Side Quest Added: Video Game Mechanics and the Potential for Pseudoarchaeology

Published on 27 May 2024 02:15 PM
By Alex Fitzpatrick
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The “side quest” is a vital component to many video games, providing additional hours of non-essential gaming in exchange for added benefits or bonuses to the player. Many video games from various genres have often utilized a form of “archaeology” as a side quest mechanic, from epic fantasy roleplaying games to everyday life simulation games. For video game developers, archaeology provides ample, non-immersion breaking reasons for players to collect items. However, this simplification of archaeology into a gameplay mechanic often has the unintended consequence of misrepresenting the discipline to a non-specialist audience. Although these misconceptions seem harmless, they can potentially produce fertile ground for the acceptance of more harmful forms of pseudoarchaeology. I examine the role of “archaeology as gameplay” in a selection of video games and argue that presenting such a limited concept of archaeology creates a broader misunderstanding of the field that can then be a “stepping-stone” to more harmful forms of pseudoarchaeological misinformation.

Archaeology has always been troubled by problematic romanticization; from early pulp fiction novels to the blockbuster film franchises, archaeologists continue to fight against this notion of the discipline as an adventurous pursuit for fortune and glory. With the rise in popularity of video games over the last four decades, this fictitious form of archaeology and pseudoarchaeological fantasies has found a new medium through which to perpetuate misinformation of archaeology. Video game franchises such as Tomb Raider and Uncharted that have been directly inspired by the “adventure archaeology” of the Indiana Jones films are obviously guilty of this romanticization, but the issue goes much deeper than that.

We can divide video game portrayals of archaeology into two categories: those that use archaeology as part of the main narrative (for example, any of the previously mentioned games), and those that use it as a mechanism to propel side missions or quests. This paper will focus on the latter category, using four of the most popular video games from the past decade as case studies. Each of these games illustrate the various ways in which archaeology is misinterpreted to suit the needs of side quests, ultimately creating impressions of the discipline that, when internalized and made more widespread among the general populace, can lead to the acceptance and proliferation of more harmful forms of pseudoarchaeology.

II. Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016)

Stardew Valley is a farming and life simulator video game that was developed by ConcernedApe and originally released in 2016 by Chucklefish Ltd. It places the Player in the titular town, having just inherited their grandfather’s farmland. During the game, the Player is free to make relationships with the residents of the town, as well as develop both their farm and their skills in different ways. Achievements can be gained by reaching certain milestones, as well as completing specific in-game collections.

One of these achievable collections includes “artifacts”, which can be sold or donated to the town museum, run by its lone curator Gunther. Artifacts can be recovered through various methods (digging a hole in the ground, finding a treasure chest while fishing, breaking open a geode) and consist of a variety of archaeological remains (pottery, weapons, skeletal remains). Once donated to the museum, players can rearrange the layout of the artifacts, allowing them to also participate in the display of the collection as a sort of curator, albeit in a limited format.

Although Stardew Valley makes the common mistake of conflating paleontology and archaeology, it can be argued that the overall representation of archaeology in the game is decent, particularly in incorporating aspects of post-excavation practices and curation. Collected artifacts are given in-game interpretations once donated to the museum; for example, the description of an ornamental fan is as follows: “This exquisite fan most likely belonged to a noblewoman. Historians believe that the valley was a popular sixth-era vacation spot for the wealthy”. Not only does it provide a glimpse into the logic behind decisions made during the archaeological interpretation process, but it also helps expand the intriguing in-universe lore of Stardew Valley. Through the act of recovering archaeological remains, the Player can learn a bit more about the ancient history of the valley, including the existence of long-lost civilizations. It should be noted that this is entirely optional, which makes the information gleaned from the work even more precious.

However, Stardew Valley does fall into the trope of equivocating archaeology with treasure-hunting – in fact, some artifacts are even found in literal treasure chests. And although the game hints at how archaeological excavation can increase our knowledge of the past, the main reason for the Player to collect artifacts is for personal gain; whether it is from the achievements granted by collecting all available artifacts or from the material rewards exchanged for donations. This commodification of archaeology is further emphasized once the Player finishes the museum collection, as additional artifacts can then be sold for money, reflecting a practice of antiquity trade that continues to be the focus of debate within archaeology and heritage spaces (Barker, 2018; Hixenbaugh, 2019).

III. Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2020)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a life simulator video game and the fifth major installment in the Animal Crossing franchise developed by Nintendo. The Player helps shape a new island community, which is populated by anthropomorphic animal villagers. The main goal of the game is to increase the rating of your island to attract new villagers, as well as the eye of in-game celebrity musician, K.K. Slider. To increase the rating of your island, the player is expected to build and improve public amenities, including the island’s museum. The museum has several exhibitions on display: bugs, fish, fossils, and artwork. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the latter two categories.

