Book Review: Archaeogaming and the Wide Wonderful World of Archaeology in Video Games

By Alissa Whitmore

Reinhard, Andrew (2018) Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. New York: Berghahn Books.

Archaeogaming

Originally trained in classical archaeology, Andrew Reinhard is a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology and digital worlds at the University of York and the founder of the blog Archaeogaming, which explores all things archaeology and video games. In 2017, he spoke with The Geek Anthropologist about his research, blogging, and public anthropology, and his 2018 book, Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games, is a continuation of this work. In it, Reinhard strives to offer a state-of-the-field overview of the intersections between archaeology and video games, combining scholarship on video game reception, ethnographies of virtual worlds, a survey of archaeology’s portrayal in video games, and examples from his experiences as a gamer and his real-world and virtual archaeological projects.

Reinhard defines archaeogaming as the study of archaeology both in and of video games, and organizes his book into four chapters: video games and gaming spaces as artifacts and sites; the portrayal of archaeology in video games; the use of archaeological methods and techniques to do archaeology while gaming (aka, in-game archaeology); and the manifestation of video game cultures and objects in the real-world.

Chapter 1 (“Real World Archaeogaming”) begins with Reinhard’s excavation of the Atari Burial Ground: a New Mexico landfill containing millions of copies of the “worst game ever made,” E.T. The Extraterrestrial. As an archaeologist, Reinhard’s involvement in the project ensured scientific rigor to the Atari: Game Over documentary-funded exploration of the legendary dump, which attracted a great deal of media and popular attention. In his retelling of the Atari excavation, the author likens the dig to pop culture representations of archaeological expeditions, complete with a “ragtag team in the desert, a local informant who knows where to dig, treasure (the games) and a curse” (24), in this case, illness and a sandstorm. Beginning the book with the Atari Excavation, Reinhard introduces two ideas that are central to his scholarship: the need for archaeologists to engage with the public and the anthropological value of investigating the material culture of contemporary societies.

Atari Excavation recropped

Finds from the Atari excavation. Image: taylorhatmaker [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Archaeology & Public Engagement

Reinhard is one of many archaeologists influenced by Cornelius Holtorf’s pop culture  archaeology studies (2005), which advocate for greater interactions between archaeologists and the public to ensure the long term viability of the field and to fulfill our responsibility as publicly funded researchers (2007). By studying, critiquing, and engaging with video games,  Archaeogaming is a unique contribution to public archaeology — broadly defined as communication with the public about archaeology and involving and engaging local communities with archaeological projects (Sabloff 2012). One way that academics have interacted with the public is through critique and analysis of media depictions of archaeology, which are typically the first exposure that most people have to archaeology (Russell 2002; Holtorf 2005; Moshenska 2017, see also Catherine Hill’s recent post on archaeology in speculative fiction and tabletop games). In Chapter 2 (“Playing as Archaeologists”), Reinhard adds to this body of scholarship by cataloguing video games which feature archaeology or archaeologists. Like Holtorf, Reinhard argues that archaeologists should expend their time and efforts harnessing archaeology’s popularity to attract students and funding to the discipline, rather than fighting against inaccurate representations in video games.

But the author highlights two troubling tropes that persist in current archaeology-themed video games and which have real-world impacts: colonialism and looting. Colonialism is the control, occupation, and resource exploitation of one country, nation-state or community by a more powerful one. This unequal power dynamic characterizes much of Europe’s and the United States’ historic (and some modern) interactions with other countries, including archaeology’s role in digging up and carting off the cultural heritage of other groups of people, the results of which can be seen in many American and European museum collections. Only within the last 30 years have these institutions been forced to grapple with the return of objects which were acquired through methods which today would be viewed as unethical, if not illegal, and the repatriation of these objects can be viewed as one way to start healing the trauma caused by colonialism (Woldeyes 2019, Chowell 2019).

Many archaeology-themed movies and video games include and reproduce colonialist themes, including Indiana Jones and Lara Croft (Gross 2018; Lacina 2018). Reinhard provides several examples of this continuation of colonialism in gaming from Hearthstone: League of Explorers. In this archaeology-themed expansion of the World of Warcraft online collectible card game, players assist several adventurer-archaeologist characters who are coded through language, behavior, and clothing (fedoras and pith-helmets) as 18th or early 19th British and American colonial archaeologists. Tasked with finding pieces of a staff belonging to the Titans (an ancient, magical, god-like race), players go into a temple, mine, and ruined city, overpower local hostile humanoids that the archaeological characters refer to as “savages” and “natives,” and kill a Titan who is guarding his own artifact. The colonialist portrayals in Hearthstone, Indiana Jones, and Tomb Raider — in which globe-trotting Euro-Americans steal and/or destroy the cultural heritage of others and native characters exist as either villains or helpers — negatively impact people and gamers who belong to formerly colonized groups, who see their cultures plundered and ancestors killed again (Winter 2002; Lacina 2018). Furthermore, as most modern Euro-Americans and gamers would avow that they are opposed to colonialism, we should ask why such problematic portrayals remain a part of our fantasy lives and stories today, and what these continued positive portrayals of colonialism say about us as creators and consumers.

