Recently two of my key academic role-models for all things digital, archaeological and gaming related posted fantastic blog segments discussing the development of #archaeogaming through a ‘call for games’ and collaborative game-jam style events. You can read Dr. Graham’s original call HERE and Andrew Reinhard’s response and elaboration HERE. Both are incredibly important and interesting pieces which propose multiple avenues for how we might seek to better understand and leverage #archaeogaming scholarship and practice. In both posts there was a great deal of hugely infectious hypetrain-ing which is somthing I love to see and participate in, yet I found myself typing out a lengthy, ranty reply (which you can read an updated and thus more gramatically correct version of at the end of this post).
Prior to doing my MSc I was the first person to jump aboard the hype train anytime #archaeogaming was favourably or seriously discussed, in part because games as a media form, within academic archaeological circles, was still somewhat stigmatised and confined regarding ideas of its potential scope and importance and thus any opportunity to further it outside of the normative approaches I jumped at (DO ALL THE THINGS!!!). As I get further into my PhD research I have become increasingly aware that archaeologists have had rocky relationship with media forms – often being quick to try implement them but slow to really engage with what they actually mean for the discipline, a practice evidenced by the fact that we are still hashing out and trying to understand how centuries old techniques and artistic practices such as painting and photography (let alone their born digital siblings) operate within archaeology – or how archaeology might influence the artistic / media structures in turn (check out Dr. Watterson’s inspirational Thesis for more on this) – and as such I have become increasingly cynical about why we might try to leverage games and how these constructions interact with archaeology’s underlying methodological and theoretical frameworks – and possibly more importantly how we understand (or at the moment probably more accurately don’t understand) our implementations in relation to existing media theory as well as the games industry at large.
As a result my current disposition towards #archaeogaming swings wildly between two dichotomous poles of emotion – at the one end, all aboard the #hypetrain (see above), destination #archaeogamingland and at the other end – deep, deep cynicism about what it is that we (as archaeologists) are trying to do with games and why (see below). My hypetrain has brakes and if I was being really honest my hypetrain would probably look like the never ending joy that is the 10 hour version of TF2 HYPETRAIN (caution: has naughty words in it).
This mini-series of blog posts is going to be a pretty personal string of rants about why I am somewhat sceptical of archaeologists “getting together to make games”, why I am apprehensive about a “companion Ebook” for said games, why I am suspicious of what we might expect a “scholarly, archaeological argument” to look like in a game, why I am wary that we would give this precedence over other forms of archaeological expression in games, why I am chary of what value we expect to get out of archaeogaming LAN parties or jams and lastly why I am dubious of how successful an #archaeogaming summit at E3 (GDC, or other) would currently be given (what I at least perceive to be) our general lack of familiarity with the medium or its surrounding industry. It isn’t meant to tear down or beat up on the ideas put forward by either Dr Graham or Andrew Reinhard as I actually agree that all of the things they discuss would be hugely valuable for exploring #archaeogaming, instead the intent is to use the ideas they put forward as a starting point for critically assessing where we currently are with games and archaeology and where we might want to go – because without a clear starting point and end goal (which feel to me to be several shades of grey still) I think we will find it hard to justify or understand any of the steps we try to take in between and as a result potentially condemn any outcomes to simply being cute experiments by archaeology, for archaeology alone. I will visit each of these cynical view-points alongside their more #hypetrain counterparts in turn over the next 2 weeks with the aim of exploring how and why publication in #archaeogaming might work (hoping to complete a post ever second day – partly because I think it’s important, and also partly because its literally what I am writing a conference paper and one of my thesis chapters on so committing to writing here also means putting pen to paper for those other works).
I will leave today’s post with an edited version (removed some of the poor grammar and spelling which crept in from hastily typing at 1am and added in a couple of additional notes to try explain a couple of the points better) of my original reply to Dr. Graham (which can be found HERE) so I can dedicate some much needed time to my other current side project / game jam entry: Between a Man and His Ba (which you can check out HERE).
The edited comment starts here (sorry for lack of images):
YES! Publishing through games is something that I have been campaigning for here at York (having done my last two conference papers as games / interactives and just received permission to do thesis in game format). I would be thrilled to work on something that was looking to formalise this process on a scale larger than my own pottering around. It simply makes no sense to use a paper-based media form to publish things which are difficult / impossible to express in that format.
Apologies as this reply is quite ranty in parts but here are some other general thoughts: based on my own experience, getting an industry-publisher for short-term developed games would be pretty far towards the impossible side of the scale, however working through itch.io is a possibility if you wanted to charge per-game or per-bundle, or through Kongregate or GamesJolt for free hosting with ad revenue. Games for change also allows you to charge, but your game has to fit into very specific categories and have press coverage / acclaim to be considered – definitely do-able but something I would tend to think of as a stage II or III rather than an entry point to producing / co-producing #archaeogames.
