Hanna Marie Pageau, PhD candidate
An animal crossing player (Hanna) stands under a stone arch outside. Text overlay: “Hello!”
This paper is in many ways a continuation of work I’ve given previously, at both WAC-8 in Kyoto and the EAAs in Maastricht – though instead of talking about archaeology as a skill in games and speaking from the point of a player interacting with a set world (in those contexts, World of Warcraft) I’ll be talking about the more interactive spaces you find in a game like Animal Crossing. While this talk uses Animal Crossing as a medium, a lot of these ideas and points also apply to other games like Stardew Valley or Minecraft where the player has much more control over what they do with their world, how they perceive it, and how they allow others to interact with their ‘vision’. This customization of digital space is integral towards moving forward with archaeological outreach, especially as the world continues to teach us that we need to be more accessible, more interactive, and continue to push our efforts of giving back – not simply taking – from the communities we work within.
To give some context to those unfamiliar with the popular game – Animal Crossing is a casual playstyle social simulation game. What does that mean? That means you get to create your own community and set out to build and collect things. You create your own island town and then spend your time fostering relationships with other villages and expanding your museum, as well as your own home.
The museum in town has four areas separated vaguely into two museum ‘types’. You first meet Blathers, the ‘executive curator’ of sorts of the museum, when you donate your first bug, fossil, or fish to Tom Nook (your landlord). After providing Blathers with enough specimens to get a permit, he’ll build you your official museum. 15 specimens is the price for such a permit in the world of Animal Crossing.
This first iteration of your museum doesn’t include the art section; it focuses on the natural history museum – your Insectarium and Discovery Center, an Aquarium, and a traditional-life Fossil Species area. This is the version of the museum I’ll be focusing on today – the Art Museum opened up in the first official patch of the game and is worthy of a paper in and of itself.
But why use Animal Crossing? Well beyond that #ACNH is a wildly popular success – it lucked out on a conveniently good combination of nostalgia, casual playstyle, and global lockdowns – it allows for people to interact and curate their own museum, with restrictions of course that everything you can submit already exists in the world. Animal Crossing, of course, is just an example of what an interactive museum space can look like in the digital world – but there are a few things that make it stand out.
Firstly, that it reinforces a narrative of keeping things local. Only you can donate to your museum – people from other islands can’t come and donate. While, yes, you can go to other uninhabited islands and donate fish and bugs from those islands – all of those fish and bugs can also be found on your island. So while not a perfectly equitable example, it is definitely a good building block as far as examples of ethical sourcing go. I will add a caveat here that I’m not going to be engaging much with the art museum – that’s another talk for another time, this talk focuses on the fossil and living specimen (ie – natural history) portion of the museum. The idea of staying local is very important – a central part of moving forward with the very necessary redesigning of what museums are and do is part of this focus on localness. A museum that represents what you find in your local community and then keeps it in the community for them to experience and get educational value out of is something rare in games. Of course, it could be argued this is simply logistics in Animal Crossing – but the game easily could have made it so some things could only be found on other islands (a system already in place for fruit) and they didn’t. Of course I can’t say it was a conscious choice, but it is a choice that has impact either way.
Secondly, it treats the collecting of bugs, fish, and fossils as educational. They are not there to be treasure hunted (a mistake they made in their first major patch by treating art in such a way which is another reason why I am focusing on the natural history here – as there is a paper in and of itself just on the choice made to turn art into treasure hunting on the black market). Yes you can get rewards for having fossils assessed – but assessing them allows you to interact with the fossil, and when you have them assessed if the museum already has a copy Blathers even makes a statement about how he’d love to have them for his personal collection but it just wouldn’t be right. I would argue that is, unlike the potential for the first circumstance to be just a byproduct of design choice, a conscious decision on the part of the developers to address that fossils aren’t for personal benefit – they are for everyone’s.
That isn’t to say that there is a perfect system in place, but that is where I believe we hit a common grey area in games. Space is limited, options are limited, and we have to acknowledge that even in archaeology sometimes we simply have to get rid of things. In the case of animal crossing you are allowed to sell fossils – but it isn’t in any way encouraged and I think the lack of encouraging the sale of fossils is more important than the fact that the mechanic exists as a way of getting rid of duplicates in a game where, just like in a real museum, your storage is limited.
Lastly, allowing players to engage and create within the curatorial process allows people to view the world in a way which works for them. Of course, the museum itself is stagnant, but a part of the beauty of Animal Crossing is going beyond the museum – for example, I’ve spent most of my time turning the uninhabited half of my island into a selection of outdoor exhibits. I have a biodiversity section, where you have different species of fruit tree and can look at flower hybrids. I have used extra fossils to create a dinosaur walk. I’ve even used duplicates of Megaloceros and Mammoth remains to mock-up a zooarchaeology research lab! And I’m hardly unique here – there has been a trend of creating outdoor ‘enrichment’ type of zones and fake archaeology digs that show just how important being able to curate digital space to work for what you need is. Animal Crossing excels at that.
But how do these three things, and countless other circumstances, play into outreach? Outreach is more than just the idea of informing the public about archaeology – it has to equally be about engaging a community as it does education and actually informing them what archaeology actually is. While a lot of outreach focuses on artifacts or places or buildings, special room must be made for exploring what archaeology does, how it does it, and why. Digital spaces are, in particular, of use in these situations as they give an accessible tool to those who might other wise not have access to certain sites a way to explore them in ways that we couldn’t have predicted 75 years ago, even 50 years ago. Perhaps we could have 25 years ago, but we are in new territory nonetheless.
But right now, we have the world at our finger tips – this isn’t a metaphor, its now reality. We can recreate almost anything, anywhere, and we can use that to explore the future of archaeology. Enter Animal Crossing (and Stardew and Minecraft…), a space where we can not only customize and curate our own spaces – but stream them to the internet and invite our friends to play along. But what makes this archaeological? Well, the obvious first answer is the ability to dig up fossils and the adjacent curation of bugs and fish. Beyond that there are several things at play: we can circle back to the ability to create outside exhibits with duplicate fossils, we can use pattern designs to create faux-digital excavations, and three are plenty of items already in the game that can help us create an archaeological landscape – like the dirt-filled wheelbarrow.
A game doesn’t have to be archaeological in nature to explore archaeology or heritage, and Animal Crossing has excelled at navigating the grey area between the two states of being. This grey area is important for how we approach digital spaces and how we use them to present archaeology, whether or not archaeology is the for-purpose built idea for that space or just a happy by-product of its nature.
The existence of archaeological grey areas, whether we are talking about literal grey archaeology (like finite space and deaccession techniques such as disposal) or the type of grey areas that are there for us to use (such as alternative use of space, such as making an outdoor exhibit in a game with a museum already present) we are, ultimately, talking about how we access archaeology.
Accessible archaeology is, fundamentally, not just about how we present things but who we present them to. Assuring that we are able to reach the widest audience. That is where this type of digital space use because an ethical priority. But, what does that mean?
Making digital spaces an ethical priority means two different things: making sure that we advocate for ethical representations of archaeology and come clean about the ethics of grey areas in our field itself. There are some battles that are worth fighting: games that don’t promote the sale or trafficking of artifacts. There are some battles, I would argue, that aren’t worth fighting: the realistic fact that just like in the real world – space is going to be limited in games and emptying out your bag is going to be a feature. Does this mean we shouldn’t promote more creative means of how to deal with duplicate artifacts or fossils, like in a game such as Animal Crossing? No. Its about how we frame our arguments and how we actually deal with how honest we are about archaeology.
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