Digital Games as Public Archaeology

Mar 03, 11 Digital Games as Public Archaeology

The term “public archaeology” isn’t particularly well know to those outside of the archaeological community.  So, what is it exactly?  At its core, public archaeology seeks to protect and advocate for archaeological heritage (sites, resources, etc.) through public education, outreach, and engagement. This manifests in lots of different ways.  Archaeologists visiting middle school classrooms to talk about a a local site?  Yup, thats public archaeology.  Hosting an “Archaeology Day” at a local museum where the public can talk to archaeologists, handle artifacts, and experience prehistoric technology?  That’s right, public archaeology as well.  Involving local community members in the excavation of a nearby site?  You better believe it, public archaeology baby!  You get the general idea.  Its only fairly recently that public archaeology and public archaeologists have adopted a broader range of digital methods and practices.  Things like websites, social network platforms, video, podcasting, digital archives & repositories, and mobile content are all becoming increasingly common in the toolkit of the average public archaeologist.  What’s missing from this list?  Games.

Its a constant source of frustration to me that archaeologists are even further behind in thinking about digital games as vehicles for public engagement and outreach or platforms for teaching than other disciplines.  While it is (somewhat) common to see sessions on digital games at conferences such as MLA or Museums & the Web, such a thing is rarer than hen’s teeth at an archaeological conference (such as the annual Society for American Archaeology meeting).  I can count the number of journal articles, books, book chapters, conference papers that explore public archaeology and digital games (either broadly or specifically) on two hands (and thats being charitable).  I only know of a handful of (and its a small handfull) of public archaeology digital games (most of which fall very much on the “simulation” side of the digital game spectrum).  One of the earliest examples (and one that very much sits on the simulation end of the spectrum) is Adventures in Fugawiland: A Computer Simulation in Archaeology.

Adventures in Fugawiland Cover

Like an early PC RPG (I'm looking at you Temple of Apshai), Adventures in Fugawiland came bundled with a detailed manual/workbook

Originally published in 1990, Adventures in Fugawiland was designed to introduce students (yes, it was courseware) to the fundamentals of archaeological research by allowing them to simulate fieldwork experiences.  The game (frankly, calling it a game is stretching things a little) was developed by T. Douglas Price and Anne Birgitte Gebauer of the University of Wisconsin.  Students worked with a realistic topographical map containing numerous fictional prehistoric sites (located in Fugawiland), chose sites to excavate on-screen, examined what they found, and answered questions about their findings.  Students could refer to abundant “in-game” help modules, included in which was a regional plot providing a graph of the abundance of different site characteristics in Fugawiland. Exciting!  Adventures in Fugawiland enjoyed several editions, and was used as course material in many anthropology classes throughout North America.  It is important to repeat that Adventures in Fugawiland was courseware.  It was published by a textbook publisher and intended to be used in undergrad classes.  However, it fits nicely in this discussion because I’m very much of the belief that a good chunk of undergraduate education is public archaeology (something that some of my colleagues might disagree with).  Whatever many archaeologists might think of Adventures in Fugawiland, it was an important milestone.  It was a clear statement which communicated that games (simulations, edutainment, whatever) had a place in public archaeology.  Unfortunately, instead of heralding the the beginning of a rich assemblage of archaeological digital games, it was an isolated blip on the radar.

Fast forward to the present. Digital games have evolved enormously, but public archaeology is still (largely) ignoring them.  It seems that if you want to engage the public around archeological topics, digital games (of all kinds) seem like a no brainer of mythical proportions.  Games are not only powerful platforms for learning (either formal or informal) and persuasion, but have phenomenal public reach – especially into groups of particular interest to public archaeologists (middle school students, teens, and maybe even undergrads)

How much reach?  Lets break down the numbers a little.  I know that many have seen the Entertainment Software Association figures (and they are not without their problems).  However, I think they are worth looking at – especially if we are interested in exploring the potential reach of digital games for public archaeology.  These numbers are also quite persuasive for the archaeologists in the room (especially those who are generally unfamiliar with digital games).  Its very important to remember that these figures are for the United States alone.  The picture is different (in some cases, markedly so) in other countries and regions.

According to the ESA (Entertainment Software Association), in 2010, 67% of American households owned either a game console (such as an Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii) and/or PC used to run entertainment software.  In terms of age, 25% of gamers were under 18, 49% were between 18-49, and 26% were 50+ years old.  Its also very important to point out that the gender imbalance in gamers is quickly shrinking – males made up 60% of the game playing population, while females made up 40% of that population.  If you look just at online games, that gap is even smaller (58% men, 43% women).  In terms of sales, digital games (both PC and console) were a 10.5 billion dollar industry in 2009.  Sales of both PC and console games exceeded 275 million units.  There isn’t any metric in the universe that you could draw upon that favorably compares those numbers to the number of people reached in any kind of public archaeology program.

So, why hasn’t public archaeology caught on to the potential of digital games? There probably isn’t one factor that we can point our finger at.  As one would expect, much of it has to do with archaeology and archaeologists (from a disciplinary perspective). Archaeology and archaeologists have always had a weird relationship with technology (the irony is certainly not lost on me).  When it comes to technology for research (things like GIS, remote sensing, modeling, databases), archaeology has very much been on the cutting edge of things.  However, when it comes to using technology for outward facing purposes (the public archaeology component of the discipline), archaeology is very traditional in its practices.  The physicality of archaeology (sites and artifacts) seems to have pushed public engagement and outreach towards much more analog practices (if I can use the term “analog” in that way).

