media archaeology

Archaeogaming and Ethics in Destiny

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.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

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.

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The new, second Cryptarch, who performs the same function as the original, but in a more problematic context of being located on a culturally “other” world.

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

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The glowing green ball is an “engram”, an item of unknown type that is identified by the Cryptarch. Engrams vary in rarity and value.

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.

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A recently released armor item, showing a clear Egyptian aesthetic. This item was obtained via an engram identification by the Cryptarch.

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.

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My avatar, who isn’t currently suffering my same mobility issues.


Day of (Media) Archaeology

I have always been a Classical archaeologist. I was chosen to become a Punk Archaeologist. I became a media archaeologist by accident. On today, the 2014 Day of Archaeology, I am embodying this Trinity, these three archaeologies in one person. How did this all happen? And why today?

Classical Archaeology

In my capacity as Director of Publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), I have blogged three times previously (here, here, and here) on what I’m doing with archaeological publication. I still publish the journal Hesperia in print four times a year as well as a digital edition. I still publish print monographs and guidebooks. Today, as the print edition of The Athenian Agora: Museum Guide comes back from the bindery in Athens, I am building an interactive guidebook for it in HTML5 for use on Android and iOS devices to enable guests to browse the collections in whatever order they choose. I’m also entering content into Google’s free Field Trip app for the site of Ancient Corinth (which launched last week for the Athenian Agora), to allow for non-linear, wander-where-you-will exploration of these vast archaeological spaces. Today I am also writing a draft grant proposal to help fund the creation of a new kind of archaeological publication, something without any print component, that will include synthetic text, 2- and 3-D images, 3-D printer specs, query-by-image, -by-map, and -by-time, interactive data tables, and a “more like this” feature for exploring pottery fabrics by what they look like. All of this stems from my love of Classics and especially of the archaeology of the Greek world, and this deep and abiding love drives me to create new, better tools and publications to give this archaeology (and ultimately others) the publications venue it deserves while critiquing its current state and forecasting a better future (something I published here this week). Part of communicating archaeology is making it widely available and accessible to a global readership. The ASCSA’s efforts to make publications available as Open Access continue with 57 titles now available for free to read, download, and share. FieldTripPunk Archaeology

I didn’t invent Punk Archaeology. That was the love-child of Bill Caraher and Kostis Kourelis and can be thoroughly explored via their eponymous Punk Archaeology blog. I came to Punk Archaeology like St. Peter came to Jesus, and was baptized in Fargo at the first Punk Archaeology unconference on Feb. 2, 2013, where I played my first public rock show and published my first album, a collection of Punk Archaeology songs about cultural heritage, teaching, and excavation. In 2014 the book inspired by that unconference, Punk Archaeology, will be published with the appearance of a printed ‘zine. And today I am completing my abstract on Punk Public Archaeology as part of a panel for the 2015 Society of Historical Archaeology (SHA) annual meeting.

Building off of the definition of Punk Archaeology (#punkarch) established by Caraher and Kourelis, I define the movement and method as the following:

  • Apply a do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic to archaeology projects, especially when funding, personnel, and other kinds of support are lacking.
  • Study marginalized archaeologies, and conduct the archaeology of cultures and places eschewed by the Academy.
  • Study the history and archaeology of Punk and Punk places.
  • Engage in actively communicating to and involving the public in all aspects/phases of archaeology.
  • Promote a spirit of cooperation and sharing of tools, data, and other resources with all other archaeologists, Punk or not.

punka_cover_1Media Archaeology

“Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and spatial, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate how technology is the framework for temporality for us.”

-Jussi Parikka, Cartographies of Media Archaeology

I became a media archaeologist first through Punk Archaeology, namely in my born-again interest in Punk rock, and an addict’s desire to acquire all the gear to the neglect of all else. I was (and still am) deeply invested in record-bin excavations, and I continue to quest for mix- and demo-tapes, not for their resale value, but on the chance of discovering an unknown band or, better, yet, being able to trace the history of those cassettes throughout a community of listeners 25-40 years ago.

