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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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