Andrew Reinhard is as old as Pong. He is currently a third-year “mature” PhD student at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (UK) where he is completing his thesis on archaeological tools and methods for investigating digital cultural heritage. Past video game archaeology projects include the excavation of the Atari Burial Ground, the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey and the Legacy Hub Archaeological Project, landscape archaeology in Skyrim VR, and the code archaeology of Colossal Cave Adventure. He is currently interested in understanding software as digital built environments, machine-created culture, and software as archaeological artifact, site, and manufactured landscape. His book, Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games, was published by Berghahn Books in 2018. Reinhard is the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society. He is currently playing Diablo II (again).
Justin Carpenter: I’m Justin Carpenter with First Person Scholar Interviews and I’m here with…
Andrew Reinhard: Hi! This is Andrew Reinhard, I am a third year PhD Student at the University of York’s Center for Digital Heritage and I run the Archaeogaming.com blog.
J: Ok! I want to ask you what archaeogaming is but I guess first I’ll just ask you what archaeology is and then we’ll talk about the intersection of the two.
A: Sure, starting with archaeology, I have a very liberal definition of what archaeology is. For me, it’s really looking at things and how people and non-humans interact with these things. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the past, if it’s in the present, doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, human-thing interaction or thing-thing interaction, it’s archaeology because we are dealing with stuff. As a traditional archaeologist back in the 90s and early 2000s I dug in Italy, I dug in Greece, I dug in the United States and that was all stones and bones type stuff. I read pottery a lot of the time and you know, that was a lot of fun. I was dealing with material culture, basically stuff of the ancients, so that was pretty great.
But, then I was thinking about modern technology and when you’re dealing with pots and stuff it’s ancient technology, that’s what they had. And so, it’s like “these are top of the line pots man!” and it’s no different today where people are making things or you have machines making things now and we’re using technology in order to support ourselves for food, drink, shelter, clothing, the universal human needs. It doesn’t matter to me that stuff’s happening now, we’re basically studying things in relation to people and to a wider context.
As far as how it fits in with archaeogaming, archaeogaming is something that I basically define as the intersection between archaeology and video games or digital games where there are a couple of things going on. First we can look at how archaeologists and archaeology is portrayed in a game, so if you’re playing Tomb Raider, what does that mean for us as archaeologists? What does that mean for the player? Or, for the developer who is building archaeology into a particular game and what does that mean for the displicpine. And also, I like to think about video games as artifacts or as archaeological sites even. These are things that are worthy of archaeological attention because people have made these and the people who play them, a lot of times, they feel like they live there. They’ve made a home in these things, they’re very familiar with this stuff, and so that seems to me to be very archaeological. I think that’s it.
J: Having heard you say that, there are games where you play as an archaeologist. I have a very romantic view of archaeology.
J: But I imagine that a lot of it is… there’s a labour element to it where you have to dig, you have to be very careful not to break things, I imagine. But we have this adventurous, well I mean it sounds adventurous when you describe it. In your book you have all the tropes of popularized archaeology. Can you explain what these are?
A: Yeah, and you know gosh darn Steven Spielberg for doing Raiders of the Lost Arc and creating this character, who I like, and you know I think most of us love him, Indiana Jones. This is like, “how long can we get into the podcast before we start talking about Indiana Jones?” “Not far!” So, that really kinda started it all as far as pop culture media tropes in archaeology where you’ve got the guy in the travelling hat, he’s wearing khakis and he’s got a weapon or he’s got a whip and he’s punching Nazis and he’s going out and finding things to bring back to the museum. It’s all wonderful adventure, don’t get me wrong, its highly entertaining and thrilling but… nah!
What we see in video games that have heritage in there, it doesn’t even need to be archaeology, but like heritage adventure games, you play the Uncharted series and it’s like “we’re going on a heritage adventure” and so you know, we’re blowing things up, we’re swinging from the rafters, we’re looting stuff and all of that. While that is big fun, that’s certainly not what archaeology is about and certainly not what a reputable archaeologist is doing. So, we have to address the ethics of what’s going on in those kinds of games. It’s just like us playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, I’m not going to go out and shoot guys, I’m not going to go out and steal a car and beat up on a pimp or something like that.
But it’s fun to play, so you know as far as other games that have an archaeology mechanic in them, you have World of Warcraft for example that has an archaeology skill, and you can level that skill. You can use your theodolite and move it around, theodolite being a thing on a tripod that helps you find stuff, and then you dig and then you say “oh here’s a piece of x.” In No Man’s Sky, in the most recent iteration of the game they have introduced archaeology formally as a mechanic, part of the lore. You can do zooarchaeology where you’re digging up ancient bones and seeing what’s going on, and that’s all cool but it’s not really reflective of what we’re doing in the field.
J: So what would you say you are doing, if you feel you haven’t already said that?
A: I think by and large what archaeologists are up to in the field is, we get at things patiently, we take our time, it’s not a smash and grab. Unless you’re working with salvage archaeology where you’re racing against the clock before they build a parking lot or something. We have time, and so we can take care, we can take notes, we can photograph, we can document, we can take a moment to understand the context of artifacts in relation to other artifacts, in relation to structures, and the landscape, and the environment, and all of that. You don’t really get that in games because in games you want it to be entertaining and you want the pacing to be good and so it’s really hard to make the two meet in the middle.
