Dark Tourism in The Town of Light: Dark Heritage, Player Agency and Phenomenological Experience

On Saturday the 2nd of September 2017, I presented my paper on Dark Tourism and The Town of Light at the EAA conference in Maastricht as part of the Session number 275: ‘In Play. Archaeology in Videogames as a Metadisciplinary Approach.’ I would like to thank Lennart Linde, Meghan Dennis, Aris Politopoulos, Angus Mol, Csilla Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke and Krijn Boom for organising a fantastic session.  Hanna Pageau, as well as being a speaker herself,  live-tweeted the session which allowed those who couldn’t attend to follow along. Andrew Reinhard was also not only a speaker but wrote up an invaluable summary of each talk which you can find here.

I was incredibly excited to attend the session-not only was it my first opportunity to talk about archaeogaming at a large international conference, it was also the first time I would be able to meet many fellow archaeogamers in person. The archaeogaming crew are a very welcoming group of people who made me feel at ease, and as a person who suffers from anxiety I really appreciated that.

Which leads me to the next topic I want to discuss…

Motivations for studying dark tourism and The Town of Light

As far as I can remember (the experience now is a bit of a blur) someone asked me at the end of my talk what my motivations were for studying The Town of Light, whether I identified with the protagonist of the game and if I knew why players were generally motivated to play it. Whilst I did talk about my intentions to survey players about their motivations, I realise that I completely side-stepped the first part of the question.

Researching dark heritage and tourism, as well as playing The Town of Light has at times been an overwhelming experience for me. As was appropriate, I was very concerned about discussing a game which portrays a historical mental health institution in a way that was both respectful of the subject matter but also academically rigorous. I was also very aware that whilst I myself was analysing the ethical implications of a game which uses the protagonist’s mental health problems as a ‘hook,’ I could also be complicit in exploiting the subject matter for my own research. This is why I feel that its important to be self-reflexive and discuss my own motivations for pursuing the concept of dark tourism and applying it to The Town of Light.

For many years I have suffered from mental health problems. I will not go into detail about this, and I don’t think that any individual should feel pressurised to disclose personal information of this nature to justify their research. In this case in particular, though, I don’t feel comfortable not mentioning it at all, expecially given I’m particularly interested in understanding what leads a player to experience a game like The Town of Light. For someone who perpetually experiences a fear of stigma and shame about mental health, the representation of mental health matters to me. As an archaeogamer, the representation of a non-fictional mental health institution in a video game environment particularly mattered to me.

I find dark heritage and dark tourism fascinating as academic constructs in themselves (what constitutes dark anyway?) but I’m particularly interested in their potential as a way of promoting social justice and education, which Edward Gonzalez-Tennant focuses on in his brilliant article ‘New Heritage and Dark Tourism: A Mixed Methods Approach to Social Justice in Rosewood, Florida.’ That’s something I’ll continue to focus on to guide me as I continue to do more research into archaeogaming and dark tourism.

Presentation link and notes

Content warning: The presentation and notes contain reference to sexual abuse and mental health

Below is a link that will allow you to download my presentation for the EAA session:

Dark Tourism in The Town of Light PowerPoint presentation

At this point I would also like to thank Adam Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun who very kindly allowed me to use his photographs of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra which he visited in 2016 (you can read his article about The Town of Light here). I’m also very grateful to Luca Dalcò, the studio head of LKA, for discussing the game with me.

I’ve also included my notes for the presentation below, which correspond with the slides. They’re very rough around the edges (I hope to really build on this research and write it up properly), but I thought they might be of interest for anyone who couldn’t make it to the conference and wanted to have a better sense of what I was discussing. Some slides do not have notes.

Presentation notes

Slide 2

This is a content warning that the presentation will include references to sexual abuse and mental health. What you can see on the screen here is the disclaimer which appears at the beginning of the game, which specifically details that the game is based on “real facts and places” but that “This game uses an artistic interpretation of a former Italian psychiatric institution for dramatic purposes.”

