An Exercise in Archaeological Analysis: Fandom, Fealty, and Funko Pops

The Funko Pop. Anyone who has had even a passing interest in pop culture will have come across these figures. Although they have a basic template (large, squared head with tiny bodies and beady eyes), these figures cover a huge range of franchises, from the most mainstream, popular series to niche, cult classics. Funko Pop collecting has become a huge hobby of its own, with the #funkopop hashtag on Instagram showcasing the huge collections of (often unboxed) figures that many fans have amassed over the years.

Given their enormous popularity, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that, centuries from now, future archaeologists will be finding giant hoards of Funko Pop figures. But what will they think of them? Let’s use these popular collectables to flex our archaeological interpretation skills!

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Funko Pop figures at WonderCon 2016 (Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison)

The Funko Pop: The Fandom Collectable

Let’s first look at Funko Pop figures as they exist right now: as a popular pop culture collectable. The first “Pop” figure was introduced in 2010 in the form of various Batman characters. Originally starting with only three major licenses (Marvel, DC, and Star Wars), the Funko Pop brand has now extended to covering 454 licenses (Cheng 2018).

Although each figure is representative of different pop culture characters, there is a sort of “basic template” that gives each Funko Pop figure a specific “Funko flair” – each figure has a large, square head, with beady eyes, and small, little bodies. Although Funko Pop figures are sold everywhere, they are most often associated with fandom conventions, with certain figures being sold exclusively at certain events, such as Comic-Con. The popularity of Funko Pop figures has led to the creation of other Funko Pop items, including clothing and homeware.

The Funko Pop: The Votive Offering

So now, let’s change the perspective. What will archaeologists in 1000 years think as they recover huge collections of Funko Pop figures from the ruins of our generation?

Humanoid figurines recovered from the archaeological record are often correlated with religion, specifically during prehistory where we lack written sources to tell us otherwise. By ascribing certain characteristics to the figurine – such as anthropomorphic traits, ritual significance, or some other supernatural aspect – the figurine is set apart from other material goods, allowing it to be used for dedication and offering to an otherworldly being, such as a deity or spirit (Osborne 2004). This idea, as applied to Funko Pop figures, is probably best described by Pulliam-Moore (2018), who has pointed out that the general uniformity of the figures heightens the fact that they are ultimately physical symbols “meant to represent the emotional relationships we have to characters and stories that they love”.

Additionally, we may also see the Funko Pop as a sort of offering – literally representing the exchange of money for these figures, which in turn can be seen as an offering to what the figures represent. As Funko CEO Brian Mariotti has said, “The idea of chasing things you love based on fandom is really, really important”. And this is true with Funko Pops – fans will spend hundreds of dollars collecting exclusive figures that are only sold at certain events (Cheng 2018). Although many Funko Pop fans are interested in collecting all things Funko Pop, there are many other fans who are only interested in certain fandoms and franchises. By buying and collecting only one particular franchise’s Funko Pop figures, a fan is expressing their fealty and dedication to that franchise – both as a performance and financially.

The Funko Pop: The Sign of Status

So, as future archaeologists, we have now established the significance of the Funko Pop figure. But how do we explain the huge quantities of figures that individuals may “hoard”, for lack of a better word? Just as we now find hoards of Viking Age treasures, will future archaeologists find hidden stashes of Star Wars Funko Pops?

Perhaps this can be explained by looking at the Funko Pop as a sign of status. By having the most Funko Pops, a person is showcasing not just their fervent fanaticism, but also displaying a sort of “wealth” that places them in a specific role in the overall hierarchy of both monetary class as well as “fandom class”, or how much of a “true” fan a person is.

In historical archaeology, it is often useful to examine material goods through a more “consumerist” perspective, especially when dealing with larger “collection”-type assemblages. Consumerism studies allow archaeologists to analyse material goods not just for their functional value, but also for their cultural value as well, as consumerism often results in utilising quantification of certain material goods as a means of marking or expressing one’s hierarchical status (Martin 1993, Van Wormer 1996). Collecting Funko Pops is also not just a display of monetary wealth (each figure is roughly $10), but also a display of cultural wealth – arbitrary ideas of “fandom credit” means one must have a certain about of “cultural capital”, which can refer to simply having the “right” knowledge about a certain franchise to, in our case, having a certain amount of material goods (Fiske 1992).

The very act of collecting itself has its own hierarchies as well. For example, a person who is able to obtain certain figures, such as the exclusive “chase” Funko Pop figures, is in itself an achievement that creates more cultural capital for the collector. This is especially heightened with the recent popularisation of documenting collections via social media – the Funko Pop fandom is able to see, in real time, who are the “top collectors”, which adds a new dimension to accumulation as achievement (Heljakka 2017).

