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.

Bibliography

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)  http://doi.org/10.5334/bha.258

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) http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/146960530200200305

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) http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00089845  

Lacina, Dia. “We Made Our Own Myths in 2017’s Photo Modes.” Vice, January 2nd 2018. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qvwvd3/photo-mode-2017-mario-odyssey-assassins-creed

LeJacq, Yannick. “The Year Selfies Came to Video Games.” Vice, December 20th 2013. https://www.vice.com/en/article/z4meqw/the-year-selfies-came-to-video-games

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) https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.7

Rignall, Jazz. “Back When Screenshots Really Were Screen Shots.” USgamer, February 1st 2017. https://www.usgamer.net/articles/back-when-screenshots-really-were-screen-shots

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). https://romchip.org/index.php/romchip-journal/article/view/78

Ludography

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.

Twine for something different?

A while ago I tweeted about doing my own variant of NaNoWriMo, in which I would try to work on a Twine game and blog about it every day in the month of November. I have failed to do this on two accounts; firstly I’ve only just started, and secondly, I’m not even (currently) making a Twine game.

I’ve been thinking about making a Twine game for months. Possibly even years. Then I started using Bitsy instead.

Bitsy is another open source game-making tool. Unlike Twine, the emphasis isn’t on text and branching narrative, its the use of pixelated sprites to create a sense of place, space and abstract character. As creator Adam Le Doux puts it:

“Bitsy is a little editor for little games or worlds. The goal is to make it easy to make games where you can walk around and talk to people and be somewhere.”

Archaeology (at least in my experience) is often about really Being Somewhere for a short period of time. I want to make a game about my past experience as a commercial field archaeologist in London. It became apparent to me that Twine isn’t the best starting point for me to process that very spatially contingent experience. Clearly there are lots of ways to create a sense of place in a Twine game, but I want to prototype my idea in Bitsy first.

So this is where I’m at-animating sprite pigeons to look like they’re pecking at the ground.

recording

 

I’ve decided to do this at my own pace and according to my own whims. Watch this space.

2B, or not to be: recording the Reliquary System in NieR: Automata

This is the accompanying blog post for the presentation on NieR: Automata that I did all the way back in September in Session 066 at the EAA conference in Barcelona.  The paper was meant as a kind of thought experiment- is it possible to conduct an archaeological desk-based assessment of a video game?

The assessment I ended up doing of NieR was incredibly rudimentrary but I think it did at least demonstrate that it could be useful to do a preliminary survey of a video game prior to more in depth fieldwork.

The powerpoint presentation can be downloaded from this link below:

Download the powerpoint presentation here

 

Bibliography

Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) 2014. Standard and guidance for historic environment desk-based assessment. University of Reading: Reading

Historic England. 2008. Conservation Principles, Policy and Guidance. English Heritage: London

McMullan, T. 2017. NieR: Autotmata’s creator on pushing the boundaries of gaming. Alphr. [online] <https://www.alphr.com/games/1005320/nier-automatas-creator-on-pushing-the-boundaries-of-gaming> [Accessed: 23/12/2018]

Reinhard, A. 2018. Archaeogaming An Introduction to Archaeology In and Of Video Games. Berghahn: New York

Taylor, T. L. 2009. Assemblage of Play. Games and Culture. 4:4, 331-339

Williams, H and Atkin, A. 2015. Virtually Dead: Digital Public Mortuary Archaeology. Internet Archaeology 40. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.40.7.4

Ludography

PlatinumGames. 2017. NieR: Automata. Square Enix: Tokyo

Presentation notes

Slide 1

Good morning, thank you for coming to this early session. My name is Florence, I work as an archaeological consultant in London and conduct independent research into archaeology and video games. Today I’m going to be discussing the game NieR: Automata.

Slide 2

To give a brief introduction to the game, NieR: Automata is a Japanese action role-playing game produced by Platinum Games. It was released in 2017 on Playstation 4, PC and Xbox One.

The game is set during a proxy war between machines created by aliens that have attacked earth, and androids created by humans. The main protagonist is a combat android named 2B, hence the terrible pun in this presentation title. NieR is set in an open world environment, with gameplay involving exploration of an earth abandoned by humans, as well as hack and slash combat with robots.

When the player dies, they respawn at the last point that they saved the game, and can retrieve their previous android body to reclaim lost items. If the game is played with the online network features enabled, they will encounter the corpses of other players on the game map which can then be revived or scavenged.

Slide 3

Since I submitted my abstract back in March of this year, this research project has changed. The original focus of this presentation was stated as the exploration of the potential and ethical concerns of recording the reliquary system in NieR Automata through various different theoretical lenses. Whilst the reliquary system is still the core focus of my work, the framework for my research and digital fieldwork has altered. When coming to actually start this project I realised that I needed to find a structured way of assessing the archaeological potential and background of a video game which would help me to assess what the best way would for recording the reliquary system and for taking into account the ethical and methodological concerns that this would entail.

So, I decided that I would do a desk-based assessment of NieR: Automata.

What is an archaeological desk-based assessment?

In the Chartered Institute for Archaeologist’s Standard and Guidance for historic environment desk-based assessment, they state that the main standard for a DBA is to assess the nature, extent and significance of the historic environment. In my day job as an archaeological consultant, producing DBAs means producing a very standardised report in which I assess the archaeological potential of a site before its developed, in order to suggest appropriate mitigation either before or during development of the site.

Slide 4

You may be asking how is a DBA relevant to a video game? As an archaeogamer, I consider video games to be archaeological sites. This is one of the main focuses of our session organiser, Andrew Reinhard’s book Archaeogaming. There are three main points that I have taken from his book which are key to this assessment. Video games are archaeological sites, and as we know that both games hardware and software is subject to decay over time, there is a need to record them while they are still accessible, and this is an argument I will build on over this presentation. Another key point that Andrew brings out is that just as is the case for any analogue archaeological investigation, digital archaeological projects needs to be managed properly. When I first started looking in to NieR and the reliquary system I became overwhelmed with the amount of available data and the methodological concerns involved which is why I chose to do a desk-based assessment.

Slide 5

I would argue that the Chartered Institutes’s Standard even as it exists now can be applied to video games. In the introduction it starts that:

“The historic environment expert is left free to make a considered selection of appropriate established techniques and to develop new methods.”

It also lists one of the potential applications as “archaeologists designing their independent research, to define the quality required”

So this document is appropriate to apply to a video games. I will be using this as a model to structure the DBA contents as well as this presentation.