Now there are a couple of games that are approaching this that are coming out. One is In the Valley of the Kings, I guess they premiered the trailer at The Game Awards earlier this month, and that’s coming out on Steam. The other game I’m thinking of is written by Jonathan Ingold from Inkle Studios, and it’s called Heaven’s Vault. It’s interesting, both of these games feature women of colour as archaeologists and Heaven’s Vault is more archaeo-linguistics based and also deals with procedural generation of places that you can explore and languages that you can learn and things like that too. Both of those are coming out and they take a slower more thoughtful approach to archaeology, which really approaches what we’re doing in the field as well so I’m pretty excited about those games.
At the same time, I really like the fast pace of playing like Tomb Raider where it’s like “Go go go go! He’s right behind you, get this thing, go get this other thing, solve this puzzle and get out of there!” and so its good but I think that both of those styles of games are important for archaeology and they’re both fun to play, it just depends what mood you’re in, what mindset you’re in and what you want to get out of the experience.
J: I guess the next thing I was wondering is: do you find that archaeogaming is a method or approach? I don’t know what, exactly, you would call it. Do you think that it is working with or against these tropes at all? I just want to get the tropes out of the way.
A: Yeah, you know. When I started to think about video games and archaeology, other people were thinking about video games and archaeology at the same time I was. I came up with the portmanteau archeo-gaming and stuck them together. It just sounded good (laughs).
J: It does sound good.
A: And why not? But when I was thinking about that, I hadn’t really thought of it being a method or anything. This was back in 2013 when I finally put stuff together. I think part of what we need to do as archaeologists when we’re engaging with videogames is to acknowledge the tropes. Yeah, okay they’re here. Any kind of trope usually evolved from fact of some kind. Archaeologists wear hats in the field, yeah, and we’ve always done so. You know, going back to the fedora-wearing Hiram Bingham and people wearing brimmed hats at Knossos or things like that. And we wear clothes that are sensible, to protect us from snakes or the sun or whatever. And it all becomes part of the uniform, of course, and that uniform hasn’t been updated. Now we’re wearing steel-toed boots, we might be wearing hard hats, we’re wearing safety vests. You’re not playing an archaeology game and seeing that stuff. Part of the collective wants to say, “okay, let’s talk to some game developers and kind of tell them what’s up” and sometimes the developers will listen and sometimes they’re like “we don’t have time for this stuff.” I get it, they’re running a business.
As I’ve been working on the PhD, though, I’ve been trying to ask questions that I would ask of dirt archaeology. If I was on a site in the natural world, actually doing an excavation, what kind of questions would I be asking? How would I be reflecting on this material? And can I ask those same questions in a digital or a synthetic space? How can I interpret this material in an archaeological way? And starting with traditional questions and then seeing if there’s anything with the new technology that allows me to ask questions that I couldn’t ask in a natural space. And I’m still working through that. It’s also been fun to do things like explore 3D printing or photogrammetry or working with GIS [geographic information system]. But in the environment that’s digital only. So I can go into a digital world and I can make a map and I can export that and work with it in GIS. I can use my Playstation to film an object that exists only in that game and then export that and work with that until I get a model that I can 3D print. You’ve got all these tools that are at the disposal of the regular archaeologist and I’m able to use the same tools and ask those same questions in a digital space. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do that but it’s turning out that I can.
J: Mm hm. Yeah, actually, when I was reading the introduction to your book you mentioned the concept of living history and I didn’t get a chance to read the book that it comes from. Or is it an essay? I’m not sure. But you talk about living history and I was wondering if there’s, for you, a difference between synthetic and natural worlds. And I was wondering about the ways that we embody ourselves or enact history using our bodies and how we do that digitally. Do you think there’s a substantial difference?
A: Yeah. We’re talking about, I guess, lived heritage and then also intangible heritage and working with or studying video games. Because, if you have a game-especially if you are playing one from the 1980s or 1990s-you’ve got physical media and it could be a disc, it could be a cartridge, and you can hold it in your hand and you don’t know that there’s anything on there. If I was from outer space or something and I came down and I held this cartridge, I wouldn’t know that there’s data in there. I might be able to figure that out because I got there from space (laughs). But at the same time I’d be like, “oh, okay. This has got data so how do I get this data out of here?” and what is that data going to tell me. Being able to integrate that with hardware which allows me to have this embodied experience through my eyes and through my ears. And then with my Dualshock controller I can actually have feeling, and there are other kinds of haptic gloves and stuff like that out there that actually allow you to have these other sensory experiences. You’re really kind of, almost, astral projecting from the normal space into the next. Yeah, I’ve been watching Sabrina. The rebooted Sabrina.
J: I’ve watched it too. I couldn’t do Riverdale but I can do Sabrina. I like horror too much to pass up on it. It’s pretty good actually, I think it’s pretty nice.
A: I’m really enjoying the show too. I’m kind of amped for the Christmas special.
A: Anyways, here you are. You’re sitting in one place, you’re present in the world and then through putting on a VR headset or something you’re transported to someplace else. You know, people used to get this the old-fashioned way, by listening to a storyteller or by performing a dance or a ritual or something like that. So this is another way of mediating into a new space that is above or beyond what we can particularly see and feel and so how does that work for an archaeologist when there’s nothing physical left for us to work with? So what does that mean?
So we get into the concept of something called phenomenology, where it’s like: “okay, these are things but these are not things….we can hold them in a synthetic space but we can’t in the natural space.” What does that mean when we are manipulating something or interacting with something or engaging with something. It’s basically occupying our brain but nothing else.
