Fun with Video Game Versions of Archaeology

Temple Run, an iPhone game, was recently the rage at my son’s school, so he downloaded it to my phone. It’s a basic survival game in which the player, an explorer, flees with the idol from a jungle temple. The game rewards quick decisions as the player tries to stay on the path and jump or slide under obstacles while attempting to outrun a pack of man-eating monkeys. The monkeys always win, but it’s a lot of fun trying to escape.

By contrast, I recently played another game that similarly starred an explorer escaping with temple treasures, but the play mechanics differed completely. Incan Gold is a card game in which players search a temple for artifacts. As a player ventures deeper underground he finds more and more gold but also meets with traps, monsters, and other hazards. At each turn the player must decide whether to flee to safety with the gold he’s got or keep searching and hope he doesn’t fall victim to the final trap. Whereas Temple Run rewards fast-twitch reflexes, Incan Gold prioritizes the careful calculation of risk, the cool assessment of other players’ actions, and the possession of a steely stomach.

These two games illustrate how designers readily adapt the romantic image of the intrepid archaeologist to various mechanics of game play. There have been plenty of others. Most famously, Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider games, was quick with a gun but also had to rely on her wits to solve a series of puzzles. Two games from 1982, the arcade game Jungle Hunt and the Atari cartridge Pitfall, popularized this use of the jungle explorer in video game play.

But the idea of the intrepid explorer and archaeologist is an old one. David Crane, Pitfall’s creator, was inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out the previous year. Steven Spielberg, the director of Raiders, in turn spoke of the influence of old movies such as King Solomon’s Mines. That movie was based on a book by the Victorian writer R.L. Haggard, who wrote such thrilling adventures as King Solomon’s Mines and She at the height of the British Empire—a time when European explorers were uncovering ancient civilizations and documenting their exciting exploits. I read both of those books last year, and despite their sometimes fusty prose they’re every bit as exciting and tense as Temple Run and Incan Gold.

Of course none of these books or games resemble real archaeology. My dad’s an archaeologist, and as someone who spent much of my childhood on his digs, I can testify that good archaeology is slow, deliberate work, where patience is a necessity and careful documentation is a must. Plus the artifacts you find are generally potsherds and other evidences of how people lived long ago, not jewel-encrusted idols. That may not be as much fun as enthralling tales of temple robbers, but maybe someday someone will develop an exciting sim game about an archaeological dig. If Will Wright was able to make urban planning captivating, there’s no reason someone couldn’t do the same for the patient excavation of real life archaeology.

Until then I’ll just have fun discovering gold and fleeing from outraged temple guardians!