In my last blog post (which can be found here) I outlined the first day of the #CTP2015 conference. This post will pick up where that one left off – at the wine reception and evening keynote – before detailing the second day of conference happenings (including my own paper!). So without further ado!

The reception was held at the stunning Skansen Kronan – a 17th fortress perched high up above the Gothenburg, whose construction was in aid of protecting against an anticipated Danish attack from the south (a historic snippit which made me smile given my research-home is about to relocate to Denmark in September). The views out across the city were absolutely breathtaking (as were the 200+ stairs to get to the summit) and provided the perfect backdrop for the nights festivities.

The keynote speaker for the evening was one of my great inspirations in the game-studies field – Dr. Jonas Linderoth – who spoke on the composite nature of video-games, using (much needed) data gathered from interviews with game developers alongside formal analysis and framing to tease out the interrelationships of video-game development, consumption and critique. The entire speech was utterly captivating, especially the interview sections, which shed an incredible amount of light onto the historic game development process through providing a rare glimpse into the pressures and tensions which the interviewed designers, artists and writers were having to navigate in the production of games with historic elements.

Perhaps the most interesting point which Dr. Linderoth spoke to was the notion of referentiality in framing history through various media forms – creating a system in which information flows from form to form influencing what and how history is represented. This cyclical system was something which I had identified, but lacked the understanding to explain in my MSc data – where large numbers of the designers interviewed drew the representations of history for their games from their schooling or experiences with movies – a trend which was replicated in the interviews with the consumers, many of whom talked at length on how the representations in games were becoming part of their larger context for understanding the past. As I move forward with my current PhD research I can’t help but think about how we might better include data derived from academic disciplines back into this cycle in a relevant or meaningful manner – a topic which Daniel Dunne probed later the next day in his paper on bibliographies in games.

The remainder of the night was given over to a fantastic buffet (seriously, shout-out to the organisers for not only picking the most incredible venue but for putting on the absolute best conference food, ever) and further enthralling discussions regarding all things video-games and history related – from representations of historic warlords, through theory crafting how history might work as a mechanic to arguments over whether Quake or Doom was the ‘better game’. One of the things which really struck me, as I sat next to a fairy-light lit cannon, was how interconnected and interdisciplinary this field of research is – we had game designers sitting next to teachers and creative writers, and archaeologists sitting across the table from graphic designers and programmers. At many of the other interdisciplinary events and conferences I have been to, like had always tended to gravitate towards like, meaning the archaeologists tended to socialise with other archaeologists whilst computer-scientists tended to socialise with other computer-scientists. At #CTP2015 no such division seemed to exist, I guess in part due to the media form of ‘history games’ requiring the diversity present in the room (plus much more) in order to physically create the outcomes, as well as to critique and understand them. We all might have had significantly different backgrounds, skills and perspectives – to the point of being exclusionary in other contexts – but our shared focus on the expansive and diverse topic of ‘history games’ gave us the common ground to begin conversations from. For me this was one of the most valuable and impactful aspects of the conference – talking to people whose knowledge, experience and approaches were radically different to my own, and through conversation beginning to explore ideas or methods which I otherwise would never have been able to access or understand.

The following day Gothenburg dropped the ball on the weather front, dumping a large amount of fog, drizzle and wind upon us – making the ferry crossing to the event a slightly more exciting endeavour than it had previously been. Despite being somewhat shaken and stirred I thoroughly enjoyed the first session of the day – a plenary talk about the Byzantium 1200 project, delivered by Tayfun Öner.  The level of detail in the project is simply breathtaking, but the thing which stood out the most to me was the impressive algorithm they had generated to assist in reconstructing residential areas which were not well archaeologically evidenced or were too expansive to be constructed by hand. It seemed to me like the value of this type of reconstruction lay not only in what was (beautifully) rendered, but in understanding how and why it had been – creating somewhat of a reflexive process in which the role of the creator was inextricably linked to the outcome, whilst the outcome itself offered a window into the processes and assumptions which underpinned the creators choices (and indeed the data availiable to underpin those).