A: You know? I would argue that other things are happening too within the flesh and blood body, because I do get an emotional response when I play a game. When things are happening that are exciting, my blood pressure increases, my heart races, my breathing changes and I’ll be sitting there and I might be playing Overwatch. My kid and I have totally different playing styles. I’ll be there and I’ll be shooting guys and stuff and I’ll hardly be breathing, I won’t be shouting, I’ll be completely in a state of flow and it’s just my thumbs are twitching all over the place and everything. And when she plays, she’s just screaming and yelling and stomping around and jumping up and down and everything. So we’re getting two different physical and emotional responses from the same experience, and that’s interesting too. How are we interrelating with the things we’re holding in our hands and how are we interacting through those things to a space with other individuals who are also existing as avatars in front of us. It just gets so weird man (laughs).
J: (laughs). It is weird, it definitely is.
So I’m an English student. I saw you use the term presence and I think presence, as you use it, is from Wolfgang Ernst? “The past as delayed presence preserved in technological memory”.
J: I’ve just been, recently, doing some work on Hans Gumbrecht. I’m not sure you’re familiar with him.
A: I’m not.
J: He’s a literary scholar and he talks about presence as an aesthetic experience. Vladimir Nabokov uses the term: “The tingle in the base of your spine” when you read great literature.
J: Or when you see a film and it does something to you that requires a bodied presence. And I thought that the idea of past as delayed presence preserved in technological memory was very interesting. I guess the question would be: Do you think there is an aesthetic element of archaeology or archaeogaming that could tie these concepts of presence together? Because I think you’re heading that way.
A: I think so. I really like that statement and it reminds me of, who was I reading. Josh Reno, who is at Binghamton. He’s a Garbologist and an archaeologist. What he was writing about was talking about activation and re-activation over time via engagement with technology or something like that. Where we have got something old, it gets discarded, it gets trapped in this matrix of soil and stone for awhile and then it gets excavated. And so it’s kind of sleeping there until the archaeologist recovers it and then all of the sudden he calls this a re-activation. It’s like it’s coming out of this suspended animation state to become part of the world again. I was thinking about that, “that’s a really cool idea!” And then I started thinking about it some more and thought: “Wait a minute. This thing isn’t just on pause underground for however many hundreds or thousands of years. It’s still changing subtly, it’s still in a state of existence on its own. It’s still travelling the same timeline as the rest of us.” So no, it’s not being re-activated. We might be re-introducing human beings to it but it’s still there as part of this life-cycle and part of its biography. So we’re able to sense these things and pick them up and hold them again and I think, with people, the sensory, the tactility…the ability to touch something is really important to us. Especially as archaeologists, we want to touch it, we want to feel it, we want to manipulate it. And we can do all those things digitally, we can do those things in the ground with objects that are excavated. I guess, at this point, I’m failing to see any difference between the two(laughs). And that might aggravate some people: “no, no. They’re totally different!” And I’m not so sure anymore. I think that, if we’re dealing with digital things they’re still made out of materials.
A: And not just imagined materials but real materials. And so we’re manipulating those just as we’re manipulating a piece of pottery that we find. I’m failing to see the difference. Maybe somebody will shake me to my senses and tell me otherwise, but right now I’m not seeing it.
J: Well, I think that there’s a distinction that people are probably quick to make in that one is ‘real’ and one is ‘not real’. It’s that old cliche of the philosophy student sitting in an exam and being asked: “How do you prove the existence of God?” And the proof of the existence of God is that we think about the existence of God and whether or not it is real. There’s a real behaviour that’s occurring because of this concept or this idea and if that’s the level that it’s at then that’s the level. I think that the labour that goes into games, they’re really difficult to make first of all.
A: Oh yeah.
J: And second of all, we’re moving more and more towards digital copies of games but there’s still hard copies of games and there’s also no substantial difference. There’s a great book by, I think his name is Nicholas Rombes, I’ll have to double-check that. But it’s about Cinema in the Digital Age and it’s discussing this idea that, despite the fact that it’s all becoming a particular type of information, a type of encoding or something like that, film in the digital age is yearning constantly for that analogue past. And I think that you see that in games. So there’s that dialogue between the analogue and the digital. It’s something that we’re preoccupied with but maybe we’re wasting our time on it because we treat things as though they’re real, even if they’re digital.
A: Yeah, I think it’s a false dichotomy at this point.
J: Mm hm.
A: I remember reading a couple of books by Ed Castranova, who teaches Economics at Indiana. He’s the one where he basically made it clear, about Natural World versus Synthetic World. He doesn’t call it Real Versus Virtual. So I took that to heart and so I try not to use real and virtual as often as I can. But I agree with him. I think the people who make these spaces they put a lot of human effort into it, there’s a lot of labour, a lot of love, a lot of intelligence. They sink in real resources, real money, real time, real emotion. And the people who inhabit these spaces, because they’re basically digital habitations, the people who play these games for hundreds and hundreds of hours, millions of people. They’re basically these digital cities where they can go and play. It may be escapism to some point, but for others it’s just another part of their daily routine. “Okay. I’ve done my work in my New York office, I’m going to go home and spend some time in Ancient Greece for a while.” I’m still putting in emotion, I’ve paid real money for this, occasionally I’d be able to craft something and sell it in the marketplace or I might be able to do cosplay and things like that to try to bring things out of the game. It becomes part of the culture.
So when we’re looking at video games specifically we’re looking at a new kind of digital material culture, which is modern, digital heritage or even modern cultural heritage. I like to joke that I’m as old as video games, right? I remember going to play Asteroids at the arcade with my dad when it first came out as an arcade cabinet. And being able to see something like that or seeing Pong or playing Pac-Man for the first time and then imagining, after playing Atari’s Adventure, “oh man! That would be really cool if this could be photorealistic”. I didn’t know what photorealistic was back then but all of a sudden now I can play Skyrim VR and I’m freakin’ there!
