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Archaeological Ethics, Immaterial Places, and Tomb Raider

As an archaeological ethicist, my work involves considering how archaeologists ‘do’ archaeology, and the ramifications of our professional choices and actions as archaeologists. More specifically, my main area of research is digital archaeology, and the archaeology of immaterial places like video-games, virtual worlds, and internet-based communities. 

To be an archaeological ethicist studying immaterial places, I tread some of the same ground as historians studying in these areas. While digital historical research is often concerned with representations of the past through digital recreations of events and people, the associated archaeological research is concerned with objects of ‘material culture’. 

Material culture is all the… stuff… left behind by past peoples. This stuff can be architecture, it can be grave goods, it can be religious and ceremonial items, it can be the pile where the bones were thrown after dinner. Material culture is what remains when the people who lived the culture are gone.

In video-games, studying material culture gets a bit complicated.

How do you study material culture when the place you’re studying is an immaterial space? What is material culture when a game, or virtual world, is built from the ground up, with no cultural past? What are the ethical issues to consider in these places?

To answer these questions, my research is grounded in several principles. First, an immaterial place is no less real or meaningful than a physical place. Second, immaterial places cannot exist without cultural influences derived, intentionally and unintentionally, from physical places. Third, the ethics of cultural influences and representations of objects of material culture in immaterial spaces cannot be separated from the values attached to them in physical places.

To better explain the issues involved, let’s turn to a familiar example – Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

In 2018, Eidos Montréal, in conjunction with Crystal Dynamics, released Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third installment in the most recent iteration of the Tomb Raider franchise. The game, available for play on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows, and published by Square Enix, completed a three-game narrative arc begun in 2013 with Tomb Raider and continued via its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. The events of Shadow of the Tomb Raider pick up almost immediately after the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider.

As an intellectual property, Tomb Raider began in 1996 on personal computers, the Sega Saturn console, and on the original PlayStation console. It quickly became a platform staple, and games continued to be released exclusively for PlayStation branded hardware until the year 2000. While a definitive figure is difficult to determine as to game sales franchise-wide, available sales figures for recent games indicate that 2013’s Tomb Raider sold in excess of 11 million copies, and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider sold in excess of 7 million copies. To date, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has sold less than its previous two installments relative to release date.

The impact of the Tomb Raider franchise on video-games and on representations of archaeologists in mass media and entertainment products cannot be overstated. The franchise comprises twelve primary video-game titles, thirteen mobile or handheld games, three motion pictures, an animated television series, five novels, a run of comic books ranging from 1997 to the present, and a series of board games. Lara Croft, across media forms and from the beginning, has been the center of the Tomb Raider intellectual property, though how she has been portrayed and situated as an archaeologist, and in relation to archaeology, has changed greatly between 1997 and 2018.

Lara Croft, as originally depicted in the 1997 video-game, was an English aristocrat with no archaeological background to speak of; her interest in ancient cultures was purely monetary and she was depicted as a hard-living, adventuring, tomb-raiding thief. The first reboot of the series, in 2006, saw Croft redefined as the child of an archaeologist father, and her motivation became more personal. The death of her parents led her to continue their work in discovering ‘lost’ and hidden cultures. There was still a monetary focus, however, even as the games shifted from exploring such locales as the fictional Atlantis to locations more closely based on real-world cultures. The second reboot of the series, in 2013, redefined Croft again, this time as explicitly an archaeologist in her own right; Croft became a student at University College London, and was noted to have an advisor and to go on sanctioned fieldwork (see Bezio 2016). This iteration of Lara Croft was driven initially by academic interests, though those became secondary to an ongoing dramatic arc involving a mix of real-world archaeological locations, pseudoarchaeological mysticism, and personal trauma. This third, current, version of Croft rests somewhere between an archaeologist and a looter, with the three-game series vacillating along this spectrum as the narrative requires.

