Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games by Andrew Reinhard

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

From the dual-pistol wielding Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996-present) to the suave Nathan Drake from Uncharted (2007-2017), video games are replete with heroic archaeologists and their exploration of lost worlds. While surely a far-cry from its real-world counterpart, these is a certain pervasiveness to excavational practice within digital media that demands further attention. Can video games themselves be artefacts? How would we excavate a virtual world? Can this medium extend archaeological practice? It is precisely these questions that Andrew Reinhard engages with in his compelling and lucidly written Archaeogaming – a fascinating study of the ‘archaeology in and of games’ (2).

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games

Throughout Reinhard identifies that this is not just archaeology within video games, but also a perspective which encourages the identification of games as artefacts themselves. Fittingly, then the first chapter, ‘Real-World Archaeogaming’, examines the significance of video game physicality – arcades, retro shops, and developer studios – alongside the field’s potential to scrutinise recent cultural products. As the author outlines, video games are irrefutably artefacts of material culture and offer a fascinating insight into such intersections as 1980s popular culture and nostalgia. Take, for example, the urban myth of Atari burying multitudes of E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1983) cartridges in the Alamogordo city landfill – after its wide-spread acknowledgement of being ‘the worst game ever made’ (23) – a perfect encapsulation of real-world archaeogaming at play. Reinhard narrates their own experience as part of the excavation team that dug up the ‘Atari Burial Ground’, a fascinating insight which unseats archaeology as merely the study of ancient history to suggests its applicability to the recent past. This archaeology of garbage – or Garbology – thus allows a more faithful appraisal of contemporary material culture and how the waste left behind is intrinsic to artifactuality. Reinhard then turns to the virtual, cogently examining how video games have their own historicity too, one which can instead be identified through version and build numbers.  

Video game archaeological characters have a massive impact upon public awareness of the field, which Reinhard appropriately explores through their prominence of ‘Playing as Archaeologists’. Providing a brief, but informative, survey of the different roles which archaeologists plays in a multitude of texts, this study not only demonstrates the voracity of the trope but also its variance between back-drop setting and the implementation of excavational practice. The separation between archaeologist Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) and mechanical process poignantly queries how an ethical excavational practice can be deployed within the game format. For example, if we can study material culture through the waste left behind, how can this be translated to the digital? Exploring object looting and disposal in World of Warcraft (2004-present) and Elders Scroll Online (2014-present), Reinhard considers the historicity of virtual objects, how they each embody their own ‘fake’ and ‘real’ history while existing across multitudes of player-based instances. Crucially video game worlds can therefore become landscape to not only test and explore archaeological theory, but also one to challenge methodological practice. 

It is within this vein that Reinhard next turns to ‘Video Games as Archaeological Sites’ to explore the multifarious ways in which excavational practice can be applied to digital spheres. Utilising No Man’s Sky (2016) as the main example, the author identifies how the ‘No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey’ (NMSAS) – established by Catherine Flick with L. Meghan Dennis and Reinhard – is a platform that deploys a rigid archaeological structure to study the game’s procedurally-generated universe of over eighteen quintillion planets and its resulting material culture. Outlining an extensive and impressive background of archaeological theory, Reinhard’s meticulous approach offers a compelling framework through which the reader can also establish their own excavational study – the NMSAS’ ‘Code of Ethics’ are replicated in full at the end of the book, a compelling read indeed for interested parties. Certainly, one of the greatest strengths of Archaeogaming is its enthusiasm and openness to wider public immersion. I am particularly interested to see NMSAS’ future excavations now that No Man’s Sky has implemented full multiplayer features – arguably is applicability is as limitless as the procedurally-generated universe itself. Reinhard’s own documented landscape excavation of a Moon within No Man’s Sky is refreshing for its innovative approach, one which is not above commenting on the draw-backs and frustrations incurred from limited mapping mechanics in the game’s early versions. 

The final section, ‘Material Culture of the Immaterial’, engages with the complexity of studying the ephemerality of digital presence. Reinhard explores the importance of video game archives alongside the challenges of arranging these artefacts within a museum – are they categorised by genre, by publication date, are the games playable? Museums, of course, equally feature within games, a location which Reinhard interrogates similar to the previous archaeological character study. For indeed, while video games often point or gesture towards a narrativized history, often these are merely artificial or illusionary. In Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games no ‘past’ can be verified, as any traces of a player – such as discarded trash – are quickly eradicated. As Reinhard notes, although there may be no material trace to this intangible physicality, this does not preclude archaeologists from exploring the rich didacticism of these increasingly immersive frontiers. 

While some may challenge the validity of archaeological study within video game worlds, Reinhard steadfastly and convincingly presents their unique application for expanding excavational processes. To disregard this singular potential is thus to overlook the manners in which they enrich and challenge current practice, questioning our mediation of waste, artifactuality, and ‘presence’. Archaeogaming is by no means an exhaustive study of every excavational video game – and as the author notes, nor can it be – rather Reinhard provides a productive and compelling framework that indeed encourages the reader to enter the field and see what artefacts they too may uncover. 

The Question of Ethics in Detroit: Become Human

By Molly Cobb

Image result for detroit game

Warning: The following includes some rather large plot spoilers!

