Fidget Spinners as Immaterial Culture

It’s midnight and the room is humid. My thoughts are muddled, suddenly coalescing and then scattering like a flock of pigeons. I need to find a reprieve from the endless carousel of thoughts, because it feels like my head is…spinning.

Reaching for my phone is a nervous tic, so inevitably I find myself swiping the lock screen and mindlessly scrolling through apps. This time, though, I try something new. Since I don’t have my analogue fidget spinner to hand, why not play with a virtual one?

In my last piece I speculated about the potential of fidget spinners as archaeological artefacts. This time, I want to examine the digital incarnations of fidget spinners that have been created and how they can be considered as examples of immaterial culture.

Spinners through the looking glass

“The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview.” It’s surprising that Ian Bogost, philosopher and computer designer, doesn’t proceed to discuss the digital doppelgangers of fidget spinners for his piece The Fidget Spinner Explains the World after he makes this point. Bogost considers the fidget spinner to be symptomatic of a growingly individualistic (presumably Western) society which is out of touch with the physical world, even contrasting the fidget spinner with the classic spinning top which at least requires being spun on some kind of surface. Surely, if we follow his reasoning, the digital incarnations of fidget spinners take the individual’s dislocation with their immediate physical reality even further?

Ironically enough, fidget spinner apps arguably have taken more direct inspiration from the ‘real world’ than most. The fact that fidget spinner apps were copying a trend which was originally embodied by actual physical culture renders them starkly different from the usual workings of what Megan Farokhmanesh calls “the mobile ecosystem.” App development trends tend to be the result of developers attempting to ride on the coattails of other popular mobile games, with Pokemon Go being an obvious example (although that game’s utilisation of its own self-styled augmented reality also has its own implications in terms of its relationship with the analogue world). Whilst there is no doubt that the surfeit of fidget spinner apps is a result of developers copying each other, they would not have existed without analogue spinners first gaining their initial popularity in the first place.

Immateriality

Archaeology is, broadly defined, the study of human material remains. Usually, this means studying analogue artefacts which have a tangible existence, such as an 18th century clay tobacco pipe, a sherd of Roman pottery or even contemporary detritus. As an archaeogamer, I consider that digital immaterial culture can also be studied by archaeologists. A digital fidget spinner, like its analogue counterpart, is an object which has been created by humans and appears within a specific context. Also like its analogue counterpart, and as discussed above, the sudden development of a vast array of fidget spinner games was very much a product of the cultural zeitgeist of early 2017. For these reasons, I believe that the digital fidget spinner is a particularly interesting candidate for the archaeological study of immaterial culture. To explore the fidget spinner as intangible heritage, I’ve chosen a few case studies which are expanded upon below. 

Ketchapp Fidget Spinner App

As of May the 18th 2017, Ketchapp’s Fidget Spinner App was the top free app in the App Store. The game involves attempting to get as many full rotations on your spinner as possible with five successive swipes on your phone’s touch screen. Each spin earns the player digital coins which can then be used to upgrade your spinner. This digital spinner experience offers the possibility of such instantaneous upgrades, interchangeability between spinner models and the easy application and removal of decorative stickers, an experience which isn’t as accessible with an analogue spinner. That being said, the game demands your time and increased spinner skill to ‘earn’ enough coins to access these upgrades. It’s an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of spinner labour for both mechanistic and aesthetic spinner gains.

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A Ketchapp fidget spinner adorned with immaterial stickers

The core game mechanics of Fidget Spinner App (and this is also the case of many other games with similar game mechanics) are allegoric of capitalistic labour in the real world. In Jason Lipshin’s piece Casual Playbor he discusses how the Zynga Facebook game Farmville (essentially a game about maintaining a virtual farm) is characterised by routine, repetitive tasks for the accretion of digital social capital. He writes:

“…structures of labour infiltrate free time, as while laborious play would seem to be anathema to the very definition of gameplay, Farmville keeps its players hooked by structuring this core play mechanic around a system of extrinsic rewards – virtual consumer items and decorations for your farm gained by trading in your hard-earned Farm Cash.”

Just as the analogue, real-world spinner must be considered in terms of its status as a fad commodity, all the spinner iterations which appear in the game must be considered in terms of the context of their access to the player-through the ‘playful labour’ of repetitive spinning.

Google Spinner

Since at least June 20th 2017, if you type the word ‘spinner’ into google, the first search result will be an interactive fidget spinner that you can play with. If you type in ‘fidget spinner’ this particular Google Easter egg won’t work as that search leads to various Google shopping advertisements-the particular context of the immaterial spinner is to accommodate advertising revenue (as opposed to the Ketchapp Fidget Spinner game which is frequently interrupted by an advertisement literally blocking the screen). The Google spinner is very simple-it allows you to either use the mouse to spin the solitary dark blue spinner, or just press the word ‘Spin’ underneath it to do the same. In a sense, this renders the experience of playing with the Google spinner more akin to just sitting idly with an analogue spinner and repetitively flicking it.

2017-07-11

‘spinner’ is the magic word…

That being said, the particular way in which the Google spinner is accessed makes it particularly distinctive. Access to the immaterial object requires using a specific word-the act of searching for ‘spinner’ is akin to a magical invocation to summon a spirit, requiring a specific name. In The Power of Names : In Culture and Mathematics Loren Graham discusses the concept of knowing the name of something giving you power over it, and how that reoccurs in history and in various different cultures across the globe.  Fast forward to the present day and the power of names is still pervasive. To know something is to Google, and to Google well you need a name. For example, if I want to know more about a particular type of Dogū figurine made during the late Jōmon period in prehistoric Japan which has large eyes, I can find it more efficiently and with better search results on Google if I know that it is specifically known as a Shakōki-dogū (遮光器土偶) (“google-eyed type”) figurine.

To know the Google fidget spinner is to summon it specifically as ‘spinner;’ if you try ‘fidget spinner’ your invocation will fail and you’ll be brought to adverts for real-world, analogue spinners instead.

Date A Fidget Spinner

My last case study is the most bizarre out of the three, and certainly breaks the mould in terms of digital incarnations of Fidget Spinners. Date A Fidget Spinner by qualifiedbadger is a satirical fifteen-minute-long dating simulator that can be found on itch.io. As the protagonist, you join a new school and meet fellow student ‘Fidgey’ the female fidget spinner, who is essentially an animated spinner with a female anime-style face. The gameplay involves some limited dialogue options and a lot of very self-aware jokes about the protagonist’s apparent obliviousness, as well as Fidgey not being ‘like the other Fidget spinners I know’ (it should be said, the game has a misogynistic subtext, given it conflates a young teenage girl with a fidget spinner and the connotations of that).

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Satire aside, it is true that Fidgey is very different from the other examples of immaterial culture I have mentioned previously-I can’t class her as an example of intangible culture in the same way that I would the spinners in the Ketchapp game or the Google spinner. Even if the fact that she’s a person is the core joke of the game, that in of itself throws up some questions as to how I should consider her in the context of the simulator. In the real world, other people are sentient and create their own culture, contributing to the archaeological record and also being able to interpret it themselves. Characters in games, however, are part of the created immaterial culture of games just as immaterial objects are. However, the presentation of game characters is key-they are ascribed personhood and this can affect gameplay. In some ways, there are limited differences between the Google spinner and Fidgey-both are fidget spinners that rotate, the latter just has a face and ‘talks’ to you. Yet, even just the addition of a cartoon face and some dialogue options means that I can’t class Fidgey as an object in the same way that I would class the other two case studies.

