Gaming and Digital Heritage at CDH 2015: Aarhus

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By Tara Copplestone

Between May 21st and 22nd the Archaeology department at Aarhus University, Denmark hosted the “Digital Heritage: 3D representation in knowledge production” conference at Moesgaard Museum – bringing together an international delegation of scholars to discuss and present projects on the use of 3D methods and theory beyond dissemination and visualization.

I was lucky enough to travel alongside the University of York delegation to present the early stages of my PhD research into the potential of the video-game media form for archaeological applications. The paper, titled “Playful Pasts: Archaeological Knowledge Through Games”, aimed to expose how the media form itself might facilitate different engagements with archaeological practice – from the trowels edge through analysis of data and on to dissemination. Additionally the paper presented a small section of my MSc data as a means to demonstrate some of the pitfalls in the existing methodological and theoretical frameworks alongside how my current research seeks to explore and fill these.

To achieve this I constructed a side-scrolling puzzle game in Unity 3D as a way to explore and demonstrate how the native video-game elements of mechanics, systems and player agency facilitate different ways to approaching data collection, interaction and presentation. Unfortunately due to technical constraints I was not able to play the game as I presented on the day – instead opting to pre-record a play session and speak over it as it played in the background.

The first section of the paper discussed the issues with existing constructs and critical literature which were drawn from my MSc research to form the basis for my PhD research. This research foundation revolves around exploring:

  1. What the affordances and current frameworks for practice regarding the video-game media are
  2. How they might integrate or facilitate novel documentation and dissemination practices for archaeological data collection, analysis and engagement
  3. What the current issues with implementation are and what standards, frameworks, guides to best practice, toolkits and examples need to be generated to assist in overcoming this

Using a simple puzzle sequence the game created for the conference illustrated that the current implementations and exploration have been stuck in somewhat of a rut due to lacking a recursive and collaborative understanding of the interactions between the video-games media form and archaeological practices. To move out of this rut, to explore what role video-games might take in archaeological discourse, we first need to establish a basic understanding and recursive framework for use.

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Image 1: Demonstrating archaeology video-game base camp, confined by cliffs which will require new methodological and theoretical tools for scaling.

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Image 2: The great divide – a trench between archaeological and video-game method and theory.

To scale the walls at base-camp the player first needs to interact with, and solve the “great divide” between the respective existing archaeological and video-game frameworks. The puzzle and its solution were based on 156 interviews conducted across the video-game, archaeological and consumer sectors as part of my MSc research, in which it was demonstrated that a significant void in understanding the affordances, requirements and basis of the opposing entity exists – and that to overcome it both entities need to approach the problem with reference and relevance to the other, sacrificing elements of their current practices which are embedded into other media forms as a means to understand the potentials of the video-game media form for archaeology on its own grounds.

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Image 3: Through working in a co-operative manner new methods and theory can be constructed for understanding the parameters and impacts of the collaboration between the video-game media form and archaeology.

By leveraging and combining the frameworks in a way which respects the structure and affordances of both facilitates a holistic platform for moving forward. The next stage of the paper discussed my emerging PhD research into leveraging video-games and game engines for approaching knowledge production and analysis in novel ways – from the trowels edge onwards. This section spoke about my emerging methodology, creation practices, toolkits and game-outcomes before moving on with a brief discussion on the need to develop frameworks and best-practice applications as part of exploring this new media forms interaction with existing and future archaeological requirements.

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Image 4: Old and new – a puzzle where one must use the existing excavation and recording methods of archaeology alongside game-logic.

My preliminary constructions have focussed around the use of game engines in natively exploring and facilitating the capture, construction and exploration of different narrative forms – ranging from myopic concurrency through syncretic and multilinear.

The concluding sections of the paper were given over to a brief discussion of how the creative practice of games provides a space to think differently about the archaeological record and our interpretation of it through operating at an algorithmic, interactive or systems based level as well as at a predetermined audio, visual and haptic feedback level. The process of creation then becomes a process of formalising, developing and challenging knowledge production processes for archaeological entities.

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Image 5: Demonstrating part of the construction process – involving both physical, rendered assets, and systems which underpin how they should behave and react to player input.

The question and discussion section of the paper was enlightening and seemed to mark a distinct shift in perception from a year and a half ago when I first presented on the potential of the video-game media form for archaeological applications. There seemed to be a real recognition of the role which media can play in shaping and facilitating the ways we document, order and understand the past with additional recognition of the power that the systems, emergence and interaction facilitated by the video-game form might have for archaeological practices.

The conference proved to be a hugely valuable and challenging event which assisted expanding my understanding of the scope of digital heritage implementations of 3D entities for knowledge production, furthermore the conversations which emerged from the sessions assisted greatly in refining and developing my current research. I would like to extend my thanks to the organising committee and host institution for providing a platform for fruitful discussion and debate regarding the role of 3D methods for knowledge production in archaeology. I would also like to extend further thanks to the Centre for Digital Heritage for facilitating my attendance at the conference.

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