3.7 Archaeogaming

See also the Binder on World-Building.

“Archaeogaming” is the study of archaeology both in and of games, largely focused on digital games (arcade cabinets, computer games, console games, etc.) but also including analog games (tabletop, pen-and-paper, cards, dice, etc.). Two major branches comprise archaeogaming: 1) representations of archaeology and archaeologists in games, and 2) treating games as archaeology themselves.

3.7.1 Archaeological Reception

Archaeologists and archaeological settings lend themselves easily to game design. Archaeologists have reasons to travel to exotic places, to go on adventures, to look for artifacts, and to engage with indigenous cultures. Game developers appropriate archaeological tropes for adventure storytelling, encouraging looting and commerce in artifacts. It is rare to find a game that accurately represents archaeologists and archaeology, and players must ask themselves how what is represented on-screen reflects modern interpretations of the field and its practitioners. One can use these games as entrypoints to talking with the general public about archaeology. One can also attempt to work with game developers on improving archaeology’s representation. Lastly one can create archaeology-themed games as a way to introduce more accurate portrayals of what archaeology is and what archaeologists actually do. Ethics is central to archaeological reception, supported by the work of L. Meghan Dennis (University of York).

3.7.2 Games as Archaeology

Because games are created by people for other people to use, the become part of modern day material culture. As seen in the list of projects below, archaeologists treat game media as both physical and digital artifacts. Games are also archaeological sites when one considers various files recorded to game media, each with a specific location and function. Games are landscapes, too, inviting players to engage with the content.

3.7.3 Archaeogaming Projects Past and Present The Atari Burial Ground

The first archaeogaming project actually happened in a desert landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In 1983 Atari, Inc. buried hundreds of thousands of unsold/returned video game cartridges, which was the cheapest and most expedient way to dispose of its e-waste. Although the dumping was documented by the Alamogordo Daily News and the New York Times, it became an urban legend in the video game community. The legend stated that Atari’s game E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) was the worst video game of all time, and Atari in its shame decided to dump millions of copies in a landfill, covering them with a layer of concrete and then with 10 m of dirt and rubbish. In 2013, a Canadian company, Fuel Entertainment, received the rights from the city of Alamogordo to excavate the landfill in search of the games, filming the project. City waste management expert Joe Lewandowsky conducted photogrammetry to pinpoint the location of where to dig. Archaeologists were invited to assist in the recovery and analysis of the games in April 2014. While for some people the excavation would prove that Atari did dispose of their games in the desert, the archaeologists were interested to learn where the archaeological evidence and details of the urban legend both agreed and diverged. This was the first deposition of an assemblage of 20th-century video games, which for many people growing up in the 1980s had become their cultural heritage. About 800,000 games were actually buried (not millions), and E.T. proved to be one of over 40 different titles dumped in 1983. After the excavation ended, the city donated some of the games to museums worldwide and then auctioned the rest on Ebay, using the proceeds to pay back Alamogordo for equipment and labor, and also to rehabilitate the local museum. Buried

The Twine game Buried (URL: http://taracopplestone.co.uk/buried.html), created by Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham for the University of York’s 2014 Heritage Jame, is an example of ergodic literature (a text-based game) that interprets the concept of burial in both academic and personal contexts. You play as an archaeologist, and the game is faithful to actual day-to-day archaeology and the archaeologist’s routine. Compare this to the over-the-top action of Tomb Raider where archaeology is treated more as set-dressing and an excuse for advancing the series’ story. The No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey

All games lend themselves to archaeological investigation, but only a few contain permanent human populations of players who have made game-spaces their own, investing them with history and lore independent of the game developers’ intentions. One such game is Eve Online. Another is No Man’s Sky. At its inception, the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey intended to explore the procedurally generated, universe-sized universe of the game, documenting examples of “machine-created culture” created through the game’s algorithms and code. What happened instead became an investigation of the human-settled region of the “Galactic Hub”, an enclave of hundreds of citizen scientist-players forced to migrate en masse to another region of the universe because of a catastrophic climate change event. On August 11, 2017, Hello Games released the version 1.3 update, “Atlas Rises”, which reset all of the planetary climates and biomes on a quintillion worlds overnight. Players with bases and farms on “Paradise”-class worlds awoke to extreme cold, heat, and toxicity. They abandoned their habitations and left behind messages for others to read, some being notes of farewell, and others with forwarding addresses. Learning about what happened, who these players were, how they settled the galaxy, and what they left behind became the renewed focus of the NMSAS project. Think of it as Roanoke or Herculaneum in space. Reverse-Engineering Digital Games as Archaeological Practice