I am spinner, I contain multitudes*

If you got this far, I’m both a bit surprised and very grateful. Fidget spinners, even (and especially) at the height of their popularity were derided, and now they’re fast slipping out of fashion and probably into the bins of many of their previous owners. It was useful to look at various fidget spinner case studies to pick out some interesting corollaries of the concept of immaterial culture. What’s clear to me is that none of these immaterial spinners would have existed without the 15 minutes of fame that the material, analogue spinner had. Fidget spinners may just end up being a ‘footnote’ in history, but I can’t help but wonder how future archaeologists will interpret and be affected by both their material and immaterial incarnations. Whilst they were just a fad, perhaps the agency of spinners will be preserved in a digital form, tempting our future colleagues to try, oh just once, to spin, SPIN!


* To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

All screenshots taken by the author

Ludography

Google. (2017) Fidget [Interactive Flash animation] Mountain View: Google

Ketchapp. (2017) Fidget Spinner [Mobile game]. Paris: Ketchapp SARL

qualifiedbadger. (2017) Date A Fidget Spinner [Video game]

Bibliography

Bogost, I. (2017) The Fidget Spinner Explains the World. [online] The Atlantic. Available at:

< https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/the-fidget-spinner-explains-the-world/526521/> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Farokhmanesh (2017) Meet the trend-chasing developers filling the App Store with fidget spinners. [online] The Verge. Available at:

< https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15720264/app-store-with-fidget-spinners-developer-ios> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Graham, L. (2013) ‘The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 153 No.2 [online] Available at:

< https://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/1570204Graham.pdf> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Lipshin, J. (n.d.) Casual Playbor. [online] Critical Commons. Available at:

<http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/JLipshin/lectures/casual-playbor> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

 

 

An Archaeology of Fidget Spinners

Ah, fidget spinners, the ubiquitous and dividing product of our times. I don’t know when I first became aware of their existence, but I am very aware of that existence now. You’ve probably seen them; if not being played with by idle hands then in one of the many articles bemoaning their questionable mental health benefits. Anecdotal proof of their ubiquity comes from the fact that when I spontaneously decided to buy one late on a Saturday afternoon, all I had to do was walk 30 seconds past the Tesco in central Bedford and I immediately found a market stall selling fidget spinners in a plethora of sizes and colours.

What is it?

There are many different types of fidget spinner but the most basic tends to consist of a centre pad with a bearing in it, held between the thumb and forefinger, and two or three prongs which are manually spun around it. They’re made from multiple materials, with the cheapest formed of plastic components but brass, stainless steel, titanium and copper alternatives are also available. Spinners are typically marketed as stress relieving and as a work aid for those who have trouble focusing (for example, one fidget spinner on Amazon is marketed as ‘Fidget Spinner, Greatever EDC Tri Fidget Hand Spinning Toy Time Killer Stress Reducer High Speed Focus Toy Gifts Perfect for ADD, ADHD, Anxiety, Boredom and Autism Adult Kids’). Some have defended their usage as a legitimate aid to concentration and have pointed out the cruelty of spinner snobbery when it might prevent someone from using what is essentially an inexpensive tool to help them focus and fidget in a less self-destructive way. Others have criticised spinners for being distracting, as just another vacuous gimmick with no proven health benefits, and even potentially dangerous.

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A fidget spinner in motion

This piece doesn’t seek to elevate or condemn fidget spinners, rather, it is focused (believe it or not) on their archaeological implications.

What does this have to do with archaeology?

Given the controversy over their usage and the widespread irritation they seem to generate it may seem a bit strange that I would try to conflate fidget spinners with archaeology, let alone write about them at all. The inspiration for this blog post came after reading two separate pieces on spinners, one suggesting that the spinner fad is ‘over’ and the other on the fact that German Customs Officials have apparently seized 35 metric tons of fidget spinners which they have deemed dangerous and plan to destroy. Given the fact that the peak of fidget spinner production, purchase and use is likely to be limited to a small time frame before they are inevitably discarded, I started to wonder about the potential of fidget spinners as archaeological artefacts. How will future archaeologists interpret them?

The question of interpretation hinges on several key factors. Of course, context is always key in archaeology, and the nature of the context in which the spinner or spinners are found, and their state of preservation, will be crucial. Given that plastic can take hundreds of years to fully degrade even the cheapest fidget spinners could last centuries into the future. For this reason, it is hoped that as many fidget spinners as possible will be recycled rather than end up in landfill. Either way, many fidget spinners are potentially unlikely to be deposited in their location of original use, with future chance finds likely to be a result of accidental or deliberate loss through littering.

If spinners are discovered within the next hundred years, it is likely that there will be existing memories or documentation which survives to aid identification. However, beyond this, their interpretation may be highly reliant on the endurance of digital records. There are multiple existing web archiving initiatives, such as the Internet Archive, a non-profit library which has been archiving web pages since 1996 through the Wayback Machine. Just as real-world archaeological artefacts are subject to decomposition over time, web pages can easily be subject to ‘link rot,’ when such a page no longer exists or a server that hosts the target page has stopped working or relocated, among many other reasons. Searching on the Internet Archive for “fidget spinners” unsurprisingly brings up multiple archived web pages and videos on the subject. However, though the Internet Archive aims to preserve such resources for future research, it is impossible to know if it will still be accessible hundreds of years into the future. A case in point-the inauguration of Trump as President of the United States posed such a perceived existential threat to the Internet Archive that a Canadian copy of it was announced as a safeguard.

In the event that there are no digital or analogue sources to aid the interpretation of a fidget spinner excavated hundreds of years in the future, they might be impossible to conclusively identify. Such a situation is analogous to contemporary confusion over particular archaeological artefacts. For example, Minoan and Myceneaen Bronze Age pierres à cupules (circular holes cut into stone slabs, typically in a circular or oval pattern but there are multiple variations) have been interpreted as religious paraphernalia as well as monumental game boards. When you consider that fidget spinners have multiple contemporary uses and perceived purposes, this compounds the problem even more. If one future archaeologist interpreted them as a ‘tool’ and another as a ‘toy,’ would either of them be strictly ‘wrong’? If we consider the pierres à cupules in light of this, a ‘religious’ function doesn’t seem particularly incompatible with a recreational one-the two may not have been mutually exclusive in the past if they were even considered in those terms at all.

This has formed an initial piece on fidget spinners as an aid to an archaeological thought experiment, perhaps proving that (at least in this sense) they can be a tool and not just a nuisance. In my next piece I’ll be taking another ‘spin’ at fidget spinner archaeology, considering digital fidget spinners as immaterial culture.

Photograph and GIF produced by the author

#PATC An Island Archaeology of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

This is the companion blog post to my presentation for the Public Archaeology Twitter Conference, as part of the archaeology and media theme.