So, what’s to be done?  Honestly, it isn’t a great mystery.  First (and perhaps most importantly) there needs to be some ground level, fundamental advocacy for digital games in public archaeology.  Those of us who see the enormous potential of using digital games for public archaeology simply have to get out there and lay some serious groundwork – presenting our work (and seemingly unique perspective) at core disciplinary conferences and publishing in core disciplinary journals (easy, right?).  The good thing is that, as with much of the academy, the natural process of scholarly generational evolution means that more and more digitally inclined grad students are becoming professors (or museum archaeologists, public sector archaeologists, private sector archaeologists, etc.) – graduate students who are probably a lot more comfortable and familiar with digital games (many of which are probably gamers themselves).

Part of what needs to be done also has to do with building a strong dialog with funders.  That means talking with traditional archaeology funders (both private and public) about building and using games.  In order to do this, we should also be doing some serious work on best practices in developing and using digital games in public archaeology (drawing upon the enormous wealth of existing work on game design and development, serious games, and meaningful play).  Designing and developing games is complicated.  We won’t do anyone a service (and we sure as hell aren’t going to get renewed funding for future projects) if the games we build are crappy, boring, and ineffective.

Oh yeah, and we have got to adress the whole Lara Croft thing (though, we’ll leave that discussion for another day)


  1. Trevor Owens /

    Great post. Thinking back I think the only non Indiana Jones/Laura Croft archeology game I came across was the (hilariously named) BBC game Hunt the Ancestor. In my generalist humanities perspective I thought it was a relatively useful simple game. That said it would be great to hear what a bonafide archeologist thinks about this as an example of a public history game.

    Here is their little game blurb. “Time and money are running out and the developer’s diggers are wanting to move onto the site of a dig. Experience some of the realities of being an archaeologist by playing Hunt the Ancestor.”

  2. I may be playing fast and loose with the discipline of archeology, but I’d argue that many classic interactive fiction games (beginning with Colossal Cave, Zork, and so on) are misconstructions of the concerns of archeology: exploration, reconstruction of an obscured past, and of course, artifact-gathering—which is a polite way of saying treasure-hunting.

    However, there is one classic interactive fiction game that critiques this misguided archeological vision: Infocom’s Infidel (1983). In Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort gives a smart reading of the game as a critique of Indiana Jones-style archeology. The player, exploring (or, as the game subtly reveals, greedily looting) a pyramid in Egypt eventually “wins” the game only by dying in the pyramid, trapped under a pile of rubble.

  3. And then of course, there’s WoW’s ‘archaeology’ skill… usefully discussed by Colleen Morgan at

  4. Kevin Kee (Brock University, Canada) gave a great paper Outbreak: Best Practices and Potential for the Development of Games for Archaeology and History at the CAA conference in Williamsburg, Virginia (2009).

    And sorry for the BSP, but a web module I did for Jamestown Rediscovery in 2002 employed game principles. It asked students to suggest a recreation of a building within the constraints of a budget (building module: ). We started by going through the work the archaeologists at Jamestown had done in reaching their conclusions, and used that to frame the module. I think any game has to be careful in the stressing the process of archaeology, over the “reward” relating to the discovery of artifacts.

  5. I think one of the major problems with archaeological games is that they use archaeology as a gimmick. I recently was gifted the Indiana Jones Game of Life. Needless to say, it did not add to my archaeological education nor was it actually any fun.

    Of course, there are games like Dig! The Maya Project ( which attempt to take a more educational perspective. However, there is a dearth of actual fun. Games like this spread the misconception that an educational game has to be boring, or has to follow more traditional methods of transferring information such as through text only. Educational archaeological games need to find a way to integrate the learning. I’m often shocked at how much information I know about the world of Halo or the language of The Sims. The question is, how do we harness this unconscious fun learning?

    • I agree that probably the biggest problem with educational games is they tend to have a tradeoff between fun and educational value. This is usually due in part to the fact that the designers tend to see the learning material and the gameplay itself as two different things. When you make more room in a game for one, you have less room for another. This is particularly true when trying to teach complex subjects like archeology or history.

      Dig! The Maya Project is a good example of this disconnect. The game elements consist of awkwardly moving your character around a dig site collecting brown dots (which is not much of a game in the first place), and playing a few random mini-games, such as a Bejeweled clone. The learning portion is simply text and photographs, the same thing you would get in a textbook.

      I believe that the way to remedy this problem is to make learning work like it does in “non educational” games. Most players learn about the world of Halo not by being occasionally asked to read random facts in order to continue, but because they are immersed in it. Learning about this world is not a victory condition, in and of itself, but as players come to understand how to accomplish their direct goals, they learning about the history and politics of the Halo world. Similarly, learning Simlish is a side-effect of understanding how your Sims interact with each other, which is what makes The Sims fun. I doubt anyone would play it if it began with an hour-long tutorial of “How to Speak Simlish.”

  6. With a broader definition of public archaeology than yours (the full scale of relations between archaeology and its public, including social, political, and ethical aspects) digital games raise a rather different question. What do digital games express and manifest concerning the public fascination with archaeology that the academics should know more about and consider more in their own work? In other words, maybe it is time for the “experts” to learn and be educated…

    The ESA numbers you cite, in connection with the popularity of precisely Lara Croft & Co., can also be read as strong indicators of the fact that the academics are missing something that is to the disadvantage of the entire discipline in this digital age of ours.


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