My Game Biography

Greg Niemeyer guest-lectured in my Interactive Narrative class last Wednesday, giving us a fast but thorough grounding in Alternate Reality games and game research in general. It was one of those interdisciplinary moments that I really appreciate, wherein I encounter a scholar who is utterly fluent in his arena and am able to draw him out into discussion about archaeological theory and finds, gaining no small amount of enlightenment and a new perspective on my research.

He was very approachable and open, and I got the sense that was a true gift when it came to designing games. I also don’t think he was used to people pushing back a bit–he has an interesting perspective on the placement and utility of games within society that I don’t entirely agree with, but I don’t entirely disagree as well.While this is a simplified summary, he feels that games help us deal with larger societal issues and specifically referenced World of Warcraft as an arena where people can come together into teams to solve large problems, mirroring our growing need to solve international issues such as global warming. I kept thinking of some of the finds that I’ve come across over the years, specifically the large assemblage of “game pieces” that Michael House excavated at Catalhoyuk with sheep knuckle dice and black and white stones. Niemeyer asked me if I knew the rules to the game and I hadn’t actually considered the possible rules to go along with the assemblage and what these rules might tell us about the Neolithic. I also chatted with him about mancala and the prevalence of the game along trade routes, but I’ll save my thoughts about that for another post.

Anyway, my notes from the lecture are extremely useful and it was one of the more worthwhile discussions I’ve had at Berkeley. I had known about his work through Jane McGonigal and the larger Berkeley Center for New Media sphere, but hadn’t specifically checked out his papers or classes. Like a good grad student, I looked up his CV before he came to class and discovered his Game Biography, “based on the notion that we learn everything we know from playing games.” Seeing as how I’m always “game,” I thought I’d write one myself.

1984 – Hide and Seek in cornfields in Oklahoma; Soccer
1985 – Oregon Trail, still the best educational game ever
1986 – Super Mario Bros/Pitfall/Duck Hunt/Marble Madness!
1987 – Zork, Moonmist, Nord & Bert Couldn’t Make a Head or a Tail of It, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–Interactive Fiction was the best.
1988 – Scrabble – endless games with my folks
1991 – Super Mario Bros. 3 – my mom would sometimes rent a SNES from the video store
1994 – Stickmud, where I talked to people from Sweden and Finland
1996 – Ludune, the failed mud that me and my Seattle roomates tried to design
1997 – Final Fantasy 7
1998 – Final Fantasy Tactics
1999 – Civilization II
2000 – Final Fantasy 9
2001 – Dance Dance Revolution
2002 – Suikoden 3
2005 – Katamari Damacy
2006 – Neverwinter Nights
2007 – Cruel 2 B Kind
2008 – Dragon Age, Backgammon
2009 – Dragon Age – Awakening
2010 – Kingdom of Loathing

The dates aren’t necessarily all correct or all-inclusive, but these are the games that I most remember–primarily console/PC games, it turns out!  I often remark that I’m sad that I don’t have more time for games, as there are so many really incredible immersive worlds and narratives out there. I feel like I’ve missed a large cultural moment by never playing World of Warcraft, but my academic career would have surely suffered. Or at least that’s what I tell myself–maybe I would have been better suited for solving large, international problems if I would have played!

Dia de los Muertos in the Mission

Last night was the annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration in the Mission in San Francisco. UC Berkeley’s own Stanley Brandes has published extensively on The Day of the Dead as “something peculiar to Mexico, (a) remnant of ancient Aztec funerary rites and an expression of a uniquely Mexican relationship to death” (From Sugar, Colonialism, and Death: On the Origins of Mexico’s Day of the Dead 273 it’s a great article that traces the ritual and materiality of the celebration, eventually concluding that it is a “neither Spanish nor Indian but, rather, a colonial invention”). The festival is becoming more widely known to most people that live in the United States, with the compelling imagery of dancing skeletons, marigolds, and sugar skulls.