Every day, the Player can find and recover a total of four fossils on their island. At first, they appear only as mysterious, unidentified spherical objects; however, if the Player heads to the island museum, they can ask the curator, Blathers, to assess and identify these fossils. If an assessed fossil is currently not on display, Blathers will ask the Player if they want to donate it to the museum. In a nod to realism, Animal Crossing establishes Blathers’ professional consultations as valuable – fossils, for example, can be sold and are worth more money if properly assessed by Blathers first. Like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing conflates archaeology and paleontology for the sake of simplification, as well as promotes the monetary value of excavated material.

With an update made available on April 23rd, 2020, the museum also gained the ability to accept donations of artwork as well. “Artwork” as a category of collectables includes both paintings and sculptures, many of which are representative of some of the most famous archaeological finds from around the world; this includes several figures from the 7000 individuals that make up the Terracotta Army from China (Quinn et al., 2017), one of the colossal Olmec heads from the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Cyphers, 2014), and even the Rosetta Stone itself, first recovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 (Urbanus, 2017). The collection of available artwork and artifacts is culturally diverse, and produces a learning experience for the Player as each collectable also includes a few sentences providing further historical and cultural context. However, it is interesting to consider that what can be seen as a commendable approach to inclusivity in a video game setting is of a more problematic nature in the real world, where the museums that technically have some of the most culturally diverse collections in the world have predominately gained and retained them through colonialism.

This update also introduces a new game mechanic: the concept of forgery. Players are only able to obtain artwork from Redd, a shady seller who occasionally docks his boat at the Player’s island. Out of the four available pieces of artwork, there is a chance that one or more will be a forgery, which can be determined by closely examining each piece for anything that deviates from the original work in real life; for example, the fake Mona Lisa painting has eyebrows. If the Player accidentally purchases a forgery, they will be unable to donate it to the museum, as Blathers will identify this right away. In addition, the Player will also be unable to sell the forgery to the island shop, which makes the acquisition of forgeries into a negative that ultimately loses the Player money. However, they are still able to sell genuine artwork, ultimately giving the Player a somewhat mixed perception of the ethical nature of the antiquities market.

IV. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a fantasy role-playing video game and the fifth major installment in the Elder Scrolls series developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Although the main story revolves around a looming dragon threat in the region of Skyrim, the game itself is open-world and allows for the Player to explore outside of the confines of the central narrative. This includes many side quests related to in-universe archaeology of the various ruins and tombs throughout the game world, which in turn helps in expanding the lore of the franchise.

In comparison to the previously discussed video games, the amount of archaeology present in Skyrim is rather minimal; in examining all 347 quests from the main game, as well as the two DLCs (Dawnguard and Dragonborn), only 8% are related to the retrieval of artifacts, with 1% directly tied to an archaeological excavation or expedition. However, it can be argued that these side quests are also definitive examples of “treasure-hunter archaeologist” trope, where archaeology is simplified into a series of dangerous adventures through booby-trapped tombs to find treasure.

Side quests dealing with artifact retrieval in Skyrim result in a large amount of “dungeon-crawling” throughout various tombs and ruins, navigating puzzles and defeating enemies that guard the artifacts from potential looters. These protective measures are clearly warranted, as the Player is explicitly cast as a looter who is forcing their way into these ancient sites to empty these spaces of the treasures kept within. Like the previously discussed games, the Player then has the option of participating in the in-game market, selling off artifacts and valuables in exchange for gold.

Alongside these relatively untouched ancient ruins, the Player can also come across several instances of archaeological excavation in-progress. Perhaps the best example of this is found in the DLC, Dragonborn, where the Player can enter a partnership with a person named Ralis Sedarys during the quest “Unearthed”. At first, the Player is simply asked to invest in the excavation of Kolbjorn Barrow; this eventually turns into more active participation, as Sedarys asks the Player to clear the barrow of enemies as well. In a surprisingly realistic portrayal of fieldwork, the quest takes several in-game days for excavation progress to occur, requiring the Player to donate additional funds for material and labor along the way. However, this is where the "realism ends, as the quest eventually concludes using the trope of “cursed artifacts”, which is also prevalent in the esoteric spirituality of pseudoarchaeological beliefs (Anderson, 2019).

V. Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare, 2014)

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantasy role-playing video game and the third major installment in the Dragon Age series developed by BioWare. In this game, the Player takes the role of the leader of a new inquisition, which has been formed to fight against a demon invasion. Your organization is vast and includes advisors who oversee various aspects of the inquisition; this includes military operations, espionage, and diplomacy. Like Skyrim, this game also includes archaeology-related side quests in which the Player is tasked with retrieving artifacts that may prove invaluable to the inquisition’s growing list of allies; for example, one of the companion quests to increase the affinity of the companion character Blackwall is to search for artifacts related to the Wardens, a legendary organization that he represents.

Although Inquisition simplifies archaeology into a series of tomb-raiding expeditions in a manner similar to Skyrim, it also represents a sort of outlier with its representation as well, as it simultaneously interrogates the way in which archaeological narrative is formed. In the quest “The Knight’s Tomb”, the Player investigates Elven ruins to search for any important artifacts. After defeating the demons that inhabit the ruins, the Player finds a secret Elven scroll which clarifies a much-contested moment in history. Here, the Player is faced with a choice: to either sell the artifact to the main religious institution of the Dragon Age universe, the Chantry, or give the artifact to the local Elven clan. Consequences for each choice are political in nature, as it helps rewrite history: if given to the Chantry, the information gained from the scroll is used as religious propaganda. However, if given to the Elven clan, it completely changes the way the clan has understood its own history, and the clan takes measures to make amends for their ancestor’s complicity in past violence. Despite the trope of archaeology-as-looting, it is interesting to see how Inquisition somewhat accurately illustrates the political power of archaeology as well.

VI. Discussion

Although these case studies illustrate the pervasiveness of archaeology as the impetus for various side quests in video games, the question still remains: why is this such a common trope? As a narrative framework, its popularity makes sense: pop culture tends to place emphasis on the action of “doing archaeology” (Holtorf, 2004), where the actual excavation and retrieval of artifacts is seen to be more interesting and exciting than the more mundane methodological parts of the discipline, such as interpretation and analysis. In addition, archaeology represents a perfect framework for story-based gameplay due to its emphasis on puzzle-solving and narrative exploration (Meyers Emery and Reinhard, 2015).

As a side quest mechanic, archaeology is often simplified down to the act of collecting artifacts, providing a set of collectable items for the Player. Collectables are a wildly popular component of most video games today, and for good reason: previous research has linked collectables, alongside achievements, to the addictive potential of video games (Goggin, 2008). Archaeology exists as a logical in-game justification for collectables, but at the cost of simplifying the discipline into a form of treasure hunting. It should be acknowledged that, given the long history of unethical, colonialist archaeological endeavors that have caused harm to many colonized and otherwise marginalized communities, there is validity to the comparison of archaeology to treasure hunting; however, most video games (including those mentioned in this paper) are not consciously making this critique.

The misuse of archaeology as a gameplay mechanic is arguably a low priority for archaeologists right now, especially given the rise in pseudoarchaeological and conspiratorial beliefs finding major platforms in media and the Internet (i.e., Dibble, 2022; Bender, 2022). However, analyzing mischaracterization of the discipline in widely consumed media can be useful in identifying the ways in which some of the more foundational elements to pseudoarchaeology are being proliferated and internalized. This includes many of the tropes that have just been identified in the previous case studies, such as the romanticization of the adventurer-archaeologist-treasure-hunter, as well the objectification and commodification of artifacts.

Of the four case studies, three of them (Stardew Valley, Skyrim, and Inquisition) romanticize archaeology as treasure hunting, albeit to different degrees. Skyrim and Inquisition are perhaps the guiltiest of this, likely due to their medieval/fantasy settings. Both games are also the most explicitly shown as tomb-raiding, as the Player must face enemies, puzzles, and traps alike to seize the treasures guarded within. Again, this could arguably be a valid critique of unethical archaeology and the discipline’s problematic and colonial past; however, there is no evidence to suggest this as an intentional reading of the gameplay. Ultimately, the archaeology-as-adventure trope continues to exist because it makes for good stories, particularly for video games (Boyes, 2018); there is a need to have a sense of danger or threat for the Player to confront to validate the “prize” at the end of a level or side quest and thus make it a satisfying and worthwhile venture for the Player.

Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, on the other hand, showcase archaeology as a means of collecting, first and foremost. Presenting artifacts and other cultural objects as collectables is, in essence, objectifying them – and by giving the option to sell them, they also become commodified as well. The most extreme end of objectification and commodification in archaeology is arguably the illicit antiquities trade, but there are other harmful iterations of these attitudes as well; for example, assigning an ahistorical value to artifacts, even without the intention of selling them, can create strong forms of bias in archaeological interpretation that are not grounded in the actual context of the site. Objectification also goes together with dehumanization, both of which have been historically used (and, unfortunately, are still used) to deny sovereignty of descendent communities over excavated artifacts, cultural objects, and ancestor remains.