Another thing to think about would be Merrit Kopas’s recent publication – video-games for humans – which was a book published alongside the games it discussed, my personal feeling was that the book dominated the discussion too much leaving the games (as they so often are in archaeological discourse) as afterthoughts or secondary appendices. The general practice however, of distributing games with a edited volume, where you have to play you way through the text and games simultaneously (not interchangeably or not at all), is something that may hold great value – and also be a great proof of concept for how these media forms might work together. Perhaps this also could be a stage II or III to developing the #archaeogaming brand.
To be a bit of a downer for a second: One of my key concerns about trying to “sell” or “publish” games which archaeologists make as stand-alone products is that the indie market is saturated with really high quality games being hosted for free – really polished games that have been worked on full time – and I know that I personally do not have the skills or time to produce things to a quality that would be worth money within the saturated market, nor do I have the following within the indie dev space to generate enough interest to garner significant add revenue from hosting on free sites and I assume that most archaeologists would probably be in a similar position. Trying to enter into the games market, or generate interest in the topic of #archaeogaming based on the quality or topic of the games alone potentially seems a tad silly as we simply (probably) don’t have the skills or experience to develop to the same standard, within limited time frames as those who do this as their actual job – I know that my own creations have been utterly torn to shreds outside of the archaeology circle when presented without the context for their development or publication. IN SAYING THIS – once I had sat down and explained the processes or rationale behind the game I received really valuable critique and discussion (not to mention made hugely valuable contacts) which have been super handy in developing my own production practices and re-defining how archaeology and games might interact.
But having been a bit of a downer I think there are a TON of really interesting ways “publication” (see above) could be pursued to generate different types of engagement with industry and consumer that extend far beyond “just selling the games” or “making games and a book”– one of the things that came REALLY strongly out of my MSc research was how players were interested in the process behind decisions in creating games – the WHY and HOW of the developers, what was left out, why were things included, why that mechanic rather than this one – and more than this they were interested in discussing or contributing their own thoughts on this process (which can be hugely valuable for ongoing development – see Mike Bithell’s VOLUME for excellent examples of how discussions during development have garnered interest / shaped the game)… Which is to say that playing the game is one, admittedly very important, aspect to engagement, but players also are becoming aware that there are decisions and processes which go into making games and rendering certain arguments or aesthetics and they find that interesting (understanding why and how developers are doing something as well as comparing that to their own expectations or understandings). Andrew touches upon this subject a little with his suggestion of a “Making Of” edited volume but I still feel like this lacks the “point of production” recursion or community engagement which would actually make the process truly valuable to ourselves, our discipline and those from further afield.
As a secondary note to this: developers are an integral part of selecting how and why elements of the past are displayed – putting them into a role which Chapman refers to as “Developer Historians”. Players overall are incredibly interested in these processes (as well as the general *how to make look pretty* processes). I think that we stand in the unique position to be “Developer Archaeologist Archaeologists” (rather than just developers who include archaeology) – discussing the recursion and interaction between archaeology and development within the game creation sphere but to do this we need to engage other developers, other consumers and other archaeologists into this practice. This is to say that explaining why we do things from an archaeological perspective is imporatant and interesting, but it would need to filter back into the wider games industry / media theory infrastructure as well as further afield to the wider games community.
The indie scene has started buying into this practice quite significantly – with many development practices being constructed as open entities (watch rise of the indies for more on this) as a way to facilitate growth and connections within the developer community (thereby raising the overall standard and exploring new frontiers) / market buy in / interest / communication with audience etc. To this end perhaps the most powerful thing would be to demonstrate our development practices – as “Developer Archaeologist Archaeologists” – through open forums as we develop so players, consumers and other developers (as well as ourselves) could reflect on how and why we are trying to develop things the way we are – to discuss the things we are trying to achieve – to get feedback – to try generate interest in #archaeogaming and in archaeology in general and to try engage with how our practices fit into the wider frameworks of industry, media and community. The games then are not so much the end-goal, but part of a process in and of themselves.
Andrew’s idea of hosting a game jam is one which I think has a lot of merit – but again, the general use of game jams within the industry has a somewhat different function to what I think is being proposed here. Normally the goal is not to create a game alone (obviously creating something is a necessary clause to competing in the jam) but instead is to provide a platform for developers to experiment outside of normal production, to create things you otherwise wouldn’t (ie under different themes or in different programs etc) to learn about your own development practices / biases, to work with people that you otherwise might not, to work with new tools in different ways, to test things, be a bit experimental, and through post-mortems to critically reflect on your own, and others practices of production. For sure, many fantastic games have come out of game-jams and have entered into post-production afterwards (eg: SuperHot) but the point more or less remains that the value of game-jams doesn’t lay in the end-product itself alone, but in the process, networking and critical reflexivity to your normative development practices. If you look at the successful games born from game jams (those that go into post production and become popular / commercially successful) they all offer something different to how games are created, though of or played – thus creating a game jam to “make games about archaeology” will definitely have some value (the value being that games would be made about things that very few games currently exist about), but creating a game jam to “explore what archaeology is, could be or means” through mechanics, art and audio might be far more interesting (the value here being the development of critical practices alongside theoretical and methodological paradigms which are evidenced through the production practice and games)… My PhD research has currently started to look into how these game-industry development practices (such as jams) might translate to archaeology and whether it might be a good middle ground to begin facilitating meaningful dialogue between archaeologists, consumers and game devs on a mutual footing – current engagements have indicated that this _could_ be incredibly valuable provided both parties start on the middle ground or at least are receptive and aware that it might exist.