Abstract

2017-04-26

Bibliography

Screenshots, images and gifs

All screenshots, images and gifs were captured/created by the author

Video game case study

Nintendo EAD. (2002).The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. [Videogame]. Kyoto: Nintendo

Articles and books

Barrowclough, D.A (2010) Expanding the Horizons of Island Archaeology Islandscapes Imaginary and Real, Ely: the case of the Dry Island. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 4 (1), pp.27-46 [online] Available at: <http://shimajournal.org/issues/v4n1/f.-Barrowclough-Shima-v4n1-27-46.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].
Broodbank, C (2000) An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Evans, J.D (1973) Islands as laboratories for the study of cultural process. In C. Renfrew, ed. The Explanation of Cultural Change: models in prehistory, London: Duckworth. pp.517-520.

 

Fassone, R (2017) Every Game is an Island: Endings and Extremities in Video Games. New York: Bloomsbury Academic

Hayward, P (2016) Towards an expanded concept of Island Studies. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 10 (1), pp.1-7 [online] Available at: <http://shimajournal.org/issues/v10n1/c.-Hayward-Introduction-Shima-v10n1.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].

Nyman, E (2013) The Island as Container: Islands, Archipelagos, and Player Movement in Video Games. Island Studies Journal, 8 (2), pp.269-284 [online] Available at: <http://www.islandstudies.ca/sites/islandstudies.ca/files/ISJ-8-2-2013-Nyman.pdf> [Accessed 26 April 2017].

Barriers to entry in archaeogaming

I started to write this piece last August when No Man’s Sky was first released-the only reason I had access to the game was because my partner had happened to buy it and I could borrow his laptop on the weekends. It occurred to me that the cost of videogames is a significant barrier to entry in the field of archaeogaming. Then, I chickened out. Writing the piece made me feel uncomfortable, and so it was left to fester as a poorly edited word document, potentially forgotten forever.

I’ve dusted this blog post off, and you might be able to guess what prompted my return to the topic. The Nintendo Switch games console has just been released, along with the latest game in the Legend of Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild. Both have been hotly anticipated by the gaming community, and as a long-time Nintendo enthusiast with a research interest in how archaeogaming can be applied to the Legend of Zelda franchise, it’s particularly frustrating for me to not be able to have access to either.

I understand that the inability to buy a newly released games console is the very definition of a ‘first world problem’ but whether you’re an academic specialising in the field or someone who wants to get involved in archaeogaming then the price of videogames and games consoles can present a limit to the scope of your research. Of course, it is not necessary to buy the latest games and consoles as soon as they are released, especially as their price will reduce over time, however given that new games often prompt discussions within the archaeogaming community there can at least be a perceived pressure to keep ‘up-to-date’ with the latest releases. Plus, public discussion of archaeogaming and new releases will inevitably have benefits in terms of generating wider interest in the discipline. Depending on the nature of your work, a new release may form an invaluable part of your research.

The issue of financial constraint is not just one pertaining to newly released games. If you want to play an old or ‘retro’ title then that entails finding an original copy of the game and purchasing the appropriate console to play it on, which could be potentially very costly. This ties in with particular methodological concerns in archaeogaming research: even a legally acquired emulation as an alternative is problematic because you will not be having the same embodied experience of play.

I have a full-time job in archaeology which allows me to live in London-it’s important for me to respect the fact that although my accessibility to games is limited I am still relatively privileged in that this is not an issue that has greatly impacted my ability to undertake research. I have access to a a laptop, a smartphone and I have enough disposable income to allow me to save up to buy videogames. Also, accessibility in archaeogaming should not just be framed in financial terms. Accessibility, disability, archaeology and gaming need to be discussed more, however as I am not disabled myself I do not feel this is a topic I should speak on personally.

You could argue that if I’m really ‘passionate’ about archaeogaming then I should just throw all of my financial resources into it, but I would argue that is not a healthy or a sustainable approach to the problem. You could also argue that a discussion of personal financial situation is not relevant to the academic discourse-I strongly reject that. If I’m struggling, and I’m in relative financial stability, then I can only assume there are others who have encountered such difficulties, and worse.

So then comes the next question, why should we care?

Why do barriers matter?

‘If it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.’

The above quote has been floating around on social media for several years now, with no record of its origins, almost like some kind of crowdsourced thought. Its message is particularly pertinent to this discussion. Archaeogaming may be a nascent discipline at the bleeding edge of heritage and media studies, but the reason why it can also be claimed to be ‘radical’ is that in many respects the field and its practitioners have made a conscious effort to increase the accessibility of their work. If it weren’t for the fact that in early 2016 I stumbled across Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming blog then I doubt that I would be sat here today writing this piece. Quite simply, greater accessibility to research allows not just for a wider audience but also fosters active interest and participation in the field of archaeogaming. In order for it to thrive, archaeogaming needs to attract a wide range of potential practitioners who can contribute to its development.

Archaeogamers have already done tremendous work to increase accessibility to the discipline (see below for some examples), however the question of how best to overcome the issue of financial barriers to entry still remains.

Enhancing accessibility in archaeogaming

Some existing examples:

  • Archaeogamers Tara Copplestone, Meghan Dennis and Andrew Reinhard all have blogs where they post about their research, and they also have a brilliant podcast called 8 Bit Test Pit in which they discuss various topics relating to the discipline.
  • Shawn Graham blogs about his research in digital media and archaeology, including archaeogaming, and shares useful resources
  • The VALUE academic research group, based at Leiden University, regularly streams videogames on their Twitch channel, hosting an archaeogaming discussion whilst they play
  • VALUE has recently announced a call for papers for their second ‘The Interactive Past Conference’ which will be held online, allowing for greater accessibility
  • Lorna Richardson has set up the first ever Public Archaeology Twitter Conference to be held on 28th April 2017, which anyone can virtually attend and will have an archaeology and media strand (I will be presenting a paper on the topic of ‘An Island Archaeology of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’)

This list is not exhaustive but shows some of the great work that’s already been done, and is ongoing, enhancing accessibility in archaeogaming. In terms of the problem of the financial cost of gaming, I have decided to set some particular aims for my own future work:

  • Engage with mobile games more. Mobile games are generally more accessible than those produced for other platforms because they are often free (though some have in-game purchases) or are low in cost. Smartphones are not inexpensive but it is more likely that an individual will already own one for their own professional or personal requirements than a videogame console. The phenomenon of ‘casual gaming’ and the embodied experience of using a smartphone for gaming have great research potential.
  • Engage more with free to play content on itch.io, the ‘open marketplace for digital creators.’ Whilst such games are likely to be more niche and experimental in nature, they are much more accessible to anyone who wishes to immediately be able to play a game under discussion.
  • Attempt to make a game as part of a game jam so it is easily accessible and invites feedback. This will help me to learn more about the process of developing a game (at least on a very small scale) and also allow me to experiment with the medium in a public setting. This last point is inspired by Tara Copplestone who has created games as part of her archaeogaming PhD research, and you can see a game that she made as part of the Flat Game Annual 2016 here.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, more a primer and a reminder to myself of some ideas that I would like to work on in the coming months. As ever, any feedback or thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Also, I want to make it clear that I certainly don’t think that games should in general be cheaper or free-a videogame represents countless hours of work by developers and I would never wish to appear to be dismissing that. Furthermore, I’m not advocating for boycotting expensive AAA titles or anything like that. What I am advocating is a conscious effort to include financially accessible games in archaeogaming research and to continue making that research as accessible as possible.