A: And it’s only taken thirty years to get there, which has been totally amazing! So Pac-Man is my digital heritage, my cultural heritage. And, you know, other people have other things they hold onto. So for me and people of my generation, and probably people coming later as well, my kid for example. They’re holding onto these characters and these games and everything is part of their everyday. It’s part of what guides them. It’s their entertainment but it’s also…they dress like these folks, and they get the memes from there, and new language. And you watch the linguistics coming out of the chat and stuff like that too. That was one of the coolest things about playing WoW (World of Warcraft) for the first time back in the mid 2000s. Engaging in Barrens chat and talking Chuck Norris but also learning all of these abbreviations. All of this punctuation and having that translate into real life text messages or AIM or whatever. When I’m doing slash and then an emote now I totally know what that is, coming from WoW and stuff. So yeah, all of a sudden you have these archaeo-Linguistics that are only 10, 15, 20 years old. It’s archaeology all over, it just happens to be digital as opposed to natural.
J: So I guess I want to elaborate one more thing that you make clear in the book, in the introduction, where archaeogaming is not media archaeology. Do you think that the focus on phenomenology as part of what you’re doing, and the direct experience, and reflecting on that direct experience, focusing on the digital heritage and the living history….all of those concepts suggest that it is distinct from media archaeology. But I don’t really know, personally, what media archaeology is. So could you elaborate on the distinctions there?
A: I will try. I haven’t gotten in trouble yet with the media archaeology crowd. I’m sure that might come (laughs). Over time. But I think it’s what you said. Dealing with media archaeology you’re trying to apply an archaeological way of looking at media. I don’t want to say that, but it could be anything from understanding a typewriter to a cellphone to a 16mm film on a reel to a newspaper. So you’re looking at all of this stuff in an archaeological way and you’re treating the media as artifact as you’re trying to understand it. I think the other thing about media archaeology is that you’re looking at things that have been mass-produced so that it leaves a very large footprint on human existence.
For me, for archaeogaming it certainly falls somewhat within that media archaeology camp but I’m exploring these games from the outside-in, from an archaeological perspective. When I was doing the No Man’s Sky Case Study where I was taking a look at people in the Galactic Hub who had been displaced by an in-game Climate Change catastrophe (laughs). That was doing actually archaeology on a human settlement in a digital space. And that’s not media archaeology. That’s real…God, I don’t want to say real.
J: I know what you mean.
A: It is traditional archaeology in a digital space, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. I guess that’s where the difference is. With archaeology-archaeology you’re dealing with sites, with landscapes, with artifacts, with human interaction and whatnot. With media archaeology, I think, you’re looking at the things. What produced them? The context in which they were produced and how they were used? And that might be where it stops, although I think these lines get a little fuzzy and will continue to get fuzzy as archaeologists and media archaeologists and people in game studies all kind of meet in the middle. I think that would be one of the great things to see, a conference or an un-conference or a meet-up where you’ve got all of these different people working towards the same goals but in different ways, trading information and ideas and tools and things like that as we grow each of the disciplines.
J: We have something like that here, actually. The Games Institute at the University of Waterloo. I think probably about 30%, maybe 40% are English students and then there’s a whole group of HCI [human-computer interaction] people and there’s a bunch of computer scientists and we all kind of just sit and talk to each other about games and sometimes it doesn’t work very well because everyone has a different idea of what a game is. I come from the games as art or narrative perspective and someone will be like “Well, the game is terrible to play so it’s not that interesting so we shouldn’t talk about it.” But overall I think it’s a massive success. If you’re ever around Toronto, Canada you should come see it because it’s really quite cool and the work that’s coming out of there is, I think, suggestive of what could be done in the future for game studies because it crosses so many of those boundaries already.
I guess the reason I bring that up, and the media archaeology and the archaeogaming and all these questions related to the method, is because you bring up Foucault and Foucault is the classic ‘riding on the boundaries of everything and everyone wants to claim him’ kind of academic and philosopher. But when I was reading the list of things that you suggest that Foucault was bringing that might be useful for a digital space while these ideas are maybe more analogical in a non-digital space. Do you think that Foucault’s method is more useful for you? When people who are, how would you say it, classical archaeologists, do they see that and do they question that? Because we understand Foucault as it’s more of an analogy and he’s talking about discourse in a particular way. I thought there was a really good point you made in your book that Archaeologists are discovering something that is material and that material is basically something that has already been said. I found that to be an interesting point.
A: You know, I’m not a philosopher or a student of philosophy and I’ve been kind on finding my way, being pulled kicking and screaming in that direction as I’m reading Heidegger, as I’m reading Foucault. And for people listening, the only Foucault that I cite in the book is Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and, to be fair, I read that because it had the word archaeology in it and I wanted to see what he was about when talking about archaeology and things. And originally that manuscript for the book had a lot more Foucault in it and one of my colleagues was like “would you stop with the Foucault already? He’s done, it’s over!” And I’m like “okay, okay, fine fine.” But what I really liked about one of Foucault’s arguments was that everything was created out of conflict.
J: Mm hm.
A: And I think that’s true. If I’m hungry I’m going to go eat something, I’m going to cook something, I’m going to go grow something. If I’m stuck on a problem I’m going to go find a tool that will help me get unstuck. If I’m in conflict with the weather I’m going to go find a coat. So all of these conflicts are basically making me do stuff with things and these things, in my mind, are being created in order to answer specific problems that face us. And video games do a really interesting thing because video games answer a lot of different problems and solve a lot of conflicts all at the same time. So if I’m a player I can solve the problem of boredom, if I’m an archaeologist I can solve the problem of my dissertation. If I’m a game developer, I can solve my problem of putting food on the table because this is how I make my livelihood. If I’m a corporation I can do something for money or, at the same time, if I’m providing materials this allows me to have a roof over my head and all of that stuff.
