This post is going to build upon Part I of my #archaeogaming rant – attempting to unpack and explore some of my personal fears regarding archaeologists jumping in at the deep end and starting to make and publish games – a concept which I quickly stumbled through in my rant-reply to Shawn’s original #CallforGames and Andrew’s #ArchaeoLAN post. The most recent follow-up posts by both Shawn and Andrew have started to pull apart and adress many of the issues which I raised in my first responce – so in the spirit of trying to refine my thoughts on #archaeogaming further I will take into account both posts (so go read them HERE and HERE first) in this reply and play devils advocate as a way to explore and challenge what the methodological and theoretical frameworks for archaeologists making games currently are, could be or should be.
The key reasons that I am wary of “just jumping in and making games” (that I will expand on in turn below) are:
- Lacking the frameworks to create or understand #archaeogames
- Resulting in replicating old frameworks / understandings of archaeology or game tropes
- Resulting in creations being cute experiments relegated to the appendices of papers not important works in their own right
- Resulting in them only being created for or used in already entrenched places (post-production for public engagement / pedagogy
- Unrealistic expectations regarding ease of creation / process of creation
- Resulting in disillusionment when it is realised how difficult / time consuming production can be
- Resulting in dropping it for easier / better established practices
- Resulting in the other side of archaeogaming remaining removed from the creative practices
Today I will move away from the train-based images, puns and references used in my previous post in favour of largely horse based anecdotes, pictures and analogies. Firstly because horses are pretty awesome and therefore distract from my walls of text, but more seriously because having been a full time competitive rider (eventing, mounted games, film stuff / re-enactment and polocrosse) for a number of years I see a great number of parallells to developing our practices in academia to those of developing skills required to be effective across equestrian disciplines. I always thought I would end up looking at equestrian stuff in archaeology but alas it was not to be – at least by shoving them in here I get the chance to bring together the trifector of my worldly loves for a little bit (horses – gaming – archaeo).
Also – I meant to include a lot more discussion on Shawn’s updated post but as this already got out of hand at 4k words I will leave that to another post later this week 😛
On the Fear of Lacking Frameworks
I agree with both Shawn and Andrew that archaeologists should be looking to play and make games. Lots of games. As it is only through exploring the media and creating with it that we will develop better understandings of how it might operate within our discipline as well as further afield (just in the same way that you only become good at riding horses by spending a lot of time in the saddle). However, in saying this I am a little bit suspicious of how effective trying to gallop our way into this process will be, when we are still figuring out how to get onto the horse in the first place and have yet to make a strong case for why we need to gallop anywhere at all – in other words I feel like we might be trying to make games without a clear understanding of why we want to do so and what the steps need to be to get to that point. In the end without having the basics refined and with no goal of why and where we are going to try gallop to, I can’t help but feel that ourselves, the games we make and the community we are trying to build will suffer.
Andrew rightly notes that most people who are interested in #archaeogaming do so from the perspective of wanting to analyse other peoples games, not necessarily create their own – which is totally understandable and equally valuable. These things will not be mutually exclusive – in much the same way that riding polocrosse is really different to riding a xc course, but both require a foundation of knowing what riding is to succeed – as such it would seem equally important that we seek to meaningfully engage the scholarship coming out of these quarters and include it as part of these emergent frameworks for creation as a means to effect their suggestions into our creations and also as a means for the research and outcomes we make to inform the work which they are doing. Something which Katy Meyers Emery summarised really well in her response to Andrew’s post: “We need to clearly articulate the threads of #archaeogaming, how they connect, who is making these connections, and how we can make this more than just a special interest. There are lots of great conversations about games and archaeology, and I think sometimes we’re overlapping or missing each other. If we can find a way to make this more explicit, we can start building rather than repeating.” A framework which facilitates understanding between those interested in analysing, critiquing, designing and creating. This is what we need and this is essentially what I want to try argue for. Being someone interested in making the rest of the post will approach this argument through such a lens – I encourage others who are more up to date or interested in the other sides of archaeogaming to expand and explore that area more.