To expand this further, and to return to being a negative-nancy for a second – archaeologists and historians working alongside game-developers was actually something which MSc demonstrated to have been ineffectual and often detrimental in the past save for in very specific (my own and one other) instances where the archaeologist also had significant prior experience in developing or working within the games industry – to a large extent this seemed to boil down to a mismatch of understanding (often a complete lack of knowledge) and wildly divergent expectations of games and of archaeology – “archaeological expectations of games were ridiculous” from the game devs and “the game devs expectations of history / archaeology were ridiculous” from the archaeologists point of view. Game jams to me seem to offer a space for experimentation, but it would still have to be from the position of wanting to find the middle ground and explore together… in other words, all parties would have to be willing to compromise, alter and discuss the role and use of both games AND archaeology alongside each other (ie: approaching making archaeological games from the perspective of “This is archaeology, lets make a game out of it” is problematic in the same way that “This is our game, lets throw some archaeology stuff into it” also is). In my own dealings with co-creation I have found the middle ground is possible, but tough to find, but more importantly I have found that the process of trying to discuss my way to that point with others from industry has been an incredibly insightful and revealing thing – casting light on the things which I take forgrated or assume about archaeology as well as about games.
In this vein – the most valuable thing that I gained from interviewing and engaging with game developers and through attending game jams is contacts and networks. With each contact you gain new insights into how games are created and how archaeology might fit into that – to develop #archaeogaming on any scale, or with any real legitimacy or impact, networks and contacts ALREADY within the game development scene (both AAA and indie) will be important. This is something that I think we have been particularly bad at in the past – the tendency being to develop our own creative practices and media usages internally to archaeology rather than in tandem with the wider *insert creative discipline / media form here* sectors. As it stands #archaeogaming does not have critical mass – by which I mean the number of archaeologists actively creating games or working with games studios to create games is pretty low (miniscule in the grand scheme of games production). Equally the number of archaeologists (or historians or heritage professionals) employed in game studios (full time or on contract) is incredibly low. The number of games being produced which have archaeology / history / heritage in them however is MASSIVE. So to be really cynical – we don’t have the mass to make waves and we seek to gain a lot from starting to network with those outside of our circle, and I really don’t think we can expect them to come to us or even to listen to us unless it is approached in a manner which is sensical to the existing structures (thus requiring us to actually engage into that existing structure).
I too would love to see archaeology and #archaeogaming included at a summit such as E3 – but as it stands we have very limited idea on how the narrative, mechanic or aesthetic of archaeology might work within game spaces (god only knows we still seem to be debating out how it might work in paintings, photos and film). We have A LOT of #archaeogaming literature based on finger pointing and soap boxing about why we think games produced by external devs tend to have “wrong” or “bad” archaeology in them alongside an emerging number of reception studies focussing around informational retention of audiences / games as pedagogy for the past yet we have virtually nothing on our own creation practices of games or how the finger-pointing could be reasonably actioned within a game-studio environment (ie: it’s all very well to kick and scream about things you dislike, but unless there is some kind of resolution proposition or actionable content it seems somewhat like yelling into an abyss). If we want to critically discuss and change how archaeology is presented and discussed in games we need to be able to communicate, produce and engage with developers in a sensical way and we need to actually explore how narrative, mechanic and aesthetic of archaeology will work in this space on its own grounds rather than simply applying our existing practices over the top and hoping for the best. To this end – running our own game jam, for our own community would be valuable – trying to include developers on top of that would be a significant and hugely valuable thing… But even more important I think is for us to start developing and producing outside of our own sphere – ie participate in game development run jams, attend forums and start trying to work towards interoperable understandings for co-production.
Negative nancying over, and appologies for being hyper critical (still a bit disillusioned after looking at current practices of game – heritage interaction / production for masters). Any case – these are all really great ideas that have been put forward, and more than that they are hugely important steps if we are to explore and leverage games in archaeology. I would be SUPER keen to get behind all and any of these initiatives as they stand. Any of them alone I think would be a wild step forward for #archaeogaming, but if we want these developments to be effectual / impactful to “games” as a whole and the development of “archaeogaming” outside of archaeology alone, I think we need to enact our practices with reference and relevance to the existing AAA and indie development scenes and take into account the structure of the existing games industry, to work alongside it and effect change in tandem.