Hearthstone

Hearthstone: The League of Explorers. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone’s artifact quests also function as examples of looting, as players go into a location to steal an object, with little concern over ownership, ethics, or the documentation of an artifact’s findspot that is so crucial to the creation of archaeological knowledge. Looting behavior is very common in many video games, which tacitly encourage players to pick up objects to use, sell, or simply collect from treasure chests, the dwellings of other characters or players, and virtually anywhere else. Reinhard questions whether in-game looting might impact players’ treatment of real-world cultural heritage, and while games and other media are never solely responsible for people’s behavior, examples exist of video-game inspired human actions that are detrimental to ancient sites. After the release of the first Tomb Raider movie, which is partially set at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat, visitors to the site were found climbing and walking on its delicate rooftops and ruins, disregarding preservation efforts, safety, and presumably their own common sense so that they could “feel like Lara Croft” (Winter 2002: 333-335). Public service announcement: it’s not okay to climb on the ruins.

Reinhard highlights the need for engaging video game storylines which promote appropriate treatment of the past, and puts forward side quests in Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) as examples of ethical, interesting gameplay, in which players assist museum staff trying to save artifacts from looters and extremists bent on destroying them. These quests parallel the real-world actions of Archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who was murdered by ISIS while protecting Palymra’s antiquities in 2015, and Librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who directed a team that rescued over 350,000 manuscripts on Timbuktu’s secular history, poetry, astronomy, and law from Al Qaeda-affiliated militants in 2012-2013. Unfortunately in ESO, the museum officials ultimately prove to be unethical archaeologically (selling objects on the black market) and morally (murder, fraud). Reinhard suggests that behaviors like looting and the destruction of historical buildings could be acknowledged and penalized by Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) with the goal of getting players to reflect upon the consequences of their actions, both in-game and in the real world. Archaeogaming’s appendix offers a code of video-game archaeology ethics, developed for Reinhard’s No Man’s Sky archaeological survey (more on this below), which offers guidance for gamers on ethical interactions with other players and NPCs and tips for the preservation of virtual archaeological remains.

The Archaeology of the Present

Reinhard’s second theme is the value of archaeological explorations of contemporary societies for anthropologists seeking to better understand current and past relationships between people and material culture. While archaeology has traditionally focused upon the remains of ancient and historical populations, archaeologists have been conducting research with modern populations to better interpret the archaeological record for over 60 years. Among these scholars was William Rathje, who began excavating modern landfills in Arizona in the 1970s to understand how human and natural processes impact how an archaeological site forms and to examine contemporary American society through its garbage (Rathje and Cullen 2001). Rathje’s Garbage Project provided a wealth of information for anthropologists, social scientists, and environmentalists on the decay rates of paper and food in landfills, modern human consumption and waste patterns, and the high likelihood of deviation between what people say they do and what they actually do. This project and many others have paved the way for subsequent archaeological studies focused on contemporary cultures, including Jason De León’s ongoing research on the archaeology of migration along the US-Mexico border (Gokee and De León 2014), the Atari excavation, and potentially, the study of abandoned arcades and game development studios for which Reinhard advocates.

In Chapter 4 (“Material Culture of the Immaterial”), Reinhard focuses upon the blurred borders between the digital (synthetic) and real (natural) worlds. As humans create synthetic worlds through video games, virtual reality, and online platforms, the impact of our real-world on these digital realms is readily apparent — we are creating these spaces as a reflection of (or in opposition to) our past or present world. The creators of video games often draw upon real-world folklore to try to create a rich background for story-telling, but interactions between gamers and developers also shape the creation of video game lore, as gamers become equally responsible for keeping and sharing the details of these synthetic cultures through real-world discussions in blogs, books, conventions, and stores,

Reinhard notes that contemporary gamer culture is equally marked by digital objects that have appeared in the real-world. In my home — depending upon the state of preservation — future archaeologists will find framed posters of our favorite characters displayed on the same wall as family photos, and hundreds of tiny plastic statues and replicas of jewelry, clothing, and objects featured in video games, movies, and television. Cookbooks and creative bloggers have created recipes for dishes from popular games and shows. Media corporations and cosplayers have brought into our world things that previously existed only in the virtual realm. Reinhard illustrates that these blurred lines between the synthetic and real worlds — which include the creation of tangible, formally-digital material culture — have an archaeological impact, since today’s material culture now includes objects that previously existed only in video games. As a result, scholars studying contemporary populations must consider the impact of that culture’s digital worlds and can investigate synthetic spaces to learn about real-world people.