Difficulties With Creative Practices in Heritage
Recently I have been discussing the role of entities such as the “Heritage Jam” with my fantastic supervisor Dr. Sara Perry and two of the recurring themes have been “what happens after the jam” and “how do we make the jam meaningful in the long term” – which is to say that things like the jam offer the opportunity (or excuse) to look at archaeology in a different way for a day, and produce something from that. Yet once all is said and done we have tended to write a short paper up about the experience, shelf the things we made and return to our normal academic practices. In part this seems to be because there isn’t a well founded basis for what purpose things like the jam serve and how these are expected to impact change in standard archaeological practice (versus the use in the video-games industry where the expectations and creative practices play a fundamental role in driving how the next generation of designers will engage with the game creation process and provides a platform to interface between industry and talent). I truly believe that running an ArchaeoLAN or call for games would be a massively valuable thing – but to get the most out of it I think we also need to think about where it fits within archaeology / games / media to make the outcomes, experiences and methods developed meaningful – not only to ourselves but to the wider disciplines we work with/in. In other words – let us look to adopt and adapt these practices, but lets make sure we do it with a foundation in place.
At the moment archaeology has yet to formally develop paradigms for creating or analysing games (both video and analogue) – and as such we will be entering at the ground floor (I would argue that our paradigms / frameworks for writing about #archaeogaming in other peoples creations are also underdeveloped as well). I agree with Andrew that this is incredibly exciting as there is a real sense that there is an opportunity to shape the development of how #archaeogaming will operate both within archaeology and further afield in the wider discourse of the games industry and media theory. Because of this I think we have been understandably keen to jump on the hype train – as we recognise the power which games might have for archaeology (seriously – the combination of visual, audio, haptic and systems alongside player driven interactions – hnnggg) – but as Voltaire / Spider Man says:
In the process of trying to get to making games / gallop our horse into battle I feel like we may have focussed too much on the power that these things might have and neglected the responsibility which underpins ensuring this power is realised / used for good. Same thing for entities such as the Heritage Jam – where running head first into making things was a hugely impressive and inspiring thing which (I think) could have been even more amazing if we had the frameworks underpinning it to allow these one day creations to be filtered back into / effectively subvert / made relevant to existing archaeological practices. To develop these responsibilities effectively we need to know the basics of the disciplines we are dealing with and how our proposed practices interface with this (there is a woefully small number of papers / chapters / anything which has done ethnography / investigation / research of production processes of games or the people who make them and how this interfaces with history / archaeology / heritage). I think it is important to at least recognise the limited nature of our understanding and seek ways to build the foundations out from here, for as G.I Joe says:
And as much as Nike would have us believe that we should “just do it” – galloping into said battle without maps and tactics is probably not the best way to conduct warfare – in much the same way that plunging into making games and embracing Dr Pepper’s slogan of “what’s the worst that could happen” is probably not the best way to conduct meaningful and recursive academic or creative practices. Neglecting to understand how and why elements of production practice work in the games industry and then trying to implement them into archaeology without a framework for understanding them here seems to be missing the mark on both counts.
As such I think we have a responsibility to be critical about the power which this media form comes with, a responsibility to understand the basic skills involved in construction and analysis (as related to both archaeology, media and games industry in terms of coding, art, audio, production etc), how our current skills measure up against those which we might need (not saying that everyone needs to be able to do everything, but that we need to be critical of where our skills lay and how that will constrain or allow us to do things with games), and effect a plan for how we will go about acquiring or supporting the development of skills and how we might filter these back into the larger disciplines (why are we gaining these skills, how are we going to use them, how are we going to help others gain access to / implement them).
Furthermore I think we have a responsibility to develop a framework which will help explore and explain what and why we are doing things with games that we are through the lens of the methodological and theoretical frameworks we are operating from in our planning, construction, post-production and analysis phases (what archaeological, media and games frameworks are we using) – and finally we need to then identify how these entities impacted our processes and outcomes (as well as how other frameworks or methods might have an impact). It is easy enough to go ride a horse at a riding school for an hour and have a good time, but this differs fundamentally from wanting to train to a high standard – the latter requiring a solid understanding of the foundations of riding, a goal, a plan for how each ride contributes to the overall goal and a framework for being able to understand the successes / failures of each ride. If we want #archaeogaming to have a place in academia, industry, archaeology and games I think we need to approach it from the second stand-point.
