Warning: This piece is way more personal and mushy than my usual writing, and I went backwards and forwards as to whether I should post it up before eventually deciding that it was important enough to do so. I will write up a more standard review next week about the talks and outcomes of the conference – so stay tuned for that! I am also in the process of creating a short Twine game about it, but for now, be sure to check out the #TIPC tag and the VALUE PROJECT webpage for more!
The study of video-games and archaeology has lurked on the fringes of academia for some time – sporadic papers presented at conferences and the odd journal article popping up here and there with increasing frequency over the past five or so years. In addition, there is an increasingly prevalent online presence under the #archaeogaming banner, yet this sense of community, purpose and direction rarely transcends into the real-world, the game developing and critiquing archaeologists scattered around in pockets of one or two carrying out research in relative isolation. To this end, I have found that conferences tend to be a little (understatement) intimidating – from the stress of presenting a paper to a digital archaeology audience who provide blank stares of mild amusement (or outright horror) at the mention of games to observing the other archaeologists easily mingling and networking with their colleagues whilst I float about not quite fitting in – public archaeologists located near the open bar, medievalists lurk near the back wall swapping notes, museum studies group picking at the provided snacks and me, standing somewhere in the middle hoping that nobody notices I don’t quite belong anywhere in this melee.
On the whole I think there are some deep-seated institutionalised issues with academia which provide the ideal breeding grounds for self-doubt, imposter syndrome and general fear of failure or pressure to succeed (without clear support structures or basis) to proliferate, issues which especially come to the fore in areas that are yet to really develop a strong foundation. In the end it becomes pretty easy to feel like the boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the academic waters doubt, anxiety and fear that seek to drown you, simultaneously knowing that if you don’t keep pushing back you are done for, whilst also knowing that continuing to sit in the freezing cold isolation is a generally pretty unenjoyable experience.
I am a social anxiety suffering, naturally very introverted person (though I like to think these can be beneficial if leveraged well) and in the last few months I had been going through various existential crisis’ regarding the value or worth of my research, trying to find the key threads that I can use in my strategies for engaging with and enjoying the human-side of the research. The search was starting to feel like I was just keeping the anxiety at bay, back behind a big wall, rather than using it to constructively or positively propel my work – a negative challenge rather than a positive one so to speak. It’s a subtle difference, but a huge one none the less. Pushing back against the anxiety is hard work, and hard work gets exhausting quickly, and exhaustion, well, being exhausted isn’t really my idea of a good time whilst achieving things and turning your weakness into strength is hugely rewarding.
This is where VALUE comes in. The work which they have started to do with video-games and archaeology – through YouTube, Twitch, Twitter and most recently, a conference – has started to provide a foundation and focal point where academics, players and creators working with archaeology and video-games can congregate. A much needed start to a solid foundation and a supportive, diverse community. This cumulated at the Interactive Pasts conference, which provided a concrete space where this community could come together – in person – and interact. The Interactive Pasts conference was the first conference – since Challenge the Past, Diversify the Future last year – where I didn’t feel completely awkward and out of place. I actually really enjoyed the whole thing, from start to end so much that I managed on numerous occasions to actually forget to be stressed by the social-ness of things. It felt like being back riding horses again – where the social anxiety wasn’t inhibiting or exhausting, but rather something that I could use to lend intensity and edge to the conversations, talks and outcomes of the event. I left feeling refreshed, enthused and like I had direction and grounding rather than like I had endured and survived an ordeal.
To this end, the value of VALUE (heh) extends far beyond putting on a conference, running Twitch streams or writing reviews. It goes beyond what they set out to do with the group or the events they run. Those things are, after all, only a small part of the bigger puzzle which we all have a part to play in. But their efforts are slowly but surely creating a foundation and a community – a structure from which the rest of our research can interpolate back to, where skills can be shared, members of the public and industry can interface with academia, and a place where this research can be received and celebrated as well as constructively critiqued. Part of this is orchestrated and meticulously planned within academic structures (which undoubtedly have pushed back and struggled against it), but a larger part of it comes down to more ephemerons aspects of the group – who the team are, the ethos they bring to the development of the field and the way which they approach creating an enthusiastic space which seeks to build people up and celebrate the diversity of work rather than dividing, isolating or dismissing the work which is being done at the intersection of archaeology and video-games. One of the biggest contributions to this success is that they don’t shy away (and actually actively encourage) the public, industry members, academics, creators, critiquers, gamers, archaeologists and more, from all over the place to participate in conversations as valued voices rather than just pawns of academic currency to be measured through impact scores and citation counts. This is not to say that VALUE is the base for archaeogaming upon which we will build our discipline ( / glorious, resplendent empire) but rather that they have taken an important step in starting to bring together a community that transcends VALUE. Rather than creating a culture which feels like we are isolated, holding out against the overwhelming power of external forces (be that the internal structures of academia, your own internal stresses of social anxiety or the external frameworks for industry, public etc) they have made headway to creating a hydro-electric plant, where the very things that can exhaust us and make us question what the point of our research really is, are used as the ammunition to light up a new, powerful discipline for an exciting, enthusiastic community.
As such, I wanted to extend my sincere thanks to VALUE for putting on the conference, for the streams and reviews, but more than that I wanted to thank them for being excellent, encouraging people that have made huge leaps towards facilitating and supporting a community whose value extends far beyond your mission statement, events or writing. You are brilliant, inspiring people and you are doing amazing things for archaeogaming.