I don’t know. We have fundamental needs as people and we find different ways of doing this. Video games allow us to tell stories, allows us to make something—because I think humans are, by their nature, creative—we always want to make stuff, we want to play. We want to invent. And it’s also something to do. We have these conflicts and a lot of the time they’re not butting heads or violent, they’re just little things and you go and do something to solve that problem. I don’t want to be hungry anymore, I don’t want to be thirsty anymore, I’m tired of being alone. And you go and figure things out. And I think that’s what Foucault’s getting at in Archaeology of Knowledge. I think that’s what people, when they make stuff for archaeologists to find and to analyze, that’s exactly what they’re up to as well. They’re solving problems and the things are just left behind as evidence of the problem solving.
J: Right. Sorry to ask you about Foucault.
A: No, no. It’s totally fine (laughs).
J: Every time I ask someone about Foucault it’s just…[sighs].
But the reason I asked that is that I keep railing on this binary that I said, twenty minutes ago, was probably a false dichotomy or you said that and I agreed with you is that we still wind up having to discuss the distinction between the…I can’t recall your terms, real and synthetic?
A: Natural and synthetic.
J: Right, natural. Sorry. The interesting thing about Foucault is that when he talks about discourse there is that argument in it that things are fundamentally linguistic and so, discursive. As I’ve always understood. The first Foucault book I read was The Archaeology of Knowledge and I really liked that book because he’s trying to find a new method for talking about these things. And he puts it on display in some of his books and the results are we’re still talking about it so obviously he does something interesting with it.
But there is that argument and then you bring up that the material does speak to some degree. Would you say that archaeology is, maybe, an attempt to translate that or is it just observing it?
A: Yeah, it depends on the archaeologist I guess. As I’ve been going through my degree—to be fair, I got my Master’s in 1996 and it took me 21 years to decide to do a PhD and so that’s a lot of learning in-between. And so what I thought about as an archaeologist in my 20s has totally changed from how I think about archaeologists or as an archaeologist in my 40s. So for me, at this point, it’s all about the research questions. What questions am I trying to get answered by looking at this material? Whereas, back in my 20s it was like: “okay, I’m supposed to be digging this stuff up. Now that I’ve got this stuff, what does it mean? What’s its context?” And it was a very quantitative, maybe a left-brain kind of way of looking at archaeologist material. It was very rigid, very traditional.
Now I still think, even though I’m working with digital stuff, I’m still very traditional. But I’m willing to look at the greater context of whatever it is that I’m looking at. So what produced this game of Solitaire for Windows XP? Why was this made, how was it made? Who made it? Who played it? Why did it go away or be replaced by Spider Solitaire? Stuff like this.
And it’s just weird and fun and stuff. You are having a dialogue but you’re also being an observer and this has been one of the most difficult things for me to wrap my head around is the fact that because I’m engaging with something I am affecting that thing. And that kind of gets you into quantum mechanics, because you’re interfering with the object just by looking at it. By looking at it I’m bringing my entire world experience to bear in understanding this pot or understanding this video game or line of code. And I can’t get away from it. That’s why I like to share my work, because I’m seeing it through my eyes but someone might see it differently and they can beat up on me or at least collaborate with me and say “okay well, this is right. You should probably think about X.” And that’s cool. In my 20s I would have been paralyzed with fear in sharing my work and now I’m like: “Of course it’s wrong, you dummy! This is why we share stuff.”
So I’m having this dialogue and sometimes it’s one-sided with an artifact, and sometimes it’s just sitting back and looking at how this one thing is interacting with this other thing in this particular context. And this has gotten me, over the past year, into Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) where you’re kind of removing the human element from how things behave. Which is really hard to do, but at the same time it’s not all about people anymore. And for me, as an archaeologist, I think that’s great. I think it’s been totally vain for people to be studying archaeology and saying “it’s all about the people, man.” No! Not really. I mean, people are a part of it but we need to put part of that over here and decentralize the human element a little bit. And there are some folks who will just go nuts over hearing that and other people saying “yeah! That’s exactly right!” And so I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here, it’s just a different way of looking at things and that’s just the way I’m interpreting the world right now. We might talk again next year and my view will have totally changed or I’ve read something else and I’ll be like “yeah, let’s go in that direction.”
J: Yeah, I also found my way to the Object Oriented Ontologists which is why I nodded so strongly when you said that. It makes perfect sense to look at things that way. From the OOOs I moved on to Alfred North Whitehead and Bruno Latour.
A: Oh, sure.
J: And the way they look at things is more process relations. It’s maybe not removing the human but it’s admitting that humans don’t have the entire story. Not even close. Everything is so complex that it’s all interacting on levels that we will never be able to understand or perceive and that’s hard to work with for the sake of writing and discussing it but it is probably healthy to think about those different models for the relationships.
Part of my dissertation is actually looking at that relationship. You bring up, in your book, the developer, the player, and the avatar in your work. And the way that I’m looking at it is the generated system or the conceptual system in a work of art, and calling that “authored processes”, and then the player and then something that comes from that [tension]. I was wondering if you see the relationship between those things and if procedural generativity, in particular, complicates that.