Companion Cube

DIY Companion Cube Tissue Box from the game Portal by theslaminj.

In-Game Archaeology

Archaeogaming joins a growing body of scholarship on video games, history, and archaeology (Kapell & Elliot 2013; Chapman 2016; Mol et al. 2017, which includes a chapter by Reinhard), but offers a unique contribution in Reinhard’s approach to video games as virtual archaeological sites. In Chapter 3 (“Video Games as Archaeological Sites”), Reinhard justifies the archaeological study of video games by directly equating real-world archaeological sites with games. Like archaeological sites, video games are/were “a built environment (albeit digital) … made by people for other people to use — and in some cases ‘inhabit’”, which has “art and architecture placed there by a team of developers and artists … runes and ruins, ready-made material culture, and ancient artifacts to find” (88). Archaeologists study the past by discovering and interpreting the material remains of previous humans and just like these ancient people, video game developers and players leave detectable traces of past behaviors in the form of features like buildings and objects and less visible evidence like updates, patches, and expansions. While differences between video games and physical archaeological sites obviously exist, by situating video games as a human-made built environment, Reinhard makes a clear and persuasive case for their study as archaeological sites.

Reinhard also offers a provocative justification for the study of video games: the advent of procedurally generated virtual worlds. Procedurally generated games feature universes and environments made not directly by designers, but by algorithms that were generated by code that people created. The algorithm-built buildings and objects in these games can be considered “machine-created culture” (MCC); in other words, digital material culture that is in the image of human material culture (since humans designed the code), but that is not entirely created by humans. While we are still years away from fully sentient AI that can create entirely on its own, I find MCC anthropologically provocative as a lens through which humans can understand their own culture. MCCs might reflect what humans think or say is culturally important (what gets included in the code) and what the machines and our algorithms determine is actually important about our culture (what ultimately gets created). While fully machine-created culture is still science fiction, the possibility and significance of potential differences between human and machine-created culture is a delightful sci-fi anthropological thought experiment.

Reinhard’s project seeks to use archaeological methods to study the procedurally generated video game No Man’s Sky, an action-adventure-survival game in which players explore an infinite universe of planets, build bases, and battle hostile creatures, robots, and alien races. Prior to beginning the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS), Reinhard worked as a lone surveyor by walking and documenting the distribution of artifacts and sites within No Man’s Sky, which include crashed spaceships, damaged machines, ruins, pottery, monoliths, crates, and still functioning buildings. Through this pilot project, he created a plan to conduct a larger synthetic archaeological survey in No Man’s Sky and identified the tools necessary to accomplish this research — methods that  parallel traditional archaeological techniques. Real-world surveys assess the archaeological potential of a given location using field-walking, aerial photography, and a variety of non-invasive technologies — rather than excavation — with the goal of documenting surface level finds and identifying potential archaeological sites. Since documentation via photos, measurements, maps, and notes is crucial for archaeological survey, Reinhard’s virtual tools included software for screen capture, the application of a grid system, and maps that can be edited and shared to document the location of finds in No Man’s Sky.

no man's sky ruins

Ruins in No Man’s Sky. Image: Blake Patterson

Following his pilot project, Reinhard launched the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS), a team-based, in-depth survey which set out to document the MCC in No Man’s Sky. His commitment to public archaeology outreach is evident with the composition of his survey teams, which were made up of archaeologists and citizen-scientist gamers, who assisted with data collection by conducting in-game field-walks and fly-overs, screenshotting and mapping the locations of ruins and finds, and uploading their field reports into a shared Google Drive. Reinhard used Twitter and Twitch early and often to document the project and connect with the public, which allowed the teams to benefit from suggestions from player communities.

Unfortunately, the NMSAS was beset by challenges, including a game launch of No Man’s Sky which lacked maps, cardinal directions, or a Cartesian coordinate system — all vital tools for archaeogamers trying to record sites and artifacts. Later game updates made carrying out this research easier by providing these crucial features and eventually, the means to excavate.

But the first-ever machine-generated culture in No Man’s Sky also proved rather underwhelming, with little immediately apparent cultural significance. Surface artifacts were few and consisted of crashed spacecrafts and largely identical groups of pottery. Other hints of the digital past in the game include monoliths that teach the vocabulary of a created digital language, shipwrecks bearing the colored banners of different game factions, buildings which varied slightly in appearance and contents depending upon the planet’s dominant culture, and ruins with nearly identical patterns of architecture and broken pottery throughout the galaxy. The potential cultural significance (if any) of these features is currently unknown, but perhaps, as the game is further explored and expanded, answers will emerge. Regardless, Reinhard has laid out a methodology to help future archaeogamers research the cultures of No Man’s Sky and other games.

