Alongside the poster (which you can read about in my previous post HERE) I also presented a paper at ASA 2015 on the “Archaeology of Elegy“. The overall aim of the paper was to quickly overview how games can create a space for archaeological excavation, analysis and commentary – even by those who are not themselves archaeologists. The remainder of this blog post will quickly outline the key points of the talk alongside the slides that were used.
Outlined the key aims of the project – to explore how people are engaging with, conducting and critiquing archaeology through the video-game Elegy for a Dead World.
2: Contact Slide
Self explanatory – used images that I gathered during my time exploring Elegy and found a close font match to their own in-house typeface.
Another self explanatory slide. Quick indication of the scope of the research alonside a brief overview of how data was gathered and collated.
In the slide-deck this is actually a movie of me playing Elegy and discussing what is going on. Overviewed that the game was created by Dejobaan in 2013-4 and takes the form of a side-scrolling exloration game which tasks you with writing the narrative of the world. This can occur through prompts (provided by Dejobaan) which range from #thisarchaeologysux through to reimagining the works of Romantic Era poets such as Shelly or Byron – or, if you are really intrepid you can go it alone and free-form write wherever you want about whatever you want.
Once you have annotated and explored the world your work is compiled into a book which is published onto the Steam workshop publicly for people to read, comment on and share.
My own experiences of Elegy is that each world has its own unique archaeological record which can be approached in a myriad of ways – from the scientific and methodological through to the more phenomenological.
If you want to find out more about elegy check out their demo and homepage HERE.
Preface for the research questions – setting up the notion of “given a generated world, rich with archaeological entities, and a bunch of people who aren’t archaeologists descibing what is going on (or what happened there), what sort of things should we be trying to ask?”. Here I discussed that my approach was as a preliminary study to garner flavour answers which could be subsequently expanded on.
It seemed like a pretty foundational question. I see the world as archaeological, but do people who are not archaeologists also see it as such? For this I had a category breakdown that considered “doing” archaeology as any reference or discussion about archaeology as well as any indication of collecting data from the world to explain or narrate it. For purposes of this paper I did not expand beyond the game-world itself (ie: into lets plays or other write-ups).
So, it might be a bit of a give away that I have this slide in that they are indeed doing archaeology. The next step therefore was to try understand how or what there were doing with archaeology – specifically what types of approaches they were taking to exploring and explaining the archaeological record. This question was interesting to me as in dealing with archaeological information systems there is a tendancy to focus on the quantitative aspects – I was wondering if this was replecated into the exploration of this game world?
What can their accounts tell us about what is influencing their ideas about archaeology and archaeological practice? Are these the things that we as archaeologists are concerened about or producing? What might this tell us about our own practices of communicating archaeology?
Has the video-game media form altered, encouraged or facilitated this engagement in specific ways? How do we see this represented? Why is this the case? How might we use this to facilitate ongoing engagements with archaeology?
Methodology! Given that Elegy provides the option to publically share outcomes via the steam workshop I had limited issues in getting access to the needed files – to speed the process up I wrote a simple script which pulled the first 300 publically availiable files as RTF outputs for easy access (you can view them all in-game too, but that was super time-consuming and as this is one of my off-shoot projects it was easiest to reaad them externally). Second section was to run a simple language reduction algorithm on them which (simply put) records what words are being used where – allowing me to pull up trends in useage quickly. Finally I went through and read each of the pieces in turn. Evidently the methodology has some issues – its a bit cheap and cheerful, but as a pilot study into the general atmosphere and happenings I feel it is sufficient. For future iterations more detailed LRA’s and qualitative ethnographies might prove to be useful, however I did not have the time or resources for such an exersize!
Header for the Results section (srsly, how pretty is this game) – also introducing the Archaeology of Elegy Tumblr which hosts some of the most interesting, witty or snarky comments encountered on my travels through ELEGY.
So! Here we go. I was pretty amazed to discover that the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of players where ACTIVELY doing or commenting on archaeology / archaeologists / archaeological practices in Elegy – this spanned everything from actually DOING the archaeology of the world, through to commenting on the issues of archaeological practice (looting, tourism, cultural appropriation etc) through to writing snarky remarks about the issues in keeping history relevant or interesting (#thisruinsux). The thing which really struck me here was that given the infinite possibilites taht could be happening in this world, the vast majority chose archaeology as the underpinning factor for discussion. Admittedly many of the prompts actively encourage an archaeological (or romantic ruin-gazing) eye, but even so, people are choosing to engage with arcaheology, and those engagements are as diverse and interesting as the discipline itself.
Once it had been established that most of the patrons were DOING or COMMENTING on archaeology, the next step was to try figure out what it was that they were doing or, more specifically, how they were approaching the discussion or conduction of archaeology in this space. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I guess, given the narrative nature of the game, only a small proportion of the outcomes fit into a “processual” framework – although at 12% there was still a number of accounts which were utilising objective or quantitiative methods in a game doesnt natively allow for this (to the extent that some of the players created measurement systems ranging from spaptial, temporal and colour charts).
The next largest grouping was a “phenomenological” approach – with many of the accounts discussing how it felt to move through the landscape, how it feels to engage with the artifacts and past-casting about how their experiences might reflect or differ from those who might have walked these places in the past.
