Archaeology and Skryim: a Qualitative Survey

I’ve been holed up for the past few weeks, frantically reading, thinking and writing!

Finally I’ve reached the point where my deceptively simple survey is ready to be released.

For those who haven’t been following my previous posts, I’m a masters student studying the significance of the past in videogaming and videogaming culture. My case study is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The main aim of my research is to find out whether or not people are aware of the historical aspects of Skyrim, and how they view these elements of the game.

A large part of the qualitative evidence I will use in my dissertation will be ethnographic data collected on online discussion forums dedicated to Skryim. However, this information will be supplemented by the views of as many Skyrim players that I can reach through the web.

The survey will take 5 or 10 minutes to complete, and you can go into as much detail as you want with your answers, but any thoughts you might have would be extremely valuable to me and my research. Please take a minute to read carefully the information that is provided at the beginning of the questionnaire.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of archaeology and Skyrim being in any way connected, by all means take a look back at previous posts on this blog to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

If you don’t want to fill out the survey but would like to contribute your own ideas or opinions, replies to this post would be equally appreciated. Similarly, if you could share the link with anyone you think might be keen to contribute their views then I would be extremely grateful!

Click here to complete the survey! 

Thesis writing: the most vicious of circles.

I haven’t blogged, or read the blogs of people I follow for so long, so I thought I’d just pootle by and drop a thought or two.

My time recently has been consumed by a big life change including house moving and the reconsideration of my employment prospects, but all of that has had to go on the back-burner now, because it’s time to really start to write my dissertation.

I find myself engaging in this ridiculous and rabid circle of events daily. This is the sort of psychological process that has accompanied almost every essay or piece of written work that I’ve ever composed, but because this is my Master’s thesis and it’s the first time I’ve ever done my own primary research and real life has got massively in my way and waylaid the writing process, it seems amplified tenfold.

So my days currently look something like this:

8am: Wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day

9am: Around two hours of wonderful, optimistic productivity and a reasonable increase in word count.

11am: DISTRACTION! THE INTERNET! Something shiny! Facebook. TWITTER!

12pm: Guilt guilt guilt.

1pm: Lunch.

1.30pm: I KNOW! I’ll look for jobs so that I don’t end up having all my belongings repossessed when I fail to repay my ridiculous loan after graduation.

3pm: Utter despair and demotivation: there are no exciting jobs and I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.

3.30pm: BUGGER! Dissertation. Why aren’t I writing my dissertation?

4pm: Every word is agony…

5pm: Clearly it is time for dinner and the company of other human beings.

7pm+: Panic writing and low productivity.

At times this vicious circle amuses me and I recognise that this is the sort of battle that any academic engages in when grappling with their research, but at others I think this can’t be right, other people wouldn’t be stupid enough to put themselves through this – I must just not be cut out for this.

So I wonder, does anyone else have a similar vicious circle that they engage in when dealing with their own work? Any tips or advice? Just want to rant about your own writing process? I’m all ears!

Almost 12pm… time for a bit of guiltguiltguilt.

Towards a Chronology of (and in) Computer Games

I absolutely love this new blog by Andrew Reinhard – and I love the end part of this post in particular. Think of the possibilities for geospatial analysis of artefacts in online environments! I think it would be so interesting to compare the way that artefacts are seen to move in real world archaeology and the archaeological environments that are digital in nature.

Archaeogaming

Archaeologists are obsessed with dates, or, perhaps more accurately, chronologies. What came before? What came later. What did that period of transition look like? How did that transition compare with a similar one that happened elsewhere, and earlier? What can we find to help us date an archaeological site? The soil strata? A coin? An inscription? Pieces of pottery?

For establishing a chronology, it’s the pottery. Archaeologists have found tons and tons and tons of sherds from all different kinds of pots, and have studied the clays used to make the pottery, the fineness or coarseness of that clay, the technology used to make the pot (hand- or wheel-made), the firing of the pots, their shapes, what they were found with, and over many years, archaeologists have a very good idea of how to assign at least a preliminary date to a site. That chronology established by pottery needs a…

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What is Archaeogaming?

An excellent post by Andrew Reinhard on ‘Archaeogaming’ – Andrew organises his thoughts on archaeology and gaming most eloquently, and articulates some of the fuzzy, thought-shaped notions that have been bashing about my head for the past 6 months or so. This new blog is a must for anyone interested in the intersection of archaeology and games!

