Video Game Archaeology is Totally a Thing

Allow me share with you, dear readers, an insight into my own life: when I’m not playing games or writing about how much I enjoyed them, I study archaeology in a university setting. I love this hands on study of the past, but have always been disheartened by the fact it shares no connection with my other passion, video games. Or so I thought…

Andrew Reinhard is a graduate of University of Missouri-Columbia with a Masters in archaeology who, after a successful career excavating across the world, is turning his sights towards the archaeology of video games, and pioneering the study of “archaeogaming.”

Reinhard defines the new form of study as, “The archaeology in (and of) video games.” From the study and excavation of physical cartridges to the implications and designs of the worlds and cultures within games, Reinhard has rigorously caved out five subfields of his archaeogaming.

Loosely speaking, archaeologists define an artefact as an object created or modified by humans that, because of its human interaction, holds cultural and/ or historical relevance. A game cartridge or disc unquestionably falls into this category – they are objects manufactured by humans that help define a huge part of late 20th and 21st century culture. Where archaeogaming truly fascinates is beyond the study of the physical artefact and into the game itself: the effort to study the world that awaits within the tangible object. But is it really worthwhile to study a digital world from an archaeological perspective?

The Last of Us, 2013

“The significance lies in the fact that we spend as much time studying manufactured cultures in games as we do ‘real’ cultures from antiquity,” Reinhard explains. “Millions of people spend hours everyday in these spaces. Culture is a human creation, and to all who game seriously, the actions and artifacts used in games are as real or as important as any of our day-to-day objects.”

This isn’t the first time video games and archaeology have crossed paths. Archaeologists famously discovered and excavated a game-filled landfill in Mexico last year after the decades long legend that Atari buried thousands of unsold copies of their unsuccessful 1982 E.T. game months before the video game crash of 1983.

Reinhard’s theories have been ridiculed by some, though he is not the first to fuse gaming and archaeology into a new form of study. Archaeologists and teachers at the Royal Ontario Museum have incorporated Minecraft into some of its youth learning programs, using the game to construct replicas of ancient sites that kids can then explore, study, and understand in a way a traditional textbook-oriented study would not allow for.

Games like the upcoming, procedurally generated No Man’s Sky are sure to offer new questions worth studying in archaeogaming, with Reinhard presently wondering what it will mean to have new environments and pieces of culture created randomly by machines and how to study them.

No Man’s Sky

The archaeological community has always been slow to accept and cynical of new additions to the science. With the ever growing presence of technology and the creation of larger, more realistic virtual worlds appearing year after year, Andrew Reinhard’s archaeogaming research – while admittedly odd at first thought – looks to be one of the most fascinating advancements in modern historical archaeology.



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