I tend to be deeply sceptical of what value or purpose most reconstructions of the past might hold (despite having done a handful of much, much smaller scale ones myself) and it was interesting to hear many of these concerns echoed during the Q and A session. However, as each question rolled in, regarding the lack of humans, or the pristine nature of the architecture, I found myself nodding along as Tayfun answered – not necessarily because I agreed with the design choices, but because they were well thought through, defensible, logical and well articulated. Which draws me back to my MSc research once again. One of the strongest trends derived from the player interview sections was that, on the whole, they did not think accuracy of heritage was important, but that it was important to explain why and how something had come to be represented so it could – to refer back to Dr. Linderoth’s keynote the night before – be referentially framed in accordance to their existing knowledge of how that portion of history worked. As I continue with my PhD research I think that the importance of the questions why and how will continue to grow – as it is only through being accountable and explicit about the decisions that we make that we will be able to develop our understanding, processes and outcomes further. Or, to quote the ever-fabulous Bananarama: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it and that’s what gets results.

The first session of the day was the much anticipated ‘Digital Archaeology’ session which featured two of my all-time academic heroes – Dr. Alice Watterson and Andrew Reinhard – discussing their past and present research into how archaeology is, could or should be constructed and presented in the digital space. Dr. Watterson opened the session by discussing the need to include subjectivity and critical reflection on the visual interpretation processes, using her collaborative work on the Neolithic Orkney site as a basis for further expansion. One of the most inspiring parts of this paper was how open and frank Dr. Watterson was regarding some of the less positive responses she had received to the work, highlighting and reinforcing the point that subjectivity is involved in both creation and consumption of archaeology and its remediations. Of further interest was the way in which Dr. Watterson commented that many of the ‘negative’ comments were able to be reframed as positives, as they reflected how the work had unsettled and disrupted the traditional or expected portrayals held by the consumer – so whilst they might not have enjoyed the creation itself the fact that they had not enjoyed it indicated success in disrupting their expectations. The themes of subversion, disruption and subjectivity are ones which I am just beginning to explore with regards to my own research and Dr. Watterson’s pioneering work, to me, really stands as a brilliant example of not only how overlooked these entities have been in archaeological forays into the digital, but also of how effective digital tools can be in facilitating the disruption of traditional narratives of the past if used reflexively and critically.

Next to speak was Andrew Reinhard (@adreinhard) who discussed four of the key pillars of #archaeogaming. I’m a huge fan of Andrew’s work and could talk at length here about all the fantastic points he bought up, but as he has already done a write up of his own presentation (which is more detailed and articulate than anything I would write ) I will direct you to his blog (located HERE) for a synopsis and discussion of his talk. But before moving on to discussing my own panel I will dwell on one of the most inspiring parts of Andrew’s talk –  when he stood centre stage and openly declared that there is no difference between archaeology grounded in the real world, and archaeology grounded in the digital sphere. That we need to give the same care, attention and dedication to the study of both and that each can tell us equally interesting things about how we construct, deconstruct and represent the past. Despite being onboard with this idea I have yet to be brave enough to really push the point in anything I have written or said on the topic – instead skirting round the issue by using sentences such as ‘it’s important to also consider digital archaeology’ or ‘it is of significance’ – words which imply a necessity whilst conveniently avoiding any conflict by failing to ascribe equality. As Andrew made the statement I braced myself for the boos, hisses and shouts of discontent – but they never came, instead the crowd paused, digested and started nodding along. This, to me anyway, was a big moment. It was one of those moments when I realised that digital archaeology was starting to really grow up and take a stand. Even if we are still awkwardly trying to bump around and figure it all out as we go.

Based on Dr. Watterson’s (as well as the many other inspiring and critical talks at #CTP2015) it would still seem that we still have a long way to go to develop and understand what it means to do ‘digital archaeology’ or what is involved in being a ‘digital archaeologists’, but the fact that Andrew’s bold statement was met with curiosity and excitement, rather than outrage or dismissal I think is indicative that we are beginning to mature as a discipline. I am interested to see how such statements might fare when they get set free into the wider archaeological discourse and am looking forward to developing arguments, critiques, methods and theory alongside #archaeogaming pioneers such as Andrew and Dr. Watterson in the future.

