The Video Game and the Archaeologist

Tell the colleagues in your department, in your company, that you play video games, and you will be greeted with one of only two reactions: a polite murmur accompanied by the dying look of ‘this person is not serious’, or the enthusiastic embrace of the true believer. There appears to be no middle ground. Yet, there is a long history of using games in education, in museum outreach, and in public archaeology. There is even a (much shorter) history of using games to persuade (as ‘serious games’ or ‘news games’). But there is practically no history at all of games being used to make a scholarly argument. This is to miss an opportunity.

It is important however to ask, at the outset, what do games teach? What do games do?

“The game, or any computer game for that matter, is ultimately about mechanics, and not about content. The content is window dressing, and deep playing of a game such as Civilization teaches little about history, but everything about how to manipulate the complex algorithms that model the simulation” (Kee & Graham, 274)

Let us dispense with the notion that there is anything inherently gauche about archaeologists interested in the possibilities of video games, or any ‘natural’ reason why archaeology as a discipline should not be concerned with them. Manipulating algorithms, modelling societies through simulation: archaeologists have been doing this for years, within the ambit of GIS and Agent Based Models. The difference is, games have better eye-candy and production values. They should. Gaming as an industry generates more money than all of Hollywood.

A potted synopsis of game studies

Broadly, there are two camps when it comes to analyzing the affective import of games. The ludologists, as the name implies, are interested in the rules of the games, the possibilities (or not) for action within the game. Narratologists on the other hand consider the story of the game, the story that emerges, or the story within which the game action takes place. Both approaches are useful for situating what a game does, or what a game achieves.

Another (rather archaeological) approach is to consider typologies of games. This is not to be confused with ‘genre’, as genres (‘first person shooter’; ‘rogue-like’; ‘management sim’; ‘casual’) are largely marketing categories that conflate issues of game play, or perspective, or agency, for the purposes of gaining space in the various venues where games are bought and sold. There is a voluminous literature on the typologies of games which try to distill essential features in order to understand the crucial ways in which games differ (the better to understand their narratological or ludological aspects). In the context of ‘historical’ games, a typology that helps us consider what aspects about the past we wish to communicate, to teach, focuses on categorizing how the game treats time and space.

Within ‘space’, we can ask how the game treats perspective, topography, and the environment. Within ‘time’, we can wonder about pace, representation, and teleology. The value of this kind of typology is that it would allow us consider our archaeological representations of space and time in that light, to work out what conventions of game design would be most affective in communicating the argument about the past that we wish to impart.

Third Space

Despite the neat breakdown between ‘narratology’ and ‘ludology’, which would seem to capture all there is to know about video games, there is a third space that games-about-history inhabit. Elliot and Kappel’s recent ‘Playing with the Past’ (2013) neatly captures this aspect. They point out that while games are systems of rules interpreted by the computer referee, and while these systems are enveloped within a narrative, games-about-the-past have a larger historical narrative within which the game’s narrative must take place. That is to say, the players and designers are working within historical frameworks from the outset that inform their understanding of the past. Hence to make the game, to play the game, necessarily involves the kind of historical thinking (about contingency, about causality, about equifinality) that characterizes professional thinking about the past. ‘Why did that happen? What would happen if?’ are questions players ask about the game, which are very nearly the same thing that we ask of the past.

The fact of the matter is, while the content of a game is important, it is not as important as the system of rules and relationships that govern the emergent play; reflecting on why game play evolves the way it does forces the player to understand the rules of representation. This means that game players think about the past in ways that are the same as the kind of thinking about the past that we want in our students and publics. If one studies the communities of players that coalesce around particular games (especially games that allow for ‘modding’, or re-writing of the game rules, e.g, the Civilization franchise), one finds quite heated discussions about how best to represent the past, debates over the consequences and meanings of modifications to the games, and - while maybe sometimes not the most factually informed debates - a keen understanding of process in the past.

Landscape archaeology & the digital flaneur

There is one particular kind of game that I think makes the inverse argument to my general thrust here; that is, the exception which proves the rule. So-called ‘walking simulators’ (a term of derision used by those who feel games should only be about killing things) are games where exploration and careful reading of the landscape are the prime mechanic (critically acclaimed examples include Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, Journey, Gone Home, and Dear Esther . In these games, the environments, the art work, the carefully modelled buildings and digital material culture matter far more than the mechanics (in the sense I outlined above). Anthony Masinton has pointed out that these are more akin to museum dioramas in that they are carefully constructed vignettes designed to tell a story (Gone Home might by these lights be the most archaeological game ever). I think these games are even more important than that; they are a kind of performed landscape archaeology. These games encourage a careful reading of the landscapes, and the material culture within those landscapes to tease out the story that happened before the player ever arrived. By contrast, games like the Assassin’s Creed series have beautiful reconstructions that make no real difference to the game play or the story. In these, they merely serve as backdrop for a digital parkour, an experience of the past as digital flaneur.


