Room with a Viewfinder: Archaeogaming and Photography

As promised, here’s the full transcript and bibliography for my Interactive Pasts presentation on archaeogaming and photography. Thanks to VALUE for once again putting on a wonderful conference! This is an incredibly interesting and complex topic that I didn’t really have the time to do justice, but I hope my talk was still interesting nonetheless. I would  like to keep researching video games photography in some form, especially players’ personal screenshot archives.

Once my talk is uploaded to YouTube I will post the link here.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang. 1980.

Carter, Charlotte. “The Development of the Scientific Aesthetic in Archaeological Site Photography?” Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 25, no.2. (2015)

Chadha, Ashish. “Visions of discipline: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the archaeological method in India (1944-1948).” Journal of Social Archaeology 2, no. 3, 378-401. (2002)

Everill, Paul. The Invisible Diggers: A study of British commercial archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 2009.

Guha, Sudeshna. “The visual in archaeology: photographic representation of archaeological practice in British India’, Antiquity 76, 93-100. (2002)  

Lacina, Dia. “We Made Our Own Myths in 2017’s Photo Modes.” Vice, January 2nd 2018.

LeJacq, Yannick. “The Year Selfies Came to Video Games.” Vice, December 20th 2013.

McFayden, Lesley and Hicks, Dan (eds.) Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 2020.  

Morgan, Colleen. “Analog to Digital: Transitions in Theory and Practice in Archaeological Photography at Çatalhöyük.” Internet Archaeology 42. (2016)

Rignall, Jazz. “Back When Screenshots Really Were Screen Shots.” USgamer, February 1st 2017.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London: Penguin. 1977.

Walker, Austin. “The History of Games Could Be a History of What Play Felt Like.” ROMchip 1, no.1 (July 2019).


A Brave Plan. The Bradwell Conspiracy. Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, iOS, , Macintosh. 2019.

Brianna Lei. Butterfly Soup. Linux, macOS, Microsoft windows. 2017.

Dontnod Entertainment. Life is Strange. Android, iOS, Linux, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One. 2015.

HAL Laboratory. Pokémon Snap. Nintendo 64. 1999.

InnerSloth. Among Us. Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows. 2018.

LKA. The Town of Light. PlayStation 4, Nintendo switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh. 2016.

Nintendo EAD. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo 64. 1998.

Nintendo EPD. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo Switch/ Wii U. 2017.

Nintendo EPD. Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo Switch. 2020.

Origame Digital. Umurangi Generation. PC & Nintendo Switch. 2020.

PlatinumGames. NieR: Automata. Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One. 2017.

The Fulbright Company. Gone Home. Microsoft Windows, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS. 2013.

Ubisoft Pictures. Beyond Good & Evil. PlayStation 2, Microsoft Windows, Xbox, GameCube, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3. 2003.

Slide 1.

Hi everyone- its Florence. I’m an archaeogaming researcher and heritage consultant, and as you can probably tell I’m very British. In the last conference that VALUE hosted in the Netherlands in 2018, I discussed how archaeogamers used maps as a means of recording video games. This time I’m looking at photography as a form of archaeological recording for video games.

But first-

Slide 2.

This presentation won’t be like others that I’ve done, and not just because its online. 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone and I’m no exception. One of my main arguments in this presentation will be that as digital archaeologists we should record the context of our own labour, and not just screenshots. The last few months I’ve even found myself watching the world from out of my kitchen window, judging the pigeons on the building opposite that don’t social distance.

Slide 3.

But back to video game photography. First, I’m going to explore the different forms that photography takes in video games, starting with gameplay. One of the best known photography games is Pokémon Snap, a first person game in which you try to take pictures of Pokémon, rather than catch them as you do in the main series of games. Susan Sontag may as well have been talking about Pokémon Snap when she wrote that “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” There is definitely a kind of colonial reading to be had from gameplay which is about capturing information and cataloguing through photography, a process that is also part of the gameplay in Beyond Good and Evil. In the sci-fi action adventure game, protagonist Jade takes pictures of animals or a science museum. She is a photojournalist who uses photograph to gather evidence against  military dictatorship-it’s an overtly political game.

Umarangi Generation, released just this year,  is a post-apocalyptic photography game created almost entirely by Māori developer Naphtali Faulkner, who currently lives in Australia. Faulkner was partly inspired to make the game as a response to the Australian government’s mishandling of bushfires and negligent response to the climate crisis.

Over time, the Pokémon Snap model of photography as personal mastery has been subverted.

Slide 4.

In some games photographs form part of the environmental storytelling, or appear as objects that the player can interact with. In The Town of Light, real archival photographs of the asylum in the game were included, perhaps to add a sense of authenticity. In the walking simulator Gone Home, photographs are just one kind of object that the player can pick up, but they’re particularly personal and in this case the polaroid is a mnemonic for the early 90s in which the game is set, and of a flourishing queer relationship between two young women. My last example here is Life is Strange, which does include photography as a game mechanic but also has photographs as extensions of characters identities-in this case the protagonist can choose to mess up the photo display of another student. A Barthes says, photographs are mortal, and that includes digital photography as well as photographs in video games which like all software is subject to code rot.

Slide 5.

