This (long overdue) post is part of the Blogging Archaeology Carnival hosted by Doug’s Archaeology – You can read more about the great initiative here.

My research for the past three years has centred upon a number of different themes at the intersection between archaeology and video-games, a topic area which has come to be affectionately referred to as #archaeogaming by its supporters and participants. Over the course of these three years I have encountered a wide variety of challenges which have ranged in form across the full spectrum of methodological, theoretical, structural and institutional concerns. Some of these challenges have dissipated over time, whilst others continue to be problematic and potentially symptomatic of wider reaching issues in how archaeology structures and engages in discourse. The brilliant Andrew Reinhard has written up a post about the challenges he experiences in his particular brand of #archaeogaming research – I encourage you to go read this as many of the challenges we face have similar root causes if not similar impacts on our ability to carry out effective research. To this end this post will aim at complimenting and fleshing out the issues and arguments initially set out by Andrew. So without further ado let us turn to the question at hand, “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”

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Legitimization: can archaeogaming be a legitimate branch of archaeological research?

Archaeogaming is in its infancy, yet to be fully accepted into the wider cannon of archaeological practice. This is slowly changing. Five years ago when I first wanted to start researching this diverse and rich area I received more than my fair share of raised eyebrows and on one occasion was openly laughed at whilst I discussed the potential impacts and applications for this line of inquiry. Whilst this is certainly starting to change the legitimacy of archaeogaming in certain circles still remains in question, at its core this issue of legitimacy seems to boil down to two key points:

  • Video-games have yet to shake the stigma in wider popular culture (not to mention academia) of somehow being less academic or useful than other forms, especially those rooted in textual discourse
  • The act of playing video-games is still seen as a waste of time, or as something that is done by a certain group of people
  • Archaeology – especially in its academic manifestation – has a pretty entrenched way of doing things and a pretty structured set of principles for engaging with discourse, many of which the study and implementation of video-games struggles to fit into or outright grates against.

The first point is nothing new, all media forms have gone through their relative birthing phases – even in my relative youth I can clearly remember the pushback against TV, those a bit older might remember the pushback against film, get older still and there was outrage at photographs, magazines and if we push even further back to the time of Plato there were claims that writing any kind of discourse down in books would rot your mind and prevent eloquent discussion of the topics at hand. Video-games aren’t deficient or less academic – either as an entity to study or as a platform for conducting discourse – than any other media form. To legitimize archaeogaming we need to demonstrate what makes it so valuable, so worthy of academic study and deployment. Andrew mentioned in his post the need to publish in peer-reviewed journals as well as online and I agree with this point, we need to engage and proliferate through the traditional channels to start to shake the extant stigma and demonstrate the potential of study in this area. However, my particular brand of archaeogaming involves constructing video-games as academic argument, ie: leveraging the unique affordances of the media to explore and demonstrate archaeological discourse in ways which aren’t possible in pure-text based journals. This leads us on to the second point.

Academia is set up around publishing text-based journals, monographs and books. It is a well-known tenant of media theory that the medium one chooses to construct an idea or argument in has a profound impact on how that idea or argument can be structured, conveyed and received. It is totally possible to write about how a video-game was made, but I struggle to write in text about how the specific affordances of the media work in particular ways, and it is outright not possible to structure a game-based argument as a journal article. Video-games can be platforms for constructing and manifesting academic arguments, platforms which allow us to think, engage and receive discourse in ways which aren’t possible in other forms. This, like the first point, is nothing new. This is something that we have struggled with for some time – even with the incredible potential of the internet our online journal publications tend to be exactly the same as print forms, save for using a digital distribution method or hyperlinking in lieu of page turning. Archaeology and academia have some entrenched structures. Some of these are great at facilitating discourse, but others create a structure which prevents new ways of thinking, constructing or disseminating archaeological arguments.

So in light of this, how can we move forward with legitimizing archaeogaming?

  • As Andrew stated, we need to publish through the traditional academic channels as well as through places like blogs
  • Demonstrate how play and interaction (ie: how gamers) can be an interesting and legitimate aspect of archaeological enquiry (citizen science, data generation / testing, etc etc etc)
  • More than this however, we need to start critically thinking about the deep structures of archaeology and academia and think about how and where we could publish the arguments we are making in ways which make sense to and effectively service the media form we are working with. (This point was covered in detail in the publication in archaeology debate at EAA with the recommendations being to work with forward thinking publishers to develop new avenues OR to set up our own if that comes to it, which groups like TESSARACT have started to make headway into)
  • In addition we need to start making clear cases and examples of how creating and making academic arguments through video-games may serve existing theoretical and methodological concerns (im looking at you multivocality, interactivity, multilinearity etc etc etc)

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Beyond Dialogue: how can we go from talking to doing?