A: Oh man, does it ever. Okay, there’s a lot of things going on here which is really exciting. I think, first of all, anybody doing digital archaeology needs to check their ego at the door and this is something I’ve had to learn too because you have to realize that there’s stuff that you just can’t see as a human being. And I’ve found this. My current case study for my degree is working with to understand code and code re-use in Colossal Cave Adventure, which was written in 1976-77 and is still being written by people 40 years later, which is amazing. And so I’ve been able to collect all of these code sets and take a look at them. And while I can extract some data just by looking at things, I can’t do it all and so I’ve had to teach myself how to use R, which is a statistics package [laughs]. And how to use a couple of these plug-ins like Stylo, to do stylometry of code. Which is basically, you use this code to look at code and what happens is, it exports information about “yes, 50% of this code is borrowed from this other place.” Or it can look at different code sets and say “these all share a common father or a common mother or a common ancestor but they’re linked to this other part of the family tree.” And that’s really cool to see. I’ve been working with Gephi for the first time over the past couple of weeks to do data visualization and that’s just crazy. I can’t figure this stuff out but, you know, I plug in the information, I let it do it’s thing, and the computer program spits out a chart and I’m like “wow, that’s amazing!” And so I’m abdicating my role a little bit as a thinker by basically putting in good data and letting the machine give me something that I couldn’t do before, and I’m like: “Okay, this machine’s better at this than I am.” Which is okay, that’s fine. It took me a while to acknowledge that.
As far as looking at the ‘hand of the artist’ in a game and the effect on the player, I take a very deist world-view when looking at game creation where basically, you have the development team or the programmer who has made this space. They’ve invented the rules and the physics and all of this stuff and then they put it out into the world and the players come and live there for a while. And sometimes the developer comes back and sometimes the developer never comes back, but the players are still there—until they’re not. And so that’s one thing where you are basically working in a world that someone else has built and you figure out the rules and how to live there. That’s no different than modern life. I’m figuring out the rules, natural law, man-made or human-made law. It’s like Saint Augustine but in the 21st Century [laughs].
But then you get into what you mentioned earlier, about procedural generation. People are like: “what is procedural generation?” It’s basically writing yourself shortcuts or loops of code that allow the game to do things on its own based on what you’re trying to do as the programmer. You don’t want to write a program that says: “make this leaf, and then make this other leaf for this tree, for all of these trees in the forest.” No, you want to make a simple bit of code that will say: “trees are in the forest and they have leaves. Go.” And that’s a pretty simple example but a lot of the games that you play now, especially adventure games and RPGs and stuff like that, they’ll use this kind of procedural generation, this kind of shorthand, to populate the world, to make it a believable experience for the player.
Now, what’s coming is something I like to call Machine-Created Culture, where basically the programmers have created code that will then create its own code to make stuff happen in the world. And this stuff that happens in the world is like making some characters that have artificial intelligence or making these environments that nobody has seen before and then having these things interact together without the presence of a human being around. And then when the human comes, nobody has seen this culture before, nobody has seen these NPCs, Non-player characters, before, nobody has seen these landscapes before. And what does that mean from an archaeological perspective? It’s like going in and seeing a new culture on earth or experiencing a new language for the first time. “Wow, what is this? And how can I figure this out?” And that’s really exciting.
I wonder though, if this is already happening and we’re just too human to recognize it. You know? How can a human being recognize a non-human culture? I don’t know. And that’s the thing that’s been baking my noodle for the past few years and I still don’t know how to answer that question.
J: I’m in the same spot as you (laughs).
A: (Laughs). So that’s a long answer to a short question.
J: Well, we’re in the same realm, I think, despite different approaches and different backgrounds. Which is pretty exciting. I think that No Man’s Sky is probably signaling something related to this, and you’ve done a lot of really interesting work—that’s actually how I found you, is No Man’s Sky, because I’m the only person I know who loves that game and wants to talk about it. Do you think the game’s release has limited its scope in academia or critical discussions of the game?
A: No. I mean, it probably has. I think people gravitate towards things that work, you know? It’s easy to write about or study something that works. And with No Man’s Sky that had a steep learning curve and it didn’t do what it was supposed to do right out of the box and it took a lot of time and a lot of patience to figure it out and then to get in there and get some enjoyment out of it. Not a lot of people have that kind of patience. We’re talking about 40, 50, 60 hours before you really get going? (laughs). That’s a lot of effort to put in for that kind of reward, but I’m a very patient person and so it was okay for me to figure this out and to take the time. And I got rewarded. Probably the best thing that could have happened to that game was to have it release when it did. And I know that people were like “oh, they released it too soon, it wasn’t ready.” And I’m like “exactly.” Because it makes it archaeologically interesting for me because you’re studying failure.
But it’s also not a complete bust, because it did allow you to explore a universe that nobody had ever seen before with a very small group of people. And the people who were playing, they really wanted to be there and because they really wanted to be there, the trolling was down, the community was super nice and open to ideas and answering questions because “oh, you really like this game too? Oh, well that’s cool! Tell us what you’re working on, we’ll tell you what we’re working on. Go here, and here! You can see this cool thing!” And I hadn’t had that kind of gaming experience in my life. So in a way it was very anthropological, because it’s like “here I come with my research questions and a genuine interest in this space” and then meeting the people who live there who are looking at this not as an archaeological thing but as a place to be. They were like “oh cool, somebody’s interested in what we’re up to, let’s talk to this guy.” And so that was really fun. I went through ethics review before I started the project and everything to make sure it was cool. Then Meghan Dennis and Catherine Flick and I co-wrote, basically, a “rules of engagement” for a culture in a synthetic space because we needed to have the ethics document in hand before we made first contact and so being able to have that place was probably the best outcome from that particular project. Because now we can use it for all kinds of things and manipulate it based on the games and people we are looking at.