Slide 6

Following this model I have sketched out some preliminary aims and objectives. Apart from assessing the archaeological potential of the game I also want to be self-reflexive about my own creation of a desk-based assessment and how important it is to question the limitations of the methodologies we use to assess archaeological sites, whether digital or not.

Following the suggested methodology for a DBA, I decided to delineate a particular area within the game that I would focus on in terms of recording the reliquary system. I chose the City Ruins area, which is shown in the image on screen, for several reasons. It is at the centre of the game map and can be considered as a kind of cross-roads area. Although it is populated by both robots and wild animals that can be dangerous for the player, it constitutes an open world area that is easily traversed without continuously engaging in combat.

When considering the experience of gameplay I adhere to Taylor’s ‘assemblage of play,’ which refers to the idea that the human player, gaming platform and virtual space of the game are not discrete entities. However, it could be said that by having to delineate a contrived site outline is in direct contradiction to this. That being said, it is useful to have a clear focus in the assessment.

Slide 7

As well as the sources already mentioned, I also aimed to use as many sources available that could help build my background knowledge of NieR: Automata and the reliquary system. This includes online articles, reviews, as well as the NieR wiki, forums and recorded gameplay.

As well as arguing that a game can’t be assessed without considering all elements of gameplay, I also consider that it can’t analysed without looking at gameplay in a wider historical and archaeological context. This can be illustrated just with this single image on the screen. The masked figure here is Yoko Taro, the creator of NieR:Automata.  He is known for wearing a mask during interviews and for creating atmospheric games with unconventional design choices that question darker aspects of human nature. I would argue that without knowing this you really can’t understand the game. Taro has stated that 9/11 and the War on Terror influenced the first NieR game, and parallels have been drawn with NieR:Automata and the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes.

This is just one example of the importance of looking at the wider context of a game’s creation. It is also crucial to consider the history and archaeology of the site in terms of the internal logic of the game. With limited time I’m going to mostly focus on an experimental site visit I made to the City Ruins in which I attempted to document the appearance of player corpses on the map.

Slide 8

The site visit consisted of me making one total walking survey of the City Ruins site as delineated by the site outline. Every time I encountered a player corpse I documented it through screenshots, written notes and in some cases recorded gameplay. I also noted the location of each player corpse on the very rudimentary site map that you can see here. I’ve included some of the screenshots which illustrate some of the points I would like to make. Funnily enough, just as in an analogue site visit I had to be wary of foliage such as grass obscuring bodies, as you can see from body 16 here. One you encounter a player body you will see the name they used to create their save file with as well as their gamer tag, as can be seen from the screenshot for no. 4. The fact that I’m collecting the data of player deaths without their consent was a big concern for me, however anonymity is maintained. It was also interesting to find a glitch during the process of the site visit, which as Andrew points out in Archaeogaming can be considered as an digital archaeological artefact in its own right (as can be seen from picture 14).

Slide 9

There were a lot of difficulties and limitations I encountered with this simple and experimental recording, and with the research in general.

A big obstacle to my research is that I can’t read Japanese, so I wasn’t able to look at any articles pertaining to the game or play it in its original language.

In terms of the site visit itself, several major limitations are illustrated by this gif here. As you can see when you encounter a body you get a body report with a death message which is either randomly generated or chosen by the player, as well as the option to retrieve or repair the body. If you want to find out what the body is carrying then you have to retrieve it, but this means removing the body from the map -so this is a destructive process. However, it is possible to just revert to the last save to get round this. Another limitation is, as you can see, there were often enemies in locations where players had died (unsurprisingly) and this made recording potentially quite dangerous.

Thinking in terms of the assemblage of play and my own bodily experience of conducting this fieldwork-I was playing the PC port of NieR which is slow, often lags and this means gameplay can be quite difficult.

Slide 10

How do you assess the historical significance of a video game? The Historic England guidelines on assessing archaeological significance highlight four main areas-evidential value, historical value, aesthetic value and communal value. I’m not go into these in too much detail. Certainly it could be argued that the reliquary system in particular has communal value in that it forms a record of the player community and essentially the only multiplayer aspect of the game. However, looking at some of the other criteria such as aesthetic value you can see how that could be problematic, and of controversial, when applied to a video game.

Slide 11

So all in all, what was the point of this exercise and what did I gain from it?

The first thing I’m able to say that even with just a few rudimentary tool such as a paint , and a pen and paper at my disposal, I was able to record -player locations of death. However, ascertaining the archaeological potential and significance of NieR Automata and in particular the reliquary system is a difficult question and one which I think needs more consideration. Using a DBA to do this also has limited applicability in its current form. Delineating a site outline seemed very contrived and in some ways limiting, though it did help to focus my work. The highly structured and standardised DBA template in its current form isn’t necessarily always applicable to a video game, however it is helpful in directing initial research. The DBA is useful in terms of encouraging the production of an initial document that could be used to inform a research project involving multiple team members and would help to plan the fieldwork affectively.

A couple of points I want to end on-

-I focused on the reliquary system as a feature which shows past gameplay, but is a record of player gameplay more archaeologically significant than other features in the game?

-If fieldwork were to go ahead, it would need multiple archaeologists across different gaming platforms and the direct involvement of the player community

-Need to read Japanese sources

-DBA assumes certain criteria for ascertaining significance

Archaeogaming as Queergaming

Screenshot from Anna Anthropy's Queers In Love At The End of The World

Introduction

Better late than never, as they say! This is the very long-overdue companion blog post to my presentation ‘Archaeogaming as Queergaming’ which I presented in Session 16 ‘Play, Process, and Procedure: An Experiential Digital Archaeology’ at the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference (CAA) on March 22nd 2018. This was held in Tübingen, Germany, and the session was organised by Meghan Dennis, Lennart Linde, Megan von Ackermann, and Tara Copplestone.

I thoroughly enjoyed the session, and was very encouraged by the fact that I was able to communicate my thoughts about queerness, archaeology and video games to an audience that may not have had prior interest in all three of those areas. Personally, doing this presentation was a huge milestone for me. Not long ago, the idea of standing up in front of a group of people and openly discussing queer representation in video games would have completely terrified me. In all honesty, I think that I procrastinated on writing this blog post because I was still concerned about getting it ‘right,’ and perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to draw a line under the whole experience.  Also, somehow the constraints and standardised blog form doesn’t really seem appropriate for the subject matter, but I promised to make the presentation and bibliography easily available online so that’s my priority.