The training of archaeologists has long had an emphasis on the practical - we learn how to be archaeologists by doing archaeology. We perform the learning. Where, and from whom, we learn the hands-on aspects of archaeology has a deep influence on how we think archaeologically, how we understand the past. This is of course why we speak of ‘schools’ of thought. To play a video game well involves that same aspect of performance, and the ‘who made this and how did they imagine the world’ matters equally as much. When we play a game well, we have internalized how that game represents its world. We have internalized an understanding of the system of rules and relationships that we might not even be aware of. The learning that happens through video games is deep, and is tied to what psychologists call ‘flow’. Games don’t just represent a world: they actively watch the player. The best games adjust their difficulty in such a way as to achieve a flow state, a sense of mastery that sits in the sweet spot where the challenge is just hard enough to be difficult, but not so difficult that the player gives up in frustration. The best learning, in whatever context, is tied to that same sense.

(In a nice connection with ‘media archaeology’, it is worth pointing out that Space Invaders, a game that has had a pronounced influence on the world since its release in the late 1970s created a sense of flow completely as a side-effect of the physical nature of its processor. The processor was slow, and couldn’t render the graphics and sound required by the game at the start. The emergent outcome was that the game was easy to play at first as the aliens plodded along, but as the player shot them out of the sky processing resources were freed up, making the game run faster and become more challenging. There is a physicality to video games that we as archaeologists would do well to remember).

In representing a world to use, the system of rules and relationships that govern the emergent game play are akin to the systems of rules and relationships that we as scholars use to construct our ideas about the past: game rules are historiography. They are method and theory, all in one. In the same way that an agent based simulation of the past encodes our ideas about how phenomenon x worked in the past (so that we can see what the consequences are of that idea for household formation amongst the Anasazi, say) game rules do encode ideas about (inter alia) power, ideology, action, colonialism, and empire. The game theorist Ian Bogost calls these ‘procedural rhetorics’, the arguments made by code (2007); the historian William Urrichio explicitly called code historiography (2005). Games about the past will be played, experienced, and internalized by orders of magnitude more people than who ever read our formal archaeologies. And the experience will resonate far more deeply than any visit to a site or museum. We ignore games as a venue for our scholarship at our peril.

The Payoff

I have been arguing by omission that the content, the window dressing (the pretty graphics; the hyper-realistic depictions of textures and atmospheres, the 3d sound, the voice acting) does not matter nearly as much as close experience and engagement with the code and its emergent outcomes. That engagements allows a connection here with the kind of archaeology argued for by scholars such as Stuart Eve (2014) that seeks to use the mechanics of games and allied technologies such as mixed or augmented realities to focus on understanding the systems of relationships amongst the full sensory experience of the past. Eve calls this an ‘embodied GIS’ which does not focus on the archaeologist’s subjective experience of place, but rather, explores how sound, views lighting (and indeed, smell and touch) combine or are constrained by the archaeology of a place, experienced in that place.

This suggests a way forward for the use of games as both a tool for research on the past, and a way to communicate that research to our various publics. Finally, we can turn our critical apparatus back to front and consider games as a venue within which we may do archaeology. Search online for ‘archaeogaming’. The most succinct definition of what this could be comes from Meghan Dennis:

Archaeogaming is the utilization and treatment of immaterial space to study created culture, specifically through video games.

It requires treating a game world, a world bounded and defined by the limitations of its hardware, software and coding choices, as both a closed universe and as an extension of the external culture that created it. Everything that goes into the immaterial space comes from its external cultural source, in one way or another. Because of this, we see the same problems in studying culture in games as in studying culture in the material world.

Archaeogaming is a subdiscipline that requires the same standards of practice as the physical collection of excavated data, only with a different toolset. It also provides the opportunity to use game worlds to reflect on practice, theory and the perceptions of our discipline.

Video games are an extraordinarily rich tool, area of research, and affective mode of communication whose possibilities we haven’t even begun to explore. Yet, they are not so foreign to the archaeologist’s ‘formal’ computational experience, with ties to GIS, Agent Based Models, and reconstructions. Play on!


Thank you to Colleen Morgan for organizing this special issue, to Meghan Dennis, Andrew Reinhardt and Tara Copplestone for #archaeogaming, and to Anthony Masinton and @_sorcha for commenting on the public draft of this piece.

further reading

Kee, Kevin, and Shawn Graham. 2014. “Teaching in the Age of Pervasive Computing: The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom.” In Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, edited by Kevin Kee, 270-91. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bogost, Ian. 2007. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Urrichio, William. 2005. “Cyberhistory: Historical Computer Games and Post-Structuralist Historiography,” in Jeffrey Goldstein and Joost Raessens, Handbook of Computer Games Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press, 327-338.

Dennis, Meghan. nd. ‘Archaeogaming’

Eve, Stuart. 2014. Dead Men’s Eyes: Embodied GIS, Mixed Reality and Landscape Archaeology. BAR 600. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Elliott, Andrew and Mathew Kapell. 2013. Playing with the past : digital games and the simulation of history. New York: Bloomsbury.