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Portable, Digital Heritage and Memories of Place

BY ANDREW REINHARD, author of ARCHAEOGAMING: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games

Starting screen from Fallout (1997) featuring iconic power armor helmet.

September 12 marks the 22nd annual National Video Games Day, a day with hazy origins. When I think about time and video games, a few things come to mind: anniversaries of course, release dates, retirement dates. I found myself wondering: what commercial games premiered in September 1997, the first official #VideoGamesDay (which was the first year I could start buying games for myself with discretionary income)? There are some classics, all for Windows/DOS: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, Ultima Online, Fallout. There are also some games lost to time: Breath of Fire III, Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far, Panzer General II, Poy Poy, and Total Annihilation.

Each of these games is an archaeological artifact released on physical media. Each game was created by a team of people for other people to play. These games took resources, time, and labor to make, and they also require resources, time, and labor of the players to enjoy them. Each game has its own biography and history of use, and that biography/history is shared by the many, many copies of each game produced, each copy following its own trajectory through time into how it was played, by whom, and what happened once the game was finished or once technology progressed from Windows 95 and PlayStation 1 to other platforms.

For a game such as Fallout, it became the first in a franchise that would come to dominate the marketplace over the course of 21 years. The game, itself a representation of material culture, would ultimately cause reproductions of artifacts and iconography found inside the game-world to be produced. Owning the game as a player and owning a forearm-mounted Pip-Boy as a fan, I bridge both space and time to enjoy Fallout and its sequels in 2019 not only through a screen, but also outside of it.

A community gathering in Ultima Online (1997).

The game and its external artifacts give me the chance to talk to others familiar with Interplay’s (and later Bethesda Softworks’) intellectual property while at the same time considering the game to “mine.” It is an emotion not unlike what I feel when I visit my childhood home: “This is my town.” It’s clearly not, yet I feel an affinity for it just as thousands of other people who grew up there do. The place is ours but not ours, ours in a shared memory, ours because we (or our parents) paid taxes or made house payments, ours because we spent time and money here and made memories.

These memories return each year in the town’s Fourth of July parade, an example of intangible heritage shared between generations. Some remember the town as it was in the 1960s, and others remember it in earlier times. For some people (like me) who come back every so often, we hardly recognize the place. The same is true of Fallout. I remember playing it in 1997 and then returning to that world in 2015 with Fallout 4. There was some old familiarity mixed with the new, the past brought forward into the present. The game (like my hometown) had changed, but its underlying charm and history could be felt even in the later version, as different as the two games are from one another. While I can’t go back to my town of the 1970s (even though some architecture remains from that period), I can certainly revisit old games on original hardware, which provides an emotion of being home, and I want to save the game media so that others might have a similar experience, or could play it for the first time. It’s like bringing someone to a place you love, a place they’ve never been, so that you can use the landscape and sites within it to tell a personal story to someone else, to teach them a bit of history, and to give personal context to a place. Such it is with games. I want to share the classics with my daughter so she can understand me, but also so she can understand where her games in 2019 come from. It’s both media and cultural literacy. It’s a way to build community in the natural world through shared digital material culture.

Boston Public Library from Fallout 4 (2015), a familiar place in a post-apocalyptic space.

But what about the other, non-blockbuster games from September 1997? Aren’t those archaeologically valid, too? They are, and they deserve as much attention as their famous counterparts. People worked hard on these games as well, and players enjoyed them. These games might be considered to be towns or villages while games like Fallout are capital cities. But still, you cannot tell the complete story of a culture from its capital cities alone. The satellite villages also contribute to the history of a place and its people, and often provide new information unavailable to those just focused on massively settled urban areas. Visiting old games for the first time, we encounter other people’s memories and make new ones of our own.

This year on National Video Games Day, instead of reaching for a favorite game from the past or present, find a copy of a game you missed, something small and under-the-radar. Plug it in, install it, and play. Discovering this new, old game will feel like finding a new, old site, something forgotten, something new to you, something with which you will become familiar and then share with others. The game-artifact drives discovery and creates a culture around it. The game becomes a place accessible to anyone with a copy no matter where they are in the world. It is portable, digital heritage.

Andrew Reinhard is the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society and is currently working towards his PhD in archaeology at the University of York’s (UK) Centre for Digital Heritage. He coined the term “archaeogaming” and runs the blog and twitter. In 2014, he and a team of archaeologists helped excavate the Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Purchase a copy of Reinhard’s Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games (Berghahn Books, 2018) here.

For more archaeology titles from Berghahn Books follow this link.