SCRAP Reading Group Week #25: Archaeogaming

Thanks to Dave Blaine for choosing last week’s reading, all about archaeogaming. See below for summary and discussion questions.

Reinhard, Andrew. (2017). Video Games as Archaeological Sites: Treating digital entertainment as built environments. In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games (pp. 99–112). Sidestone Press.

Andrew Reinhard puts forth a concept which he calls archaeogaming, which is far broader in scope than digital media studies concerned with the representation of archaeology and archaeologists in digital interactive media. In Reinhard’s view video games in particular may be approached as cultural artifacts – in the case of video game cartridges, discs, or other hard-copy. This was certainly the case with the 2014 excavation of a cache of discarded Atari 2600 games from the Almogordo landfill in New Mexico. I recommend watching Zak Penn’s documentary Atari: Game Over.

The reason the cartridges were dumped has become a matter of urban legend. A shame-faced Atari was obliged to discard (some say) millions of unsold or returned E.T. the Extraterrestrial game cartridges because the game play was so legendarily awful. Turns out the reality, as it so often turns out, was much more mundane. A dying Atari Corporation, awash in a shallow sea it itself saturated with consoles and game titles found that dumping about 800,000 cartridges of various titles was the most cost-effective means of discarding its e-waste – and this in my own lifetime. It should never surprise any of us how easily legends are born.

Certainly physical video games can be artifacts in the archaeological sense. But Reinhard argues, convincingly that games are also sites in the archaeological sense. Sites are after all constructs of human manufacture. Within their boundaries they contain evidence of past activities and interactions, art, iconography, documents… narratives that can be reconstructed from other material evidence were played out within sites.

Reinhard’s own project, The No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey, completed in 2019, was an entirely serious treatment of a remarkably sophisticated digital universe in which players from all over the world interact; which contains in-game worlds numbering in the quintillions; on which are preserved the digital relics of previous iterations of the game space from each time it underwent an update. The simulated universe of No Man’s Sky is a virtual game-space of truly mind-boggling scale.

Ultimately, the crux of Reinhard’s thesis is that archaeologists can interrogate a digital site or landscape in virtually – pun intended – the same way as they would a physical site, asking of it the same questions, and generally grappling with the same challenges. It is a most compelling notion, and more importantly – with the increasing sophistication of modern video games – it plays out.

Discussion Questions

  1. To my mind the main takeaway of not only this paper, but most of Reinhard’s works on the subject of archaeogaming, is that he forces us to rethink what we know about/recognize as material culture, and how we go about studying it. Thoughts?
  2. As digital culture expands and thrives, what implications do born-digital cultural materials have for the future of archaeology? How shall we interact with it, work to preserve it?
    Imagine, for example, at some future time a sufficiently socially impacting virtual world being officially recognized with a formal heritage designation. The UNESCO No Man’s Sky World Heritage Server…
    I guess what I’m asking is, how real does it have to be, to be real culture?
  3. Are there parallels can we draw from the stories that surround and meanings that emerge from physical game-spaces, such as ball courts, and those derived from virtual game-spaces?
  4. Where do we see elements of the game-space – physical or virtual – cropping up elsewhere in society? Signs of sports fandom are obvious enough. Consider instead your helpful Windows assistant Cortana: originally created as the AI character supporting Master Chief in his adventures in the Halo series.
    Do we see this kind of popular culture spillover in the archaeological record?
  5. While “gamification” has, as yet, played only a minor role in SCRAP’s digital presence, our digital footprint–official and unofficial; online and off; interactive and static–constitutes a significant portion of the archaeological record for SCRAP and Alabama. In what ways might we interrogate this presence? What does it say about the audiences we engage with (or imagine we engage with), those we don’t, and the communities we create? What might be left for future archaeologists to interrogate? Putting ourselves in the frame of this hypothetical future archaeologist of “us,” what elements of our practice might we want to change or consider more critically?