Archaeology in Videogames

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Video games are a medium that can express some difficult or complicated subjects, yet archaeology is poorly represented. In this post I will briefly discuss new trends in educational games, followed by a breakdown of a particularly promising archaeology game with a responsible message.

Video games are a creative medium that are here to stay. In just a few decades we have seen this relatively new art form develop from being little more than a toy into a medium that communicates whole ideas and perspectives. From jumping on little mushroom men 30 years ago to tackling difficult subjects in a dystopic paperwork simulator (Papers, Please) developers and consumers have begun to recognice the interpretive idea that enjoyable is not necessarily the same as fun.

Apoapsis? Delta V? Real life concepts that only mean anything to me because of this game. (Image by Tyler Raiz, accessed March 2016)

Apoapsis? Delta V? Real life concepts that only mean anything to me because of this game. (Image by Tyler Raiz, accessed March 2016)

Even our understanding of what makes an educational game is changing. We are no longer restricted to educational games that simply try to disguise learning as a video game such as Math Blaster or Mario Teaches Typing. One of the most successful games of 2015 was Kerbal Space Program, a game that teaches orbital mechanics by letting you build a rocket and launching little green men into space (usually to return as debris).

WARNING! Does not represent real archaeology.

WARNING! Does not represent real archaeology.

This ability to be a game while teaching is impressive. If a game about orbital mechanics can be successful, why not archaeology? When people think of archaeology in video games they are usually thinking of relic hunters like Lara Croft (Indiana Jones in short shorts) or blatant site looting for profit in rpgs (role playing games). Of course, one of the main problems is not with video games, but with popular culture itself. When we tell people that we are interested in archaeology and they immediately think of Indiana Jones or Ric Savage in American Digger we should not fault a new medium for failing to buck the trend.

Fortunately, I have found an example that I feel particularly represents the potential to teach archaeology through video games. Can U Dig It! (by Dig-It Games) is an excellent, if flawed, example of how games can teach archaeology through its mechanics, represent archaeology ethically, and still be enjoyable.

When you fire up Can U Dig It! you get a little introductory cutscene for the game. A brother and sister are headed to an archaeological site and the sister can’t wait to start digging, but the brother wants to plan things carefully. This sets up the premise nicely and makes the theme very clear: Careful planning is a vital part of archaeology.

The game itself works a little like a reverse Minesweeper. I won’t try to describe the mechanics here, but essentially you have to use number clues to select where you want to dig around

One of the more advanced maps in Can U Dig It! Note the orange box. Image by Dig-It Games, accessed March 2016.

One of the more advanced maps in Can U Dig It! Note the orange box. Image by Dig-It Games, accessed March 2016.

the artifacts. Select the brother on the left and you are in planning mode. Select the sister on the right and you are in digging mode where the boxes are dug as you select them. Here’s the bit that I particularly like: make a mistake and you’ll break the artifact! These mechanics teach the need for careful planning in archaeology, the fragility of many artifacts, and the permanency of our decisions. Almost.

While these lessons are certainly present, the execution of these mechanics unfortunately weakens the message. The biggest problem is that once you have solved the game in the planning mode, the site is automatically dug for you, so there is no real chance of breaking an artifact. A related issue is that the highlighted box is in orange if you have the incorrect number of squares. Again, making it impossible to make an error.

Crush this in real life and there are no do-overs. Image by Wessex Archaeology, accessed March, 2016.

Crush this in real life and there are no do-overs. Image by Wessex Archaeology, accessed March, 2016.

The final issue is that a broken artifact, and the excavation, is not actually permanent. Make too many mistakes and you have to try again. Also, you have the option to go back to any of the completed levels. There might be no way around this for video games, being able to fail and learn from your mistakes is a fundamental element, but I would like to see later levels or an advanced mode that makes a mistake permanent for that game.

In a nutshell, this is a wonderful example of the potential for video games to let players experience archaeological principles in a fun way, instead of just being told about them. Despite some flaws in the execution, the potential for a truly excellent game is there. To be completely fair, I only played the first 18 free levels and it is entirely possible that my criticisms are addressed later on, but I can only talk about what I have experienced. I have been in contact with Dig-It Games and apparently they are currently reworking some of Can U Dig It!, here’s hoping the result are an even stronger game about archaeology.

Take Only Pictures: The Importance of Context in Archaeology

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Context is a very, very important concept in archaeology. Unfortunately, it is also one that most people are not very familiar with. Context is the place where an artifact is found, Not just the place but the type of soil, the site type, and what the artifact was found with or in relation to. I always emphasize this concept when speaking with adults and children about archaeology. The example I always use is a person’s bedroom. If you were to step into a stranger’s bedroom what would you be able to learn about them? By looking at the items in the room, within their context, you might be able to figure out the gender, age, interests and other unique aspects of that individual. However, if you were to take those objects out of that room, one by one, and look at them separately you may come up with very different answer regarding who that person is.

This is one primary reason that it is considered a bad thing, and in many cases illegal, to take artifacts from an archaeological site.  The object itself can give us some information, but most of the information that archaeologists gather from a site comes from the context of those objects. If everybody were to visit a site and take one artifact each, soon there would be nothing left for us to study. Additionally, because archaeology is a destructive science, and we can never put things back the same after they have been excavated or taken, the context is destroyed and vast amounts of information have potentially been lost. This is the main reason that archaeologists are so tedious in their efforts to record everything. We take photographs, notes, drawings and various other records to ensure that we can learn everything there is to learn about that site.

Archaeology studies the physical evidence from past cultures that has survived a long time buried in the ground. This physical evidence provides us a direct-although fragmentary- link with the past.  The objects, or artifacts, that we recover can’t “speak for themselves”, but instead they must be interpreted by archaeologists. The process of interpreting these objects must be done carefully and can be a painstaking process. As part of that process archaeologists try to make associations between various artifacts in order to better understand a site. An archaeological site is similar to a puzzle. We put the objects and features of the site together to tell the story of the archaeological site. Have you ever gotten to the end of a puzzle only to find that you are missing one or more pieces leaving you with an incomplete picture?  When visiting an archaeological site, do your part to leave archaeologists with all the puzzle pieces necessary to gain a complete understanding of that site. Enjoy the site, and remember the old motto, “leave only footprints and take only pictures”, and in doing so you will provide archaeologists with the context needed to understand the past!