Gaining the basic knowledge and ensuring the preliminary systems are in place before galloping into the #archaeogaming battle would mean (if we are to believe the ever wise words of GI Joe) that we are doing so with half the battle already in the bag and wielding the power in a responsible way. In other words – we will go into designing, producing and analysing #archaeogames:
- With a basic set of expectations and ideas about how games about / for archaeology can manifest, and through iteration, comparison and analysis of the outcomes build this framework bigger
- I agree with Shawn that the things we produce do not need to be AAA standard – there is a whole world of game types out there to explore (indie, alt, glitch, etc etc etc) and even more waiting to be created, but we need to actually think about how we will understand the things we produce in context to existing practices and sectors and how we can build on our lineage of development over time to expand and improve not only the technicality of the outcomes we make, but also of the back-end understandings of these things.
- We have a growing back-catalogue of games criticism (of largely externally produced games) but only a tiny selection of scholarship that deals with how archaeology makes games or why – to fill in this gap we first need to know that it exists and then approach construction in a way which knowingly reflects or challenges this situation.
- With knowledge of the skills required to produce the outcome. Knowledge of whether we have these skills or not. Knowledge of how we might work towards building them through the process.
- Important for practical reasons. We have established that trying to gallop before you have learnt how to sit on a horse is a horrible idea, bound to end with broken bones. Likewise, trying to create a game before you have knowledge of what is involved and how you might do it is a horrible idea, bound to end with broken hearted archaeologists and broken games. We don’t necessarily need the skills up front – these can be developed over time – but I do think we need to actually need to be good academics and do some research into construction practices first and understand what might be involved.
- Also – when I was discussing this with a friend from the games industry he had a good chuckle at Andrew’s “low stress” statement in relation to anything to do with games, even talking about them. Creating games is fun when you know what you are doing and how you are going to do it – a state only achieved in game production when copy-pasting a process which you have done before (yay flappy bird clones). We currently don’t have a lineage of production or an understanding of what might be involved so it isn’t going to be low stress.
- With the ability to identify how archaeological theory and method operate within this space and thus the ability to recursively feed back into this.
- We established quite some time ago that archaeological practices are not neutral – the frameworks you choose impact how you approach excavation, analysis and interpretation. In a similar vein here is no such thing as “just making games” and I think we would do ourselves a disservice to put the cart before the horse. I think we need to be aware of what archaeological and game-development paradigms (as well as those further afield in media studies, narrative, art, philosophy etc given the mashed together nature of games) we are drawing from and how these impact what we are making and why.
- Analysis then feeds back into both frameworks meaningfully as there is the real ability to explain what the collaboration between games and archaeology offers either discipline with reference to how and why.
- Being able to understand these entities means being able to tweak and evolve standards / benchmarks / frameworks as necessary and to effect change from a quantifiable basis.
- Also it means that when we get up to soap-box about how awful the use of heritage / history / archaeology was in X game we do it with the ability to refer to specific frameworks / practices and knowledge of how these could be effectively navigated through the implementation of realistic suggestions for revised practice.
- With a clear idea of how wider media theory and industry practices are operating and how our processes and outcomes relate to / influence that.
- Creates the benchmark and platform for understanding which is required for meaningful comparison, critique and growth.
- Don’t get me wrong – I’m not proposing that everyone – past, present and future – should be investing in #archaeogames at this level as I recognise that it is deeply unrealistic (just as it is unrealistic to expect everyone who makes a 3D model of an artifact to engage with 3D documentation practices at a London Charter forming / questioning / critiquing level). But I am proposing that those of us gunning for #archaeogaming on the front-lines take the responsibility which comes with the power the media promises seriously – i.e. rather than just getting together and starting to “make things” we get together and start to “make things which develop and challenge the frameworks of understanding #archaeogames as part of archaeology as well as further disciplines”. In other words I think we should be seeking to foster the development of a discipline not just the use of a media form / tool.