Queergaming, like archaeogaming, is a field that fills me with excitement and hope. Keeping with the themes of the talk itself, I consider this to be just one beginning in my continued exploration of queer archaeogaming.

Full reference for this presentation:

Smith Nicholls, F. (2018). Archaeogaming as Queergaming. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology Conference. Tübingen, Germany, 19-23 March 2018.

Presentation download:

Archaeogaming as Queergaming

 

Bibliography

Moireabh-Tetlock, B (@mxmoireabh) Ontologies of Practice: A Proto-Ontology of Queer Archaeogaming. 2 March 2018, 5:19pm. Tweet

Chang, Y. E. (2017). Queergaming. In B. Ruberg and A. Shaw (eds.) Queer Game Studies. University of Minnesota Press.

Copplestone, T. (2017). Designing and Developing a Playful Past in Video-Games. In A. A. Mol, C. E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, K. H. J. Boom, and A. Politopoulos (eds.) The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games. Sidestone Press.

Dennis, L. M. (2016). Archaeogaming, Ethics, and Participatory Standards. SAA Archaeological Record 16(5): 29–33.

Engel, M. (2017). Perverting Play: Theorizing a Queer Game Mechanic. Television & New Media 18(4) 351–360.

Nakamura, L. (2012). Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 1.

Pavlounis, D (2016). Straightening Up the Archive: Queer Historiography, Queer Play, and the Archival Politics of Gone Home. Television & New Media 17(7):579–594

Reinhard, A. (2017). Video Games as Archaeological Sites: Treating Digital Entertainment as Built Environments. In A. A. Mol, C. E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, K. H. J. Boom, and A. Politopoulos (eds.) The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games. Sidestone Press.

Ruberg, B. (2017). Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 9(2): 159–173

 

Ludography

Anna Anthropy. (2013). Queers In Love At The End of The World. [Video game]. https://w.itch.io/end-of-the-world

Sophia Park. (2016). Forgotten. [Video game]. https://sophiapark.itch.io/forgotten

The Fullbright Company. (2013). Gone Home. [Video game]. Portland: The Fullbright Company

 

Presentation notes

It probably goes without saying that these are only rough notes and that what I delivered on the day was probably quite different, but I still think they’re useful to look at in tandem with the powerpoint presentation.

 

Slide 1

Before I get to defining archaeogaming and queergaming, I’d like to ask the audience a question. On screen there’s a screenshot from a video game. What happened here?

As archaeologists, we ask a lot of research questions, and perhaps many of them can simply be boiled down to the question of what happened here? What and how can the material remains we record inform us about past events? Many video games, such as the one shown in the screenshot, involve the player making inferences about the past based on the immaterial culture contained within it, and at times can manipulate the player experience of a game based on expectations about how a game will unfold.

I’ll come back to this screenshot later.

 

Slide 2

Archaeogaming can be very broadly defined as the archaeological study of video games as artefacts, immaterial spaces and their programming. In the spider diagram on screen I’ve distilled archaeogaming down into various sub-fields in terms of representation, creation and praxis with examples of work done in each area. For example, Meghan Dennis has conducted works on the ethics of how archaeology and archaeological practise are represented in video games, whilst Tara Copplestone has developed games with an archaeological perspective whilst experimenting with non-linear narrative. In terms of archaeological engagement with games, Andrew Reinhard has researched games as archaeological sites. Of course, this definition is not exhaustive and these categories are not mutually exclusive, but they are useful in terms of delineating parallels between archaeogaming and queergaming.

 

Slide 3

In Queer Games Studies (2017) Edmund Y Chang coined the word queergaming to refer to not just a focus on queer representation in games but also how queer game creators have questioned the norms and conventions surrounding how games should be developed and played.  This follows on from queer theory, which is not only concerned with queer identities but also with queer as a verb. In this way, just like archaeogaming, queergaming is not just an examination of how queerness is represented. In his article, Chang draws upon Alexander Galloway’s six values of countergaming, which examines what it means to experiment with the form, genre, function and experience of games. In particular, Chang calls for play “not grounded in normative ideologies like competition, exploitation, colonization, speed, violence, rugged individualism, levelling up and win states.”

If any of this seems esoteric, consider that in response to the Parkland shootings Donald Trump had a meeting in which he brought together top executives from the game industry to discuss violence in video games and showed them a supercut of violent video games. The question of what video games are and what they should be is highly political and is as important now as it has ever been.

To interrogate this archaeogaming and queergaming further, and to further examine the parallels between archaeogaming and queergaming, I’m going to explore the concept of permadeath.

Slide 4

Permadeath is a term used to describe a particular gameplay mechanic-when a player dies they permanently die, rather being able to respawn and continue from a similar point in the game. Permadeath is an interesting concept to think with, not just in terms of video games but I would argue the archaeological record itself. In the analogue, and arguably the digital world as well, archaeology is a destructive process. The very act of archaeological investigation results in the permadeath of the archaeological record as it once was. I would like to queer the concept of the archaeological record in three case studies through the concepts of permalife and permadeath. A theme throughout will be the cyclical nature of these games, and as such it seems very fitting that I should record and present them as gifs.

Slide 5

As I stated before, queergaming is interested in queering established norms and expectations in gameplay. In their article Permalife: Video games and the queerness of living, Bonnie Ruberg considers the concept of permalife-which is basically the opposite of permadeath-when it is impossible for a player to die in a game. In particular, they argue that permalife games don’t just have an absence of a death mechanic but make the impossibility of death a core part of the gameplay. One of the examples that Ruberg uses is a game I will also be examining.

Queers in Love at The End of the World is a game that is so short that I can include its entire duration in one gif. It was created by Anna Anthropy and can be played in your online browser (the link for the game is below). In the Twine game Queers in Love, you have 10 seconds to choose various dialogue options to interact with your lover before the word ends. You cannot ‘win’ in any clear sense in this game and death is inevitable. Ruberg argues that the fact that the game ends and then can immediately be replayed on a constant loop makes it a permalife rather than a permadeath game.

It is also interesting to note that, as an archaeogamer, by recording and presenting this game to you through the medium of a gif I am perpetuating this cycle myself and creating a record of the game that continuously replays itself. However, I would argue that even this record does not reflect the true queer potential of the game as Ruberg explains that the permalife of the game is all the more significant when you consider that the intimacy between the two queer bodies in the game is built upon with each playthrough. This gif only shows one.