Archaeogaming

Let me begin at the beginning, a Level 1 n00b, but an archaeology “Master.” I was once a reluctant gamer who was dragged kicking and screaming into World of Warcraft (vanilla) and ended up losing myself in the virtual world, leveling to 70 the hard way (on my own, pugging instances, and without any mods). I played through Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm. I quit before the release of Mists of Pandaria dropped. Why? Because I had a problem with the lore, the underlying story-history of the game-world.

As an archaeologist (B.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Evansville, M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri-Columbia), I am interested in how the game-world is built. This includes everything from architecture to humble pots. This also includes the story of the races within whatever game I play. Playing WoW was extremely…

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Why playing Skyrim makes you an Archaeologist

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to get my head around just what it is that makes me so adamant that historical RPGs are somehow important to archaeological discourse. Something inside me is quite sure that gaming is this huge, untapped resource for knowledge-making.

A lot of this pondering  has consisted of me trawling through online forums and trying to figure out what kind of interactions people are having with the past during their gameplay.

I’m far from figuring out just what it is that makes people engage with the past in videogames (or if they are even aware of doing so) but I’m definitely getting to grips with the kinds of interactions people are having. Obviously, these interactions are multiple, but I’ll summarise the jist of it below.

Before I started digging about in the forums, I expected people to proclaim a desire to experience ancient, culturally rich lands – essentially taking on the role of one of their ancestors. Instead I found that the role people took on was more that of the archaeologist themselves. This approach to dealing with the game has been expressed directly by different individuals on different threads and forums.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. The aim of RPGs such as Skyrim is to solve mysteries and act out narratives – to follow material trails that lead to answers and cause stories to unfold before the player. Some gamers have a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of the extensive Elder Scrolls lore (fellow players will know that there is a whole plethora of historical and biographical books spread accross Tamriel, just waiting to be picked up and read by brave adventurers just like us). There are whole essays and discussions about human origins, heritage and descent, politics and race to be found, meticulously researched and written by players from across the globe.

Just some of the books that can be read in Skyrim. Image: elderscrolls.wikia.com/

As an archaeologist, I think I can safely say that what these players are doing is distinctly similar to scholarly archaeological practice. They’re engaging with the material culture within these digital landscapes, amalgamating and synthesising knowledge – they’re interpreting their findings. Not only are they doing that, but they are sharing their thoughts and knowledge with other players online, and engaging in meaningful discussions about their theories concerning the past.

The Lamplough-Lidster collection

I’ve mentioned the wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to gain some work experience whilst studying at the University of York. The volunteer work I’ve been doing on the Lamplough project has been invaluable experience for me, and has really opened my eyes to the way that Heritage institutions work. 

Click here to see my introductory post on the YMT blog.

Research is like art.

I’ve decided to create a hashtag for my thesis topic. I already said that I plan on blogging about my research as I go, but I think tweeting it could also be really interesting. I’m really interested in the way that research happens.

Click above to go to the #archgames twitter feed

Click above to go to the #archgames twitter feed

I always thought research was a lot like creating a piece of art. Drawing or painting, for me at least, never quite goes as expected, and I never end up with what I envisaged right at the start. That doesn’t mean I’m never satisfied with the fruits of my labours, but it can sometimes mean that I lose sight of how I managed to get to the point I ended up at.

I have no doubt that being able to look back at my blog and a series of potentially incoherent, panic-stricken tweets will be enlightening. I also hope that anyone wanting to contribute to the debate/research will use the hashtag. If I feel the need to use your comments in my thesis I will, of course, ask your permission before doing so!

Anyway, tomorrow the second week of the ten-week-long summer term starts, and with it comes a thesis writing workshop, and the deadline for a 50 word abstract for the assessed lecture that we are to give on our chosen topics. I’ve always struggled with words counts, for I am the queen of rambling. I can’t help it, I’m just an absolute slave to scholarly jargon and sentences so long they could kill a (wo)man. 50 words is absolutely nothing. It’ll be a good exercise though, I’m sure.

I’ve been thinking some more about my methodology, too, and have come to the conclusion that my best bet is to conduct a sort of digital ethnographic study, focussed on players of one particular game. You guessed it… SKYRIM!* By using different data collection methods (online surveys, interviews, observation and participation on online forums, social media – the possibilities are endless! I love teh interwebz) I think I can get a really good idea of how people interact with the game and with it’s culture. A brief scan of the official Bethesda forum for General Discussion on the 5th Elder Scrolls game informs me that the words ‘archaeology’ and ‘history’ feature somewhat regularly in people’s conversations. Of course there are some other very interesting trends in topic, which I suspect play an important part in the identity creation process.  My whole research premise rides on the idea that the past can be used as an arena for identity creation. 

