Virtual Archaeology using the First-Person Shooter : A Heuristic for Computer Game Representation

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)33_Other conference paperpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPresented - 16 Aug 2018


TitleGame Studies Triple Conference
LocationIT University of Copenhagen
Period16 - 17 August 2018


The appropriation of game engines for site recreation by the field of virtual archaeology reveals useful limit conditions for definitions of realism and representation in computer games. The translation of software and techniques from computer game modding into sites-specific virtual archaeology and preservation can highlight the abstractions that characterise the representational language of the game engine. This representation is not confined to how topography is translated into topology; it involves a broader consideration of how the interactive affordances of a game engine relate to the familiarity of audiences with this same technology. In this paper, I refer to the case study Autosave: Redoubt, which is a recreation of a World War II military site in Hong Kong, built as a playable mod of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. By extending the practice of virtual archaeology from the game engine to a popular playable mechanic, this project questions how a first person navigable space already suggests the first-person shooter mechanic to a contemporary audience. I examine how military history and archeology are transformed by the mediation of the computer game engine, and speculate on how the interaction between virtual archaeology and computer games can provide insights into medium specificity and computer game representation.
In a 2002 presentation at the Trends in GIS and Virtualization in Environmental Planning and Design Conference, visualization and virtual archeology specialists Adrian Herwig and Philip Paar described how modding practices in first-person shooter games resulted in the Unreal Engine emerging as a technically suitable and cost-effective medium for site-recreation in virtual archaeology. In a 2017 review of virtual archaeological practice, archaeologist Paul Reilly and digital heritage specialist Gareth Beale confirmed the popularity of 3D graphics engines for site recreation, and identified the challenges for representation that such technologies can pose. One of their core recommendations was that the limitations and biases of any 3D graphics or game engine must be clearly foregrounded as a limit condition of the site recreation. In their 2002 analysis of the Unreal Engine, Herwig and Paar described how the historical recreation must bend to the computational limits of the game engine, such as the navigable scale that can be supported, and the number of detailed or dynamic elements that can be simulated whilst retaining a smooth frame rate and immersive virtual experience. (Herwig and Paar 2002) Beale and Riley compared the limitations of game representation to the archaeological dig itself, where specialists, diggers and excavation directors can make decisions that highlight certain narratives and mute or erase others – what Beale and Riley refer to as “institutional amnesia”. (Beale and Reilly 2017)
A game engine simulates a world according to a fixed set of representational affordances, the functions of which are the subject of wide ranging debates in computer game representation, principally located around the interactions between ludological properties, audio-visual rendering and player agency. (Murray 2005, p.101) (Frasca 2001) (Miguel Sicart 2011) As Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin wrote, whilst new media can be characterised by the desire to achieve representational transparency or immediacy, they exist in a continuum with innumerous other media, and are best understood according to their medium-specific affordances (their hypermediacy). (Bolter and Grusin 2000, p.34) Writing about representation and the state of contemporary hermeneutics, Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker and McKenzie Wark argued that representation and mediation should be thought of less in terms of semiotic encoding and decoding, and more in terms of context, environment and structures of iteration. (Galloway, Wark, and Thacker 2014, p.17)
To minimise institutional amnesia, the virtual archaeologists are advocating for a medium-specific literacy of exactly how computer game engines mediate their subject, in this case, the historical site. They are asking ‘what abstractions must I accept in order to use a game engine to represent a historical site?’ Just as virtual archaeology appropriated computer game engines, computer game studies can appropriate this question to further conversations in game representation. By highlighting the abstractions inherent to a game technology, scholars can develop a more sophisticated definition of game representation.
When the 3D navigable space afforded by the first-person shooter engine such as Unreal is used as a tool of virtual archaeology, the shooting mechanic and other features endemic to its gameplay conventions are typically removed. In Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Galloway wrote that the origins of the ‘gamic vision’ of the first-person shooter lie in the subjective point of view shot, combined with the targeting of the depth axis, where traversal and action merge the vanishing point with the crosshair and the gun. (Galloway 2006) In reference to Galloway, Thacker and Wark, who argued that a medium is partly defined by the context and environment in which it mediates, it is reasonable to suggest that the conventions of a navigable first person 3D environment imply the conventions of the first person shooter game historically led to this technology. Put simply, if I am navigating through a historical site recreation with mouse-look and WASD controls, the crosshair in the centre of the screen and the gun in the lower right hand corner are present as a conspicuous absence.
In this paper, I will examine how the project Autosave: Redoubt recreated a World War II military site using the limited affordances of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Instead of using an FPS engine such as Unreal, the authors situated their site recreation within the game itself as a playable mod. Their subject matter – the Shing Mun Redoubt, is a series of bunkers and tunnels built by the British in the 1930s, that were the site of the first skirmish between Japanese and Allied forces in the Battle of Hong Kong (1941). The design of these structures as well as the events of December 1941 are congruent with Paul Virilio’s analysis of similar defensive structures in Europe and the conflicts between military technology and historical memory. (Virilio 1994) Because Autosave: Redoubt is oriented around topographical and architectural accuracy rather than gameplay, it is distinct in purpose and design from a historically based computer game. As an extension of the desire for medium specificity voiced by Beale and Riley, the authors of Autosave: Redoubt incorporated the Counter-Strike game mechanic as an inherent feature of their medium of representation. The other technical challenges they encountered, from the grid-based topology to the removal of the in-game flashlight by a software update, were identified, alongside the game mechanic as the abstract limitations that define the representational affordances of this game medium.
The appropriation of computer game engines for the purpose of site recreation can reveal the abstractions and limitations that characterise the conditions of representation inherent to the technology. Autosave: Redoubt exploits the reciprocal concern of virtual archeology and studies of computer game representation. In the case of military technology, I will demonstrate how the limitations of the game engine and the gameplay mechanic can be highlighted as a condition of representation, rather than downplayed and embedded as a form of institutional amnesia. My examination of Autosave: Redoubt seeks to address question of game representation both for virtual archaeology and for computer game studies. For the former, I argue that the game mechanic should be considered as an integral component of the representational medium of the game engine. For the latter, I argue that the appropriation of a computer game for the extrinsic purpose of site recreation can reveal the abstractions that characterise the computer game medium being used, and make an essential contribution to questions of realism and representation in computer games.

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Citation Format(s)

Virtual Archaeology using the First-Person Shooter: A Heuristic for Computer Game Representation. / Nelson, Peter.
2018. Game Studies Triple Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)33_Other conference paperpeer-review