This blog post is the first in a short series about the @archaeogameideabot (which is comprised of a crowd-sourcing thing on top of a generator which spits ideas out through a twitter bot) which I made one glorious Thursday afternoon when the office was empty and my coffee-cup was more than half-full. This first post will introduce the core issues and background for the bot / generator and I will figure out where the rest of the posts are going as I get to them. So, without further ado:
Have you ever noticed how many of the archaeology-featuring video-games available for play (especially those created by AAA companies) use similar locations, time-periods, narratives and tropes for exploring the past and the people who engage with it? On the flipside of this you might also have noticed that many of the games made by academics tend to employ similar mechanics, themes and narratives to the construction of video-games… This kind of one-size fits-all / adventuring-archaeology-ideal is (if you want to believe some of my MSc research) entrenched into wider public and game-design ideas about archaeology as well as archaeologists ideas about what games are. In other words, game-designers have a certain framework for what archaeology is and how it should operate in a game, whilst archaeologists similarly carry around baggage regarding what video-games are and how they might operate in their discipline. As yet there isn’t really a common vocabulary which describes #archaeogames (or their design and development practices) that truly exists at the intersection, or that truly break the convention mould of either discipline.
A large part of my PhD claws at this issue by taking a proactive and practice-led stance on game design and development for and about archaeology – asking what other kinds of games we could create about archaeology and what it might mean to create them. TL;DR version of this is that I design and develop proof-of-concept games about archaeology and use the experience of creating them as a way to reflexively think about the larger relationships between archaeology and media, games and representation, creative practice and knowledge creation. As part of this I keep a diary of varying quality game ideas – settings, descriptors, mechanics, themes, narratives and possible creative workflows – as well as a reflexive diary about what I am struggling with, thinking about, creating and designing. I try to write down 2 semi-serious archaeogaming ideas every-day.
A quick perusal of these diaries will make it evident that coming up with ideas that align with your experience of archaeology and / or games is easy as pie, but coming up with ideas abstract to your experience or understanding is, well, tricksy. The saying goes that writers write what they know so I guess it would follow on that game designers design what they know and archaeologists… well, they would archaeology what they know. If we follow this (potentially dubious) line of reasoning further it could probably be said that game designer archaeologists archaeology design what they know (or, in real person English sentences: the games that will be designed will tend to fit within the cross-section of known game-design and archaeological practices). So, the question thus becomes how do you get to know different things about game design, development and archaeology? And how can we begin to develop a vocabulary and perspective on designing archaeology games (truly) and not just applying traditional game-entities to archaeological concerns, or conversely applying archaeological tropes into video-game structures?
I had been attacking this question in two separate ways:
- Reading and playing a lot (both archaeology produced and game-industry produced games about archaeology-things).
- Writing down ideas and possible work-flows every day
Without going into too much detail I have assessed that both of these plans are great – to a point. Reading and playing means you engage with other people’s formalised ideas and outcomes, whilst consistently writing down ideas challenges one to continuously and reflexively engage with creativity. Option 1 provides incremental gains to developing new knowledge which can be synthesised or reworked whilst option 2 provides a playground where these ideas can be tossed around and iterated upon. BUT there is a bias here, right? You still tend to read and play towards what you know, and as such the ideas and work-flows you produce tend to align with those. Experimentation and iteration can slowly develop these ideas, but wholescale shifts in your framework of operation are rare. This is not really in and of itself a problem, but I was hoping to super charge this process a bit, to be kind-of shaken into different ways of thinking about games and archaeology so I didn’t make 8 similar games which reflected my standard idea of archaeology and games. After a bit of thinking I came to the following ideas:
- Other people have lots of different ideas.
- Some of these ideas that other people have will be fundamentally different to my own
- Recombining sub-sections of larger things in different orders can exponentially increases the number of different things on offer.
- Ridiculous ideas can be hilarious, but more seriously strip away the crutch of what you normally do, forcing a different perspective on things.
- Constraints on how something can be made can challenge, well, how you make it.
Side-step time: I had taken part in a board-game-jam some time ago which used a generator to give you your theme for the jam. The ideas were outrageous and often made no sense (I seem to recall my “idea” was that the player could only use bees as their weapon in a grand fight for world domination which had to be played using a hex-board and a dice). The game itself that came out of this jam was unashamedly awful – BUT the process of thinking about how in the hell I would make bees a weapon and how this weapon would be used in domination started to get me thinking about game design in new ways. If you stay with me for a little bit I will explain how this a little bit more. My snap design idea was a kind of top-down turn-based, player v player game where each player had a gun that fired bees to eliminate targets and gain area – higher rolls equated to more elimination – gain enough area and you win the game. Basically this idea was along the lines of take the formula for any top-down turn-based game, but instead of resources or power or mana you used bees – you know, basically the same thing that happens with most games that feature archaeology in which you take [third person perspective] throw in [action] and add [archaeological setting] in which anything in brackets can be interchanged pretty freely without much consequence – (I’m basically making the point that Tomb Raider / Far Cry / whatever tend to use archaeology as narrative flavour or setting rather than integral mechanics for the game). This drag and drop method is, again, not necessarily inherently bad, but by relegating the core aspects of your game to set-dressing or narrative flavour you tend to miss out on what makes games really powerful – mechanics.
After I had thunk (real word, roll with it) about it a bit more I started to conceptualise the game mechanics which made sense to the bee-theme-thing rather than just slotting the bees into a plug and play game structure (I mean, come on, bee-gun? Lazy design). I designed a player vs environment game which used bee pollination and the spread of flora as its way of engaging with concepts of ecological expansion and domination and the dice added a RNG to provide a kind of critical engagement with ideas of environment vs agency, another player v environment game which looked at hive-based bee territories and hierarchies that used the dice to simulate wind-directions and environmental aspects and countless other un-bee-lieveable games. Were any of the games I came up with bee-guilingly good? No and the end-game that I made was horribly broken and unbalanced. But the process of thinking about what kind of a game I wanted to make with these ridiculous constraints opened up different approaches to researching what bees do with their time and what kind of mechanics I could extrapolate from this. The ridiculousness and the constraints were a kind of catalyst for how I could design and develop.
Switching back to the core point: As I sat and sipped on my coffee the ridiculous bee-game experience awakened an idea in me: what if I could create a thing that allowed other people: archaeologists, game-designers, developers, random people of the internet, whatever to contribute sections of game ideas which feature archaeology. What if I could then take those sections of ideas, shake them around in a big ol’ bag and then pull parts of them out in different ways? Surely such a idea-machine would spit out things which ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous – things which smashed archaeology tropes together with legitimate data-sets, or shimmied favoured archaeological game locations together with narratives which have never been explored using control types which have never before been paired with archaeology and so on. Perhaps by being confronted with an archaeogame idea which requires a guitar-hero controller to play I might be forced to think about how archaeology and games interpolate. How mechanics, control systems, academia, data, excavation, code, art and style interpolate through design. Finally I thought that perhaps by making this thing itself I might actually be forced to think about the structure of game ideas, of how I formalise and come to ideas normally and how shaking this up might provide different ways to tackle game design for archaeology.
And so the idea for a crowd-sourced-archaeology-game-generator-thing was born. Next post I think I will look at how I went about coding this bad-boy up and my reflections on what it all might mean.