Living in Texas and now in California, I’ve had the benefit of living around large Hispanic populations for some time now, and as an archaeologist I have a particular affinity for Day of the Dead celebrations. As a practitioner of a profession that “speaks” to and for the dead, it’s nice once in a while to make this relationship explicit, to share the feeling of happiness that a personal connection to the past begets.

Dia de los Muertos in the Mission is a mix, for sure. I’ve heard criticism from some folks (anthropologists, even!) that decry the Mission celebration as inauthentic and infested with the white hipsters that everyone seems to like to pick on these days. Last night I processed behind a local group of Santeria practitioners, who chanted, danced, and wafted burning sage across the street. There were families with children dressed as little skeletons–they always the creepiest, and they seem to sense this–and the Laughing Squid/Burners, and no small amount of people carrying portraits of their dead loved ones as they walked beneath panderias, laundry mats, and aging duplex-Victorians.

My friend Melissa gave me her candle and I added it to one of the lovely altars in the park. It was for a friend, Chris Lee, who passed earlier this year.

Chris was a true sweetheart, with a ready laugh and a huge heart. He was a fellow archaeologist and was working professionally on a job in Texas when he died of heat stroke. Sic transit gloria mundi. Godspeed, m’dear.

The Çatalhöyük Workplace Model

As I wend my way through graduate school, I have lamented at times that we’re not really taught how to manage excavations projects or people, and we tend to “grandfather in” field craft as was handed down from previous generations of excavations, whether or not it is appropriate to current knowledge in the field. Don’t worry, I’m not off on another rant about archaeologists digging in square holes, though I was sorely tempted to post something when that iPad in Pompeii link made the rounds–the pain in seeing that lovely stratigraphy mauled and then peered at through a screen to “aid interpretation” gave me the shivers.

Anyway, the  sad news that came through last night that the “Hodder Team” at Catal was not going to be excavating this year meant that many of my excavator friends were out of a job for the season and now are looking for other opportunities. I have no intention of building on any gossip or going into unnecessary detail (sorry!) but the working model for excavators (the specialist teams are a whole different beast entirely) at Catal was different enough (at least to American excavations) that I think it deserves at least a bit of comment.

Each year, a few professional excavators from the UK (mostly) were hired to excavate areas of interest and to teach students how to excavate. Workmen were hired primarily to move dirt, sieve, and help flotation of samples. The workmen very rarely excavated, which kept them separate from the team most of the time (and I think robbed the students and excavators of a more immersive/interesting experience and language training, but it’s a difficult balance, for sure). The professional archaeologists were paid and generally had at least a decade of experience in single context recording–these people were usually excavation supervisors in the UK and were taking a significant pay cut to work on interesting archaeology. They provided Hodder with very detailed interpretations, experience, and excellent data. It was a complete re-education to work with them; these professional archaeologists are truly practicing a craft, one that is generally unappreciated by academic archaeologists. After all, we are they ones saying that “anyone can be an archaeologist!” and allowing children and volunteers (and graduate students!) to excavate our sites. The contrast between the “Hodder Team” and other teams at Catal who were primarily using student labor was striking and very instructive. Excellent data was important to Hodder, and he was willing to pay for it.

This is an interesting mini-trend, many of the same professional archaeologists were working in Iceland (before the crash), and now are working in Egypt and Qatar, on projects that have complicated stratigraphy and who need this kind of precise, excellent data produced by highly skilled professional excavators. They’re craftsmen and women who simply cannot be replaced by graduate students and volunteers who may have taken an archaeology class somewhere along the line. The excavators come back each year, providing a continuity that more transitory students cannot provide.  Also, a new crop of excavators does not need to be trained to “see” and interpret the archaeology of that particular site, single context methodology and its translatability aside.

This is very much on my mind as I’m trying to get a new project together in Turkey. People need to get paid. There needs to be transparency in finances on excavations. But can I deliver?