So… how do we do this?
For all the faults of entities such as the ADS Guides to Good Practice, VASIG, or The London Charter (which is a whole rant onto itself) they at the very least provide a backbone from which further discussion and development can take place (though if I was being cynical it seems like they tend to get published and sit statically for the next 5 years) – something which I think is important for developing critical practices within any discipline – especially an academic one interested in engaging with existing industries, tools and frameworks. In the past it has been argued that #archaeogaming would fit well under the provisions of the London Charter, however I would argue against this as it:
- is specifically in aid of 3D reconstructions (of which not all games are)
- fails to take into account the multi-modal nature of games (combination of visual, audio, haptic etc)
- fails to take into account the specific affordances of system / mechanic driven entities and player interaction.
- starts from a predominantly heritage position and suggests migrating it, with adjustment, to other disciplines without an explicit link back to the methods or theories of the parent disciplines being drawn from.
Perhaps this is something we should sit down and think through over an “unconference” as Shawn, Andrew and Katy have all proposed? And then go on to use the experience of creating the games as a way to further explore what we know, how it operates, how it relates to other paradigms and where the holes of our experience lay. By starting to pull apart why we want to make games, where we think it will fit within archaeological practice and what the foundations of the creative practice should be we start to pave the way for the things we make to not just be cute experiments but a serious part of the ongoing discourse.
(As somewhat of an addendum: my MSc sought, and ultimately somewhat failed (due to being too ambitious and too case specific), to construct and implement coherent frameworks for understanding and producing games which operate with reference to both games industry and archaeology – once it is out from NDA I will show how I went through trying to construct a framework and perhaps we can tear it apart as a way to start critically thinking about how the basic framework could / should look).
Concluding Rant Thoughts
Back when I was moving from being on the junior NZ development squad (where I had excelled) to the senior one (where I was a total unknown) I had a fantastic, tough as nails, coach who was quick to bring me down a peg or two every time I felt like I was hot-shit for winning a competition.
She had a scale for explaining the difference between the types of riders in the world which I think is equally applicable in exploring how we might approach #archaeogaming:
- Ignorant Riders (I don’t know what X is or how to achieve it)
- Idiot Riders (I think know what X is but don’t know how to achieve it )
- Useless Riders (I think I know what X is and I think I know how it works )
- Assisted Development Riders (I know what X is and probably can do it so long as someone holds my hand to tell me how)
- Developing Riders (I now know what X is and having tried different things and failed many times I now know much better how it actually works)
- Semi-Independent Riders (I know what X is and can mostly do it on my own)
- Theory Crafters (I know what X is, how it is like this, why it is like this and how it relates to Y and Z though I lack the skills to really do anything about all this theory I craft or implement it on the fly)
- Good Riders (I can respond to, develop and understand X, Y and Z and do these things without having to be consciously aware that I am doing them and can replicate and adapt the practices horse to horse, ride to ride)
At the moment it feels to me like we are at the “useless rider” stage – we have the drive to make games, the idea that it could be meaningful and a vague idea that we might have to do some code and art and other stuff to make it a reality but lack the foundations or practice to move beyond this. To progress from here we need a foundation to guide our development. For us to progress to being “good riders” – or “good #archaeogamers” I think we need to really critically look at whos hands we can hold to begin developing our process (what elements we can borrow from archaeological, games industry and media theory to develop our practice) before going out to try, succeed and fail our way through the “developing rider / #archaeogamer” stage. After some time we will generate the skills required internally to become “semi-independent riders / #archaeogamers” – a point at which our creations will be an accepted part of practice, engaging and producing effectively though to a largely standardised form of “games for / about archaeology”. After this point we can begin to challenge and revise our foundations, developing the theoretical practices which underpin construction before devising ways to develop the methods and practicum alongside the theory.
I am now officially all ranted out for the next couple of hours – my good friend Dave will be starting a series of guest posts on this blog about arcaheogaming + the use of games in heritage from an industry perspective from this afternoon – so stay tuned for that!