Side Quest Added: Response 1

Published on 27 May 2024 02:16 PM
By Emily C. Van Alst
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Fitzpatrick asks us to consider how archaeology of gameplay can contribute to harmful stereotypes about archaeology, creating a playscape in which non-archaeologists are presented with an oversimplification of our discipline. Players are typically exposed to our discipline through misinformation and overgeneralized ideas about what archaeology is in terms of either “adventure archaeology” (Fitzpatrick 2024) or “treasure hunting” (Fitzpatrick 2024) in terms of collecting archaeological and historical objects i.e. (Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing) to then be placed in a museum. Fitzpatrick argues here that this type of gameplay conflates archaeological methods and practice with the commodification of material culture wherein the player is allowed to gain important items and money for selling or donating artifacts.

This treasure hunting or artifact retrieval is typically relegated to the “side quest” in a videogame in which the player learns very little about the actual process of archaeology and instead sees it merely a way to earn a reward. And as Fitzpatrick notes, this miscategorization of our discipline can reduce our public standing given the rise of psuedoarchaeological beliefs related to archaeological sites and objects. Using Skyrim, Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, and Dragon Age: Inquisition we can see how prevalent types of stereotypes are across different gaming genres including action adventure, farming simulator, and family friendly videogames. The artifacts “found” in these games are removed from any sort of historical or social context from the culture they may be representing. In the videogames Fitzpatrick introduces here, we learn that some artifacts are easily recognizable pieces of artwork like a Terracotta warrior, artifacts related to a real-life culture, or objects related only to the history of that universe. Particularly Animal Crossing reinforces the idea that only particular forms of art are seen as more valuable than others. The game also fails to properly identify where the object comes from, perpetuating the idea that artifacts can merely be taken from their context without real world consequences.

If we know that these videogames and others have the ability to reduce our discipline to its harmful historical stereotypes wherein in archaeologists only remove artifacts from their culture, the question then remains is there any benefit to the public interacting with archaeology in this particular way? Clearly these stereotypes can have harmful repercussions when this may be the only way in which the public is interacting with and learning about our discipline. The fact that archaeology is relegated to the infamous “side quest” still means that people still do not fully understand what archaeology even is, seeing as some games conflate archaeology and paleontology. Others portray our discipline as “tomb raiding expeditions” wherein the player is again only interacting with archaeology as a way to retrieve valuable artifacts, removing them from their social and cultural contexts.

If we know that the videogames analyzed for this piece are perpetuating this type of portrayal, then should we even attempt to engage in this representation? Fitzpatrick makes it clear that though videogames and pop culture, the public can interact with archaeology, which is important. But there are also video games that can show what our discipline actually does which includes games in which excavation, “interpretation, and archaeological deduction” (Fitzpatrick 2024), actually happens. And as Fitzpatrick concludes, these types of archaeological depictions at the very least introduce archaeological to a public and those publics are interested in our discipline. It is then our job to educate and challenge these stereotypes. Archaeology and the history of past societies, whether real representations or imagined civilizations, are part of worldbuilding in video games and other forms of media. Therefore, this type of lore will often be essential to the creation of realistic worlds. From there it is the archaeologist’s job to make sure that the type of archaeology that the public engages with is one that can be celebrated.

As Fitzpatrick demonstrates with the “shadow of Indiana Jones”, the responsibility to effectively communicate the differences between archaeological fact and archaeological fiction to a non-disciplinary audience has long been in the minds of publicly engaged archaeologists. However, a close examination of the diversity of publics who commonly engage with the different games identified in the article (as well as other archaeological media) provides us with an ample opportunity for further discussion. The non-archaeologists who play these games will often have previous exposure to archaeology in the real world, which in turn will change how they approach the pseudoarchaeology that the games contain. I think specifically of a non-archaeologist Indigenous colleague who justifies their looting of Nord tombs in Skyrim by arguing that the Nords are a colonizer population who committed genocide against the Snow Elves (or Ancient Falmer) after their arrival from the distant continent of Atmora. We see in this example an awareness of the archaeological implications of the act, but also a symbolic reaction to a regime that the player compares to the United States and Canada. Players are not tabulae rasae simply absorbing the media placed before them but will view these media through their unique intersectional lens, and effectively communicating our professional perceptions of “proper” archaeology requires us to acknowledge this.

Cover Image: "Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barke" British Library

Masthead Image: Screenshot from Animal Crossing