Ah, the classic screenshot-as Jaz Rignall reminds us, this actually used to be a shot of a screen as game hardware did not allow for sharable screenshots. I was recently playing a remaster of Ocarina of Time on the GameCube and the only way I can capture gameplay is through taking an actual photograph of my TV. In contemporary gaming, screenshots are a way of quickly capturing important or interesting moments, whether that be success in the online social deception game Among Us, or a thinly veiled reference to Donald Trump in the wonderful visual novel Butterfly Soup.

Slide 6.

Many games have now moved beyond just enabling screenshots to embracing video game photography by offering dedicated photo modes. This includes The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, in which the Sheikah slate, a multipurpose tablet that allows protagonist Link to create bombs, move magnetic objects…and yes take selfies. According to an article by Yannick LeJacq, video games starting to encourage players to take selfies of their digital avatars in 2013, the same year that ‘selfie’ was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The Nintendo Switch has an inbuilt screenshot sharing function that allows you to post photos onto Twitter, so although games like Animal Crossing New Horizons also have a dedicated photo mode that is accessed through an in-game device (even with Instagram-like filters), ultimately by sharing photos on social media you are marketing the game to your followers. In a 2018 article for Vice, Dia Lacina argued that video game photo modes are particularly significant for marginalized people who might not otherwise have access to traditional photography.

Slide 7.

But what about archaeology and photography? Let’s rewind, all the way back to the 1940s when Sir Mortimer Wheeler was Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. At this time, India was under colonial British rule. You can see here a picture taken during Wheeler’s excavations at Harappa in what is now Pakistan. Ashish Chadha argues that Wheeler used the local workers not just as manual laborers but objectified them in his photography as a means of legitimizing his colonial production of archaeological knowledge. So, British archaeological photography and photographical conventions are rooted in  this colonial history.

Slide 8.

Indeed, many archaeological photographic conventions have remained consistent from the 1940s, such as a the use of a ranging rod scale. Charlotte Carter argues that the ranging rod, and its placement in archaeological site photography, formed a key part of the development of a scientific aesthetic since the 1960s, as informed by the concern over archaeology as a scientific discipline which is characterized as the processual movement.

In Colleen Morgan’s 2016 article, Analog to Digital, she reflects on anxiety over the change to digital photography since the 1990s due it potentially being much easier to edit images. This followed on from the post-processual movement in archaeology of the 1970s to 80s which questioned the authority and objectivity of knowledge production in archaeology. Morgan points out that there are now vast quantities of digital photography in archaeological archives to be processed, and digital cameras allowed for the instant viewing and interpretation of images on site.

Here I’ve got a photo of Richard Atkinson. Sure, he’s got a scale, but unfortunately his shadow is in the photo-that’s a big no-no in archaeological photography because it obscures the photograph. That being said, this faux pas actually makes the photograph all the more interesting over 60 years later as it provides us into an insight of the equipment he was using, and provides a human element in the photograph. I was thinking that the equivalent of casting your shadow as an archaeogamer would be the accidental capture of the ‘screenshot capture’ alert within the screenshot. Though a pristine screenshot might look much more professional, this screenshot of the Bradwell Conspiracy actually captures a bit more of my process of playing a game on Steam than it might have done.

Slide 9.

So, we’ve looked into different forms of photography as gameplay, games photography and the history of photography as an archaeological method. But how should we record video games photographically as archaeogamers? Should we be using the same conventions of that are used in analogue photography, such as the photo scale and north arrow? In most cases there aren’t ways of measuring the in-game space in a way that would correspond with archaeological photographic conventions. One method is to annotate screenshots, as I’ve done here with a screenshot of a map in NieR:Automata. This is an interesting example because in a way it is photography of an in-game map, providing the same kind of bird-eye view that you would expect from aerial photography.

In Invisible Diggers, Paul Everill discusses how commercial archaeologists are often completely invisible in site reports that do not allow for individual practitioner’s interpretations.   Site photographs often only record the archaeological features themselves, unless staged ‘working shots’ are taken.

I was wondering what the archaeogaming equivalent of the ‘working shot’ would be-ad realized that the closest approximation would be a photograph of the archaeogamer playing the game. After all, the context and experience of play isn’t just the screen itself, it’s the assemblage of payer, hardware, software and the wider environment too. Of course, its not that easy to take a picture of yourself whilst playing, as I found while trying to take a selfie with one hand while still holding my Switch in the other. Its not a good photograph, though it probably does tell you a bit more about me as a researcher than you would know if you hadn’t seen it at all.

Ideally we would work together to capture our gameplay experiences, though of course during the pandemic this work needs to be remote and photographs will be staged. There’s also the ethics of considering that people may have lots of different personal reasons for not wanting to photograph themselves, for their own privacy and security.

Slide 10.

These have just been some preliminary thoughts on archaeogaming and photography as a recoding method. I would really love to hear what other peoples’ experience has been trying to record their gameplay using screenshots or photo modes for archaeological analysis. Of course, still images are not the only option-there is the possibility of recording gameplay footage as well and I would certainly advocate for using a variety of different methods to record a game. We should also remember that focusing purely on photography would be to privilege an ocular-centric approach that may not be accessible for everyone.

As I was doing this presentation, I started looking through my folder of screenshots and realized that I have my own little archive of video game photography. I wonder what you could learn from someone from their screenshots?

My final thought would be, to paraphrase Austin Walker: as archaeogamers ,we should record not just what play looks like, but what it feels like too.

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