, who is completing her PhD work on this topic. She’s breaking a lot of ground for digital archaeology, and I’ve been following her guidance whenever I come up against something that is of ethical concern. Most recently I wanted to know about the ethics of documenting abandoned bases in the Galactic HUB of No Man’s Sky, and she was able to give me some great advice. The ethical issues in synthetic worlds seem to parallel those of the natural world.

Do you identify as a geek? If so, how has your identity as a geek shaped your scholarship and career as an archaeologist?

I identify myself as an archaeologist, one who studies the recent past, which includes pop culture artifacts of which games are a major part. A geek seems to be focused on minutiae in a given environment, but I’ve always been a generalist. I play enough to be conversant with games and player culture, but I struggle with what other players find simple, like how to best maximize a toon’s build for DPS (damage-per-second) in WoW. But like archaeology, I can always reach out to a specialist to help me understand something. I can’t claim a mastery of any game I play; I play enough to enjoy games, and to gain experience in order to conduct research in these spaces.

Anthropology Blogging

Why did you decide to start a blog? What role do you think archaeologists, or anthropologists more generally, occupy in journalism and popular culture consumption and criticism?

I wanted an outlet to explore my theories about video game archaeology, so I began archaeogaming.com. I’ve always been about Open Access and sharing my work in public, so blogging gives me the ability to do that. I’m blogging my PhD thesis as my thinking evolves, and readers have replied with criticism and suggestions, which make my work better. The blog also allows others to find me easily and has helped build archaeogaming as a proper discipline, dovetailing with Tara Copplestone’s blog (Gaming Archaeo) and now with several others, most recently the VALUE Project at the University of Leiden. As soon as I launched the blog, people started writing to me to say that they thought they were the only ones thinking about video games and archaeology. We’ve become a community. And I need to thank Emily Johnson from the University of York for encouraging me to pull the trigger on a WordPress site.

Prof. Bill Caraher led the effort to define archaeological blogging, and I co-wrote an article with him about it a few years ago. Archaeological and anthropological blogging allows us to control/share our narratives instead of being misrepresented by mainstream media. If more of us write publicly, we have a chance to change stereotypes and misconceptions about what we do. Plus our blogging can inform journalists in advance of any questions they might have for us when researching a piece.

How do you approach blogging about your work on Archaeogaming? What does blogging as an archaeologist mean to you and how does your blog differ from academic texts and presentations you might produce?

I see myself as a vessel for ideas, which I share. If I have an idea, the moment I write it down it becomes part of the world. I want people to take my ideas, use them, make them their own. I am not proprietary about my work. Work really is more important than the ego of the scholar who presents the work. If I have a good idea and someone else wants to take it and run with it, I think that’s great. They’ll probably do a better job with it than I ever could.

I use archaeogaming.com as a sketchpad for ideas that I later formalize and add documentation to. The stuff you see from me online is typically first-thought and unrefined, but contains nuggets of things I’m really happy about. There are some weeks when I don’t have an idea worth writing about, and then I might have a week where I blog every day.

I really don’t like to make a distinction between academic writing and writing in public. I want my work to be accessible, and I want to write in a readable style. My presentations are informal and (I hope) informative. I use more pictures than words.

Who do you think of as your general readership? What kinds of audiences do you think your work appeals to?

I keep an eye on my blog’s analytics mostly out of curiosity. On any given day, 50% of my readers are American, followed by the UK, and then continental Europe. Archaeologists, anthropologists, media studies and game studies people, and non-archaeologists have all told me that they read the blog. It might get 150 unique visitors a day. On occasion when I get something published on a video game blog, I see a spike in visitors. With the recent Kotaku piece on my initial exploration of the Galactic HUB in No Man’s Sky, I had over 2,000 people visit the blog, which is high (for me). I try to promote new posts on Twitter, which drive some traffic in, especially when I’m writing about strange stuff. I really write for myself to help clarify my thinking on something, so if other people get something out of it, that’s great.

What would you recommend to archaeologists interested in digital ethnography and blogging?

Write every day, and write fearlessly. Write for yourself, and accept whatever criticism comes. It’s only going to make your work better. If you don’t share your work, you’ll never know if it’s good or not, and you might be holding others back. Blogging keeps your mind open and creative, and helps get you into a writing ritual. It shouldn’t matter if people read you or not. You are improving yourself.

What games would you recommend to readers who are interested in exploring the cultural and artifactual components of gaming?

Any game is archaeological. It doesn’t matter if it has archaeology in it or not. Games (and software generally) are digital built environments, and as such are worthy of archaeological study. I’d love to do (or read somebody’s work on) the archaeology of Solitaire. Or Zork I. Just because it’s a text adventure doesn’t mean there’s nothing archaeological to learn. I’d advise archaeologists and anthropologists to study the games they love to play. Start with those. Read my stuff, but also read blogs by the VALUE Project, Shawn Graham, Tara Copplestone, Meghan Dennis, Dom Schott, and others. We all have different perspectives, ideas, and experience. I hope others will add their voices, too. There’s plenty of work to go around.

Andrew Reinhard has been blogging about video game archaeology since 2013 at archaeogaming.com. He led the team of archaeologists who excavated the “Atari Burial Ground” in 2014. His current project revolves around the archaeology of the abandoned Galactic HUB in No Man’s Sky. His book, Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games is forthcoming from Berghahn Books. He is currently an archaeology PhD student at the University of York, and is also the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society.

 

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