I would also like to quickly thank Andrew for not only featuring mine and Luke Botham’s (@Vazzan) interactive-text-game ‘Buried’, but also for getting me up to play it as he talked about best practice in archaeological representation in video-games. I’m always hyper-critical of my own work and am quick to pass off the things that I create as trivial, silly or unimportant, and as small as ‘Buried’ still is in the grand scheme of things, it was a huge boost to have it featured and discussed in this way. The feedback that I have received from those who watched it be played during Andrew’s talk, as well as those who went away played it afterwards in their own time has given me some much needed critical perspective (and a confidence boost from many of the really encouraging comments) which I am working towards implementing in further productions.

After the lunch break it was my turn to take the stage as the first speaker for the ‘Production, Accuracy and Authenticity’ panel. I will write a separate post later this week about my talk in which I will post my slides as well, so here I will instead keep the focus on the personal perspective. Somewhat paradoxically I guess I am someone who has recently learned to love standing on a stage and speaking on things I am passionate about, but on the flipside am naturally painfully shy making the first stages of speaking at a conference (or to any of the delegates) utterly intimidating. I stammered through the opening section, probably spoke far too loudly and quickly, and fumbled about trying to find the words I wanted to use – but by god I made it through, on time and in a more or less comprehensible way. The Q and A session after my talk was strangely where I found my groove and managed to relax into just talking about the research itself – some of the comments and questions were really pertinent and thought provoking, such as those fielded by Dr. Winnerling regarding the mutability of the stakeholder groupings and Dr. Houghton about how I, myself defined accuracy and authenticity and whether there was one particular way in which we might approach or define these entities. All in all it was a super valuable experience for me – both in terms of continuing to push through the shyness and also in terms of furthering my own research and thoughts on the topic from the fantastic insights fed back during the question session and beyond.

The well spoken Daniel Dunne – a fellow antipodean – continued the theme of accuracy and authenticity with his thought provoking paper titled ‘The Bibliography of Video Games’ in which he questioned why there is a current disconnect between the game proper and the supporting bibliographic material which tends to either be entirely lacking, or locked without referentiality in external sources such as guides, studio talks or commentaries. His talk really struck a note with me, as anyone who has read my posts on here and elsewhere will recognise that one of my pet hates in videogames such as Tomb Raider, Assassins Creed and Shadow of Mordor is the way in which they push statements regarding ‘historically sourced material’ and ‘accuracy’ in promotional material, provide the opportunity for you to find an object or narrative chunk from historic sources in the game, only to lock it away in an archive which is only accessible from the external menu, and for any further material relating to this object to be entirely lacking – in other words presenting a world in which archaeology or indeed history is always at least three stages removed from the actual game world with no linking context or understanding as to how this object, environment or narrative came to be or what informed it (check out THIS previous post for more of a rant on this). Daniel drew our attention towards the games ‘Alpha Centauri’ and ‘Fate of the World’ as good examples of games who had really tried to leverage internal referencing (through a formal bibliography, in-game references and promotional material) as a way to justify or legitimize design decisions within the game-worlds as well as to provide a richer backdrop to the game-play. A further example was drawn from (one of my personal favourite games) ‘Crusader Kings II’ which provides the ability to hyperlink out of the game to Wikipedia – allowing you to quickly get an overview for what or who you are playing and its place within a greater historical framework.

Listening to Daniel’s captivating talk really highlighted to me how under-explored this area was, how much we (game companies, consumer and heritage sector all included) might seek to gain from pursuing research and construction of better reference systems – and potentially how many other options are available for handling bibliographic material within game-worlds. We are finally starting to come around to the idea that we require novel frameworks for critiquing the media-form itself, so perhaps it also stands to reason that we will need to start developing new frameworks for incorporating or showcasing bibliographic material within it – for as good as current academic models for referencing are, and as handy as hyperlinking to a Wiki is, surely there are other, more innovative, native or elegant methods for handing this material? And perhaps through exploring these avenues we, as scholars, seek to expand our knowledge of how bibliographic material can be handled and what impacts are associated with this.