 

Slide 4                           

Town of Light was released in 2016 and created by the Italian developers LKA. It is set in Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, an asylum in Volterra Italy. It can be classed as a walking simulator, a game which involves exploration and discovery rather than combat or point-scoring. The central premise of this game is that the protagonist returns to the asylum where she was a patient in the late 1930s to 1940s, in order to try and make sense of her experiences there.

Another interesting facet of this game is that its never made entirely clear who exactly the player is-Renée would be in her 90s by 2016 when the game is set. All you see of your body is that your hands have chipped red nail varnish. The narrator of the game itself does at least appear to be Renee, though sometimes she speaks in the third person. She is the one who directs you through the asylum.

Slide 5

Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra originated in 1888. It underwent six separate stages of development and in total included a vast array of buildings to accommodate patients, as well as workshops and other facilities. This screenshot from the game shows a map of the area which the game is set in, with the ‘Padiglione Charcot,’ (Charcot Pavilion) being the primary building that you explore. This was built in the third phase of development, between 1926 and 1929, which was a women’s ward. The Italian Mental Health Act of 1978 led to a reform of the Italian psychiatric system, the closure of asylums and replacement with community based services. This led to the dereliction of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra.

 

Slide 7

The creators of the game specifically set Renée’s time in the asylum as the late 1930s to early 1940s, which was a period when Italy was ruled by the National Facist Party under Benito Mussolini between 1922-1943. From 1942-43, mortality rates reached 21% at Volterra asylum, which was 60 times as high as the mortality rate in the general population. During this period patients suffered particularly terrible conditions due to scarcity of resources during the Second World War. This entails that the game’s developers deliberately focused on a period  which has particular significance for the wider political context but also the particular stresses that patients would have had to endure.

Small details in the game elude to this fascistic context,  for example a picture of Mussolini.

Slide 8

This is a game which particularly focuses on the suffering of its protagonist within this wider historical context. Through the course of the game we discover that Renée was originally omitted to the asylum at the age of 16 after being raped, leading her to exhibit symptoms as a result of this trauma which led her to being committed. She is later sexually assaulted in the asylum itself by a male nurse and this is shown in a memory as an illustrated cutscene.

There are a few problems which I would like to flag concerning the portrayal of sexual assault in this game:

– Renée isn’t real, but she represents an amalgamation of the developers’ research. In an interview with Katherine Cross, the writer and Studio Head Luca Dalcò commented that “with a character of this kind you can tell the uncensored truth of many lives.” It is important to acknowledge and not avoid the experiences of women in the asylum. However, projecting these onto a fictional protagonist raises questions about how these have been edited.

-The player cannot consent to watching this scene-there is no content warning for it

-Linked to this point is the question of whether depicting scenes of sexual assault in this way may make the game unaccessible to those who have had similar experiences and do not want to be disturbed or triggered by the games’ content.

Slide 9

How does all of this relate to dark heritage and dark tourism?

‘Dark heritage’ can be used to define sites which are associated with death and human suffering. Dark tourism specifically refers to the “presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites” (Lennon and Foley 1996, 198).

Town of Light is a game which contains a digital interpretation of the heritage site Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra. As it is a videogame which is produced and consumed as a commodity, which portrays the asylum as a site of human suffering, it can be considered through the lens of dark tourism.

Slide 10

Edward Gonzalez-Tennant wrote an article in 2013 on New Heritage and Dark Tourism, in which he applies the concept to his creation of his digital reconstruction of Rosewood, Florida, an African American community , and the potential of dark tourism to engage audiences and promote social justice.

The concept itself has been heavily critiqued, specifically in terms of how classifying a site as ‘dark’ is a matter of privilege and perspective. Tourists themselves may have multiple motivations for visiting a site. Furthermore, its important to examine the experience of tourists at dark tourism sites.

The player of experience of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra as a dark tourist site will examined through phenomenological experience and player agency in the game. These concepts will be defined but not rigorously critiqued for brevity’s sake.