Slide 6

My second case study is another twine game which is freely available online called Forgotten. The premise of the game is that you access an old computer with a hard drive which has almost been completely exhausted.  The developer explores the idea that NPCs (or non-player characters) of a game have occupied this computer for so long and through so many playthroughs that they have become sentient, but because their thoughts take up hard drive space this has led to the disintegration of their digital world, as evidenced through the glitching interface of the game. By interacting with the NPCs you take up more hard drive space and eventually destroy them.

What is, I would argue, particularly queer about this game is the fact that forces the player to confront the concept that non-player characters have agency. The NPCs address the player as if they know them and have seen them die, presumably because the player character has interacted with the game in the past. In this way, focus is on the permalife of the player character from the NPC point of view. From an archaeological perspective, it is particularly interesting how the game touches on the problem of digital disintegration and how as archeaogamers we have to consider that old games and software may have become inaccessible over time due to damage or non-compatibility with contemporary technology. Its also important to note that this case study does not contain queer representation but can be considered queer.

Slide 7

My last case study also touches on themes of archiving. Gone Home is a first-person exploration game. Its set in 1995, with protagonist Katie returning home after a year abroad to find her family’s house empty. Gameplay involves her exploring the immaterial culture of the house to piece together what happened to her family members. In this way, its incredibly archaeological, and Dimitrios Pavlounis has argued in their piece Straightening Up the Archive that the house in the game constitutes a digital archive, more specifically, and that it “evokes an archaeological understanding of history” as the player interacts with assemblages of objects from different chronologies within the same space.

The scene I started with is from the game. At first glance it might appear that the red marks in the bathtub are blood, but they are actually stains from red hair dye when Katie’s sister Sam dyed the hair of a young women named Lonnie who she has a relationship with. Thus, the game potentially challenges a player’s expectations, turning what is initially thought to be a record of violence into a record of queer intimacy. Though the game does have queer representation, it arguably is not queer in terms of its game mechanics. Anna Anthropy, for example, has argued that the linear and neat construction of the game render it actually pretty conventional in terms of gameplay. Death is impossible in the game, but this is never commented on or an important theme. I would argue that aspects of the material culture in the game, though, such as this example, are perhaps the most queer in challenging preconceived horror game tropes.

Conclusion

-What is archaeology? What is a game? Both can be queered.

-“tension between queerness as a topic and queerness as a methodology”

-permadeath and permalife-interesting concepts when applied to archaeology, the archaeological record which suffers permadeath through excavation, and then the records of those investigations which may appear to have a permalife but could suffer permadeath in future through damage

What next?

-intersectionality

-continue to experiment and create

 

 

Won’t someone think of the skeletons?

flag
The above illustration was commissioned specially for this piece and was created by Sara Stewart. You can see more of her work on tumblr.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

What makes a skeleton a person? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the realisation that a skull he finds in a graveyard is actually the remains of a court jester he once knew renders the encounter all the more significant. Hamlet comes face to skull with the materiality of mortality, and finds it difficult to equate the Yorick of his memory with the Yorick that he can now hold aloft, theatrically, in the palm of his hand.

This cognitive dissonance between personhood and skeletal remains is a subject that’s been occupying my mind for the past few weeks. In July, a black granite sarcophagus was found in Alexandria, Egypt. The inevitable social media circus of meme humour speculating about the contents of the ‘mysterious’ sarcophagus erupted, and this reached a crescendo once it was opened. Inside were three decomposed mummies, as well as a red liquid thought to be sewage water that leaked inside due to a crack in it, dated to the early Ptolemaic Period (beginning after the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC).

The irony is that in all this clamouring about ‘mummy curses’ people have failed to notice that we’ve been plagued by a virus after all-a viral meme.

Probably the most widely shared and reported upon response to the discovery was a joke petition on change.org to ‘let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus.’ The petition was obviously just another iteration of absurd online humour, though in this case it came to dominate the media coverage of the archaeology, leading to such headlines as ‘Vexed Egyptian Antiquities Ministry Says Black Sarcophagus Not Full of ‘Juice for Mummies.’

The narrative of fusty archaeologists discovering mysterious treasures is not just wildly inaccurate, its lazy writing. As an archaeologist I’ve come to expect the same dull tropes to be trotted out, but this particular case needs to be digested more carefully. Aside from within the archaeological community itself, I have seen little reflection on the implications of memifying the three mummies in question. This has led me to wonder, at what point does the general Western population stop respecting skeletons as human remains and start utilising them as human objects?

There are several factors which I believe make the mummies particularly susceptible to online commodification. The first is that they are several thousands of years old, the second that they are not identifiable by name, the third that they could easily be subsumed into a narrative of pulp archaeology, and lastly, that they were found in Egypt by an Egyptian team.

After writing a few tweets detailing my distress over the petition, I saw some other posts which seemed to indicate that people could not understand why making jokes about skeletons would be an issue, as well as a joke somewhat along the lines of ‘ah yes the pharaohs, that famously subjugated class.’ These individuals are not likely to be pharaohs (an initial assessment by Shaaban Abdel Amonem, one of the specialists in mummification present at the opening, deems them to be soldiers with evidence of damage from arrow blows on one of the skeletons). The irony is, if some kind of ancient celebrity had been ascribed onto the mummies they would be less easily objectified. The sustained Othering of human remains has their modern anonymity at its core.

As an archaeologist, it’s hard not to roll my eyes at such headlines as ‘Big Mysterious Sarcophagus Opened, Sucks.’ What sucks isn’t so much the contents of the sarcophagus but the failure to appreciate how exciting it is that any remains were preserved at all and the potential for further study. Whilst some have been getting drunk on their own ‘mummy juice’ jokes, what really leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the fact that this is a discovery which has been managed by Egyptian archaeologists, and the significance of their work has been completely diluted in the Western press. Its essential to consider this  in the wider context of the fetishization and exploitation of Egyptian archaeology by the British and other European countries. The social media morbid fascination surrounding the sarcophagus is the direct descendent of the same desire for titillation via the macabre that the Victorians invested in when they hosted mummy unwrapping parties.


Perhaps my reaction to what basically equates to an online joke surprises you. It surprised me. I wasn’t expecting my own very visceral response to it, and that led me to pause and assess what it was about the petition that really bothered me. I’ve outlined some reasons above, but my own personal reaction to it is something I wanted to touch upon because I think this piece requires it.

As part of my working life, I have excavated, recorded and stewarded human remains. I have literally been paid to care about skeletons. As a field archaeologist I’ve had to endure my fair share of bullying and harassment, and one particular site I was working on ended up being a tense cocktail of both these things as well as…human remains.

