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Archaeogaming: a book review

Reviewed by Krijn H. J. Boom

University of Amsterdam and VALUE foundation, Dr. De Bruijnestraat 20, 2351 PD Leiderdorp, The Netherlands. Email: krijn@value-foundation.org

Cite this as: Boom, K.H.J. 2018 Archaeogaming: a book review, Internet Archaeology 47. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.47.11

Reinhard, A. 2018. Archaeogaming: An introduction to archaeology in and of video games. New York: Berghahn Books. 236 pages, 22 illus., bibliog., index. https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/ReinhardArchaeogaming

As a video game enthusiast and archaeologist, the concept of archaeogaming has been on my radar since Andrew Reinhard coined the term back in 2013 (Reinhard 2013). This book is Reinhard's latest and most integral attempt at describing his idea of the many intersections of archaeology and play. This review will roughly follow the structure of the book and discuss contents by chapter, followed by a final assessment.

Introduction

This part of the book is essential, as it defines archaeogaming, and divides it into 5 themes:

  1. “The study of physical video games as well as the metadata surrounding the games themselves …;
  2. The study of archaeology within videogames …;
  3. The application of archaeological methods to synthetic space …;
  4. The approach to understanding how game design manifests everything players see and interact with in-world …;
  5. The archaeology of game mechanics and the entanglement of code with players …” (Reinhard 2018, 3).

Reinhard uses the rest of the introduction to clarify what he means by these themes and how they will be addressed in the coming chapters. He also introduces the concept of 'procedural content generation' (PCG), the utilization of algorithms to create virtual worlds, a tool increasingly used in the creation of videogames. In my opinion, the emergence of this technology is one of the reasons the concept of archaeogaming is important to explore and understand: it forces us to rethink what we know as material culture and how we research it — a question Reinhard asks too. Other reasons are introduced as well e.g. “video games are a very large part of our contemporary culture and as such are deserving of archaeological study” (Reinhard 2018, 9), and “archaeologists need to reach out to game studios to lobby for the inclusion of various archaeological mechanics without sacrificing the intended entertainment value of any game” (Reinhard 2018, 17). He goes on to explain why archaeogaming is different from media studies and media archaeology. While this distinction is valid, its combination and culmination with these reasons and their varying 'philosophical' levels sometimes comes across as a little forced. This is especially true in combination with the many (often creative) parallels Reinhard sees between gaming and archaeology and the 'matter of fact-ness' in his reasoning; they are all true in a way, but the combination feels strained.

Chapter 1: Real-world archaeogaming

The first chapter of the book recounts the now famous Atari dig at the Alamogordo desert in New Mexico (see Figure 1). I've already read some of Reinhard's writings about this event and have watched the Netflix documentary Atari: Game Over in which the author is featured. I never seem to tire of this tale, all the more because Reinhard's writing is simultaneously academic, anecdotal, and humorous. He uses this example of 'real-world archaeogaming' to strengthen the argument that artefacts (including video games) have biographies and inherent narratives. He also mentions that in-game artefacts follow a similar life-cycle to real-world artefacts, rendering them the synthetic equivalent; a viewpoint he frequently returns to in the subsequent chapters. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to 'gaming spaces', such as arcades and video game museums, and even game development studios and their role in the biographical narrative. Finally, Reinhard makes the bold statement that in the next 50 years parts of virtual worlds will be granted historical designation (at the level of a UNESCO World Heritage site). It is at these moments that Reinhard shows visionary levels of reasoning that makes this book stand out.

Figure 1
Figure 1: A photo from the Atari dig site at the Alamogordo desert in New Mexico (Image: Atari E.T. Dig: Alamogordo, New Mexico by taylorhatmaker, 6 November 2013. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 2: Playing as an archaeologist

In this section, Reinhard lists a variety of video games in which the player can play as an archaeologist. He also briefly mentions some well-known Non-Playable-Characters (NPCs) who are archaeologists in the game world. He describes the public reception of archaeology in video games, mainly based on research done in the general pop culture sphere, such as the works of Cornelius Holtorf (some of which dates to more than a decade ago: e.g. Holtorf 2005). This to me shows that there is a lack of contemporary data on the public's reception (and perception) of archaeology in video games and its impact. Of course, this doesn't mean that we can't study the representation of archaeology in video games — a worthy effort — and Reinhard does this with his usual gusto. By reviewing Blizzard's Hearthstone and its use of tropes, he explains how game developers convey the idea of what archaeology is visually (Treasure! Discoveries! Danger!), and discusses looting in video games using the Elder Scrolls Online as an example. All this is based on the fact that video games are usually made by game companies with an eye on profit, with heritage and archaeology just used as a theme or setting to convey the feeling of authenticity and the ancient. This, I feel, is something often overlooked, for example, when studying authenticity or accuracy in video games. Reinhard makes an important statement when he says that “it is OK if games are historically inaccurate as it gives the audience a chance to consider those incongruities and anachronisms in a wider dialogue about the past” (Reinhard 2018, 190; a quote from chapter 4 when discussing archaeological re-creations). Indeed, video games do provide a playground in which the player is immersed in history and often entice them to want to find out more (e.g. see the video showing Ubisoft's take on their 'Historical Tourism' marketing strategy for the Assassin's Creed series)