All hail the Tom Servo Funko Pop figure!

Of course, this all sounds silly to us in the modern day – as fanatic as Funko Pop collectors are, I don’t we would consider their collections as “altars” or “offerings”! But this exercise provides us with an idea of how the intentions and use behind material goods can change over time. It reminds us, as archaeologists, that ultimately we are “interpreting” what we find – there are so many nuances that we will miss along the way, some which could totally change our current interpretation!

I’d also like to think that this exercise can also provide us with different perspectives of the things we consider “normal” right now, like how we express our “fandom allegiances” and how consumerism is entwined to create an economy of “cultural capital”. That’s one of the best things about archaeology – by thinking about the past, we can further explore our present and future!

Also, I would love a Funko Pop figure of Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, thanks.

References

Cheetham, F. (2012) An Actor-Network Perspective on Collecting and Collectables. Narrating Objects, Collecting Stories: Essays in Honour of Professor Susan M. Pearce. Routledge.

Cheng, R. (2018) At Comic-Con 2018, Funko Reigns as Unofficial King of Pop. Cnet. https://www.cnet.com/news/at-comic-con-2018-why-funko-is-the-unofficial-king-of-pop-culture-fundays/

Fiske, J. (1992) The Cultural Economy of Fandom. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Psychology Press. pp. 30 – 49.

Heljakka, K. (2017) Toy Fandom, Adulthood, and the Ludic Age: Creative Material Culture as Play. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York University Press. pp. 91-108.

Martin, A.S. (1993) Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework. Winterthur Portfolio. 28 (2/3). pp. 141 – 157.

Osborne, R. (2004) Hoards, Votives, Offerings: the Archaeology of the Dedicated Object. World Archaeology. 36 (1) pp. 1-10.

Pulliam-Moore, C. (2018) My Love for Funko Pops is What Made Me Stop Buying Them. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/my-love-for-funko-pops-is-what-made-me-stop-buying-them-1823725462

Van Wormer, S.R. (1996) Revealing Cultural Status and Ethnic Differences through Historic Artifact Analysis. Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology. pp. 310 – 323.

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Side Quest: Archaeology!

Inaccurate portrayals of archaeology in other media has been discussed before – whether it’s fact checking the Indiana Jones franchise, reiterating that Lara Croft is indeed a Tomb  Raider, or correcting someone for the 100th time that no, sorry, we don’t dig up dinosaurs…it can be exhausting! But unfortunately, it will always be necessary so long as archaeology remains a part of pop culture – in films, novels, television shows, and more recently, in video games.

Archaeology in video games can often be divided into two categories: archaeology as the main narrative (for example, Indiana Jones video games, the Uncharted franchise) and archaeology as an in-game mechanic. Meyers Emery and Reinhard (2015), in their examination of video game archaeology from which these categories originate from, explain that archaeology is a perfect fit for the modern day video game – after all, archaeology reflects the sort of puzzle-solving and narrative of exploration that many video games attempt to replicate in their own gameplay.

This blog post will be looking at archaeology as an additional in-game mechanic, often used in the form of “side quests” and “collectables”. How does this portray archaeology and why is archaeology so well-suited for side quests? As part of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on two video games that utilise a sort of “archaeology” as a side quest mechanic: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

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Gunther, the curator of the museum in Stardew Valley, says, “It doesn’t seem like you have anything to donate to the museum. Better get out there and do some treasure hunting, huh?”

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley (Chucklefish Limited 2016) is a farming simulator video game that has the Player Character leave their miserable city life for the countryside, where they have just inherited their grandfather’s farm. During the course of the game, the Player Character can develop their skills in different ways and receive achievements for the things they can collect along the way.

Artifacts make up one of these achievable “Collections”. Through various methods (either digging in the right spot, breaking open a geode, or catching a treasure chest while fishing), the Player Character can collect artefacts of varying types – from priceless material objects to skeletal remains. Once found, the Player Character can either sell the artefact, or donate them to the town museum, run by curator Gunther. Occasionally, the Player will receive rewards based on what they have donated – this is the only form of payment that they will receive for their archaeological work during the game.

Although Stardew Valley falls into the common pitfall of conflating archaeology and palaeontology, it does a good job with placing some emphasis on post-excavation developments – for example, once an artefact is collected, the Player is able to read the interpretations of each item in their “Collections” menu. You’re also able to manually display the artefacts, allowing the Player to act as curator as well as excavator.