When I was on that site I felt intensely vulnerable. I constantly sensed the eyes of construction workers and colleagues on me, vetting my every move. Labouring with my own mental health problems, I felt more kinship with the human remains I encountered than the living people around me. Just like me, their fragility was subject to scrutiny. At the time, I thought I had distanced myself from my work but it turns out the opposite was true. I was incredibly emotionally invested in those skeletons. On some level, I think that I believed that if I could protect them, then I could protect myself. If I could see the humanity in them, if I could do right by the remains of the dead, then perhaps my own humanity would not become lost in a job that was slowly stripping it away.

The ability to value human remains not on the basis of spectacle or financial gain is something that archaeology has a very particular and fraught perspective on. In my own case, I have profited from excavating human remains through making a living as an archaeologist and imbued them with a personal meaning that would be professionally discouraged. That being said,  the desire to respectfully study human remains in their full historical and archaeological context is an aspect of the field to be lauded.

Though this piece has been rather cynical at times, I would like to make it clear that I understand the sarcophagus petition and its meme descendants were not a product of malice. I am frustrated specifically with the petition and its online reception, not any individual involved. Having written this blog post and processed my feelings, I realise that what I really hope and advocate for is archaeological practise which does not objectify its human practitioners nor the human remains that those practitioners study, and for a wider audience that has access to the full body of that research. I would argue that one of the greatest strengths of archaeology is its potential to humanise the past, but without fundamental self-respect the field will always flounder.  Just as we can ask how and why we treat human remains with particular respect, we should ask how and why archaeologists are underpaid, exploited and vulnerable to various forms of harrassment.

Won’t someone think of the skeletons? If you don’t respect human remains, then what remains to be human?


 

Stranger Things Have Happened

On Friday the 27th of October the second season of Stranger Things was released on Netflix. Set almost a year after the events of the last season in 1983, it follows inhabitants in the fictional town of Hawkins dealing with both the aftermath of previous supernatural threats as well as new ones. After marathoning through all nine episodes I felt like writing a quick blog post to play around with some of the thoughts that flickered through my mind during the experience.

No spoilers, strangely enough!

The Upside Down

The Upside Down was introduced in season one as a parallel dimension and the original habitat of the humanoid predator the Demogorgon, and it makes a return in the second season. That dimension seems to exist in an eternal night with a complete absence of humans. Its signature look is dark, covered with vine-like tendrils and spore-choked air. The aspect of the Upside Down which makes it particularly creepy and uncanny is that fact that it contains the same buildings and landscape as the human world, but with added goop and disintegration.

The Upside Down could be read as some kind of post-apocalyptic vision of our world, one which has been subject to ruination. This could render it as a potential future or a version of the past. The latter is particularly interesting to me as an archaeologist. To paraphrase L. P. Hartley, if the past is a foreign country then perhaps it could be a parallel dimension as well. In Stranger Things crossing over from one location in the human world to leads you to arrive in the same location in the Upside Down.  In the real world, we inhabit urban and rural settings which contain elements of past landscapes, both above and below ground. There really is an ‘Upside Down’ in the sense if you go further underground (as a general rule of stratigraphy) you will encounter remains of earlier habitation or of an earlier landscape that was in the same location but was likely quite a different place.

Stranger Things itself is a period drama. It occupies a nostalgic space, a constructed and fictionalised version of the early 1980s. Even its name is a reference to the saying ‘stranger things have happened,’ which relies on invoking evidence of the past to extrapolate into the present. Watching Stranger Things simultaneously allows a viewer to indulge in this reassuring version of the past whilst being reminded on some level that there is always the potential for that past to change and decay.


Image showing a scene from Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m hoping to write a few more posts specifically about Stranger Things 2, breaking my thoughts up into more easily digestable chunks. If you liked this (and especially if you didn’t) let me know!

Fidget Spinners as Immaterial Culture

It’s midnight and the room is humid. My thoughts are muddled, suddenly coalescing and then scattering like a flock of pigeons. I need to find a reprieve from the endless carousel of thoughts, because it feels like my head is…spinning.

Reaching for my phone is a nervous tic, so inevitably I find myself swiping the lock screen and mindlessly scrolling through apps. This time, though, I try something new. Since I don’t have my analogue fidget spinner to hand, why not play with a virtual one?

In my last piece I speculated about the potential of fidget spinners as archaeological artefacts. This time, I want to examine the digital incarnations of fidget spinners that have been created and how they can be considered as examples of immaterial culture.

Spinners through the looking glass

“The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview.” It’s surprising that Ian Bogost, philosopher and computer designer, doesn’t proceed to discuss the digital doppelgangers of fidget spinners for his piece The Fidget Spinner Explains the World after he makes this point. Bogost considers the fidget spinner to be symptomatic of a growingly individualistic (presumably Western) society which is out of touch with the physical world, even contrasting the fidget spinner with the classic spinning top which at least requires being spun on some kind of surface. Surely, if we follow his reasoning, the digital incarnations of fidget spinners take the individual’s dislocation with their immediate physical reality even further?

Ironically enough, fidget spinner apps arguably have taken more direct inspiration from the ‘real world’ than most. The fact that fidget spinner apps were copying a trend which was originally embodied by actual physical culture renders them starkly different from the usual workings of what Megan Farokhmanesh calls “the mobile ecosystem.” App development trends tend to be the result of developers attempting to ride on the coattails of other popular mobile games, with Pokemon Go being an obvious example (although that game’s utilisation of its own self-styled augmented reality also has its own implications in terms of its relationship with the analogue world). Whilst there is no doubt that the surfeit of fidget spinner apps is a result of developers copying each other, they would not have existed without analogue spinners first gaining their initial popularity in the first place.

Immateriality

Archaeology is, broadly defined, the study of human material remains. Usually, this means studying analogue artefacts which have a tangible existence, such as an 18th century clay tobacco pipe, a sherd of Roman pottery or even contemporary detritus. As an archaeogamer, I consider that digital immaterial culture can also be studied by archaeologists. A digital fidget spinner, like its analogue counterpart, is an object which has been created by humans and appears within a specific context. Also like its analogue counterpart, and as discussed above, the sudden development of a vast array of fidget spinner games was very much a product of the cultural zeitgeist of early 2017. For these reasons, I believe that the digital fidget spinner is a particularly interesting candidate for the archaeological study of immaterial culture. To explore the fidget spinner as intangible heritage, I’ve chosen a few case studies which are expanded upon below. 