As somewhat of an addendum to Daniel’s talk – one of my current projects is ‘a tool for games a month’ in which I rapidly prototype an idea for a tool which I think would be useful for games researchers, designers or consumers – the last of which (from February) was a scraper that enabled one to pull from the wiki API as well as wider archaeological resource frameworks simultaneously and dynamically to create a personal hyper-text output of the strands you were following – allowing one to see the information pathways that had been walked in relation to the links which informed their basis or further contexts, and link out to different material from that if desired.  The prototype currently stands as an unfinished web-project (it was designed as a tool for assisting developers navigate between heavy archaeological resources, data and surface level entities such as Wikipedia) but it seems like there might well be scope for implementing something similar into the game-itself in a less obtrusive format – allowing the player to map their interactions with objects, people and environments inspired or informed through history – and providing a dynamic document output which links out to the external resources which informed the decisions or even to information, experiences or story arcs within the game world which would build upon this knowledge basis. I might also be being a little silly. But I do genuinely think there is a real opportunity to start exploring how bibliographies and referencing might work in interactive spaces – and although it isn’t his primary PhD research area I am hopeful that Daniel will continue to discuss this topic and bring his unique insight to how we might tackle the problems he astutely identified in his paper.

The final panel for the day was ‘Board Games and History’ in which we were able to sit back, relax and be guided through the political, social and historic impacts which board games have had over time. It was a little disheartening to see that so few people decided to attend this panel – only 9 in total – given the important and recursive role which board-games play with their digital-brothers, video-games. Or as Dr. Graham put it:

Regardless – the first speaker, the ever engaging Ave Randviir-Vallamo took to the stage to discuss ‘Rund um Estland’ – a Estonian board-game which represented the very particular ideologies and political agendas of the Baltic Germans, who at the time that the game was produced were an influential community sector, though now have faded into obscurity. I had the privilege of hearing Ave speak about ‘Rund um Estland’ in November last year at the Gothenburg Doctoral Course for History in Games and I was blown away by how much her research had developed since that time, and how delicately she was now able to intertwine ideas of the game being a tool for education as well as for serving a political and ideological agenda.  Not being much of a board-gamer myself (was more into Warhammer 40K / Fantasy and Magic in my not-so-long-ago past) I found it utterly captivating to learn about how the mechanics of the game worked and how history was engaged with at this level, as well as at the narrative level – something which an earlier speaker Josh Unsworth had pointed out as being lacking in many video-game developments of ‘history games’. It would seem that we still have alot to transfer, transform and engage with from board-games.

The final speaker for the day was Katarzyna Florencka who presented on ‘Wars, Kings and Communists: Representations of Polish History in Board Games’ – which again touched two areas which I am sorely lacking an understanding of, these being Polish history and board-games. The talk blew my mind with a discussion of how board-games had been used by many radical or right-hand political parties to legitimise, popularise and formalise many of the debates from controversial periods in Polish history. It really drove home to me how important it is to look at games – be them digital or analogue – as artifacts of the culture that both produced and consumed them, for as Katarzyna pointed out, when these cultural contexts change, the meaning and impact of the games can significantly change as well – allowing the board-games to take on new roles and meanings.

Once the formal panels had wrapped up for the day we headed off for dinner and drinks where informal discussion continued into the night. Unfortunately I had to head off first thing in the morning so missed out on the final day of the conference, but thanks to the fantastic tweeting efforts of the remaining conference attendees I was able to vicariously live out the remainder of the conference between flights and trains.

To start (finally) wrapping this once again far too long post up – thank you to all the fantastic organisers, speakers, attendees and support crew who made the conference what it was. It truly was an incredibly valuable experience for me as so many of the papers, people and discussions encountered over those two short days challenged my own research and opened my eyes to how diverse, interconnected and exciting this field of research is. Now that I am back home, exhausted from my travels, I hope that I can harness a small portion of the excitement and intrigue that #CTP2015 sparked and channel it into my developing research. I truly do look forward to following the research of all those who presented at the conference and greatly anticipate meeting up again – online or in-person – to continue discussing all that falls under the broad ‘history and games’ category.