Video: Ubisoft's take on Historical Tourism. A video by Nota Bene and Regis Brochier (2017) (https://www.arte.tv/en/videos/RC-014308/history-s-creed/)

However, as is acknowledged in the video, inaccuracy is also potentially dangerous. Unfortunately, the book doesn't provide an answer on how to increase co-operation with game developers and create an open discussion on the value of historically accurate settings in games.

Chapter 3: Video games as archaeological sites

This chapter is dedicated to Reinhard's idea that video games are both artefacts (as discussed in chapter 1) and archaeological sites and can be researched using a variety of archaeological methods. Reinhard elaborates on earlier work in Mol et al. (2017; Reinhard 2017), using his No Mans's Sky Archaeological Survey in which he applied real life methods to perform an in-game archaeological survey. Before expanding on his intriguing case study though, he explains that there are multiple layers in which a video game is an archaeological site: its installation location, its installation media and structures, and the synthetic landscape which the player can explore (this makes me wonder; will hackers be archaeologists of the future?). He also discusses glitches in video games, unfortunately using a variety of terms, such as glitches, bugs, artefacts, and anomalies interchangeably (for instance, he writes that “glitches are clearly program errors that disrupt play” (Reinhard 2018, 135), while later writing that there is a difference between a 'happy' and a 'sad' glitch when discussing PCG (Reinhard 2018, 155), with only the latter disrupting play. At moments such at this Archaeogaming becomes quite obtuse and hard to follow.

At other moments, Reinhard is crystal clear and self-reflexive in his observations and argument. For instance, it is also in this chapter that he writes the two most important observations of the book in my opinion: “all of the above about conducting landscape archaeology … within a synthetic world might sound daft, especially when we know that these are all designed environments” (Reinhard 2018, 102), but that “one day we will have a Turing test for cultures to determine what is real” and that it is up to us to “determine that level of reality, and if a new, born-digital culture thrives, what obligations do we have to interacting with it and, ultimately, to preserving it?” (Reinhard 2018, 103). This, for me, is the main reason why archaeogaming as a concept is such an important research endeavour: sharply observing trends and ideas in the nexus of cultural heritage and the digital, and by doing so preparing for the future of our profession.

Chapter 4: Material Culture of the Immaterial

In this final chapter, Reinhard ventures into the material culture of video games and describes players' entanglement with video game culture (which ranges from physical arcades of the 1980's to in-game objects such as armour and weapons representing material memory), creating layers of meaning and history. He describes his visits to museums in video games and in real-life, and lists games with museums in them (retrieved from the Play The Past blog). Reinhard also briefly dips into the world of code and experimental archaeology in the setting of video games, focussing on lore, communities, and cosplay. The chapter shows that video games are more than objects or artefacts, being entwined into our very lives and cultures. It also demonstrates that the line between video game and real-life material culture is blurring, highlighting the urgent need for research.

In conclusion

Archaeogaming: an introduction to archaeology in and of video games does what its title promises. Reinhard uses a little over 200 pages to trace a broad and deep subject, and he does this with humour and insistence. Archaeogaming reads well, but could have benefitted from more consistency in terminology (perhaps the use of tables or figures would have helped here) and a little less 'matter of fact-ness'. The book encompasses many perspectives, with subjects ranging from the ordinary (such as listing games in which you can play as an archaeologist) to deeply philosophical considerations. While all viewpoints fall under the archaeogaming concept, it is the latter which, in my opinion, form the strongest part of the book. However, Reinhard fulfilled his aim of introducing the five main themes of archaeogaming in one book. Archaeogaming forms a solid starting point for researchers who are ready to dive into the world (real or virtual) of archaeogaming and all its subfields.

Bibliography

Reinhard, A. 2013 'What Is Archaeogaming?', Archaeogaming blog, 9 June 2013. https://archaeogaming.com/2013/06/09/what-is-archaeogaming/

Reinhard, A. 2017 'Video Games as Archaeological Sites: Treating digital entertainment as built environments' in Mol, A. et al. The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games, Leiden: Sidestone Press. 99-107.

Reinhard, A. 2018 Archaeogaming: An introduction to archaeology in and of video games,New York: Berghahn Books.

Holtorf, C. 2005 From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Pop Culture, Lanham, Altamira Press.

Mol, A., Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, C.E., Boom, K.H.J., and A. Politopoulos, 2017 The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games, Leiden: Sidestone Press.


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