Ketchapp Fidget Spinner App

As of May the 18th 2017, Ketchapp’s Fidget Spinner App was the top free app in the App Store. The game involves attempting to get as many full rotations on your spinner as possible with five successive swipes on your phone’s touch screen. Each spin earns the player digital coins which can then be used to upgrade your spinner. This digital spinner experience offers the possibility of such instantaneous upgrades, interchangeability between spinner models and the easy application and removal of decorative stickers, an experience which isn’t as accessible with an analogue spinner. That being said, the game demands your time and increased spinner skill to ‘earn’ enough coins to access these upgrades. It’s an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of spinner labour for both mechanistic and aesthetic spinner gains.

screenshot_20170711-213845.png
A Ketchapp fidget spinner adorned with immaterial stickers

The core game mechanics of Fidget Spinner App (and this is also the case of many other games with similar game mechanics) are allegoric of capitalistic labour in the real world. In Jason Lipshin’s piece Casual Playbor he discusses how the Zynga Facebook game Farmville (essentially a game about maintaining a virtual farm) is characterised by routine, repetitive tasks for the accretion of digital social capital. He writes:

“…structures of labour infiltrate free time, as while laborious play would seem to be anathema to the very definition of gameplay, Farmville keeps its players hooked by structuring this core play mechanic around a system of extrinsic rewards – virtual consumer items and decorations for your farm gained by trading in your hard-earned Farm Cash.”

Just as the analogue, real-world spinner must be considered in terms of its status as a fad commodity, all the spinner iterations which appear in the game must be considered in terms of the context of their access to the player-through the ‘playful labour’ of repetitive spinning.

Google Spinner

Since at least June 20th 2017, if you type the word ‘spinner’ into google, the first search result will be an interactive fidget spinner that you can play with. If you type in ‘fidget spinner’ this particular Google Easter egg won’t work as that search leads to various Google shopping advertisements-the particular context of the immaterial spinner is to accommodate advertising revenue (as opposed to the Ketchapp Fidget Spinner game which is frequently interrupted by an advertisement literally blocking the screen). The Google spinner is very simple-it allows you to either use the mouse to spin the solitary dark blue spinner, or just press the word ‘Spin’ underneath it to do the same. In a sense, this renders the experience of playing with the Google spinner more akin to just sitting idly with an analogue spinner and repetitively flicking it.

2017-07-11
‘spinner’ is the magic word…

That being said, the particular way in which the Google spinner is accessed makes it particularly distinctive. Access to the immaterial object requires using a specific word-the act of searching for ‘spinner’ is akin to a magical invocation to summon a spirit, requiring a specific name. In The Power of Names : In Culture and Mathematics Loren Graham discusses the concept of knowing the name of something giving you power over it, and how that reoccurs in history and in various different cultures across the globe.  Fast forward to the present day and the power of names is still pervasive. To know something is to Google, and to Google well you need a name. For example, if I want to know more about a particular type of Dogū figurine made during the late Jōmon period in prehistoric Japan which has large eyes, I can find it more efficiently and with better search results on Google if I know that it is specifically known as a Shakōki-dogū (遮光器土偶) (“google-eyed type”) figurine.

To know the Google fidget spinner is to summon it specifically as ‘spinner;’ if you try ‘fidget spinner’ your invocation will fail and you’ll be brought to adverts for real-world, analogue spinners instead.

Date A Fidget Spinner

My last case study is the most bizarre out of the three, and certainly breaks the mould in terms of digital incarnations of Fidget Spinners. Date A Fidget Spinner by qualifiedbadger is a satirical fifteen-minute-long dating simulator that can be found on itch.io. As the protagonist, you join a new school and meet fellow student ‘Fidgey’ the female fidget spinner, who is essentially an animated spinner with a female anime-style face. The gameplay involves some limited dialogue options and a lot of very self-aware jokes about the protagonist’s apparent obliviousness, as well as Fidgey not being ‘like the other Fidget spinners I know’ (it should be said, the game has a misogynistic subtext, given it conflates a young teenage girl with a fidget spinner and the connotations of that).

2017-07-09-4.png

Satire aside, it is true that Fidgey is very different from the other examples of immaterial culture I have mentioned previously-I can’t class her as an example of intangible culture in the same way that I would the spinners in the Ketchapp game or the Google spinner. Even if the fact that she’s a person is the core joke of the game, that in of itself throws up some questions as to how I should consider her in the context of the simulator. In the real world, other people are sentient and create their own culture, contributing to the archaeological record and also being able to interpret it themselves. Characters in games, however, are part of the created immaterial culture of games just as immaterial objects are. However, the presentation of game characters is key-they are ascribed personhood and this can affect gameplay. In some ways, there are limited differences between the Google spinner and Fidgey-both are fidget spinners that rotate, the latter just has a face and ‘talks’ to you. Yet, even just the addition of a cartoon face and some dialogue options means that I can’t class Fidgey as an object in the same way that I would class the other two case studies.

I am spinner, I contain multitudes*

If you got this far, I’m both a bit surprised and very grateful. Fidget spinners, even (and especially) at the height of their popularity were derided, and now they’re fast slipping out of fashion and probably into the bins of many of their previous owners. It was useful to look at various fidget spinner case studies to pick out some interesting corollaries of the concept of immaterial culture. What’s clear to me is that none of these immaterial spinners would have existed without the 15 minutes of fame that the material, analogue spinner had. Fidget spinners may just end up being a ‘footnote’ in history, but I can’t help but wonder how future archaeologists will interpret and be affected by both their material and immaterial incarnations. Whilst they were just a fad, perhaps the agency of spinners will be preserved in a digital form, tempting our future colleagues to try, oh just once, to spin, SPIN!