These are subjects that really excite and interest me, and whilst it might look like they’re very vague, I am sure that archaeology and ideas about the past play an important, albeit subconscious part in most interactions of this sort. I have so many little tangents that I want to go off on in this post already, but it’s almost 1am, and I promised myself this would be a short post and that I’d save the juicy stuff for longer, more involved posts.

As always, thoughts and contributions are welcomed with open arms.

*I think my next post is going to have to be a justification for this particular choice

My thesis in the making: archaeology in gaming.

I decided to make this post because the time has come to really start thinking seriously about writing my masters thesis. This is a somewhat daunting prospect, and really rather new territory for me. I am, by the very nature of my undergraduate training, a prehistorian. I relish dealing with weighty theoretical discussions centred around really rather ephemeral evidence. Now I am required to mentally shake myself and enter the real world. My masters is in Digital Heritage, and as such I must deal with some sort of digital media in my research.  The data I’ll be dealing with will be qualitative data provided by living, human participants.

Yes, this will be very new territory for me.

The title on my thesis proposal was as follows:

Experienced archaeologies: A qualitative study of the way in which people engage with the past in role playing games.

I’ll come up with something catchier at a later date, but for now I feel like this pretty much sums up what I want to do.

My primary focus will be on the way that people (everyone!) interact and engage with the past in video games – RPGs in particular. I’ll use my research to construct ideas about how gaming technology might be used for disseminating experiential interpretations of archaeological data.

I feel like I might be jumping on a bit of a bandwagon, as it seems that archaeology in gaming is about to become a hot topic. However it is something that I feel very strongly about, and I think that if I come up with a robust enough methodology my research could be some of the first of its kind (in archaeology at least) and potentially of use to others in the future.

All in all I think this is going to be an exciting piece of work to do, and something that I hope to learn a lot from. I’m pretty sure that my primary source for information is going to be my good old friend, teh interwebz, so I feel that recording some of my musings about it here is quite an appropriate thing to do.

Earlier this evening I tweeted to gauge interest in the research, and to see if anyone would be interested in participating. My plan is still very much unformulated, but I think that at this stage it would be wonderful to hear people’s thoughts on how this sort of research would be best carried out (I’m not afraid to ask advice when I’m completely new to something!) and if anyone has any resources that they think might come in useful.

My bike, the authentic object with it’s own biography.

I’d like to take another moment to think about authenticity. The word itself has been thrown about a lot during my masters, in various contexts, and I am rather fond of using it. Authenticity is particularly interesting in a heritage/museums context. What is it that makes an object authentic? is a question that I hear asked a lot. And I think, a lot of the time, the authenticity of an object and the authenticity of its heritage are two completely different things. To illustrate this, I use my beloved bike, seen below.

A truly terrible shot of my higgledy-piggledy bike of joy and happiness, named George, outside Kings Manor in York.

The story of how I came to be in possession of such a beauteous thing is a rather sad one. For the last two years of my undergraduate, I owned a bike with a very much similar look (see below). It was pieced together lovingly by my father, with a Peugeot Provencelle touring frame at it’s core. Now I don’t know a lot about bikes, but I assume that this model (along with my current Dawes Galaxy mixte bike) started to be manufactured in the 1970s bike boom. In touring cycling especially it seems that the trend is to keep your (handmade, steel) frame and custom build your bike around that. When I moved to York, I took my precious Peugeot with me, and had  the audacity to chain it up outside my building. Alas, it was stolen.

The only photograph of my marvelous ex-bike that I seem to be able to find at the moment

Needless to say, I was devastated. Over the years I’d grown real attachment to this bike. It’s frame was so obviously retero, and therefore ‘cool’, and I’d attached meaning to it because of it’s connection with my dad. So the only thing to do was to get another one, just as authentically retero and cool, and equally comfortable to ride (I think to buy a new handmade, steelframed and therefore comfortable touring bike in the UK it’ll put you back a pretty £1000) so off I went and purchased a Dawes Galaxy.

