Pop culture today is heavily influenced by gaming. Increasingly that term refers specifically to video games, but for some of us it still holds broader connotations of board games and ultimately table top role playing games. Regardless of your preferred gaming medium, it turns out that archaeology is a frequent and popular theme throughout the gaming industry.
The most well-known, but far from the only, example is Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise (although we here at Archaeological Oddities would like to draw a line of distinction between looting and archaeology!). There is, however, an important historical root to the incorporation of archaeology in the modern gaming industry, Dungeons & Dragons.
Since its development by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D has had a profound impact on the world of gaming. At its root, D&D was developed from earlier war games that simulated military battles, but the changes that Gygax and Arneson brought to the table profoundly morphed the role of the gamer. Instead of serving as a removed “General in the Sky” controlling all the troops on the table, now the gamer found themself to be an active agent at the heart of the action.
The power of this shift should not be underestimated. In fact, the switch was so powerful that D&D ignited its very own satanic panic. (For more check out Joseph Laycock’s book Dangerous Games). But, the interesting question for us here is the background in which adventures take place.
A standard D&D adventure delves into long forgotten temples and tombs in search of forgotten artifacts or religious icons. In other words, D&D replicates the archaeologist as adventure trope! This connection is further developed when we look at campaign materials produced by TSR (and later by Wizards of the Coast). Campaign settings frequently invoked landscapes of mysterious ruins and lost civilizations.
In the search for ever more realistic source material actual cultures known through archaeology have been dragged into the mix. In the Maztica campaign setting developed for the Forgotten Realms campaign, Mesoamerican cultures were morphed into a fabulous D&D style setting. Elsewhere we see the incorporation of ancient Egyptian settings as well as a host of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern medieval landscapes.
These connections may appear trivial unto themselves, but their use as backdrops to adventure reinforces the archaeologist as adventurer trope. Even more so, it furthers a notion of the past as mysterious and mystical. Players of D&D indulge in magical abilities that we eschew form the modern world. Placing such abilities in the past amongst other cultures, lends them both an air of believability and fantasy. It pokes at the ever present Fortean line of truth-fiction!