Within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Croft travels between Mexico and Peru, attempting to stop a cabal of looters intent on ending the world, while dealing with the ramifications of her past involvement with their plans. The game is true to modern Tomb Raider form, as it is heavy on puzzles and navigating environmental challenges. Combat is infrequent, but is presented with a brutality that is new to the series. Shadow of the Tomb Raider relies heavily on Mesoamerican imagery and aesthetics, weaving aspects of Maya, Inca, and Aztec archaeology into a narrative that attempts to play on the Mayincatec trope of combining all peoples of Central and South America into one indistinguishable group. This trope can be read as at the least culturally insensitive, and at the worst, outright racist, and for a game that attempts to tell a narrative of personal change and revelation, the choice to rest the narrative on such a trope seems poorly considered.

This most recent installment in the intellectual property differs from previous entries in that, through its narrative of apocalypse and loss, the character of Croft is asked to confront the inherent colonialism in her approach to ancient cultures and to modern descendent populations. While this is not always done effectively, or addressed completely, as I will illustrate, Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks a clear turning point for the character and the series, bringing them finally in line in many (though not all) regards with the bare minimum of ethical practice in archaeology. As with the final installation in the Uncharted series, the player is presented with a character in crisis as regards their actions, and the nature of Croft’s practice (and by extension the player’s enjoyment of that practice) is called into question. This questioning for character and player, however, raises several issues that the game fails to address. Does Croft’s privilege play into the actions that lead to her changed practice? Is her positioning as a woman in archaeology a fair representation of women in archaeology overall? Would the narrative take the same direction if Croft was not a white woman? How ethically appropriate are her interactions with descendent communities, and how does her position as an educated, white, European archaeologist reflect how the discipline interacts with local populations during the course of fieldwork undertaken in foreign countries? This final question is perhaps the most important raised by the Tomb Raider franchise, with the greatest potential to illustrate reflective practice on the part of archaeologists.

Within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, material culture manifests in three ways. The first is through physical representations of the Mayincatec trope, which blurs cultural and archaeological aspects of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec peoples into a falsely cohesive whole, with a falsely cohesive artifactual assemblage. The second is through built heritage, which is presented as both ancient and modern in construction, with an emphasis on monumental architecture, sculpture, and propagandist political art. The third is through artifacts, which are divided within the game into different systems along an unexplained differentiation of perceived monetary value.

Material Culture

Mayincatec Trope

The Mayincatec trope is a narrative and world-building construction commonly utilized in speculative media that conflates multiple peoples of Central and South America into a falsely interconnected whole, ignoring differences in temporal placement, spatial placement, and cultural features. This trope is frequently used to bring aspects of ancient Central and South American cultures into stories set in the present or future under the assumption of a shared Neo-Mesoamerican heritage and political block. Examples of the Mayincatec trope in literature include Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch and Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files, while it is present in films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean, and in other video games such as Donkey Kong 64, Spelunky, and Horizon Zero Dawn.

Within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the Mayincatec trope is established through the narrative as a created historical fact; peoples of Central America fled south to Peru to escape colonial oppression, joining together in a shared society that expresses cultural and linguistic ties to the Maya, the Mexica (Aztec), and the Inca. This shared society is hidden away from the rest of the world, functioning as a sort of El Dorado, or City of Z, occasionally sought out and almost discovered by colonial explorers, but always preserved as a secret save to those who are deemed worthy of staying. The narrative leans into real historical accounts of missing explorers, integrating the story of Percy Fawcett and his lost expedition through artifacts and documents relating to his journey and disappearance.

The Mayincatec trope plays out as well in a literal fashion, through the design of the fictional city of Paititi, which is divided into three playable areas. The ground level area of the city, and the first encountered in the narrative, is Inca in derivation, while the mid-level area of the city is Maya in derivation, and the top level of the city is Mexica in derivation. Though there are connective ties between the three areas through the narrative, each level is successively visually regressive to the ancient culture mapped there, with the people of each level increasingly isolated and removed from modern society as the player moves ‘up’ within the city. The physical placement of each group also functions as a sort of class hierarchy as well, with the Mexica at the top depicted as the rich, privileged citizens, the Maya in the middle depicted as bureaucrats, and the Inca at the bottom as lower-class laborers, material producers, and agricultural workers. The game reinforces this division by creating a rebel faction within the city, who live largely at ground level, but who have been displaced from their rightful position of power at the peak of the city. When the player reaches the top of the city, the pseudo-Mexica are actively involved in keeping down the rebellion in order to maintain their power base.

