4.3. Games and mixed reality

Our discussion of computational photography and additive manufacturing has highlighted two technological areas that are comparatively new to archaeology. In each case, our discussion of the technology has demonstrated the extent to which new technological approaches enable and perhaps even require us to revisit the methodological and epistemological assumptions that underpin conventional archaeological practice. While there is little doubt that technologies can act as catalysts for theoretical work, it is important not to allow the character of this work to be technologically determined. It is also important to revisit those technologies that are more firmly established within archaeology and to consider the way in which they have been used and understood (see also Huggett this issue).

3D computer graphics have been the subject of constant theoretical and technical discussion since their introduction to archaeology in the 1980s. However, despite being associated with an initial flourishing of ideas (Reilly 1989; 1991; 1992), the use of 3D computer graphics rapidly became conventionalised, with terms such as virtual reconstruction used widely and without explanation within archaeological literature. A great deal of energy and thought has been invested in the construction of a theoretical scaffolding for the use of 3D computer graphics within archaeological work. Debates have focused primarily upon developing epistemological and ontological standards for the use of the technology in the form of metadata and paradata standards (Bentkowska-Kafel et al. 2012; Lopez-Menchero 2013). These initiatives have clear value in supporting particular forms of practice and in aiding the interpretation of specific kinds of outputs but they have not, in general, championed new forms of archaeological work. Efforts to re-frame the theoretical underpinnings of the archaeological use of computer graphics have tended to focus on the theoretical and have rarely explored the way in which these ideas might be practically realised (Forte 2015).

Here again, then, we find a technology or suite of technologies that have unexplored potential to achieve new and extremely productive forms of archaeological practice. Discussions in this field have been revitalised in recent years by a series of technological and cultural changes. Perhaps the most significant technological change since the birth of archaeological computer graphics in the 1980s-90s has been the recent re-birth of virtual reality, accompanied by a range of new mixed reality technologies. Unlike the hype-fuelled discussions surrounding the first generation of virtual reality technologies, recent discussions have been focused on more grounded, affordable and commercially available technologies. Rather than imagined utopian immersive worlds, contemporary treatments of augmented reality are far more likely to focus on the more quotidian world of games, sports and commerce. This change will be of little surprise to anybody familiar with the Gartner Hype Curves for Emerging Technologies, according to which mixed and virtual reality (MR/VR) are now reaching plateaus of productivity having traversed a period of inflated expectations (c. 1990-2000) and endured a subsequent period of disenchantment (c. 2001-2015) (see Basiliere and Shanler 2014 for a recent industry analyst assessment).

Another development during this period has been the growth in use and availability of smartphones and tablets which, supported by the console market, has brought about the development of indie game making and content creation. Supported by a range of ancillary content creation tools (many of which are available free of charge), the production of computer graphics and games is no longer the exclusive domain of specialist coders and creatives but is also accessible to a wide range of computer users. This has been taken to new extremes with the growing popularity of flexible in-game game-making tools of the type bundled with Little Big Planet (Media Molecule 2016) and the popularity of online game-authoring tools such as the BBC's Doctor Who Game Maker (BBC 2016). While not a new concept (these tools have been available for almost as long as personal computing) they are now far more flexible and powerful, allowing the production of games entirely different from those within which they are made and incorporating complex data such as 3D object, environments and characters.

A real innovation in this area is in the ease with which interactive digital media can now be produced and disseminated. One of the most notable features of literature related to archaeological computer graphics has been the limited attention given to the production and dissemination of media. For example, a significant body of literature has been committed to explaining the production of 3D models for archaeological purposes (Bentkowska-Kafel et al. 2012; Frischer et al. 2002; Barceló et al. 2000) but very little attention has been given to the way in which these models have been mediated or prepared for consumption. We have invested in the production of digital assets but have failed to consider the diverse settings within which they might be consumed. It is dispiriting to consider the number of intricate and carefully thought through 3D models of archaeological sites that have only ever been published through small black-and-white images on the pages of specialist journals. Perhaps we should consider (and indeed the authors hope for) a new field of archaeological computer graphics dedicated to the re-use of extant 3D datasets, using these as a basis for game-like re-presentations of archaeological data and interpretation, hosted by repositories such as the ADS.

Innovators in this field have proven that games and interactive media are highly effective as a means of engaging with complex archaeological concepts and processes and have begun to use a variety of tools and approaches. These include the production of immersive and interactive experiences (Galeazzi and Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco this issue; Morgan 2009; Emery and Reinhard 2015; Kee et al. 2009), the use of mixed reality and pervasive gaming (Eve this issue) and the use of open source and simple to use tools for producing non-linear interactive stories (Copplestone and Dunne this issue).

The exploration by archaeologists of the use of games for research and interpretation is, for now, innovative. However, we anticipate that developments in technology and culture outside of our discipline will, in a very short time, mean that games and game-like experiences are a standard form of cultural expression. The development of platforms for games sharing (such as Steam, Android Market and Apple App Store) allows home-made games to reach large audiences. Pathways for developing and disseminating digital media are more open than ever. These developments have been paralleled by the growth in popularity of games jams and a broader culture of indie game-making and consumption. It would seem that we are entering a period of intense creativity and it will involve the production of games and media with an archaeological theme. The question that remains is the extent to which archaeology as an academic discipline and as an industry chooses to engage with new technologies and new forms of media practice.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements