Meaningful Play in Archaeology

When looking at the range of games that are currently available on the topic of archaeology there is an obvious divide in definitions of the discipline. On the one hand there is the antiquated yet appealing portrayal of archaeology as grave robbing, looting and a continuation of 19th century imperialism as I discussed in my last post. One the other hand there are educational games aimed at showing archaeology as we know it today. While mainstream video games fail to deliver on facts and reality, educational games fail to deliver on fun- a fault that is not easily overlooked by gamers. As Abt (1970) argues serious games have “an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement, but that this doesn’t mean they are not, or should not be entertaining”. There is hope for the confluence of fun and fact. While the majority of meaningful archaeology games fail to deliver, some are beginning to understand the balance of entertainment and education.

Dirt Detective was created by Colonial Williamsburg and is aimed at a pre-school age group. The game is based around two moles who discuss archaeology and quiz the player to match their descriptions with pictures and answer trivia questions.  There is no real play or interaction with the archaeology itself, rather the game is quizzing the player about basic concepts. The information is accurate and the game would be fun for a younger group. Whether children would learn is another question. The game is simplistic and the underlying mechanics are easily mastered. Correct answers are usually more obvious being circled by dashed lines and larger than incorrect answers.

Dig the Maya fails to deliver on entertainment and even perpetuates some of the archaeologist stereotypes. The game promises an archaeological adventure where players explore Mayan ruins, collect data in their notebook, and solve mysteries. In truth though the game is a one dimensional scavenger hunt that requires little skill or ability, and is overlaid with mini-games that are unnecessary and simply serve to slow down the player from the main goal. Overall, the game is not engaging. It also continues the archaeological stereotype of archaeologist in a pith helmet and safari gear, tromping across a site just picking up artifacts without regard for culture or context. The actual game mechanics are simple and not engaging, made up of non-cohesive mini games. The main problem is that players aren’t learning about the processes of archaeology; it is a game with archaeology as a gimmick with the primacy placed on historical information.

Hunt the Ancestor is a game that puts the player in the role of being the lead archaeologist for a Cultural Resource Management company. The user has to make choices on how the dig will proceed, with strong constraints due to a limited budget. By forcing the user to make tough choices, the game has both an element of luck and skill creating a fun environment. The player learns not only about archaeology, but also the process of CRM excavation. This is one of the most important lessons that can be taught in meaningful archaeological ; the process of how material culture moves from being buried to being curated. The games only downfall is the length and the ease of which it is mastered.

Virtual Museum of Canada hosts an archaeological game called Dig Down. The game requires that players print out a field notebook and artifact catalogue. Players then pick an archaeological unit to excavate, and work between the printed notes and the game. The concept behind the game is strong and the play reveals the process of archaeology well, but the mechanics of play limit of entertainment. I was excited about this game when I first started playing it, but it doesn’t allow for the players to make mistakes. One of the qualities I like about games like Dig the Ancestor is that players can make mistakes. Dig Down does not allow for players to make the wrong move which limits learning by doing. It still remains the game that best shows the recording process in archaeology with the mapping of artifacts and layer description.

Currently, the game which best shows the possibility for meaningful games in archaeology is Dig it Up: Romans, a game created by the BBC for primary school kids. Not only does the game allow payers to see the different stages of archaeology, but it is all done in a cultural resource management with the threat of construction setting time limits. Players determine where they will dig with only a limited number of chances to dig, but with the use of geophysical survey to help the player narrow down on where to dig. After they excavate a certain number of artifacts they are able to see recreations. While it doesn’t have the budget constraints of hunt the ancestors, the entertainment quality is much higher.

Looking at this range of free online educational archaeology games shows that a balance between fact and fun can be reached. Archaeology can be taught using games, and by integrating playful elements we can create engaging lessons. Archaeology is an extremely interactive discipline that involves a combination of physical work, discovery, chance and historical information, so it should lend itself to educational games. By continuing to make games like Dig it Up and Hunt the Ancestors, we can teach about the process of archaeology in a fun and meaningful way.


Works Cited

Abt, C. (1970). Serious Games. New York: The Viking Press.

[Image by Virtual Museum of Canada]

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