Image: Stop! by Qfamily (CC BY 2.0)

The Archaeologist: a ‘citizen of nowhere’

Theresa May, British Prime Minister, AKA Margaret Thatcher 2.0, recently gave a ‘lesson’ on the definition of citizenship at the Tory Party Conference. According to May:

 

“[I]f you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

 

For many of us, global citizenship is something that we cherish. I’m sure this is true for all sorts of professions, but especially for archaeology which often involves travelling to other countries for fieldwork, as well as tertiary education and conferences. If, like me, you’re British with a particular interest in Aegean archaeology, then naturally you’re going to end up living and working in another country. Moreover, archaeological projects often involve collaboration between specialists originating from all over the world. This is the case on the project I’ve been involved with in the Cyclades for the past six weeks, and I’ve experienced first-hand how much that has enriched my personal and professional experience here.

 

Usually, I work as a commercial archaeologist in London, a role which you wouldn’t necessarily think would also instill the importance of world citizenship. Actually, the reverse is true; I’ve had Polish, Italian and Canadian colleagues.

 

Historically, archaeology has been employed for nationalistic purposes, and it still can be today. However, the international nature of archaeological fieldwork in the contemporary work has in my experience lent itself to opening conceptual borders, rather than closing them. Thus, if being a citizen of the world really means being a citizen of ‘nowhere,’ then I’ll proudly be that citizen. Writing this post in Greece, I find some irony in the fact that the term ‘utopia’ was coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 from the Greek ο (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and thus literally means”no-place.” In which case, to be a citizen of ‘nowhere’ means to be a citizen of a utopia, a place which transcends the fractured, bitter ‘citizenship’ of one tiny island.

 

Perhaps any utopia is idealistic and rooted in fantasy, but so is May’s definition of citizenship which clings to out-dated nationalistic ideals.

 

I’m a British citizen. I’m a world citizen. I’m an archaeologist. These categories are not mutually exclusive.

 

I’m also a citizen of ‘nowhere’, that ‘no-place’ which holds all the ideals and dreams of humanity past and present. You should visit sometime.

 

 

The embodied experience of the archaeologist

It’s 5:30am. You stumble out of bed, almost trip over your work boots in the dark and stagger to the bathroom. The ‘clean’ t-shirt you slip on was washed by hand and your work trousers have a few mysterious marks on them you hope no one will notice. Before leaving for a day of fieldwork, you obsessively check your bag for all the essentials: large hat, sunglasses, sun cream, trowel. That last item is especially important. When you were in London it was often your mobile phone that felt like it was an extension of your self-now the trowel has truly taken its place. If you lose your trowel, you may as well have lost a limb.

 


 

I’m currently on a research dig in the Cyclades. Obviously I’ve been doing a lot of archaeology and thinking in archaeological terms, but I’ve also been considering the actual experience of archaeology itself. After all, any archaeological project isn’t just undertaken in the trenches. The archaeological ‘experience’ also manifests itself in other ways; in the trip to site every day, disagreements and new theories discussed over dinner, visiting museums and new archaeological sites on days off.

 

The embodied experience of the archaeologist on site is obviously very much dependent on the nature of the local topography, geology and fieldwork that they are undertaking. I’ve had to acclimatise to working in very windy conditions and on a steeper incline than I ever have in my commercial work, for example. I’ve also been using a Total Station much more frequently than I ever have before, which has meant that a lot of my ‘embodied’ experience of archaeology has involved how I position myself in relation to the Total Station tripod, carefully moving the dials so as not to affect the levelling of the machine.

 

Wherever you are doing archaeology, much of the embodied experience of it can be characterised by the mundane small details such as the habitus of a morning ritual that I mentioned above. This can involve the routine packing and unpacking of equipment, checking that batteries are charged and that the obligatory cheese and tomato sandwich is safely stowed.

 

The question is, where does the archaeological ‘experience’ end if it doesn’t do so in the trenches? When you’re on a research dig in another country such as the one I’m on now, the archaeological experience is also inextricably linked with the local area. After being out in the field, I usually take a trip to a local bar which I’ve been to so many times that they know my order. The various restaurants and bars that our team has visited in the town act as landmarks in my mind, places where we are generally recognised as ‘the archaeologists.’

 

I recently saw a post on Facebook in which archaeology was described as a ‘lifestyle’ and I suppose to an extent that’s a definition I would agree with. Like many other professions, the experience of being an archaeologist is made up various routines and habits. However, the nature of our work means that there is continually a new ‘normal;’ we are constantly adapting to new challenges, discovering new archaeological features and reevaluating our findings. There are always consistent threads of practise in archaeology, but it also requires great physical and intellectual stamina in the face of new surroundings and data.

 

Archaeology can involve a kind of nomadic lifestyle. You wear dusty boots, live on a shoe-string budget and attempt to ‘walk in the shoes’ of people long dead in places you’ve never been before. The embodied experience of the archaeologist involves not just the relationship with their trowel, but also with other archaeologists and the landscape that you traverse every day. It would be impossible, and foolhardy, to make any grand generalisations about the embodied experience of archaeologists save for this-it is reliably changeable.

 

Expect the unexpected. And cheese and tomato sandwiches.

World-building in archaeology: from the ‘Yard’ or the ‘Heavens’

Henry VIII. Augustus. Napoléon Bonaparte. What do these three individuals have in common? They are synonymous with certain periods of history in Western Europe. They are also all white male rulers. Such historical figures are frequently used as touchstones when attempting to construct an impression of the past, and there are several good reasons for this. Firstly, there are often more historical sources which pertain to ‘elite’ figures (however we wish to define them) due to their contemporary prominence. As a result, such figures are also much more likely to be recognised now as they have endured in a shared cultural vocabulary. Primary historical resources, of course, can provide insight into the experiences of people other than elite white men, but I think that it is fair to say that due to their better access to education, resources and other elite white men, the historical bias of preservation is rather in their favour.

 

One of the reasons I was originally attracted to archaeology as a discipline was that it seemed to hold greater potential than history to reveal the past lives of the ‘little people.’ Obviously, some of the greatest glittering treasures of the world have survived because they have been protected by their own prestige and the prestige of their owners, but in the seemingly incidentally preserved remains found by chance anywhere from 18th century rubbish pits to Neolithic post-holes, it is possible to fumble at the fragments of past, nameless lives.

 

It would be a fallacy to say that the archaeological record is without bias and that history only chronicles the rich, famous and powerful. Both disciplines are complementary and fraught with their own methodological conundrums, though they share several. One of these is the question that I wish to pose in this piece: should we construct past worlds from the ‘Yard’ or from the ‘Heavens.’