Conclusions

Archaeogaming strives to appeal to both archaeologists and gamers, with definitions and a glossary to make the book accessible to non-gaming archaeologists and gamers without archaeological training alike. Reinhard’s organization of the book, which begins with the Atari Excavation (Chapter 1) and video game portrayals of archaeologists (Chapter 2), further builds its accessibility by reacquainting readers with familiar topics and introducing important gaming and archaeological issues early on. It’s a shame that the content on video game museums, cosplay, and gamer culture (Chapter 4) is relegated to the final chapter, since this section further illustrates the significance of studying video games and could better ease non-specialists into Reinhard’s main thesis — how to conduct in-game archaeology. Reinhard’s discussion of archaeogaming methodologies and No Man’s Sky (Chapter 3) is his most novel and important, but the length (twice as long as other chapters) and difficulty (technical discussion of theory, archaeological methods, and game design) might be intimidating for some readers. Streamlining this chapter with additional examples from No Man’s Sky would have made the case for conducting archaeology in video games even stronger.

The results of the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey illustrate the challenges of conducting video game archaeology, which requires a built-in or modded toolkit for data collection and a culture (machine or human) that leaves unique material traces that can be analyzed by archaeogamers to answer significant questions. But these challenges are not insurmountable. After writing Archaeogaming, Reinhard took his No Man’s Sky research in a new direction when a catastrophic game update in 2017 impacted the Galactic Hub — a player-created digital civilization consisting of regions and planets where players built 5000+ structures within the game. Approximately one year after game launch, this update created rapid climate change that impacted every world in the game, with toxic atmospheres, flooding, or extreme temperatures transforming previously hospitable planets. This led to a mass migration of players who abandoned the Galactic Hub for more suitable climates, rendering their previous buildings and bases into the ruins of a human-created digital culture. This update and the mass migration that it triggered launched Reinhard’s Legacy Hub Archaeological project, which examines gamer-created — rather than machine-created — digital material culture, how players prepared for and dealt with this “natural” disaster, and how they continue to engage with the old Galactic Hub through disaster-heritage tourism.

Works Cited

Chapman, Adam (2016) Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. Routledge.

Chowell, Chip (2019) “‘As Native Americans, We Are in a Constant State of Mourning’. The return of ancestors and artifacts can become a form of restorative justice.” The New York Times. 4/4/2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/04/opinion/can-museums-heal-historys-wounds.html 

Gokee, Cameron and Jason De León (2014) “Sites of Contention:  Archaeological Classification and Political Discourse in the US–Mexico Borderlands”. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1):133-163. http://undocumentedmigrationproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/gokee-deleon-2014-reduced.pdf

Gross, Daniel A. (2018) “The Casual Colonialism of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.” Hyperallergic April 6, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/436285/casual-colonialism-lara-croft-indiana-jones/

Holtorf, Cornelius (2005) From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Altamira Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius (2007) Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Archaeopress.

Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm & Andrew B.R. Elliot (2013) Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History. New York: Bloomsbury.

Lacina, Dia (2018) “Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ Tries, but Fails, to Tackle Its Own Colonialism.” Waypoint. September 10, 2018. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

Mol, Angus A. A., Csilla E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, Krijn H.J. Boom & Aris Politopoulos (2017) The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage & Video Games. Leiden: Sidestone Press. Online (https://www.academia.edu/33084726/The_Interactive_Past_Archaeology_Heritage_and_Video_Games)

Moshenska, Gabriel (2017) “Archaeologists in Popular Culture.” In Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, ed. Gabriel Moshenska, pp. 151–165. Online (www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1vxm8r7.15)

Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy (2001) Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. University of Arizona Press.

Reinhard, Andrew (2018) Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. Berghahn Books.

Russell, Miles (2002) Digging Holes in Popular Culture: Archaeology and Science Fiction. Oxbow.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. (2012) “Public Archaeology”. Oxford Bibliographies Online. (https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199766567/obo-9780199766567-0021.xml)

Winter, Tim (2002) “Angkor Meets Tomb Raider : setting the scene.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 8(4):323-336. Online (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233157096_Angkor_Meets_Tomb_Raider_setting_the_scene)

Woldeyes, Yirga Gelaw (2019) “Repatriation: why Western museums should return African artefacts”. The Conversation. 5/15/2019. http://theconversation.com/repatriation-why-western-museums-should-return-african-artefacts-117061

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