Artifacts

Artifacts within Shadow of the Tomb Raider are categorized into divisions that are archaeologically arbitrary, and are predicated on ideas of market value and ideas of the exotic ‘other’ as categories. These three categories are treasure chests, documents, and relics. Though each performs a different systemic function with the game, their content could easily be reorganized into additional groupings that would make more sense from either functionalist or culture-driven perspectives. As they are divided currently, they make sense from neither.

Broadly, artifacts within Shadow of the Tomb Raider are generalized representations of objects appearing in museums and published contexts. As an example, one treasure located near the midpoint of the game’s narrative is described as a ‘Mask of Tezcatlipoca’. This mask is clearly designed as a reference to the famous turquoise mosaic mask currently held in the collection of the British Museum in London. Unlike artifacts in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the artifacts within Shadow of the Tomb Raider cannot be clearly mapped onto real-world counterparts or individual objects, and deviate in terms of color and details from artifacts that may have been used as source or reference materials. This in itself is not ethically more or less sound, but does avoid issues of intellectual property use present in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

A graphic of a skull-like mask crusted with gemstones in yellow and black.
The mask of Tezcatlipoca in Shadow of the Tomb Raider (above) is influenced by a real Tezcatlipoca mask currently in the collection of the British Museum (below), but is not an exact copy.

Image credits: Eidos Montreal 2018, above; British Museum 2019, below.
A photograph of a skull-like mask akin to the one above, crusted with gemstones in turquoise and black. The mask shows damage, with some teeth broken and places where the stones have fallen away.

Ethics

Four major areas of ethical breach appear within Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Looting and commodification are present, primarily through the treasure system, but also to a lesser degree through the narrative. Stakeholders are pitted against one another within the game, and there are an excessive number of violations of duty of care. Finally, the narrative contains unaddressed depictions of unethical museum and curation practices.

Looting and Commodification

Artifacts within Shadow of the Tomb Raider fall into all three parts of a tripartite model of looting. Artifacts are looted for monetary purposes, for mechanical purposes, and for utility purposes, and the player sees the benefits of looting artifacts both within the game and through external indicators of achievement.

A triangular with two sides representing in-game benefits of looting - utility and monetary - and a third representing an external benefit - mechanical.
Looting within Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes place for monetary, mechanical, and utility purposes. There is both in-game benefit and external benefit to looting.

While artifacts themselves cannot be sold directly, the game implies that they are collected for monetary purposes, and that their collection has financial impacts for Croft. The presentation of the artifacts is handled differently than in the Uncharted series, however, as while the information in that series is presented sans narrator, each artifact collected by Croft receives a full voice-over narration explaining its cultural and material features, and connections to the peoples who created it. Croft also comments on multiple occasions about the quality of artifacts, with the intimation that quality is tied to monetary value.

Looting is also incentivized in Shadow of the Tomb Raider by mechanical means. The player is encouraged to loot artifacts in order to obtain special clothing pieces and sets of clothing, which convey additional game-play benefits. These ‘vestige’ outfits are deliberately designed to reference culture-specific aesthetics, and are framed as items of clothing that previously belonged to famous and influential people within each culture. Croft receives the base items by looting tombs and burial sites, and then has to upgrade them with additional materials to make them wearable.

Secondarily, mechanical incentivization is present through the awarding of out-of-game achievement titles. As Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on multiple console systems, there are multiple types of reward system. On the Xbox One, players are rewarded via a points system for ‘achievements’, while on the PlayStation 4, players are rewarded via a system of variable trophies. The named rewards are the same for the game on each console, they differ only in how the various platforms frame their rewards overall.