But yeah, a game like No Man’s Sky, it got a lot of bad press. People griefed it, but at the same time that high barrier of entry and that tolerance for suffering for a while really paid off. But, you know, in natural world archaeology it’s the same thing. You might get a junk site, but you have to excavate it. You’ve got money to excavate this thing and you’re going to do your final report and you might have found just a bunch of grotty pots and not a lot of architecture and it’s like: “oh, this is such an ugly site, I hate this, there’s nothing cool here.” But you have to record it, because that’s a responsibility. Sometimes you get junk and sometimes not, and sometimes what you think is junk actually turns out to be pretty cool as you continue to explore it.
J: I mean, No Man’s Sky has significantly improved as a result of the poor release and reception.
A: Yeah, oh yeah.
J: I liked the game straight out of the gate but it’s way better now. It’s improved.
A: It is. You know, playing vanilla on day one it was basically a bronze-age or iron-age kind of prehistory. And I went back—I’ve been playing a lot of other games, especially Assassin’s Creed Odyssey now—but I went back a couple of weeks ago because somebody had nudged me to say that my base hadn’t uploaded in the latest version so I went up and re-uploaded it. But when I got there and I went to the new capital of the Galactic Hub, New Lennon, it was this Coruscant—to borrow from Star Wars—this city-planet with dozens and dozens of bases all over this thing. In the old days you had one base per planet, per system. All of a sudden I get there and it’s like the Hellenistic age, there’s all this technology and all of these buildings and “Who are all of these people?” It was crazy! I was like, “man, if I started my project now I would be just buried in information” but having done the project earlier I had a very limited set of data with which to work. The game is really cool now, it was cool in the beginning but it’s really cool now. You can have submarines and stuff! You know, it’s changed. It’s still fun. It was always fun, but it’s changed like cities have changed. It’s like being in New York City now versus New York City in the 1600s. You know?
J: I think also, as the game has developed, the idea of things emerging from it that are interesting like player-behaviours, you talk about emergent behavior in your book. I’m also interested in this idea of emergence or emergent behavior or emergent narrative or things like that. There are so many narratives that are being told all the time in this game now that people were going through the game and they had that core narrative that was maybe dragging them along because they couldn’t figure out anything else to do and I remember the Atlas Rising update that kind of introduced that story where they give you the idea that you’re the travelers and all that stuff. And they showed you different possible playstyles in these different characters that you meet and I was like: “Okay, I think they actually are starting to get it” that there’s really no reason to play the core narrative the way that they want you to when there’s so much potential. I remember, at a conference I spoke about the Galactic Hub but I also spoke about this one random user who just builds KFCs on random planets, and McDonalds, and just leaves them there.
J: They’re amazing! It’s one of my favourite things in the whole No Man’s Sky universe. You just walk across the horizon and there’s just a random KFC. There’s weird and interesting behavior that’s happening and I think it’s directly tied to the fact that the game had a rough start and it had a few very devoted people that, over time, just pushed up against what was allowed.
A: It’s like, what else are you going to do? You get through the forty hours of “story” and then you’re like: “great, well I can go to these different planets and just check them out or I can build things.” And it’s like being alone on a deserted island, you know? You get Tom Hanks making Wilson the Volleyball and having somebody to talk to. It’s the same kind of thing (laughs).
With emergent behavior, though, there are a couple different things going on. You’ve got player interaction with the game and so when the player is working within the rules of the game things are happening and sometimes things get a little weird, so you might see some glitched behavior. If you’ve played any kind of Assassin’s Creed game, at least back in the day. The one they’ve got out now, I’ve not been able to get it to glitch at all. I’m sure people have. But in Assassin’s Creed Unity and some of the earlier ones, you’d see pictures of these characters without faces and all this stuff and it was really strange and creepy and weird and cool. As a player you don’t get to make the glitches happen until you show up, and when you’re doing stuff or you’re playing with the world. And there are a group of players who will try to break the rules of the world in order to get an unfair advantage or just mess around with the game just to see what they can do, which is cool.
But this other kind of emergent behavior is understanding that games are complex systems where you have code that is created by people interacting with other code in the game which is interacting with the player which is interacting with hardware which is interacting with internet speed and all of this stuff and sometimes things go horribly wrong. And it’s all these complex behaviors working together to make something that is emergent or unanticipated. These rules have worked together to make something that was not expected by the developer or the player which makes them, in my mind, archaeological artifacts. And when the game developer patches it, the artifact is gone and no one would ever know it was there. To me that’s archaeologically significant in the life-span of a game.
J: Yeah, you mention a couple of times in your book the Galactic Hub and the climate-induced migration. That blew my mind, thinking about that on multiple levels. It’s a place that I’ve never seen, it’s a place that exists, that people have found and they built something together. And it gets wiped out because the game updates and everyone has to go and inspect the remains. It’s so fascinating.
A: We’re talking about climate changes and stuff like that but I think maybe the better example, now that we’re talking, is more of an earthquake.
A: Because you can see the hurricane coming, and you can prepare for the hurricane. But for that first change from Pathfinder 1.2 to Atlas Rises 1.3, that was an earthquake that shook the entire universe. But it also affected the climate of all these planets, all the climates changed, and for most people it became toxic and cold or too hot. I remember waking up the next morning not knowing what happened. I was like: “Man, my base was on a paradise planet and I wake up and I’m in a toxic place? What is this?” I checked and, nope, that’s my base. I went online and it happened to everyone! It really affected that community. Now, it happened again with No Man’s Sky Next, which was the version that came after Atlas Rises, but in this case the community of players knew that there was a strong chance that the universe would be reset again. That the climate would change again. So they planned for it. And it was basically like putting plywood over your windows before the big storm comes, and making sure you have enough food in your fridge, enough gas in the car. And it’s exactly what happened, and people stayed in their spaceships overnight and woke up in the morning like: “yep! It happened. But guess what? It’s not gonna suck, because we saved all of our stuff and we kind of have an idea about where we want to go next.” So it was less of a catastrophe that time.