 

 

Building a world stage

 

 

The Globe Theatre, the Elizabethan playhouse in London, has a stage surrounded by a yard area where spectators or ‘groundlings’ can watch the play standing up. In Elizabethan times they were likely to be the poorest members of the audience, only having to pay a penny. The most expensive seats in the Globe were the ‘Lord’s Rooms’ on the upper gallery to the left and right of the musicians’ gallery. Today, they are retained for stage action (Shakespeare’s Globe, n.d.); instead of contrasting the yard with the Lord’s Rooms for the purpose of this discussion on ‘elite’ versus ‘non-elite naratives’ I chose the ‘Heavens.’ This is the name given to the roof over the Globe stage which is painted with stars, moons and signs of the zodiac, a reference to the Renaissance belief in the influence of celestial movements on the world below (Ibid). Though the Heavens may represent the highest point in the theatre, the groundlings actually have the best view of them (Ibid).

 

I wish to contrast the ‘Yard’ versus ‘Heavens’ perspectives as those which prioritise non-elite versus elite perspectives respectively. The term ‘elite’ is a problematic one, especially in terms of how it is defined in archaeology. For the purpose of this discussion I use it broadly to refer to those individuals that hold a disproportionate amount of political, social or economic power (or indeed a combination thereof).

 

 

I’d like to look at a few very specific examples of how different approaches to worldbuilding have affected interpretations of the past. These are by their very nature limited in demonstrating the full repercussions of elite versus non-elite perspectives on the interpretation of archaeology, but I hope to at least incite a sense of the urgency to acknowledge the frailties of both approaches and also the need to re-evaluate this binary opposition itself. In this piece I will also briefly refer to the ‘Yard’ and ‘Heavens’ perspectives in creating virtual worlds in video games, as I believe there are some interesting parallels with archaeological worldbuilding.

 

 

The Knossos ‘Priest King’: a fallacy from the ‘Heavens’

 

 

As in my previous piece on worldbuilding, I wish to reference the archaeological study of Bronze Age Crete. Minoan archaeology has been my area of academic specialisation, and through my own work I have encountered numerous instances in which problematic worldbuilding of the ‘Minoan’ civilisation in the early 20th century has led to questionable reconstructions and conclusions ever since. A good example of how an elite-centric worldbuilding methodology has been poorly applied to Minoan Crete is the reconstruction and subsequent debate over the ‘Priest King’ fresco.

 

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Priest-King fresco depicted in Arthur Evan’s Palace of Minos (Evans, 1928: Pl.XIV)

 

Fragments found in 1901 during the excavation of the ‘palace’ at Knossos were later reconstructed by Émile Gilliéron fils, an archaeological illustrator who had previously worked for Heinrich Schliemann (infamous excavator of Hissarlik/Troy). The result was a striding figure wearing a codpiece, and a crown with waz-lilies, dated roughly from MMIIIB-LMIB (c.1700-1450BC). The fragments themselves were found at the ‘South Front’ of the palace, south of its central court, in a basement level. We know that the individual fragments were found over the course of several days from the 11th-17th May 1901 thanks to records provided by Duncan Mackenzie, who was in charge of the excavations and thankfully recorded in detail the works in his Day Book (Shaw, 2004:74). Sir Arthur Evans, the man who discovered Knossos and was one of the initial interpreters of the site, can be held responsible for the nickname of ‘Priest King’ which has become synonymous with the reconstruction. This regal classification, without archaeological support, indicates the extent to which elite-centric worldbuilding has been relied upon for the interpretation of Knossian material culture.

Maria’s Shaw’s paper ‘The “Priest-King” Fresco from Knossos: Man, Woman, Priest, King, or Someone Else?’ (2004) has proved invaluable for this piece as she provides a very thorough discussion of the discovery of the fresco fragments, their subsequent restoration and interpretation. Her analysis is also particularly valuable because she herself was able to observe the actual fresco fragments closely where they are kept at the Heraklion Museum. There has been much speculation over whether the fragments even belonged to the same figure, let alone whether the figure itself could be considered regal. MacKenzie’s Day Book frustratingly does not include a datum point for the relevant stratigraphical sequence, but what can be extrapolated from his records is that the fragments were found 7.4m from the south edge of the central court, next to the east wall of a basement in “Space 1,” with Mackenzie suggesting that they fell from an upper floor (Shaw, 2004:74-76). Shaw herself concludes that it is likely the fragments were removed from the east wall and then dumped into the corresponding basement when it went out of use (2004:76). An assemblage of pottery thought to also have been found in Space 1 has been dated to no later than the MMIIIB period, and given that the mural cannot have been on the walls of the palace at the time of its LMIII destruction, it must be dated within this time frame (2004:77).

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Photograph of the remains of the Priest King fresco in the Heraklion Museum, taken by the author

 

It came as a surprise to me that Shaw concluded that Evan’s reconstruction seems on the whole to be correct, which I have to admit to indicates my own personal bias against Sir Evans. Shaw looked in particular for evidence of hair along the base of the neck on the right hand side which would suggest the face belonging to the figure’s torso was facing in the opposite direction to Evan’s torso, but this was not the case (2004: 72). Whilst I appreciate Shaw’s close examination of the actual fresco reconstruction, I’m still not entirely certain that I follow her reasoning; she also cites the fact that lilies appearing in a necklace painted on the torso matching the feathered crown from the head means they must be from the same figure (2004: 72) however this could also be a result of the pieces coming from the same fresco scene. Indeed, Shaw herself suggests that the figure may have formed part of a processional fresco much like the later ‘Procession Fresco’ which started at the southwest entrance to the palace (2004:77). It is still possible that the fragments formed parts of several different figures moving in the same direction, perhaps decorated with similar motifs.

The point on which Shaw and I must strikingly disagree, however, is the conjectured identity of the fresco figure:

“Evans may not have been far off the point when he thought of a “king.” (2004: 73).

The ‘Priest King,’ with his questionable provenance and body parts fitted together like a badly made jig-saw puzzle, is assumed to be not just an elite figure, but the most elite figure possible in terms of a projected hierarchy. Laudably, Shaw discusses the confusion over the colouring of the figure’s skin and gender conventions associated with skin colour in Aegean and Egyptian frescoes-in general women are depicted as having white skin and men red, though it is clear that this is not always the case and that skin colour may also be an indicator of age and status (2004: 77). She also draws parallels with a wall painting from Tell el-Dab’a in Egypt dating to the Eighteenth Dynasty, one of several which have been referred to as depicting Minoan themes, not least the bull-leaping subject matter (Shaw, 2004:79). One tumbler in particular wears an ornament on his head with a blue waz and white lily, which is similar to the Priest King’s ‘crown’ (Shaw, 2004:79-80). Whilst the parallels raise interesting questions about the potential significance of the waz-lily crown, Shaw quickly states:

“This is not to say that the Priest King was a mere tumbler, just that he is linked with athletic activity.” (2004:80).