Another of the great issues that Andrew bought up was that of accessing and working with game-developers. Much of the extant literature which exists in archaeogaming revolves around ideas of accurate portrayals of the past and the deconstruction of poor representations in commercially produced video-games. This admittedly is super important criticism which forms the basis of how we can understand the theoretical underpinnings, so like all avenues of academic discourse embroiled in criticism it has a valid point. However, deconstructing the final outcome without knowledge of how and why these representations are manifest (ie: how the game companies are actually producing these games and how they are leveraging and using archaeology in their process, how the coding practice they engage with is compiled to create the material record we see in the game etc) means that half the story will be able to be told, the outcomes will be pretty speculative, and effective change in archaeological use in video-games is unlikely to occur.

I would like to expand Andrew’s ideas to include the creative practice of making games – as it seems to be much that can be gained through creating video-games ourselves, for it is through creating that the processes and practices can come to be formalised in line with the tools and methods. To move beyond dialogue we need to engage with the processes of making – both for our own ends and in terms of the practices being conducted by others.

To this end the big issues facing how we can move archaeogaming beyond pure dialogue could be stated as follows:

  • Dialogue is valuable but there is a need to move beyond it, to do research into how and why archaeology operates in games the way it does. There is a need for dialogue to be complimented and grounded by making, testing and physical research, for example through going to video-game studios. (check out Casey O’Donnell’s great book for more on this)
  • Dialouge could also be effectively accompanied by making – the process of making something is often more valuable than the outcome itself, it tells you something about how you structure and understand the systems and processes involved. By making games and tools for games we will gain a deeper understanding of how video-games and archaeology interpolate.

Several key structural issues act to prohibit this – some which are directly controllable through research and some which are institutionalised and thus will require some interesting navigation:

  • Access to development processes is difficult in game studios (legal and just not really
  • Developing games or tools for games is hard – it requires knowledge of coding, art practices, audio design, interaction design etc, currently courses in programming etc

Moving past these challenges requires some pretty significant drive and work – the work which I conducted as part of my MSc demonstrated there was potential to work with the games industry if we are willing to work on terms that make sense to them and to “speak game”. To speak game we need to overcome the challenge of having the requisite skills not to mention frameworks and connections. With regards to this second point – I sat a MSc in archaeological information systems which whilst really great was rather light on computational aspects given that programming portions were engaged purely in HTML, CSS, Javascript and SQL. I have a bit of background in computer science and programming so have been able to drag myself through upskilling and learning new languages for application in game design but there currently isn’t a great deal of  programmes available which get archaeologists engaged with what it means to program and how it can actually help their practices. There seems to be a institutional bias towards computing in archaeology being to fulfil functional roles (create websites, process SQL databases etc) rather than towards more object-oriented or interaction centred approaches (ie C#, C++). But I digress.

To overcome the challenges of skills, access and moving beyond dialogue I suggest the following points:

  • Continue to produce dialogue. Criticism is hugely important.
  • Link this dialogue in with on the ground research – be it through making games ourselves or through talking to game studios.
  • For access – approach studios / industry in ways which appeal to their core pillars of development and are constructive in terms of skills, methods and mechanics
  • For skills – for those of us who have already passed through the system its on our own shoulders to get the skills or, at least, knowledge of the processes and skills involved in production / making so that we can
    1. Make ourselves
    2. Approach industry in informed ways
    3. Do virtual archaeology in ways which references the production practices, methods (ie: coding etc) in ways which make sense to the digital space.
  • For skills – overall the way which we teach digital archaeology needs some re-thinking (in my humble opinion) – teaching people the same basic skills (how to write a SQL query eg.) is undoubtedly important, but teaching methods for a specific task and approach will continue to produce the same outcomes, to move beyond this the discipline as a whole and the way we approach ideas of computation, programming and design need to be challenged.

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Summary and Conclusions:

In the end the challenges facing my archaeology can be summarised as follows:

  • Legitimization: lacking the platform to be taken seriously as a media-form, as a platform for engagement or as an area of study
  • Publication: lacking places which support the arguments made through the media form, needing more exposure through new and existing channels of academic discourse
  • Skills: lacking the skills needed to create or understand the structure of video-games, institutional structures not emphasising skills that are necessary for programming and creating in new ways – needing to dedicate self to upskilling now and look to how we could incorporate these skills at grass roots level moving forward
  • Access: lacking the networks to access and engage in research with the industry, needing to forge these ourselves.

Archaeogaming has a bunch of challenges facing it as it makes its way into the world. These challenges, whilst undoubtedly difficult, provide a platform from which we can shape the discipline as it emerges. It is an exciting time and I look forward to making my small contribution to overcoming these challenges as we move forward!