Prof. John Aycock (University of Calgary) works at the intersection of archaeology and computer science. His work in reverse-engineering games of the 1980s and 1990s explores the necessity of understanding how hardware and software interface with each other to create a gaming experience, while also deconstructing disk images to understand how games actually work from a technical perspective, identifying precisely where files live on the original game media. His current projects include analyzing full-motion video formats in games, understanding game development through analyzing underlying code, and early attempts at digital rights management (DRM, or copy protection) on physical game media. Purpose

Digital games specifically (and software generally) are the new habitations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Billions of people enter synthetic spaces every day to work, communicate, make a living, be entertained, to create, all by passing through the modern day looking glass of the smartphone screen, desktop display, or television. The nature of these digital habitations, their use, construction, and disposal, lends itself to archaeological interpretation. It is a new field within archaeology where we can attempt to understand human occupation and development in digital built environments.

3.7.4 Is Archaeogaming Archaeology? A Future of the Discipline.

When most people think of archaeology they consider it to be focused on ancient cultures and artifacts. However, in the past 30 years, archaeology of the recent past (and of Late Capitalism) has become more mainstream. Archaeology is the study of how people interact with things and within their environment regardless of time period. William Rathje’s Tucson Garbage Project (begun in 1973) studied people’s everyday household rubbish, comparing the material evidence with anonymous interviews with the residents about what they threw out. In 2018 Justin Walsh and Alice Gorman lead the project recording the history of use of the International Space Station, using tens of thousands of photographs taken from inside the ISS to reconstruct how the interior changed over time.

With archaeogaming, one can work with physical artifacts such as game tapes, cartridges, CDs, and hardware, but one can also conduct archaeological investigation within the games contained on that media. Software programs are built environments and through their daily use by billions of people become contemporary examples of material culture and built heritage. Games contain art and architecture, a history of use, object biographies, game- and user-created histories, and change over time through use and development. Archaeogaming is an entrypoint to understanding the wider world of software archaeologically. When studying the past, archaeologists rely on material evidence, context, and primary sources to reconstruct an understanding of people and how they lived. With software, similar archaeological questions are asked of populations of creators and users, towards an archaeology of the future.

3.7.5 Exercises

  1. Play a game featuring an archaeologist or archaeology and describe how the archaeology as represented differs from actual practice.
  2. Write your own mini-game that includes either archaeology or a character who is an archaeologist. An accessible tool with which to craft a game is Twine. Tara Copplestone has a guide to twine for archaeologists that can get you started; the Twine Cookbook contains code examples for achieving particular effects. One in particular that might appeal to archaeologists is the potential for triggering passages of text or parts of a game based on the players’ actual physical locations
  3. Pick a game that has neither archeologists nor archaeology (or cultures, monuments, artifacts, etc.) in it and describe how it is an archaeological artifact, site, and/or landscape.
  4. Deconstruct a piece of physical game media as an archaeologist might, and write a site report based on what you find.

3.7.6 Further Reading

The following works will help situate ‘archaeogaming’ for you in broader archaeological practice: Aycock and Reinhard (2017), Meyers and Reinhard (2017), Reinhard (2015), Reinhard (2017), and Reinhard (2018).


Aycock, John, and Andrew Reinhard. 2017. “Copy Protection in Jet Set Willy: Developing Methodology for Retrogame Archaeology.” Internet Archaeology 45. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.45.2.

Meyers, Emery, and Andrew Reinhard. 2017. “Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of Archaeology in Video Games.” Public Archaeology 14 (2): 137–49.

Reinhard, Andrew. 2015. “Excavating Atari: Where the Media Was the Archaeology.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (1): 86–93.

Reinhard, Andrew. 2017. “Video Games as Archaeological Sites: Treating Digital Entertainment as Built Environments,” In The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games, edited by A. A. Mol, Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke C. E., Boom K. H. J., and A. Politopoulos, 99–106. Sidestone Press.

Reinhard, Andrew. 2018. Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. Berghahn Books.