* To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

All screenshots taken by the author

Ludography

Google. (2017) Fidget [Interactive Flash animation] Mountain View: Google

Ketchapp. (2017) Fidget Spinner [Mobile game]. Paris: Ketchapp SARL

qualifiedbadger. (2017) Date A Fidget Spinner [Video game]

Bibliography

Bogost, I. (2017) The Fidget Spinner Explains the World. [online] The Atlantic. Available at:

< https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/the-fidget-spinner-explains-the-world/526521/> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Farokhmanesh (2017) Meet the trend-chasing developers filling the App Store with fidget spinners. [online] The Verge. Available at:

< https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15720264/app-store-with-fidget-spinners-developer-ios> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Graham, L. (2013) ‘The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 153 No.2 [online] Available at:

< https://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/1570204Graham.pdf> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Lipshin, J. (n.d.) Casual Playbor. [online] Critical Commons. Available at:

<http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/JLipshin/lectures/casual-playbor> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

 

 

An Archaeology of Fidget Spinners

Ah, fidget spinners, the ubiquitous and dividing product of our times. I don’t know when I first became aware of their existence, but I am very aware of that existence now. You’ve probably seen them; if not being played with by idle hands then in one of the many articles bemoaning their questionable mental health benefits. Anecdotal proof of their ubiquity comes from the fact that when I spontaneously decided to buy one late on a Saturday afternoon, all I had to do was walk 30 seconds past the Tesco in central Bedford and I immediately found a market stall selling fidget spinners in a plethora of sizes and colours.

What is it?

There are many different types of fidget spinner but the most basic tends to consist of a centre pad with a bearing in it, held between the thumb and forefinger, and two or three prongs which are manually spun around it. They’re made from multiple materials, with the cheapest formed of plastic components but brass, stainless steel, titanium and copper alternatives are also available. Spinners are typically marketed as stress relieving and as a work aid for those who have trouble focusing (for example, one fidget spinner on Amazon is marketed as ‘Fidget Spinner, Greatever EDC Tri Fidget Hand Spinning Toy Time Killer Stress Reducer High Speed Focus Toy Gifts Perfect for ADD, ADHD, Anxiety, Boredom and Autism Adult Kids’). Some have defended their usage as a legitimate aid to concentration and have pointed out the cruelty of spinner snobbery when it might prevent someone from using what is essentially an inexpensive tool to help them focus and fidget in a less self-destructive way. Others have criticised spinners for being distracting, as just another vacuous gimmick with no proven health benefits, and even potentially dangerous.

xUOrwrXdGcUbjUFo8o[1]
A fidget spinner in motion
This piece doesn’t seek to elevate or condemn fidget spinners, rather, it is focused (believe it or not) on their archaeological implications.

What does this have to do with archaeology?

Given the controversy over their usage and the widespread irritation they seem to generate it may seem a bit strange that I would try to conflate fidget spinners with archaeology, let alone write about them at all. The inspiration for this blog post came after reading two separate pieces on spinners, one suggesting that the spinner fad is ‘over’ and the other on the fact that German Customs Officials have apparently seized 35 metric tons of fidget spinners which they have deemed dangerous and plan to destroy. Given the fact that the peak of fidget spinner production, purchase and use is likely to be limited to a small time frame before they are inevitably discarded, I started to wonder about the potential of fidget spinners as archaeological artefacts. How will future archaeologists interpret them?

The question of interpretation hinges on several key factors. Of course, context is always key in archaeology, and the nature of the context in which the spinner or spinners are found, and their state of preservation, will be crucial. Given that plastic can take hundreds of years to fully degrade even the cheapest fidget spinners could last centuries into the future. For this reason, it is hoped that as many fidget spinners as possible will be recycled rather than end up in landfill. Either way, many fidget spinners are potentially unlikely to be deposited in their location of original use, with future chance finds likely to be a result of accidental or deliberate loss through littering.

If spinners are discovered within the next hundred years, it is likely that there will be existing memories or documentation which survives to aid identification. However, beyond this, their interpretation may be highly reliant on the endurance of digital records. There are multiple existing web archiving initiatives, such as the Internet Archive, a non-profit library which has been archiving web pages since 1996 through the Wayback Machine. Just as real-world archaeological artefacts are subject to decomposition over time, web pages can easily be subject to ‘link rot,’ when such a page no longer exists or a server that hosts the target page has stopped working or relocated, among many other reasons. Searching on the Internet Archive for “fidget spinners” unsurprisingly brings up multiple archived web pages and videos on the subject. However, though the Internet Archive aims to preserve such resources for future research, it is impossible to know if it will still be accessible hundreds of years into the future. A case in point-the inauguration of Trump as President of the United States posed such a perceived existential threat to the Internet Archive that a Canadian copy of it was announced as a safeguard.

In the event that there are no digital or analogue sources to aid the interpretation of a fidget spinner excavated hundreds of years in the future, they might be impossible to conclusively identify. Such a situation is analogous to contemporary confusion over particular archaeological artefacts. For example, Minoan and Myceneaen Bronze Age pierres à cupules (circular holes cut into stone slabs, typically in a circular or oval pattern but there are multiple variations) have been interpreted as religious paraphernalia as well as monumental game boards. When you consider that fidget spinners have multiple contemporary uses and perceived purposes, this compounds the problem even more. If one future archaeologist interpreted them as a ‘tool’ and another as a ‘toy,’ would either of them be strictly ‘wrong’? If we consider the pierres à cupules in light of this, a ‘religious’ function doesn’t seem particularly incompatible with a recreational one-the two may not have been mutually exclusive in the past if they were even considered in those terms at all.

This has formed an initial piece on fidget spinners as an aid to an archaeological thought experiment, perhaps proving that (at least in this sense) they can be a tool and not just a nuisance. In my next piece I’ll be taking another ‘spin’ at fidget spinner archaeology, considering digital fidget spinners as immaterial culture.

Photograph and GIF produced by the author

#PATC An Island Archaeology of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

This is the companion blog post to my presentation for the Public Archaeology Twitter Conference, as part of the archaeology and media theme.

Abstract

2017-04-26

Bibliography

Screenshots, images and gifs

All screenshots, images and gifs were captured/created by the author

Video game case study

Nintendo EAD. (2002).The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. [Videogame]. Kyoto: Nintendo

Articles and books

Barrowclough, D.A (2010) Expanding the Horizons of Island Archaeology Islandscapes Imaginary and Real, Ely: the case of the Dry Island. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 4 (1), pp.27-46 [online] Available at: <http://shimajournal.org/issues/v4n1/f.-Barrowclough-Shima-v4n1-27-46.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].
Broodbank, C (2000) An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Evans, J.D (1973) Islands as laboratories for the study of cultural process. In C. Renfrew, ed. The Explanation of Cultural Change: models in prehistory, London: Duckworth. pp.517-520.

 

Fassone, R (2017) Every Game is an Island: Endings and Extremities in Video Games. New York: Bloomsbury Academic

Hayward, P (2016) Towards an expanded concept of Island Studies. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 10 (1), pp.1-7 [online] Available at: <http://shimajournal.org/issues/v10n1/c.-Hayward-Introduction-Shima-v10n1.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].

