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.

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Why archaeology needs Game Developers and Other Nerds*

I recently discovered the wonderful online magazine, Love Archaeology, created and run by postgraduate students at Glasgow University. This discovery in itself merits the creation of a blog post (I strongly recommend checking it out, the thing has a wonderful feel – a mix of enhusiasm, knowledge and general good spirits!), but it also links nicely on to a little archaeology rant that I’ve had brewing up inside for almost a year now.

The third issue of Love Archaeology considers how the study of material culture in imaterial worlds – that is, fictitious creations such as novels and popular games like the Elder Scrolls arc that have their roots firmly placed in our own, human archaeologies – can contribute to archaeological thought. This sort of thing has been hovering on the edge of my brain for god knows long, but I never quite took notice. Clearly I am preoccupied by the past, and that preoccupation has made its way into my hobbies in the form of nerdalicious pursuits such as the playing of Skyrim for really quite unreasonable amounts of time, and the perhaps more honourable act of reading great works of fiction such as George R. R. Martin’s epic political medieval fantasy. I’ve always maintained that I’m an archaeologist for the sole reason that I am also an escapist, and I very much enjoy pretending that the real world doesn’t exist by immersing myself in other worlds, populated by our ancestors. I suppose it just didn’t occur to me that this is exactly what a very large percentage of the population in most developed countries is doing as well.

Does this make us all archaeologists? I certainly believe it means we all think like archaeologists. Or does it mean that archaeologists think like humans? And I suppose that is indeed the goal – to get inside the heads of our human ancestors.

Anyway, I digress. The above discussion is a very interesting one, and one which I might attempt to pursue and perhaps somehow twist into something resembling a thesis. My main point for this post was, however, why the world of archaeology needs game developers and other hardcore gaming-type nerds in general.

This is an opinion that I’ve been brewing ever since somewhere around the middle of my third year studying for an Archaeology BA at Cardiff. I shall illustrate it with this beautiful piece of artwork that I stumbled across whilst surfing the web. Okay, I didn’t stumble across it at all, I was actively seeking out epic bits of concept art for the aforementioned Skyrim.

Image

(c) Bethesda Studios 2011. Art by Adam Adamowicz. Cross section view of a long hall built by the fictional race who live in Skyrim, the Nords.

This wonderful piece of art was released in 2011 previous to the release of the actual game, Skyrim, the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The games are set on the fictional continent of Tamriel, of which Skyrim is a northern province (imagine mountainous landscapes filled with viking-esque settlers and warriors). More images belonging to the same collection of concept art can be found here.

Anyway, I digress once again. My point is… my point is just look at the above image. It looks like an archaeological reconstruction. Or rather, the best archaeological reconstruction anyone has ever seen, ever, in the history of archaeological reconstructions. The image clearly shows both the interior and exterior of the building. It shows the different stages of the build, and the contents of the building, the way it would look if it was occupied by people. The attention to detail is absolutely stunning, and the skills with which is was drawn are undoubtedly phenomenal. This is the sort of digital art that the archaeological world desperately needs.

The people who develop games like this are clearly extremely creative individuals. They’re also clearly hugely talented. We need them.

We are living in an increasingly visual world. In general I think people don’t read as much as they used to, and engage with their real and virtual environments in an increasingly  visual and visceral way. I feel like one of the main things holding archaeology back (don’t get me wrong, archaeology is definitely going places,  just a bit slower than the rest of the world) is our lack of ability (or reluctance?) to represent our findings and our theories in a visually creative and accessible manner. Although deeply rooted in academic scientific knowledge, archaeology is also fundamentally linked with the imagination, and in order to communicate the results of our imaginings, we need to use creative means. I’m interested in the way that archaeology has been artistically represented in the past and, although I’ve barely scratched the surface, what I’ve found has been pretty dire most of the time.  I’m not saying that there are no archaeologists who are good at drawing, definitely not. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some instances of really great visual representation in archaeology. What I think is probably the case is that most archaeologists are so preoccupied by their own research that they cannot bring themselves to spend huge amounts of time representing the things that they simply want to know more about. Or perhaps more realistically, and more depressingly, we simply don’t have the means to fund the creation of such effective images. I know if I was as gifted as the person/people who drew those images linked above then I’d be letting Bethesda pay me handsomely to do their concept art rather than trying to get penniless archaeologists to pay me for interpretive drawings.

Something that I’ve found during a large amount of the class discussions for my MSc in Digital Heritage at York has been that there are so many ways in which archaeology could be headed, making the digital dissemination and preservation of archaeological knowledge more effective and more widespread, but there is this one, terrible looming factor that holds us back. The ever-essential financing that would make such endeavours possible.

So what I would suggest, then, is that we communicate more with the people who have got all the skills and resources to produce such inspiring and imaginative creations. They’re already doing an archaeology of their own, what’s stopping them from getting involved in our archaeology as well?

*By ‘Other Nerds’ I mean ‘Other Hugely Specialised and Talented People’. Obviously.