Overwhelmingly though was the “post processual” approach in which accounts acknowledged the subjectivity of their narrative, with many going as far as to springboard into the nature of perception (past and present) and the role which we as archaeologists take in constructing the narratives for the past. This perponderance of responces in this vein really shocked me – and it showed a maturity in those participating that I think we often overlook or assume they might not possess.
Slide 14: Looting!
People were using Elegy to talk about concepts of looting – indeed it shows up in 11.3% of those which I analysed. Many of the narratives questioned whose right it was to capitalise on the resources left behind – whether the xeno archaeologist was “doing science” by taking things from then planet, or was looting. Again, this was a result which I found unexpectedly mature. The majority of the video-games which deal with archaeology tend to portray it as the practice of looting things. My hypothesis was that this trend would be represented here in the game with people either not engaging at all with the concept or alternatively exersizing looting as a reflection of the practices we so often see in movies and alternative games.
Slide 15: Tourism
Again – perhaps the popularity was initially due to one of the prompts leveraging tourism themes, however, the use tended to talk about whether it was appropriate to be terraforming or leveraging the ruins for touristic purposes – or if it was profiteering off cultures which were not our own. This particualr outcome suggested or reflected some of teh tensions (perhaps) which are currently in focus at museums and heritage sites around the world – whos responsibility is it to care for these places? what right do we have to use them for leisure or enjoyment? Especially those which have dark or difficult heritage.
Slide 16: Collapse!
The word collapse came up with an incredible frequency across the stories – many of which also included reference to Rapa Nui. In part this linkage appears to be due to the resemblance of some of the stone-carvings to Moai and the inferred absense or decline of habitation and ecology on the island. As such it seemed like people were drawing from Jared Diamond’s accounts in popular literature and expanding them to explain the things happening in the world they were exploring. If not anything else it would appear that popularist literature on archaeological topics has significant ability to generate interest and discussion and remains in popular memory long after the texts have been published.
Slide 17: Recording Methods
One of the coolest things from the research was the observation of 4 distinct recording methods which emerged from the players – at least two of which were entirely independant. Even cooler was that discussions then emerged from the players regarding which of the methods was better, what the flaws in measurement or qualitative analysis were and the role of the observer in capturing and analysing data. All things that I had not anticipated.
One of the accounts had imagined an entire space station filled with different types of archaeologists – lab, managers, field, geo, narrative (many of the types are non-existant here on earth, so backstories and jsutification were written in to explain what they were doing and why). In other words: the game had afforded a space where a player could experiment and discuss and then implement archaeological recording methods and practices for a world which – whilst much like our own, had different parameters and thus required modified practices and methods.
Slide 18: Interaction
The thing about the games media form is that it affords significant player interaction – with the environment, with the story, with the world which has been created. Often we glass-wall patrons in, either by locking content into a grey-literature paper or by having strucutred interaction whereby they can only access the surface layers. Game based interactions can (though often might not capitalise on it) afford the player the opportunity to interact with the underlying systems. In Elegy this interaction allowed players to craft their own narratives and stories and interact in non-linear ways to engage with the imagined past in new and exciting ways.
Slide 19: Agency
Similar to above. The game media format for elegy afforded the players the chance to exert their own agency onto the world – they could direct or change the flow and understanding by exloring and explaining in different ways. It was them, through their interactions, that gave meaning to the world – they were active players in generating, rather than passive recievers of pre-crafted knowledge / outcomes. I dont believe all engagments with the past require active agency, however, as demonstrated by Elegy – it does offer some unique ways for players to engage with the past.
Slide 20: Emergence
The interaction and agency of players allowed for the phenomenon of emergence – both in the singular narratives and in the crossovers between the players (IE: where they built upon others stories, or argued / counter argued points). By turning history / archaeology and our interaction of it into a system, rather than a straight narrative, we provide an interface for different understandings, explanations and explorations to emerge (as opposed to being prescribed). Video-games, with their active agency, systems and player interaction afford this emergence natively – with interesting results on the player end.
Slide 21: Conclusions
The key conclusions from the paper were that:
- People, given the opportunity to write whatever they want, were identifying and actively engaging with the archaeological record. People want to play with archaeology. They are able to play with archaeology. And they are doing it right now.
- Many of the complex themes we discuss within our profession are equally being discussed by the public / players of the game. They have their own opinions. Elegy provided a space for them to articulate them in context, to demonstrate and discuss in an accessible and interactive way.
- The role of popular literature in forming foundational knowledge / interest in subjects (ie: Collapse)
- The video-game media form has specific affordances which allow public engagement in (potentially) different ways.
Slide 22: Future Directions
This was only a pilot study (300 with limited things looked at) – further work to expand the study and potentitally look into it through an ethnographic lens might prove interesting and useful for exploring archaeological representation, understanding and engagement through the video-games media form.
Slide 23: THE END
It was fantastic to present on a game which I think demonstrates so much potential for exploring and engaging with archaeology. The questions and comments recieved at the end of my session demonstrated a rising interest in the topic of #archaeogaming and an increased awareness and desire for further pursuit. I encourage everyone to go out and play Elegy for themselves – and as always, if you have any questions or ideas please don’t hesitate to get in touch!