However, there are some potentially positive elements identified within these case studies as well, and further expansion of these examples could present interesting and possibly more ethical approaches to archaeological representation, particularly in acknowledging the complexity of its history and use. For example, Stardew Valley and Skyrim both have aspects of the archaeological process that are not always present in media portrayals, including interpretation and the complexity of excavation. Animal Crossing depicts archaeology as being primarily dependent on the illicit trade of antiquities, underlining the uneasy relationship between cultural institutions and commercialization. And finally, Inquisition provides arguably the most intriguing portrayal of archaeology of all the mentioned games, presenting the Player with an ethical decision regarding the restitution of an artifact, and the political consequences of their decision, including the potential weaponization of archaeological finds as part of propaganda.

VII. Conclusion

It cannot be denied that the use of archaeology as a video game mechanic has the potential of being problematic – as shown in the previous case studies, misuse of archaeology in video games can propagate harmful attitudes that the discipline has long fought against. This is not to say that these tropes are not entirely false – indeed, much of what has been discussed has unfortunately been part of archaeology in some form or another. But in the modern context of a discipline attempting to make amends for past harm and promoting a more ethical approach to archaeological research, it is vital that archaeologists push back against archaeology uncritically being romanticized into adventuring and treasure hunting.

Of course, the takeaway from this discussion should not be that poor representation of archaeology in video games is as harmful as, for example, racist pseudoarchaeology that promotes white supremacy, nor should readers conclude that people who enjoy the games discussed in this paper are pseudoarchaeological bigots just for playing video games. The non-specialist public can, for the most part, tell the difference between the wildly fanciful and the realistic; however, the influencing power of widely accepted tropes cannot be ignored, and examining how these tropes can make harmful forms of misinformation and conspiracy thinking more attractive and compelling than actual archaeological research can potentially be useful in a broader strategy against pseudoarchaeology.

It must also be reiterated that the inclusion of archaeology and archaeological methodology into video games can be positive, too. In fact, is entirely possible for video games to utilize archaeology in gameplay without invoking problematic tropes, with several games from the past five years illustrating this; take, for example, the recent video game Heaven’s Vault (Inkle, 2019), in which the Player is an archaeologist who utilizes archaeological deduction and interpretation as gameplay. With its focus on using contextual clues to interpret and decipher artifacts, many archaeologists have hailed Heaven’s Vault as one of the best representations of the discipline in media (Reinhard, 2019; Hill, 2020). Similarly, games such as Hypnospace Outlaw (Tholen, 2019) and I am Dead (Hollow Grounds, 2020) have also shown how archaeological technique can be utilized as part of gameplay without romanticizing or problematizing the discipline (Fitzpatrick, 2019 and 2021).

In recent times, video games have been proven to have the potential of providing more nuanced looks at difficult topics (Rao, 2011; Smethurst and Craps, 2014; Latorre. 2015). As previously discussed, there is already potential for a similarly nuanced and complex look at archaeology within video games that acknowledges both the good and the bad within the discipline. And perhaps this sort of representation is exactly what archaeology needs, as the discipline continues to wrestle with holding optimism for a more equitable future while also recognizing that there is much to make amends for from its problematic past.

In the grand scheme of things, the misuse of archaeology in video games is far from the highest priority for archaeologists. Not only are we contending with an increasing number of external threats to the discipline (i.e., department closures, budget cuts, climate change), but there is still much to do internally as well, from improving inclusivity and diversity to adapting more decentralized, decolonial approaches to archaeological research. That said, part of archaeology’s attempt to address harms, both past and present, must also include consideration and confrontation of the ways in which the discipline is seen and perceived by others. Critical analysis of video games may seem to be “overkill”, but by understanding how misinformation and misunderstandings of the discipline get propagated across the general public, we can better equip ourselves to educate others on the realities of archaeology. Looking from the shadow of Indiana Jones, we can see how eagerly the public will consume romanticized, problematic depictions of archaeology, and how that ultimately shapes the way the discipline is embraced by others; as such, it is our responsibility as public-facing archaeologists to ensure that misrepresentations of the discipline are not the start of a pipeline to more harmful forms of pseudoarchaeology…even if it (admittedly) makes for fun and engaging gameplay.

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Cover Image: Screenshot from Stardew Valley

Masthead Image: Screenshot from Animal Crossing