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Together with Jan Wieners (@docfnord on twitter) I teach a course on Video- & Computergames and Archaeology this semester.  This may develop into a series on content and thoughts regarding this course. Pt 1: What are we aiming at?

Most students in this class study Archaeology in their first few semesters, some focus on Prehistory, some do Classical Archaeology and some Archaeology of the Roman Provinces. A few belong to the Institute for Digital Humanities (as does my co-teacher Jan). They study Media Informatics or Media Culture Sciences. We had aimed at getting a balance of Media Studies students and Archaeology students so they could learn how to work interdisciplinarily and from each other. For mostly admin reasons (another course being huge competition :sigh:) we actually have about three times as many archaeologists in class as media scientists. It was a bit disappointing to have one “learning outcome” made difficult to achieve from the very beginning, but hey, so what.

We always asked two to three students to work as a group and analyse one game of their own choosing. This resulted in a quite broad spectrum of games, from (of course) A: Assassin’s Creed (Origins – Ancient Egypt and Odyssey – Ancient Greece)  to other open world first person historical games such as Kingdom Come Deliverance (Middle Ages in Bohemia), Far Cry Primal (“10.000 BC”) and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (in a celtic and Viking setting), to strategy games (Total War: ROME II, Anno 1404, The Settlers II, 0 AD) and to the Fantasy-Nintendo game Kid Icarus Uprising.

It was important to us that they choose a game they either already know and love to play or they can have fun playing, so that the course connects to their personal everyday reality.

For each session we ask our students to use their archaeological and media cultural expertise, look at one aspect of their game and to prepare for class by writing half a page about this topic. These topics have been “played history”, concepts of history, historical accuratedness of the material world, agency and representation, knowledge transfer and the influence on society. Of course half a page cannot be an in-depth-analysis, but this way we ensure they come already engaged with the topic to our class and that we can start discussing and comparing different games right away. Also, this way we encourage them to think for themselves (and not just cite sources), to lose the fear of a white sheet of paper and produce texts in a group — something they will need in their careers…

During the class we focus on discussion and creative group work. Some may have assumed that we do nothing but play games in class, but mostly we have been asking them to develop ideas and concepts for games in class according to the topics we’ve been discussing. Our aim is that they develop a critical view on games and by making them develop a game themselves they realize that everything in a game is a decision made by producers, programmers, designers, developers, screen artists, story developers and whoever else works in the background of a game.

This also means that the pictures that video- and computergames evoke of the past, are decisions. Thus, questions arise: Which decisions may have been unconscious, where do they simply conform to tropes and stereotypes? Where are conscious diversions of stereotypes? Why do developers use stereotypes deliberatedly? What are they aiming at? Do they intend to inform the public about the past? How do they do this? What are the consequences on our society and the view it has on the past? …

All work the students do in this course will lead to Let’s Play videos, which we will publish on YouTube. So, they will also learn a bit about film editing and public engagement. And we will have a course outcome, that will (hopefully) have an impact outside of university. Because what use would this intellectual navel-gazing and critically exclaiming and “oh this is terrible” (and “oh this is great!”) -saying have, if nobody heard it? 😉

Our course material is already online here (in German): http://lehre.idh.uni-koeln.de/lehrveranstaltungen/wisem18/archaeogaming-computergames/

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About the author

My name is Sophie, I am a prehistoric archaeologist and have been research associate at the University of Bonn and the Cologne Digital Archaeology Lab (CoDArchLab) of the Archaeological Institute at the University of Cologne, Germany. I teach statistics for archaeologists, work on new methods in settlement archaeology (GIS, geostatistics in R and stuff) and am interested in archaeogaming.

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