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A snapshot of the incomplete Artifacts Collection in Stardew Valley – the note for the Ornamental Fan collectable says, “This exquisite fan most likely belonged to a noblewoman. Historians believe that the valley was a popular sixth-era vacation spot for the wealthy.”
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The Player Character has dug up an unidentified fossil and exclaims, “I wonder what kind of fossil it is. I’ll have to take it to the museum and get it examined right away!”

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo Co. Ltd. 2012) is a life simulator video game, and the fourth game in the Animal Crossing franchise. The Player Character takes on the role of Mayor in their own created town, which is populated by anthropomorphic animals, and tries to improve citizen satisfaction by building and updating public amenities. including the town’s museum.

Every day, the Player Character may recover several fossils, digging them up with their shovel. At this point, they are only shown as mysterious, unidentified spheres labelled as “Fossil”. If the Player heads to the museum, they can ask Blathers, the curator, to assess any of their recovered fossils – if these fossils are not currently on display, Blathers will ask the Player if they will donate the fossil to the museum. The game places a fair bit of weight to Blathers’ identifications – the Player Character can sell fossils for a bit of money, but will receive much more if they get them assessed first.

Fossils will range from dinosaur remains (ahem, not archaeology) to other fossilized organic material – droppings, eggs, plant life, and even a hominid! The museum also accepts donations of bugs, marine life, and artwork, but will not accept forgeries or fakes. Yes, this game actually has a forgery mechanic – it takes a good eye to notice which artwork (which can be bought by a travelling trader) is the real deal!

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The Player Character has just asked Blathers the Curator to examine a fossil. Blathers, when realizing it is a fossil that is not in the museum’s collection, says, “I’m rather jealous…I hope I can perhaps convince you to assist with Harvest’s [the name of the town] cultural education.”
So, why is archaeology  such a popular “side quest” mechanic in games like these two?

The easy answer is that archaeology is, in a sense, the act of “collecting” artefacts, which creates a set of collectable items for video game players. “Collectables” are a wildly popular component of many video games  – these are items that may be hidden within the levels of the game, and can sometimes trigger an achievement or trophy of some kind. There has been some research that has linked collectables to the “addictiveness” of video games (Goggin 2008), explaining the popularity of the feature.

By using archaeology as a means of collecting these “collectables”, video games are able to transform the discpline into a form of treasure hunting that is easy for the general audience (mostly children!) to understand. In both Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, “X marks the spot”, and I mean that literally – in Stardew, its in the form of wiggling worms, and in Animal Crossing, in the form of stars found on the ground.

Of course, this is problematic – it propagates the idea that archaeology and treasure hunting are the same, that archaeology is simply digging up things and displaying them in a museum. This simplified version of archaeology is what leads to the continuation of harmful archaeological practices entrenched in white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism – looting, the theft and destruction of Indigenous and colonized lands, and the delay of further repatriation of artefacts and remains, among other things.

I’d argue, though, that Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are at the very least a step in the right direction for archaeology in popular culture – although problematic and also just flat out wrong in some respects, both video games provide a glimpse into a (rather simplified) version of post-excavation work. Players are able to see specialists identify and further interpret artefacts, as well as take part in the further curation and display of the recovered items. Although Stardew Valley constantly refers to archaeological excavation as “treasure hunting”, Animal Crossing at least makes an attempt at framing archaeology in a more educational way by referring to the donation of fossils and artwork as adding to the town’s “cultural education”.

Holtorf (2004) has previously written that in popular culture, the action of “doing archaeology” is often the focus, as it is believed to be more interesting and exciting than the actual interpretation and analysis of the finds. And yet, these two video games show that pop culture archaeology can be much more than just the act of digging for priceless artefacts – perhaps what we need next is a Excavation Supervisor Simulator, with downloadable extra content in the form of Curation Quests?

References

Anonymous. (2009) Museum. Animal Crossing Wiki. http://animalcrossing.wikia.com/wiki/Museum

Anonymous. (2016) Artifacts. Stardew Valley Wiki. https://stardewvalleywiki.com/Artifacts

Chucklefish. (2016) Stardew Valley.

Goggin, J. (2008) Gaming/Gambling: Addiction and the Video Game Experience. The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory, and Aesthetics. McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers. pp. 33-51.

Holtorf, C. (2004) Doing Archaeology in Popular Culture. The Interplay of Past and Present. pp. 42-49.

Meyers Emery, K. and Reinhard, A. (2015) Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeology in Video Games. Public Archaeology. 14(2). pp. 137-149.

Nintendo Co. Ltd.. (2012) Animal Crossing: New Leaf.