Some Thoughts on Gaming and Interaction in Archaeology

A week or so ago I travelled down from Dundee to York to do some structured light scanning of an artefact for a heritage company and while I was there I took the opportunity to catch up with the brilliant Tara Copplestone. If you’re up on your blogging archaeologists you may already know Tara as the ‘Gamingarchaeo’ from her research blog and if you haven’t already you should check out her stuff.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about some open ended questions I’ve had for a while regarding the way audiences engage with interpretive material presented across different contexts and media. I’ve been working predominantly with what I’ve come to see as fairly linear or static modes or representation through film and still images. But the addition of some VR kit in our 3DVisLab here at DJCAD (which my colleagues have been playing around with, putting their own projects into the Vive and Oculus Rift) got me thinking about other modes of representation and what they have to offer.

To me a reconstruction is a point for discussion, a tool to get the brain thinking, not a definitive answer to be passively observed without question. Feedback from the likes of the Skara Brae project suggested that audiences will engage with the same media differently in different contexts. In the Pier Arts Centre viewers enthusiastically tore into the film. They asked questions, they recalled what came to mind during different sequences in the narrative, they asked how it was made and guessed at our intentions as filmmakers. Onsite in the visitor centre at Skara Brae the feedback was, for want of a better phrase, somewhat less inspired. In the comments few ventured further than surface level praise or dislike for the impression we gave of the site and the technical quality of the visuals.

Places like art galleries teach us to think, challenge and decipher when confronted with imagery…have we unintentionally conditioned our heritage site audiences to sit back and be told rather than to sit up and critically engage with the media presented to them? It’s understandable why this occurs – we (the supposed experts, ahem) are relied upon to impart our wisdom to the masses and somewhere along the way that manifested itself as a somewhat authoritative commentary on the past. But that’s not how archaeology works, nor should it be. Sure, we’ve done our research, we’ve dug our sites and we’ve interpreted what we find by the most informed, peer-reviewed means necessary – we archaeologists are smart cookies, that we know for certain. We can make some interpretive statements more confidently than others but when it comes down to it when we ask our research questions what we end up with aren’t answers, they’re interpretations.

So this was the point I’d reached when I came to organise meeting up with Tara for a drink and a chat about gaming.

I thought for a long time that storytelling was an inherently linear means of communication, and had always on some level found it restrictive in the context of communicating archaeological interpretation. To me interpreting a site doesn’t happen along a nice, clean linear narrative. We don’t pick up a trowel and uncover the story of a site piece by piece. Although it may appear like that on the surface, what happens in reality is far more fluid, messy and tangled. Site reports, publications and to a large extent visualisations force this unwieldy process of interpretation back into some sort of coherent narrative, but in so doing we loose a large proportion of the  essence of what it is to interpret an archaeological site.

I wanted to get Tara’s take on this and we chatted a mile a minute for a couple of hours, enthusiastically sharing different projects we’d been working on which attempted to crack open this issue a bit further. We talked about how the constructs of gaming and play could be used to encourage audiences to engage their brains more critically and debated the merits of virtual reality kits vs augmented reality vs consoles. games we’d both played which (although not heritage based) seemed to present an alternative to the norm or an ethos that struck a chord with our communicative conundrums in archaeology. The Chinese Room came up a lot in conversation, both of us having loved Dear Esther and their most recent offering Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. These are games that deviate from the conventional mechanisms of gaming, without traditional goals or conclusions. Rife with uncertainty, these games reveal stories through snippets of memories or conversations while exploring highly immersive environments which leave the player with more questions than answers.

Everybody's Gone To The Rapture™ - Press Demo_20150804174550

Screenshot from Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture game play, where snippets of a story are revealed by silhouetted memories.

Tara told me about some of the work she’s been doing out at Çatalhöyük, experimenting with a geo-located game which triggers as the player walks round the site. They hear dialogues from multiple voices at once, emphasising the varied and multi-vocal interpretations of the site. I chimed in with a project I’d been working on (alongside Kieran, Tessa and John) with a similar intention – the SERF Digital project with Glasgow University and HES where we crafted an interactive interface which allows the viewer to explore hillforts in the Strathearn region of Perthshire. Users can toggle the “site director’s cut” on and off to hear voice overs revealing the archaeological process, interpretation and background to the project in the form of a series of conversations between the site director Dr Tessa Poller, and myself (i.e. the reconstruction artist). This feature presents a tentative experiment in attempting to give the audience greater depth and appreciation of the processes, intentions and outcomes of archaeological investigation and visualisation.

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At one point we even started talking through the British Museum workshops I’d run a few years ago and about how the construct of play can be used in different contexts. Suddenly I realised I’d already delved into games and play as a mode of communication over the years. Only now I was beginning to see it in a different way and as a means to further explore research questions I’d been attacking up until now with a limited appreciation for modes of storytelling which deviate from film or image alone…

Over the next few months I’m keen to keep the conversations going and have a few experimental ideas up my sleeve to throw at the lab’s VR kit, I’ll keep you all posted!

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