Slide 11

Phenomenology can be broadly defined as the study of the appearance of things, how we experience them, and the meaning that we draw from that experience. In particular, Christopher Tilley has advocated for phenomenology as a means of understanding past human interactions with particular landscapes or settings. The subjectivity of phenomenology has been critiqued.

The concept of phenomenology can be applied to The Town of Light in terms of how the developers have curated the player experience of moving through and interacting with the asylum within a wider landscape.

Slide 12

Another concept which will be applied to Town of Light is agency. Ian Hodder in particular stressed the importance of recognising individual intention in the archaeological record. Agency has also been critiqued as an extremely subjective concept which could lead to projecting anachronistic ideas about society and the self onto past actors.

The extent to which the player can make meaningful choices in Town of Light and how this relates to the depiction of Renée’s agency will be examined.

Slide 13

For this section, I’m going to be talking about the player experience of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra as two asylums-the present day asylum that Renée visits and the asylum of the past which she encounters through interacting with the present day asylum.

Slide 14

In order to gain access to the present day asylum in the game, you must trespass-there are signs warning no unauthorised people to enter. On the one hand, from an archaeological and ethical standpoint it could be argued that this problematic if it were to normalise trespassing on heritage sites. However, as a patient Renée could not escape the asylum and the fact that she is now choosing to trespass is an inversion of her previous lack of agency to be able to enter and leave the asylum.

Slide 15

The game experience of Town of Light is very tightly controlled in that certain areas are locked until you have explored other sections of the Charcot pavilion. The player does have the ability to open and close shutters in most rooms that they enter, rendering the spaces lighter or darker. This is especially significant given the themes of light and darkness in the game, with light being associated with trauma.

Slide 16

Pictured here is a storeroom where Renée finds a package that her mother sent her that was never delivered to her as well as a package for her friend, which she finds in order to prove to herself that she actually existed.

Slide 17

She also finds she wrote to her mother which was never sent. A volume of such undelivered letters from Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra has actually been published, entitled Corrispondenza negata or Correspondence Denied.

Slide 18

The past asylum, or more specifically, memories of that past asylum, can be accessed through interacting with pieces of material culture and written sources, which sometimes triggers a flashback.

Slide 19

Flashbacks of the asylum come in two main forms. The first of these are drawn cutscenes, in which the player is only able to watch and cannot interact with the scene that is unfolding.

Slide 20

Other flashbacks allow the player to actually move and interact with a specific memory of the past asylum. All of these flashbacks are in black and white. Movement is often sluggish and the perspective of space is warped.

In one notable flashback Renée moves through an endless corridor of the asylum which seems to fold in on itself. Although this flashback does not depict any historical details of the asylum it is a good example of how a game can effectively portray a sense of disorientation and confinement.

Slide 21

There are points in the game at which the player makes choices which leads to different storylines. For example, you can choose whether or not to read all of Renée’s clinical records, leading to her either blaming her doctor or herself for what happened. Ultimately, though, the game ends in the same way regardless of what choices they make, so there is limited player agency. The game does at least allow for multiple interpretations of certain textual sources.

Slide 22

As stated earlier, there are two asylums in the game-that of the present day and of the past. Just as archaeology is not the study of the past but more specifically the interpretation of the material remains of that past, this game is an interpretation of the asylum and its past. Both are interpretations of the existing and past Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra. David Staley has commented how perhaps we need a warning of “This is not the past” on videogames which contains historical. Funnily enough, Town of Light essentially has this but its blurring of a reconstructed setting, real archive sources and a fictional protagonist means that the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is easily lost.

Slide 23

-Just as ‘dark tourism’ involves privileging a certain perspective of a site above others, Town of Light focuses on one particular period of its history and one character’s suffering

-It is a tightly controlled experience that does allow for some limited player agency and presents version of the past asylum in various ways

-To really build on research into Town of Light and dark heritage it would be good to conduct a survey of players asking them about their motivations and experiences

Included here is a picture of the asylum in the present day which has been reappropriated by graffiti artists-perhaps a more playful reinterpretation of the space than Town of Light itself.

 

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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.

screenshot_20170711-213845.png

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).

2017-07-09-4.png

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.