Nyman, E (2013) The Island as Container: Islands, Archipelagos, and Player Movement in Video Games. Island Studies Journal, 8 (2), pp.269-284 [online] Available at: <http://www.islandstudies.ca/sites/islandstudies.ca/files/ISJ-8-2-2013-Nyman.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].

Barriers to entry in archaeogaming

I started to write this piece last August when No Man’s Sky was first released-the only reason I had access to the game was because my partner had happened to buy it and I could borrow his laptop on the weekends. It occurred to me that the cost of videogames is a significant barrier to entry in the field of archaeogaming. Then, I chickened out. Writing the piece made me feel uncomfortable, and so it was left to fester as a poorly edited word document, potentially forgotten forever.

I’ve dusted this blog post off, and you might be able to guess what prompted my return to the topic. The Nintendo Switch games console has just been released, along with the latest game in the Legend of Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild. Both have been hotly anticipated by the gaming community, and as a long-time Nintendo enthusiast with a research interest in how archaeogaming can be applied to the Legend of Zelda franchise, it’s particularly frustrating for me to not be able to have access to either.

I understand that the inability to buy a newly released games console is the very definition of a ‘first world problem’ but whether you’re an academic specialising in the field or someone who wants to get involved in archaeogaming then the price of videogames and games consoles can present a limit to the scope of your research. Of course, it is not necessary to buy the latest games and consoles as soon as they are released, especially as their price will reduce over time, however given that new games often prompt discussions within the archaeogaming community there can at least be a perceived pressure to keep ‘up-to-date’ with the latest releases. Plus, public discussion of archaeogaming and new releases will inevitably have benefits in terms of generating wider interest in the discipline. Depending on the nature of your work, a new release may form an invaluable part of your research.

The issue of financial constraint is not just one pertaining to newly released games. If you want to play an old or ‘retro’ title then that entails finding an original copy of the game and purchasing the appropriate console to play it on, which could be potentially very costly. This ties in with particular methodological concerns in archaeogaming research: even a legally acquired emulation as an alternative is problematic because you will not be having the same embodied experience of play.

I have a full-time job in archaeology which allows me to live in London-it’s important for me to respect the fact that although my accessibility to games is limited I am still relatively privileged in that this is not an issue that has greatly impacted my ability to undertake research. I have access to a a laptop, a smartphone and I have enough disposable income to allow me to save up to buy videogames. Also, accessibility in archaeogaming should not just be framed in financial terms. Accessibility, disability, archaeology and gaming need to be discussed more, however as I am not disabled myself I do not feel this is a topic I should speak on personally.

You could argue that if I’m really ‘passionate’ about archaeogaming then I should just throw all of my financial resources into it, but I would argue that is not a healthy or a sustainable approach to the problem. You could also argue that a discussion of personal financial situation is not relevant to the academic discourse-I strongly reject that. If I’m struggling, and I’m in relative financial stability, then I can only assume there are others who have encountered such difficulties, and worse.

So then comes the next question, why should we care?

Why do barriers matter?

‘If it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.’

The above quote has been floating around on social media for several years now, with no record of its origins, almost like some kind of crowdsourced thought. Its message is particularly pertinent to this discussion. Archaeogaming may be a nascent discipline at the bleeding edge of heritage and media studies, but the reason why it can also be claimed to be ‘radical’ is that in many respects the field and its practitioners have made a conscious effort to increase the accessibility of their work. If it weren’t for the fact that in early 2016 I stumbled across Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming blog then I doubt that I would be sat here today writing this piece. Quite simply, greater accessibility to research allows not just for a wider audience but also fosters active interest and participation in the field of archaeogaming. In order for it to thrive, archaeogaming needs to attract a wide range of potential practitioners who can contribute to its development.

Archaeogamers have already done tremendous work to increase accessibility to the discipline (see below for some examples), however the question of how best to overcome the issue of financial barriers to entry still remains.

Enhancing accessibility in archaeogaming

Some existing examples:

  • Archaeogamers Tara Copplestone, Meghan Dennis and Andrew Reinhard all have blogs where they post about their research, and they also have a brilliant podcast called 8 Bit Test Pit in which they discuss various topics relating to the discipline.
  • Shawn Graham blogs about his research in digital media and archaeology, including archaeogaming, and shares useful resources
  • The VALUE academic research group, based at Leiden University, regularly streams videogames on their Twitch channel, hosting an archaeogaming discussion whilst they play
  • VALUE has recently announced a call for papers for their second ‘The Interactive Past Conference’ which will be held online, allowing for greater accessibility
  • Lorna Richardson has set up the first ever Public Archaeology Twitter Conference to be held on 28th April 2017, which anyone can virtually attend and will have an archaeology and media strand (I will be presenting a paper on the topic of ‘An Island Archaeology of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’)

This list is not exhaustive but shows some of the great work that’s already been done, and is ongoing, enhancing accessibility in archaeogaming. In terms of the problem of the financial cost of gaming, I have decided to set some particular aims for my own future work:

  • Engage with mobile games more. Mobile games are generally more accessible than those produced for other platforms because they are often free (though some have in-game purchases) or are low in cost. Smartphones are not inexpensive but it is more likely that an individual will already own one for their own professional or personal requirements than a videogame console. The phenomenon of ‘casual gaming’ and the embodied experience of using a smartphone for gaming have great research potential.
  • Engage more with free to play content on itch.io, the ‘open marketplace for digital creators.’ Whilst such games are likely to be more niche and experimental in nature, they are much more accessible to anyone who wishes to immediately be able to play a game under discussion.
  • Attempt to make a game as part of a game jam so it is easily accessible and invites feedback. This will help me to learn more about the process of developing a game (at least on a very small scale) and also allow me to experiment with the medium in a public setting. This last point is inspired by Tara Copplestone who has created games as part of her archaeogaming PhD research, and you can see a game that she made as part of the Flat Game Annual 2016 here.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, more a primer and a reminder to myself of some ideas that I would like to work on in the coming months. As ever, any feedback or thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Also, I want to make it clear that I certainly don’t think that games should in general be cheaper or free-a videogame represents countless hours of work by developers and I would never wish to appear to be dismissing that. Furthermore, I’m not advocating for boycotting expensive AAA titles or anything like that. What I am advocating is a conscious effort to include financially accessible games in archaeogaming research and to continue making that research as accessible as possible.


Image: Stop! by Qfamily (CC BY 2.0)