One of the most interesting things about video games by developer Quantic Dream is the strong focus on decision-making. The ability to drastically alter the story being told just by making one choice over another can be almost overwhelming. Even what can appear to be minor choices can have long-term effects, ranging from relationships with other characters to determining who lives or dies. In Detroit: Become Human, the focus of this decision-making is on android sentience and, consequently, android rights. The game takes place in a future where androids are essentially household appliances. However, there are an increasing number of incidents of androids gaining sentience and revolting against their owners. The game follows three of these androids, with the decisions of the player determining the path each takes in the course of this revolt. Though it could be argued there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ options being given to the player per se, the choices that can be made do encourage exploration of human and android ethics and morals, as well as understanding of the growing relationship and tensions between humans and machines in our own contemporary society (and in the imagined future).

Continue reading “The Question of Ethics in Detroit: Become Human”

City Now City Future at the Museum of London

MOL1

#BonusLevels #LawrenceLek #utopia#CityNowCityFuture
Visual artist, Lawrence Lek has created Bonus Levels, a series of playable video games depicting a dreamy, utopian, but recognisable London.

Bonus Levels is on at the Museum of London until January 3rd, 2018. It is part of the museum’s City Now City Future – a year-long theme which is foregrounded by the ‘Imagined Futures’ curated by Dr Caroline Edwards located near the entrance.

Imagined_Futures_main_img_

According to the blurb:

Of all cities, London is one of the most widely represented in literature. During the 19th century, when it rose to prominence as the centre of the British Empire, London was considered the peak of civilisation. However, this achievement was matched by the violence of a colonial system that damaged the places and peoples from which the city drew its vast wealth, in India, Africa and the Caribbean.

London therefore made the ideal setting in which to imagine future visions – in books that destroy the metropolis through scenes of devastation, or rebuild it as a fairer society. From Mary Shelley’s disaster novel, The Last Man (1826), to H. G. Wells’s techno-utopian vision in The Sleeper Awakes (1899), London established its reputation as a city in which to enact different visions of the future in literature.

In the 20th century, such imagined futures became increasingly bleak, particularly in the post-World War II period, and by the 1970s writers were experimenting with surreal future London landscapes. More recently, London has become home to the leading characters in influential books for younger readers, such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996). In the 21st century, as we come to terms with the environmental impact of climate change, the city has once again found a new role as a literary setting.

This display was curated by Dr Caroline Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and designed by Martin McGrath Studio. Quotes reprinted by kind permission of the authors/publishers.

Helping the Lich King

Venturing into new territory for Torque Control, I’m going to talk about a video game, and when I tell you it is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King it probably explains my lack of posting around here over the past month.

If you’re not familiar with World of Warcraft, then you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past four years. A massively multiplayer online world with 11 million subscribers around the world, the newest expansion pack managed to sell 2.8 million copies in a single day. I’m pretty sure that makes it the most popular work of fantasy around, and there are spinoff books, comics, card games, and an annual convention with 15,000 attendees.

There are many reasons why WoW is such a ridiculously successful game, and one aspect is certainly the addictive, easy gameplay – it takes a significant time investment to reach a high level, but it doesn’t require much in the way of skill. There’s also an enormous world and backstory to explore, throwing together fantasy and science fiction and horror tropes and lovingly stealing from and referencing everything from Dune to Lovecraft to Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Another big reason for the continuing success is that having made a wildly successful game, they haven’t sat back on their laurels and churned out more of the same, they are actively trying to improve it. Nowhere is this more evident than the epic quest chain which swallowed a large chunk of my weekend, and shows off how well they’ve managed to integrate storytelling and gameplay.

The new expansion introduces a new playable character, the Death Knight. This is the first chance to play a character who is not just morally dubious, but absolute evil in the service of the villainous Lich King, Elric Arthas. (Arthas has a backstory containing pretty much every epic fantasy cliche going, but he’s now a creepy albino cursed by an evil sword.) Of course, it turns out that being evil is a whole lot of fun.

The game can be criticised for relying on too many quests of the “Go over to X and kill me a whole bunch of Y’s” formula, and there’s still a few of those, but when going to X involves sneaking onto the enemy ship by hiding in a decoy mine cart, and the Y’s are slaughtered by taking control of a cannon to effect mass slaughter before escaping on the back of a flying skeletal horse, I really don’t care. I have stolen horses, killed cowering civilians with my enormous glowing sword, corrupted the innocent with an undead plague, and bombed a town from my skeletal dragon.

Another common criticism of the original game is that the world was far too static and unchanging, and quests which led to enormous revelations had no lasting effect – even when you revealed the evil power behind the throne was a dragon in disguise, she would reset five minutes later to let the next player finish the quest. With the introduction of “phasing”, which allows the same area of the world to appear differently to players at different stages of the game, the quests you complete really do make a difference, and when you set the town on fire and murder all the inhabitants, this time they stay dead. The final quest is not only an epic phased battle with hundreds of participants, it ties up major storylines that have run through the game from the start, as well as the previous Warcraft games.

It is by no means a perfect gaming experience. It’s a much more linear story than in most parts of the game, and there’s no opportunity to run off and do something else, or to skip a quest you find boring. The introduction of new controls can be confusing, when you suddenly find all your normal controls have disappeared and you are in what appears to be a floating eye roaming around the landscape, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. (Or you don’t, and you send me endless badly-spelled messages asking how you do this part, but your fellow players are both the best and the worst thing about this game, and could fill another post entirely.) It’s also buggy in parts – I missed part of the final quest because I was being endlessly killed by a bugged enemy, and it’s not a part of the game you can easily replay. But if there was anyone considering taking up World of Warcraft, or returning to their dormant characters, it’s worth knowing that once again Blizzard have upped their game, and it’s hard to see how anything else can dislodge them from their place at the top of the MMORPG market.