Teasing out ethics within video-games and immaterial digital worlds can often lead to odd considerations and questions. Such an issue occurs in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where the player encounters stakeholders who represent the ‘modern’ world, but who would normally be expected by virtue of their ethnic backgrounds to speak for their ancient predecessors, and stakeholders who represent the ‘ancient’ world, but who also have a vested interest in those predecessors. In this situation, determining who has primacy in making decisions about material culture of the past is difficult. This question, while not addressed directly by the game’s narrative, is one that should resonate with archaeologists, who should in their work be considering differing viewpoints and desires within stakeholder communities.

Within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the material culture of ancient peoples is spoken for both by the Inca, Maya, and Mexica peoples of the imagined co-located ‘ancient’ culture of Paititi, and by the people of the modern Peruvian village of Kuwaq Yaku. The peoples of Paititi function as a stand-in, ethically, for the ancient peoples of those cultures who are, by virtue of being deceased and in the past, unable to convey to archaeologists their input as to archaeological methods and aims. However, the people of Kuwaq Yaku represent the typical stakeholder group with whom an archaeologist would find themselves working. They are a descendent community of ancient peoples, with stated connections to the material culture of the area, and the narrative makes it clear that they have attempted in the past to protect that material culture from outside impacts. They have been failed by both local and national governments in that regard, resulting in a large-scale loss of access to, and rights over, the cultural landscapes of their ancestors.

The situation is not unlike that involving archaeologists and modern paganism in the United Kingdom (such as those described by Rathouse 2016 and White 2018). In this case, a typical British village population is represented by the people of Kuwaq Yaku, in that they have local ties to the area and the built archaeological features and archaeological landscape are part of their daily lives, while a typical modern pagan group is represented by the people of Paititi, in that they have religious ties to built heritage and archaeological sites, and a desire to continue using those locations and features as part of active religious practice. Current best practices favor the use of the sites by the pagans/Paititians, while maintaining that the villagers/Kuwaq Yaku have an established interest in the maintenance and upkeep of the heritage fabric of the area, but this arrangement typically results in unhappiness for both parties, each of whom feels they are still not being given the full consideration they are due (see Blain and Wallis 2004).

Duty of Care

One of the main narrative drivers of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is Lara Croft’s desire to atone for failing to uphold her duty of care in the course of her exploration. This failure, which results in the death of unknown numbers of innocent people, is the direct result of artifact looting on her part, and forms the basis for why most of the action of the game takes place. However, despite the explicitly stated goal of atonement for failing at her duty of care, Croft does not change her base actions. Croft continues to loot artifacts throughout the game, even into the final moments of game-play, and even past that into a post-play credit cut-scene, when it is implied that she is about to embark on another looting expedition. Nothing sticks, for Croft, in terms of duty of care. She recognizes that she has it, and she recognizes when has failed to uphold it, but ultimately it has no bearing on her behaviors.

Conclusion

Through Lara Croft, the developers of Shadow of the Tomb Raider pay lip-service to archaeological and professional ethics, making it clear that they understand that there are professional responsibilities for archaeologists, but devaluing those responsibilities in favor of mechanical and narrative enactions of looting and poor treatment of stakeholders. It is disappointing that Shadow of the Tomb Raider came so close to illustrating the impacts of archaeological ethics on local populations and descendent communities, but ultimately went in the direction of sensationalized looting and poor ethical decision-making. The three-game arc that ended with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which promised to illustrate growth and change on the part of Croft, did so, but not towards being a better archaeologist.

Meghan Dennis is a Postdoctoral Researcher for Data Interpretation and Public Engagement at The Alexandria Archive Institute, and ethics officer with Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA). Her research explores how the use of interactive media can influence youth participation in ethical interactions with heritage and archaeology, and her recent PhD thesis examined the impacts of ethical representations of archaeology in interactive media.

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