In April 2014, this obsession got a name: Media Archaeology. It came about with my involvement as one of the archaeologists invited to excavate the fabled “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Our team, in cooperation with city workers, state environmental agencies, the landfill owner and his family, and a documentary film crew, excavated and documented 1,300+ Atari video games buried there in 1983, in the first-of-its-kind excavation of this kind of media. We were literally digging our own cultural heritage. With the salvage excavation over, we began writing for a general (and general archaeological) readership in Archaeology magazine, and in a forthcoming article for the Atlantic. Another piece written by Joshua Wheeler will appear at the end of the month in Harper’s, and the documentary film, Atari: Game Over, will premier at the San Diego Comic Con on July 25th.

Today I continue to work on my part of the technical article about the excavation that will be submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, and I am also continuing to review the photos and videos the team shot before, during, and after the Atari dig in anticipation of making everything Open Access possibly through OpenContext.org in 2014 or 2015 once our article is published. I have also just submitted an abstract for a panel on archaeological methods in media archaeology for a conference in Bradford, UK, in September, where I hope to talk more about how we decided to dig and document the way we did, and what we might have done differently.

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It gives me great pleasure to be able to do these archaeologies today, and every day, and I encourage everyone to broaden their horizons when it comes to this discipline and how we can communicate what we do.

Behind the scenes at Current Publishing

Hello from Chiswick in West London, where the sun has finally come out and it’s all systems go in the Current Publishing office.

My name’s Carly – I’m the Editorial Assistant for Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology, and as it’s the Day of Archaeology today I thought I’d take you behind the scenes to see how the magazines are put together.

Friday is treats day at Current Publishing, and today the morning got off to a very promising start with advertising maestro Mike earning literal brownie points by bringing in some baked goodies for us to share. We’re always excited when cake arrives in the office, and with one team birthday yesterday and two more imminent, there’s a lot of it about.

Right now we’re slap-bang in the middle of the press cycle. Our sister magazine Military History Monthly was sent to the printers yesterday, so today the full might of the design team has switched over to CWA, which is the next to go (in July).

Designer Justine is currently working her magic on the culture section, making our museum and book reviews look fabulous, while Art Editor Mark is experimenting with options for the next cover. At the moment we have 10 separate designs stuck up on the wall, which certainly brightens things up a bit!

CWA Editor Caitlin is putting the finishing touches to the last couple of features that are going into the next issue (#54), giving them a last polish before they are signed off as ‘ready to lay out’, while CA Editor Matt is out in the field, visiting an excavation at Oakington in Cambridgeshire where some seriously spectacular Anglo-Saxon burials are being uncovered. We covered the site in CA 261, and it’s fantastic to see that there are more stories to reveal. Watch this space for more information in CA 270!

Meanwhile, our boss Rob is tinkering with the ‘Flatplan’, doing clever things to the system we use to plan the layout of each issue, track the progress of articles and generally organise our lives, and our intern Roseanna is lending a hand with the news section, hunting for breaking stories all over the world. We’re always grateful for another pair of hands in the office, and it’s such fun sharing what media archaeology is all about with people who are as passionate about the past as we are.

This is the great thing about working at Current Publishing – we’re a small team but everyone has a unique and important role to play, and every day is different. Although I work for both magazines, because of where we’re at in the schedule I’ve been mostly focussing on CWA today. It’s great fun jumping between UK and international stories.

This morning I finished a two-page article about a site in Peru and wrote a fact box about Phrygians for a feature on Turkey, while this afternoon I’ve been sourcing pictures and turning around a breaking news story about World Heritage Sites for the CWA website.

Much like digging, you never know quite what each day is going to bring – but that’s what makes it so exciting.


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Current World Archaeology’s Facebook page is here, and we tweet as @worldarchaeo.