I spent this year’s Day of Archaeology laid up in bed, not because of any injury received in the field, but because I managed (somehow) to tear a leg muscle in my sleep. I mention this to highlight a contrast. A year ago, had I received this injury, an injury that has put me on pain meds, made me unable to drive, and left me temporarily with a cane, I would have also ended up having to go on unemployment. You can’t walk in the woods on opiates, you can’t drive a car when you can’t feel your foot, and carrying a cane while handling a compass, clipboard and survey paperwork is near impossible. In most areas of archaeology, CRM included, if you receive a debilitating injury, you can’t work.
Thankfully, this year, my research is digital and theoretical, which means that apart from being a little loopy, I was actually able to keep working through the last few days of pain and bedrest. I propped my leg up on a pillow, popped my meds, arranged everything I needed within arm’s reach, and did some archaeogaming.
My current project, while preparing for a PhD to start at the University of York in January, is looking at how the Cryptarch, or Crypto-archaeologist, functions within the universe of Bungie’s 2014 console game, Destiny. This case study will eventually be a chapter in my dissertation, which is focused on representations of archaeology, archaeologists and antiquities trafficking in videogames.
Within Destiny, the Cryptarch is a non-player character presented as an accredited and official expert on antiquities. He (as of the last expansion there are now two examples of this characterization, but both are male) is tied into the game’s monetary and item progression system, one of its core mechanics. The Cryptarch’s role is to buy and resell artifacts that lack provenance. It is functionally impossible to progress in the game without taking part in this system, which forces interaction with the Cryptarch to accrue funds and items necessary for progressively leveling play.
In addition to presenting an unavoidable mechanic that emphasizes unethical behaviors, Destiny puts the player in the position of behaving unethically themselves, functioning as a looter of antiquities, collecting items from buried contexts and the dead to bring them back to the Cryptarch, who provides valuations and the previously mentioned merchant service
But why should we care? Why do this research at all? Why not just let a videogame be a videogame?
Within its first week of sale, Bungie, and its distributor, Activision-Blizzard, sold more than $500 million worth of copies. Internal numbers, published by the companies, indicate that over 13 million people have played Destiny since launch. That’s a lot of interaction with a system that misrepresents the role of archaeologists, misinforms on the rights of individuals to own objects of cultural patrimony, and encourages participation in illicit and illegal trafficking of artifacts. As archaeologists and heritage management professionals, that should concern us.
I don’t yet have the answer to how to fix this problem. I don’t know what resources we have, as a discipline, that can compete with the amount of money within the game industry. I’m not even entirely sure it’s a fight that we can win, which is disheartening. I will, however, be spending the next three years trying to figure out why this is the depiction of our field that predominates in interactive media, what it says about the perceptions of our work, and what influence it’s having on unethical behaviors involving artifacts in the “real” world.
Hopefully I won’t have to do it on a bum leg.