Why can’t he be a mere tumbler? Firstly, to ascribe the Priest King with particularly high status renders his discovery and subsequent analysis with an extra frisson and intrigue; after all, if this hadn’t been the case, I likely wouldn’t have included him in this discussion in the first place. Secondly, it ties in with a wider trend of worldbuilding that attempts to construct Bronze Age Crete from the ‘Heavens’. Shaw speculates on the formation of elite identity through athletic achievement as part of a theocratic state and even goes as far to reference the much later Greek Olympic Games (2004:81-82). Whilst these are interesting ideas to explore in terms of building the Minoan world, they suffer from an elite-centric view which privileges hypothetical privileged individuals. So much for trying to understand more about a diverse population with varied experiences-the ‘Heavens’ perspective on Knossos focuses on elite identities to the extent that they are created even when there is no clear evidence for them. Perhaps the Priest King was a bull leaper, but it takes a much greater leap of faith to believe he was royalty.

It would be more intellectually invigorating, at least from my point of view, to question what ideals and values this figure represents as opposed to searching for his ‘true’ identity. Shaw’s discussion of the figure as an athletic body is a good starting point-what can we glean from the depiction of musculature in this fresco? What about the gestures? What would the phenomenological experience of encountering this figure on a wall in the palace of Knossos potentially have been?

In this case, I believe the elite-centric perspective on the significance of the Priest King in the wider context of Bronze Age Crete has been misleading and ultimately, unimaginative.

Northallerton House of Correction: the view from the ‘Yard’

Thousands of years later, and in the much less temperate land of North Yorkshire in England, a prison was built. In 1784, title deeds for the land intended for the Northallerton House of Correction were drawn up on what was previously a swampy wasteland where the local townsfolk deposited their rubbish (Riordan, 2002: 102). Replacing the House of Correction at Thirsk, the prison was originally completed in 1788 but was altered numerous times during its lifetime.

The reason I know this is because earlier this year I conducted research on the history of the prison. The research process involved building up a chronological picture of the prison’s development-this was not a case of worldbuilding on a small geographical scale, but on a large temporal scale. Not surprisingly, some of the initial information I encountered related to the original designer John Carr. Carr was a joint county surveyor for the West Riding of Yorkshire who also designed the interior of Fairfax House, Bootham Park Hospital and the County Court House in York (York Museum Trust, n.d.). As follows the standard pattern of the ‘Heavens’ approach, as a researcher I examined Northallerton House of Correction through the eyes of its initial architect, not surprisingly a man of status and with much local influence. Then I encountered something which blinded my vision of cartographic sources and building plans signed by self-assured hands.

 

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Photograph of Sophia Constable (My Learning, n.d.) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

An 11 year old girl called Sophia Constable stares out at me. Though her sepia-tinged photograph might at first glance evoke some sense of vague nostalgia, this illusion is soon broken when you properly confront her even gaze. Her mouth is a line and her hair has been tucked behind her ears-it could almost be a passport photo-except that she’s holding up a chalkboard with her name on it and this is a talisman of impeded, not free, movement. In 1872, Sophia was found guilty of stealing a loaf of bread and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour at Northallerton House of Correction, and then four years in a Reformatory (My Learning, n.d.a). I found her on a website which provides educational resources called My Learning. The reason she is even discussed at all here is as a result of a group of young offenders at Northallerton House of Correction discovering her whilst undertaking a project called ‘Changes in Society’ which was run by the North Yorkshire County Record Office (Sweetmore, n.d.:1) Even just in terms of contemporary academic world building, when the expectation is that a piece of research is likely to have been done by someone within academia, my discovery of Sophia has many connotations of worldbuilding from a non-elite perspective.

I may have marvelled over the intricacies of architectural plans of the prison, including even beautiful isometric drawings you might be proud to hang on your wall, but Sophia Constable’s photograph compelled me to forget those sterile lines and to try in some way to comprehend what her experience at the prison in the late 19th century might have been like.

Clearly, I have no idea.

At 11 years old I was just starting secondary school and worried that I might get laughed at for wearing my long rainbow socks on non-school uniform day (I did). Sophia wears what appears to be a large tartan shawl that’s too big for a child, but as she was photographed in October, must have been a necessity to ward off the cold. In 1821, a treadmill was built at the prison in order to facilitate the grinding of corn, and at this time it was actually the largest in the world (Nixon, 2014:12). Sophia was lucky enough to miss out working on that particular monstrous contraption, as in 1863 the tread mill was replaced, but she still had to work the handmills that were used in its stead (Riordan, 2002:157). The literal daily grind of living in Northallerton Prison, and especially at such a young age, is something that is difficult to comprehend not just in terms of a lack of analogous experience but also because it is painful to consider the 19th century attitudes towards children from a contemporary standpoint.

Attempting to see Northallerton Prison through the eyes of Sophia Constable, was my own personal attempt at ‘Yard’ worldbuilding on a small scale. The only reason that we have any photographic evidence of her is because Captain George Gardner, governor of the prison between 1862 and 1898, established photography in he prison (Riordan, 2002:158). Plans of the prison from 1870 show that a ‘Photographic House’ had been set up in order to facilitate this documentation of the prisoners; it is ironic that although the photographic record of Sophia encourages us to consider the prison according to her experience of it, it must also be acknowledged that we are viewing her through the bureaucratic lens of the prison administration. Yet, at what point to we demarcate between what narratives are ‘elite’ or ‘non-elite?’ Status and authority are relative. In the moment that Sophia’s image was captured its clear where the balance of power lay, though it would also be wrong to deny the agency of her own gaze.

In focusing intently on Sophia in this construction of Northallerton Prison I have to acknowledge my own bias. I could have led with other seemingly subversive narratives relating to the prison, such as the ‘Glasshouse Riots’ of March 1946 when prisoners set store rooms on fire, threw bricks and slate from the roof and apparently broke 800 windows due to prisoners of war held there still being treated harshly despite the war having been over for months (Hambleton District Council, n.d.; The Glasgow Herald, 1946:6). I could have also focused on the young 20-year-old woman who was arrested alongside Sophia, Fanny Goodchild, who had previously been sentenced for prostitution (My Learning, n.d.b.).

I wanted to write about Sophia Constable because of the emotional response that I had when I discovered her picture and sentencing, and this response is a result of contemporary western prizing of childhood and the childhood experience. Perhaps the other ‘non-elite’ narratives pertaining to Northallerton Prison would not have been compelling in precisely the same way for that reason. I wasn’t the only one struck by that photograph-Sophia’s story as researched by young offenders was so compelling that in 2009 her trial was re-enacted in Middlesborough (Sweetmore, n.d.:1)-an interesting example of a theatrical interpretation of historical sources.

The story of a very young girl sentenced to hard labour lends itself to modern-day re-enactment because it juxtaposes so clearly with contemporary values. In this sense, it is easy to exploit what was an actual life experience by creating a narrative from it; I’m not accusing the re-enactment of any such thing but in terms of worldbuilding and archaeology this is a crucial point to keep in mind. It is important to consider the implications of the presumed relationship between class, age and status that this particular discussion of a ‘non-elite’ approach has brought to light. Even if such an approach is an attempt to turn the tables on a traditional means of addressing academic research, that doesn’t mean that certain agendas won’t still be in place.

