The VALUE project: Video Games and Archaeology at Leiden University

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Aris Politopoulos

What do video games have to do with archaeology? The worlds of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario Bros., or Tetris seem a far cry from anything archaeologists usually work on. But both involve imagining and visualizing worlds populated by humans, with human behavior and culture (and sometimes with mutated humans, aliens, the undead, and giant gorillas throwing barrels).

VALUE (Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University) began two and a half years ago. One of our many goals is to show the great potential video games have for archaeology in terms of public outreach, heritage preservation, and education, but also for actual research.

To achieve this, we began by mapping our faculty’s interest in video games through a survey. It turned out that a large number of archaeology students and staff members at Leiden played video games. The survey also noted that while the inclusion of history and historical facts in video games was enjoyable, people often found it trivial. In addition, many people were intrigued by the idea of our project and expressed interest in participating in activities related to archaeology and video games.

We began to raise academic awareness on the topic of video games and archaeology, as well as showcase its vast possibilities. One of the core things we do is to shoot and host an online ‘let’s play’ show called ‘Streaming the Past’ which is live-streamed once a month and then made available on YouTube. In every show, we choose one or two video games and a relevant archaeological theme, such as violence and human nature, colonialism, or collapse, and discuss how these are incorporated, intentionally or not, in popular video games such Assassin’s Creed, Civilization and many more.

We also take this live-stream into the main hall of our faculty where students and staff members can sit and watch, but more importantly play and discuss together with us. A year ago, on the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, we decided to do a stream about heritage under threat and the potential of video games for heritage re-construction, awareness and education. We decided to play Minecraft, one of the most-played video games of the last couple of years. In Minecraft, you get to build literally anything you want from blocks. We prepared a platform, laid out a number of plans from the temple of Bel and invited some scholars to briefly talk about the history of the temple and its importance as cultural heritage.

VALUE Logo (All images courtesy of Aris Politopoulos)

Results from the VALUE survey at the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University

Within the two hours of the stream a group of roughly 40 people took the controller and we managed to playfully reconstruct the temple of Baal, all the while discussing issues of heritage under threat, the archaeology of Palmyra and more. The audience consisted of scholars as well as students and children. It was amazing to see how everyone engaged in the building process, checking plans and discussing how we should approach the construction of the temple or what we can do about its destruction. At the end of the day, everyone felt like they had both learned something new and engaged in an entertaining activity. We also posted an in-depth report. 

Screenshot of the platform prepared for the temple of Bel in Minecraft.

Photo showing the plans prepared for the Minecraft reconstruction of the temple (By: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke)


Last April we decided to take it a step further and hosted a two-day conference on video games and archaeology, aiming to bring together contributors from around the world. Our goal was to create an open forum to which people from different disciplines, archaeologists, computers scientists, game-developers, and students, could come together and discuss how we can work together. Archaeologists, and academics in general don’t often interact with game developers and there is a large gap in terms of communication. Through our initiative, we wanted to create a bridge, a way of communication and common understanding among these groups in a way that would be beneficial for both.

The Interactive Pasts conference was a great success, with 22 presentations, 3 workshops and more than 110 participants. The conference was also streamed online and you can still watch all the talks on our YouTube channel. Another outcome of the conference is the book The Interactive Past that will be published in spring 2017, and, as the result of a successful Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, will also be published as an Open Access volume. 

The Interactive Pasts conference in numbers

Overview of the Interactive Pasts conference during the presentation of Meghan Dennis.

Over these two years our experience has shown that the potential for video games and archaeology is huge and is happening all around us. There is a small but emerging field of scholars around the world who are dedicating more and more time to this research. New technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are also generating a lot of discussion about how we could incorporate them in archaeology. Instead of producing static two and three dimensional models of monuments or sites, video games can create a much more engaging setting in which people can actually interact with material culture. In that lies the advantage of using video games both for education and outreach as well as for archaeological research.

Interactivity is something missing from most traditional research but can be extremely valuable, especially for archaeology. A great example is agent based modeling, mathematical simulations of individuals and organizations that follow simple behavioral rules, that is quickly becoming a standard method in computational archaeology. But instead of using theories to create models, game-based simulations give archaeologists the ability to test hypotheses from the bottom-up, in a setting with thousands of players who engage and interact with the environment in different, more human (that is, unpredictable) ways than a line of code run by a computer would. Furthermore, reconstructing archaeological sites in a video game setting gives different people the opportunity to re-excavate it or re-interpret it by actually interacting with the site and each other. 

Archaeologists also have a lot contribute to the development of video games. With our knowledge of history and material culture we can assist developers to create more authentic, interesting, and accurate video games. Additionally, with our experience in preserving material culture we can assist in the study and preservation of older video games that, as technology advances, are becoming hard to find or are no longer playable. Archaeologists have even been called on to excavate video games; a New Mexico landfill in which hundreds of thousands of old video game cartridges were buried was excavated, and the excavation then became part of a new video game!

There is great potential in the intersection between video games and archaeology. If you are interested in the topic or have ideas please don’t hesitate to contact us, at VALUE. We value (pun intended!) open discussion of and open access to creative ideas and playful thinking more than anything!

VALUE member Krijn Boom checking out the HoloLens.

Aris Politopoulos is a Ph.D. student in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Leiden. The VALUE Project includes Angus Mol, Csilla Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, Krijn Boom and Vincent Vandemeulebroucke,. You can find them on facebook, twitter or their website.


For Further Reading

Video Games in Archaeology: Enjoyable but Trivial? Angus Mol, Csilla Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, Krijn Boom, Aris Politopoulos, and Vincent Vandemeulebroucke. SAA Archaeological Record, November 2016.

Streaming the Past’ YouTube channel.


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2 Comments for : The VALUE project: Video Games and Archaeology at Leiden University
  1. Pingback: The VALUE project: Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University — The ASOR Blog @ASOResearch | Talmidimblogging

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of Archaeology, History and Historical Fiction June 26-30 | Judith Starkston

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