The previous owner of this Dawes bike took great pride in the fact that it was in its complete, original state. It had these terrible drop-handle bars that more than once caused me to crash, and a rack on the back that made my panniers slip towards my heels as I pedalled. I realised that I actually placed very little value in the thing as an authentic object. For me, what would make this an authentic, Johnson bike, was extreme customisation and a whole lot of use and abuse. Only once I’d (or rather my dad had) changed the handle bars, added a new rack, given it better mud guards, etc, did I feel like I was ready to name my bike. And I suspect that it’ll be another two years before I develop a similar level of attachment to the one I had for my old Peugeot.

My point here is sort of relevant to conservation and definitely to heritage. Traditional ways of thinking suggest that authenticity is derived from a state of wholeness, completeness and uninterrupted existence of an object. But on a more personal, human level, what we as people and more specifically archaeologists love about objects, is the things that have changed them. The things that set them apart. These are the things that can help us to tell stories about the objects, that help us to understand their (often multiple) owners. Being able to trace an object’s heritage, I would argue, makes it far more authentic than it’s authenticity in the truest, most scientific sense of the word.

The problematic topic of the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage in Britain

In the past few months it has become apparent to me that the subject of voluntary work, in heritage in general and archaeology in particular, is a really rather difficult one. I’ve decided to write this post because the topic has been raised more and more as my classmates and I reach the final stretch of our studies in Cultural Heritage Management and Other Wonderful Archaeological Topics.

It has only become more apparent as I begin to search out jobs and complete application forms from employers who expect a huge amount of experience (both voluntary and paid) from successful candidates. All too often, it is impossible to gain experience in a paid position until you have really rather substantial voluntary experience. Personally I have around 700 hours of voluntary experience, most of which is in field archaeology, and some of which is curatorial or journalistic. But still this does not feel like enough to get the jobs which I have spent the last 6 months qualifying myself to do.

So one of the issues that comes straight to mind is what exactly qualifies someone to do a job – is it experience or is it a piece of paper? Universities are churning out hundreds of gifted and enthusiastic graduates and postgraduates who are inexperienced but who have all demonstrated an ability to learn and apply themselves to various tasks with which they might be confronted with in the working environment (as far as I can gather teaching transferable skills has become extremely important in most university curricula), but their lack of experience hinders them significantly.

So who does have the experience? Well, to me it appears to be those who have the resources that mean they can devote considerable amounts of time to their chosen voluntary pursuit, be that field archaeology or being a Steward at a museum or heritage site .  This brings us on to an even more challenging subject. It is, of course, money! Those who can afford to work for free, are able to do so. Those who have spent a considerable amount of money (not to mention time!) studying Cultural Heritage Management, Digital Heritage, Public Archaeology, Museum Studies need to be paid for their time in order to make their investments in their education worthwhile. Could it be argued then that heritage practice is becoming de-specialised because there are those without qualifications who are willing to work for free?

I must stress here that I am in no way against the involvement of volunteers and the general public in archaeology and heritage. I am a strong believer that everyone who wants to should be able to be involved in their own heritage, but if we lose the heritage specialist, then what do we have left?

There are so many aspects of this conversation to pursue (to list just a few: diminished levels of knowledge/professionalism in the field, entertainment, potentials for community development) which have been mentioned by some of my fellow tweeters.

Interestingly enough, as I started this post, I tweeted about it, and the very immediate and passionate response I had from both followers and non-followers was interesting. This is clearly a subject that people have strong feelings on. I’d love for this to become and open (respectful!) discussion, so please contribute in the comments below, or join in the twitter conversation here. We’re using the hashtag #FreeArchaeology to contribute our thoughts and opinions on the subject!

I will leave you with an interesting and amusing little flow chart that a good friend and fellow blogger of mine, Hannah Sterry  pointed out to me. It is entitled Should I Work for Free? and I believe it contains swears, although there is a button at the top which will remove all traces of the f-bomb.

I look forward to hearing any contributions anyone may have and below I will provide links to others’ thoughts on the subject:

Stone: Some Incoherent Thoughts on Volunteering – A wonderfully honest blog post from Lucy Shipley

Q: Why should archaeology be free? A: It shouldn’t. – Jennie Bancroft presents some statistics that provide an insight into volunteer culture in British Heritage

free archaeology, part one: volunteering, training and crowdfunding – A nice review of how the #FreeArchaeology twitterstorm started, summarising the arguments made on twitter and through blogging.