Still, I remain transfixed by the thought that Sophia Constable can look out at us from the past in a photograph, and though she did not know it then, and she certainly does not know it now; we can see her.

 

The Gilded Cage: Bioshock Infinite and worldbuilding

Mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite below.

 

“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”

This statement will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has played the first-person shooter game developed by Irrational Games, Bioshock Infinite. The third in the critically acclaimed Bioshock trilogy, Infinite is set in the fictional steampunk-esque city state of Columbia which is suspended in the air thanks to a method of quantum levitation. You play as Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton National Detective Agent involved in the Battle of Wounded Knee who attempts to erode his gambling debts by rescuing a young woman called Elizabeth (daughter of Colombia’s theocratic leader, Father Zachary Hale Comstock) from her confinement in the city.

Why am I discussing a video game in a piece on worldbuilding and archaeology? If you’re aware of the burgeoning field known as archaeogaming, then this may not come as a great surprise. Archaeogaming, to use a definition by Meghan Dennis (n.d.) which I particularly like, is: “the utilization and treatment of immaterial space to study created culture, specifically through videogames.” I would like to use aspects of worldbuilding in Bioshock Infinite as a case study to compare with the previous examples cited. As the world of Bioshock Infinite has been particularly lauded by some for its immersive worldbuilding (Salazar-Moreno, 2013) I feel it would be interesting to look at how this has been achieved through the immaterial culture of the game and the character of Elizabeth in terms of ‘Yard’ and ‘Heavens’ worldbuilding.

From the beginning of the game, the recovery of Elizabeth is set as the main aim for the player, and this theme is reinforced by the player’s initial experiences in Colombia. Infinite opens with Booker being taken on a rowboat to an island lighthouse, being told that infamous line “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” As this is a first-person shooter, we view everything through Booker’s eyes and witness him in the first cut scene open a wooden box marked with his name that contains, among other things, a picture of Monument Island in Columbia, a pistol, a key with a bird cage inscribed in the bow and a photograph of Elizabeth. This assemblage of immaterial items provides clear foreshadowing for the narrative ahead. The picture of Elizabeth in particular, in which she is clearly not aware that she is being photographed, invites the player even at this early stage to speculate on the dual importance and manipulation of her as a character.

 

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Photograph of Elizabeth (Corvo, n.d)

 

Once Booker actually reaches Columbia, one of the most imposing landmarks in the floating city is that of the statue of Columbia on Monument Island. This grand female personification of the United States, complete with wings, forms the gilded cage for Elizabeth. Naturally, the landmark is made visible to the player in the first stage of the game, but at a distance so as to create a sense of anticipation. Given that the game is essentially ‘on-rails,’ the conspicuous monument also helps shepherd the player towards their goal.

Though there are countless other details and design choices I could discuss, Monument Island and the statue of Colombia are crucial for enhancing the sense of place in Colombia. The Bioshock Infinite website states that “Columbia was built by the US government in the late 1800s to serve as a floating world’s fair. The city was sent to travel from continent to continent and show the rest of the world the success of the American experiment” (Irrational Games, n.d.). Thus, Colombia serves as a symbol of American exceptionalism. In an interview back in 2013, Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine commented that his team were inspired by the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City which chronicles the artificial city built for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (Williams, 2013). When Booker arrives, Colombia is celebrating its annual Raffle and Fair, the carnival atmosphere clearly a reference to the aforementioned World’s Fair and also providing an interesting juxtaposition with Booker’s own status as an ‘alien’ within Columbia on a mission with rather foreboding implications. As you can see in the screenshot below, Monument Island is seemingly omnipresent in the background of the fairground areas of Columbia; the weight of Booker’s mission overshadows the festivities.

 

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View of Colombia Raffle & Fair with the statue of Colombia in the background (JLBiggs, n.d.)

 

Booker discovers that Elizabeth is referred to as the “Lamb of Columbia” due to the prominent pieces of propaganda reinforcing this identity. During the fair, Booker witnesses a float with the imagery of ‘prophet’ Father Zachary Hale Comstock, his haloed wife and infant Elizabeth along with signage declaring: “A miracle child is born, the future of the city is secured!” (Zimnoch, n.d: 5). Thus, Elizabeth is inextricably entangled with Columbia as a result of the dominant religious ideologies propagated by her father. She is singled out not just as elite, but truly exceptional– she is the “miracle child” after all. Furthermore, she inhabits Monument Island and the glimmering statue of Colombia. Though Elizabeth herself is a celebrity in Colombia and is certainly one of its most privileged citizens in one sense, her gilded house is actually a gilded cage.

Getting back to the concept of worldbuilding and ‘elite’ versus ‘non-elite,’ it seems clear that Colombia is, at least initially, introduced to the viewer through various monuments, festival activities and pieces of propaganda which instill the perspective from the ‘Heavens.’ However, the very nature of these pieces of immaterial culture implicitly encourages the player to question their validity. One propaganda poster refers to the “False Sheperd” who will steal away the “Lamb of Columbia.” The poster shows a clawed hand branded with AD, which the player can see Booker himself has. Tension is thus created as the player is aware that Booker must be the “False Shepherd.” For all of its potential aesthetic appeal, Colombia is not a place where the player feels welcome. Furthermore, the style of the aforementioned poster, as shown by Mateusz Zimnoch in his work on Aesthetics of Propaganda in Bioshock Infinite, is very reminiscent of both anti and pro-Soviet propaganda posters produced in the 20th century (n.d. 7). We can assume that the designers of Bioshock Infinite created these posters as a conscious reference to such real-world pieces of material culture. Zimnoch makes the very interesting point that if real-world historical events and political movements are being referenced in Infinite to lend a sense of legitimacy to the fictional Colombian dystopia, then what does that say about our own relationship with the warped narratives of propaganda in the real world? (n.d. 4). Thus, though the worldbuilding employed to create a sense of place in Colombia is on the surface very much of defined by the ruling class, the presentation of certain proprogandist tropes is likely to elicit the player to formulate their own alternative interpretation to their in-game surroundings.

 

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Colombia propaganda (Truyens, J. 2013)

 

Elizabeth’s presentation at the beginning of the game complements this. As stated previously, though she is a person of high status in some respects, she is also treated as Comstock’s property and as a scientific “specimen.” When Booker finally gets to Monument Island, he finds a lobby littered with “NO ENTRY” signs advising longer and longer periods of quarantine as he progresses. He encounters a diagram charting the “Specimen’s” growth as well as one particularly disturbing assemblage of items of “Transposes” relating to different periods in Elizabeth’s life which can be subjected to a piece of high voltage equipment, the “Siphon.” This includes a Teddy Bear (from age 4) a poetry book (from age 11) and bloodied piece of cloth which represents “Menarche” (from age 13). The latter I was particularly surprised to see-menstrual blood isn’t something that usually gets so openly acknowledged in any medium, let alone a first-person shooter. This particular ‘artefact’ of Elizabeth’s life is particularly disturbing because it indicates the extent to which her existence has been the subject of constant surveillance and analysis, even down to her first period. Though I don’t think that Infinite is always as clever and progressive as it thinks it is, this particular moment in the game was particularly brave in forcing the player to confront the full extent to which Elizabeth’s body has been exploited and all of its development quantified for Comstock’s gain.