There are lessons to be learned from what happened in that game and what it means to have good leadership and good planning for catastrophe. And that’s really got real-world relevance.
J: That’s completely unexpected, I’m sure. They couldn’t have imagined that people would do this.
J: Especially when the game was not a multiplayer game in the sense that we would typically say. There was a period of time, I think, where you could see a wisp of energy or a little spirit.
A: Yeah, this glowing sphere which is this other person looking at you. In the new version they’re actually wearing space-suits and you can play together and talk together and group together on stuff. And that’s fun. That experience of being able to see this wisp of light in front of you and knowing that’s another human being on the other side, but that’s all you get, was amazing as this kind of first contact especially it gave you chills the first time it happened to you.
J: Because it was finally a real thing that could happen in this universe. You didn’t have to alt-tab away from the game to a message board or something like that to deal with that.
I kind of want to ask one last question, I know we’ve been talking for about an hour now. It went by pretty quick, but I have one last question, actually, of all the questions I’ve written down. The first time I heard about you was the No Man’s Sky Code of Ethics. I was very excited at the time, and to some degree still, I was looking at the difference between interpretation in a literary context and interpretation in a game context, where you have to interpret the world through your playstyle to some degree. You have to figure out the rules, work up against them, understand what’s constraining you. And you even mentioned, you have a deist perspective on the design and I would agree. I think that there is that, and maybe that’s ending and that would be very interesting, but the way that I looked at the Code of Ethics was “oh, this is a playstyle.”
J: And when the game came out, it seemed as though that playstyle was less possible than it is now.
A: You’re right.
J: Did you find that those constraints that you were putting on the game and how you approached it taught you something about games today, as they update and are constantly being updated?
A: Well it taught me something about games but also about project planning just generally. I mean, for the game it turned out to be really dangerous for us to make assumptions about what we were going to get based on what the developer was telling us. So here’s all of this literature coming out, and all of these press conferences and interviews and everything. So we thought we had enough to go on and it turns out that we didn’t and that what we were given was a lot different than what we were expecting. We still had the document, we had to revise the document but we still had it. We could use it for other things and that’s fine and as the game changed it became more close to the thing we envisioned but it took a year at least in order for that to happen.
This is also part of project planning and part of being an archaeologist. I was reading Martin Carver’s book Archaeological Investigation and one of my committee members is Steve Roskams who wrote the book Excavation, he literally wrote the book on excavation called Excavation. And both of these guys were like; “your plans will change once you put the spade in the dirt.” (Laughs). When you get to the site it’s not going to be exactly as you planned and you need to be flexible and revise your plans day-to-day and exercise reflexivity or thinking about what you’ve done and how you would change what worked, what didn’t work. It’s very Pythagorean in a way. I guess Pythagoras was rumored to have said: “Before bed, you need to ask yourself what did I do right, what did I do wrong, and what did I leave undone?” And that’s really for the archaeologist to follow, that creed. Archaeologist’s Creed (laughs). Where you’re asking these three questions of yourself day-to-day as you’re at the site. And this Code of Ethics in No Man’s Sky just taught us that the site we choose, or chooses us, will change as we interact with it and we need to be prepared for that change and how do we respond to it? That was a great life lesson.
J: Yeah. That’s super interesting. There’s a lot more to talk about, I think, but I will let you go pretty soon. Just one last question just for fun?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. That’s fine!
J: You mentioned you were playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey? What do you think of it?
A: I love it, you know. I’ll get in trouble for saying this too but I don’t care. I was reading a lot of reviews and the press that were like: “it’s too big, there’s too much to do.” That’s why I paid freakin’ $60! I didn’t pay that money so I could play Destiny 2 and be over with the story in 20 hours and just wander around. For me, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is great because of its scope and its size. There’s always something to do and something to see. As an Archaeologist who has dug in Greece and spent a lot of time in Greece it’s the best thing for me! I’ve played the heck out of that game, I’ve really enjoyed it. I got it the week it came out and I didn’t get a season’s pass. That might change now that they’re putting out some DLC. Yeah, I like it because it’s an archaeological game, in a way. It allows me to see these visualizations of how buildings were when they were new. “Oh, it’s in 5th century Greece and there’s the Acropolis and it’s a brand-new Parthenon! That’s amazing”. Or going to Crete and seeing the palace of Knossos and seeing it in a state of ruins, because it would have been in ruins back then because it’s Minoan and it’s old and Arthur Evans hasn’t come to rebuild it. So that’s all awesome, I love how it was realized. There’s archaeological quests in it, there’s a lot of heritage in it. It’s just fun. I’m playing as Cassandra which I think was the right choice because she’s an awesome character to play, probably one of my favourite all-time characters to play as because she’s funny and smart and she’s awesome and kicks butt. There’s a lot of humanity in that character which I really haven’t seen before. So yeah, thoroughly satisfied with that purchase.
J: I think, as it goes on sale over Christmas, I might have to dive in. It looks really interesting.
A: Do it. It’s big fun.
J: Okay, is there anywhere people can find you on social media?
A: Yeah, I’m all over the place. (Laughs).
J: Well, I found you. (laughs).
A: You can go to my blog, which is archaeogaming.com. On Twitter: @archaeogaming; @NMSarchaeolgy; @adreinhard. If you want to drop me a line, probably the best one to use is email@example.com. I have email up all the time so expect a reply.
J: Thank you. This was really nice. Thank you.
A: This was fun!