This blog post will be a quick (and resoundingly enthusiastic) discussion of the recent “University of York plays Farcry Primal” in relation to some of the key trends and subsequent suggestions which emerged from my previous MSc research. You can find the UoY Twitch recordings (which I highly recommend you watch) of the playthrough HERE and HERE.
My prior research into “archaeogaming” focussed around how archaeology and video-games intersected through the people that made, critiqued and consumed them. More specifically this research was conducted through a bunch (156 if you want to be exact) of interviews with members of the key stakeholder groups in this relationship (these namely being the players, the game development industry and the heritage sector) and how they conceptualised, actualised and engaged with the other stakeholders. There were several key trends which emerged from that research which are pertinent to why this Twitch streaming event got me quite excited:
- The first of these trends was that academics involved in archaeology and heritage studies had significant (like, really, really intense overwhelming amounts of) issue with the representation of the human past in video-games. Most of this issue stemmed from fears that players would think that the depictions were correct or would not question the accuracy (or indeed inaccuracy) of the portrayals.
- The next clear trend was that those stakeholders engaged in academic archaeology and heritage who had such significant issue with the representations were doing resoundingly little to challenge them, save for saying that they were problematic, usually through channels which are inaccessible to industry creators or gamers.
- The clearest trend from the player group was that inaccuracy was not inherently thought of as problematic – except for when it served no purpose, was unexplainable or would have been better served through accurate implementations. The idea of counter-play and counter-history came up a lot during these interviews – inaccuracy far from being something to be avoided was something to be critically engaged with, provided that the counter-play / counter-history aspect was evident. To this end, players didn’t so much want accuracy (or inaccuracy for that matter), but they really wanted to know where and why accuracy / inaccuracy was implemented and to follow the design and development choices alongside the history / heritage / archaeology background.
- Finally the games industry interviews indicated that a small proportion thought accuracy was in diametric opposition to fun whilst the majority indicated that they liked the idea implementing accuracy (in terms of image, narrative, texts etc) into games, BUT (and it is a big but) the academic material which was available to them was either costly (behind journal paywalls), incomprehensible (they hadn’t done degrees in archaeology to understand what the mumbo-jumbo meant), or boring-as-all-hell. Several of the studios that I visited had gone to talk to academics but had found the experience frustrating due to the fact that most academics don’t really get games, so they don’t frame their ideas and arguments to the game studio in ways which were intelligible to them. The upshot was some of the studios had abandoned trying to engage with academics altogether whilst many others had resorted to contracting academics for a specific task (such as translating a text into the game) and had no interest in the context or ideas which supported what the academics did for them. Basically, they were using academic input as technical labour for their end-use, rather than an integral part of debate in the development process. In the end the sentiment was that if the representation of heritage / history / archaeology was going to change in commercially produced video-games, the way which academics communicated their findings and engaged with the industry would also have to change.
So, after I sat down and thought about what these trends meant and how they might be challenged or overcome I came to the following set of (highly paraphrased) conclusions:
- Heritage stakeholders need to actually do archaeogaming, rather than just discussing it. (this means both playing and making games)
- When critique happens (and oh boy it will because goodness me do academics love to talk at length) at least some of it should be in accessible places which make sense to the medium such as Twitch or Jolt.
- Such critique should also aim to sometimes provide a space where game-developers and players have the opportunity to engage with the content and actually talk with the academics, making it a dialogue not a monologue.
As such you could imagine my positively palpable excitement when I saw that the University of York was hosting a playthrough of Farcry Primal which featured the incredible Dr. Nicky Milner (of Starr Carr fame) alongside a star-studded cast of archaeologists.
The stream was (minor audio production issues aside) a resounding success for a great number of reasons, only two of which I will present here in the interests of word-count:
- Firstly it showed that players really care. A large number of people showed up to watch (I think the concurrent watchers was at 68 by the end). More than this there was a HUGE amount of interest and engagement. There was a ton of really intelligent questions – many of which not only got the audience thinking, but also the professional archaeologists!
- Secondly it showed that there is merit in academics actually playing. One of the most interesting things from the stream was how the star-studded cast of awesome-archaeologists moved from saying what was wrong in terms of the visual to talking about how the mechanics did, could or should operate. For example, the team were discussing whether there were maps in the Mesolithic and how (mechanically within the game) this core aspect of gameplay might otherwise be integrated or represented. These discussions were some of the most valuable in my opinion as it marks a shift to talking about games in terms of what makes them special, and through talking about the past through mechanics a new layer of archaeological discussion was facilitated.
In the end the point that I really wanted to make was that the stream marked a really important point in the development of archaeogaming beyond dialogue. It corroborated the findings of my MSc – that players are interested in what archaeologists and heritage professionals have to say about games, and more than this that video-games also have a lot to offer academics in terms of how we can think about visualising, constructing, engaging and playing with the past. Change in the representation of history / heritage / archaeology will undoubtedly take a lot of playing, making and critiquing to reach industry ears in order for it to be affected. But the initial indication is that it is possible, and more than this the indication is that all parties involved – the creators, consumers and critiquers – stand to gain something by engaging with video-games in this way.
Another group which is extensively involved with investigating archaeology and video-games through streams is the VALUE group who you can check out HERE. I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend their work.
The Twitch chanel for the UoY Archaeology department can be found HERE.