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)

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4 comments

  1. Shawn · March 7

    I really appreciate your comments here! I’m thinking there’s a lot of space for us to be exploring these issues you raise through tools and platforms like Twine, Inkle, Inform, RenPy and the like. These environments can be had for free, and require only our time. Text-based explorations are more friendly for things like screenreaders and other accessibility technologies. I’d like to see us do more criticism & exploration of all these ideas within game / playful environments themselves. Play our ideas out, rather than write ’em out.

    Then there are things like ‘barely’ games … http://www.robmacdougall.org/blog/2010/05/pastplay/

    I’m a bit non-sequitur there; maybe I should stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, there is so much potential in archaeogaming not just even in examining indie games but also for using tools such as Twine to make our own. The point you raise about text-based explorations being more accessible in terms of screenreaders is something I hadn’t even considered. I have to admit, I’m still a bit of a ‘noob’ when it comes to creating interactive fiction etc. but that’s exactly why I want to push myself in that direction. As you say, these tools are free to use and so theoretically anyone can have a go. I’m hoping to get stuck in with Twine soon and blog about using it; seeing as I have barely any kind of experience in this area that should be interesting!
      Thank you for the link about ‘barely’ games as well, that’s fascinating. I really want to try some of those!

      Like

  2. Archaeogaming · March 7

    Thanks for writing this excellent piece, and thanks also for your kind words. I had yet to take the reflexive approach to my work, so this has been quite helpful. I interviewed Raiford Guins yesterday for the 8bit Test Pit podcast, and I asked him what his favorite arcade game was, and what he’s playing now. He said something interesting: “I’ve really stopped playing games, and have instead started looking at them.” What he means is that as a game historian, he’s taking more of an art historical approach to understanding games-as-objects, looking at materials, packaging, and the people behind their production, as well as the intellectual property the cabinets contain. He doesn’t own these games, but has instead visited places such as the Strong National Museum of Play. While it is possible to go and purchase original hardware and the games to play on proprietary platforms, it is also possible to visit museums like the Strong, or even to reach out to collectors and hobbyist clubs to arrange for a visit (or perhaps even a loan) so one can do the work (and play). As Ethan Gruber discussed yesterday, it’s possible to also find free games on abandonware sites, as well as ROM emulators to play for free on the open source MAME platform. The cool thing about archaeogaming (OK — *a* cool thing about archaeogaming) is that archaeological methods and questions can be applied to any game, old or new, free or for pay, indie or AAA. I’d love to see scholarships and grants that cover the costs of buying hardware and software as they do textbooks and lab materials/fees. It’s the same thing, really.

    As for Open Access as another way to foster accessibility, I remain completely on-board with that. I put up a post yesterday making my first chapter of my nascent PhD thesis available for open peer review, and to share what I am thinking right away. I’d encourage anybody working on archaeogaming to share their data and their work as OA with some sort of Creative Commons license. Things are moving quickly for us, so we need to be able to keep up, and to keep our work from being hidden behind a paywall.

    —Andrew Reinhard

    Like

    • I’m so glad you liked it, and thank you for this comment! As I said in the piece, I first discovered archeogaming through your blog so I have you to thank for introducing me to this field.
      I always look forward to every new 8bit Test Pit podcast. Raiford’s Guin’s work looks fascinating, I’m going to have to add his book Game After to the long list of archaeogaming-related books I need to read…
      If I ever get over to the States I’ll make sure to check out the Strong National Museum of Play. The possibility of reaching out to collector’s and museums is a really good point and something I need to look into. I know the Museum of London has some videogames in its collection, so that’s a start.
      Emulators are great, though it seems to be a bit of a legal grey area. It’s true-we can study everything from AAA to something that someone made in their spare time and posted on itch. There’s actually almost too much choice! Part of the research process though is pinning down which games are the most relevant to any particular study. On a slightly related note, I wonder if there will ever be a recognised ‘canon’ of videogames like you see in literature etc.
      I really appreciate you putting your thesis chapter and bibliography online, its invaluable for someone like me who is in the early staging of trying to put together an archaeogaming PhD proposal. I agree, it’s important to stay committed to OA, it makes a huge difference

      Liked by 1 person

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