 

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“Age 13 Menarche,” screenshot taken by author

 

Some critics have questioned the extent to which the worldbuilding in Infinite is as successful as it first appears in terms of actual gameplay (Chester, 2013). Indeed, though Colombia may be beautiful, the extent to which Booker can interact with it is actually quite limited. NPC characters are unresponsive and though some maps are a fair size, there isn’t much potential for exploration. Given that Ken Livine said himself “If our city doesn’t feel like a place people could actually inhabit, we haven’t done our job” (Williams, 2013), it’s fair to say that Infinite’s worldbuilding is perhaps only as substantial as the stucco buildings of the Chicago World Fair’s White City which were such an inspiration for the game. That being said, I do believe that the initial stages of the game, especially the Colombia Raffle and Fair, provide a good introduction to the themes and mechanics of the game as Booker explores different stalls and tries out Vigors (tonics which grant extraordinary abilities) and plays mini-games that introduce the Vox Populi as the enemies of Comstock’s regime.

There’s so much more that could be said about Bioshock Infinite, worldbuilding and the tensions between ‘elite’ versus ‘non-elite’ worldbuiding. I’ve barely mentioned the Vox Populi and the scourge of white supremacy that rots at the core of Colombia, as I feel that those are subjects that deserve their own separate piece. It should be pointed out that, as I mentioned previously, Booker’s first introduction to the Vox Populi and its leader Daisy Fitzroy is through playing the ‘Bring Down the Skyline Vox’ and ‘Hunt Down The Vox’ carnival games which involve shooting as many targets representing members of the militant underground insurgency group as possible. This definitely means that a ‘Heavens’ approach to the social hierarchy in Colombia is dominant at the beginning, however this is subverted over the course of the game and the player is likely to be disturbed by the subject matter of the carnival games. Later on, Booker wins the raffle and is offered the ‘reward’ of being able to throw a ball at an interracial couple who have been tied up-the player is given a short amount of time to decide whether to do so or throw the ball at Jeremiah Fink the host. By this point, an alternate perspective becomes clearer as the player is forced to directly confront the racist behaviour which characterises the upper classes within Colombia, and decide whether they will protest it or not.

The worldbuilding involved in setting up Colombia as a believable if fantastical dystopia in Bioshock Infinite is flawed but has some more successful components. Though the introduction to the setting of Colombia is very much from the point of view of the privileged in that society, the pieces of flagrant propaganda which litter the map are clearly not to be trusted. This implicitly implies the potential of alternate narratives. Elizabeth very much occupies an unstable space between relative privilege and her own exploited exceptionalism; she can be seen as a personification of the city of Colombia itself.

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Elizabeth (Gearslover01, 2013)

 

I have consciously focused on the beginning of the game and the player’s introductory experience to Colombia. That being said, it is important to acknowledge the role of the Vox Populi as a resistance group providing an alternative perspective on Colombia later on in the game’s narrative. The character of Daisy Fitzroy, as the leader of the Vox Populi and a black woman, should also be noted. I chose to focus on Elizabeth for this discussion as her ‘gilded cage’ throws up some interesting contradictions and thematic parallels with the previous section on Northallerton Prison. However, in light of how I started out this piece clearly criticising the focus on white male figures in history, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge the limitations of my own discussion which would still benefit from further analysis of the presentation of racial minorities in Bioshock Infinite.

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Vox Populi recruitment poster featuring Daisy Fitzroy (Mainframe98, 2015)

 

 

The view from the stage

 

“What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?”

You may wonder why I’m quoting the chorus from Kanye West, Jay-Z and Frank Ocean’s No Church in the Wild (2012), but bear with me. The above lyrics represent a questioning of the extent to which traditional figures of power actually have any real meaning, especially in terms of the “non-believer” who may have nothing but does not even have to answer to the greatest authority of all (God) if he or she does not acknowledge the existence of Him and His power anyway. I’ve included these lyrics because I feel they are pertinent in terms of several different issues surrounding the supposed binary opposition between looking down from the ‘Heavens’ or up from the ‘Yard.’

Through the course of this piece I have focused mainly on three different figures, two of which are not actually real people. The first, the Priest King, is a piece of artwork and Minoan material culture. The second, Sophia Constable, was alive at the end of the 19th century as we know from her photograph taken in Northallerton Prison. The third, Elizabeth Comstock, is a fictional character from the video game Bioshock Infinite.

The first point I want to make is that the way that we approach archaeological or historical research in terms of ‘Yard’ or ‘Heavens’ worldbuilding is incredibly influential on the contemporary narratives we create about the past. In the case of the Priest King, it has been assumed that he is actually a representation of an actual living regal individual in the Minoan Bronze Age, when there was actually no evidence of this. My attempted ‘non-elite’ approach to Northallerton Prison has led me to focus specifically on Sophia Constable and her story, though this is certainly not representative of the history of the prison as a whole. By being open to looking at alternate perspectives on Bioshock Infinite, I was able to perceive some of the contradictions at play in viewing Elizabeth Comstock as either a privileged celebrity or a victim, when actually she can be seen as both.

There are limitations to the utility of the ‘Yard’/’Heavens’ approach, chiefly in that it proscribes sharply defining between ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’ perspectives when definitions of class and status are not always easy to define, especially when trying to project them onto the past and in different social contexts. It would be much more beneficial to instead look at worldbuilding from the ‘stage.’ Following my analogy with the structure of the Globe theatre, from the point of view of the actors they can see the ‘Yard,’ the ‘Heavens’ and all that’s in between. Furthermore, this analogy is useful in reminding us that status and identity are performative; continually re-affirmed by certain behaviours and props, and constantly in flux. Thus, it is important to compare different interpretations of past worlds from the point of view of differing status groups, and to interrogate how we define ‘status’ in the past anyway.

I began this piece by revealing my own dislike for the privileging of the elite white male perspective in history, and have thus revealed my own supposed ‘non-elite’ agenda. What are the patriarchs of history to me? Yet, to completely disregard one approach in blind favour of another would be to disregard a great amount of pertinent scholarship and to miss the wider socio-political picture. In terms of worldbuilding and public archaeology, for example, it is important to discuss both well-known and relatable lower-class figures in the past to make our field more accessible to people with various points of reference.

Lastly, I would like to make the point that though the Priest King and Elizabeth Comstock may seem separated by a great amount of time and technology, it is quite likely in my mind that the former is a completely fictional representation and thus the two have more in common than might be first thought. Both have been influential in the worldbuilding processes of material and immaterial worlds, and the Bronze Age Minoan world is elusive like Columbia, though in different ways. We can touch the ruins of Knossos, yet we cannot truly visit it as it was. We can visit the fully imagined immaterial world of Columbia, yet we cannot touch it.

 


 Bibliography

 

Chester, E. 2013. Bioshock Infinite: The 10 Things it got wrong. Bitgamer [online] http://www.bit-tech.net/gaming/pc/2013/04/17/bioshock-infinite-10-things-it-got-wrong/1 [Accessed: 10.07.16]

 

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