Archaeological Methods in Archaeogaming

No Man's Sky

A view from the cockpit in No Man’s Sky (beta)

One of my intents with exploring the archaeology of video games is to create a set of archaeological methods that can be applied to conducting actual survey, excavation, and perhaps even conservation of material culture within virtual spaces. As I prepare for my Ph.D Skype interview with the University of York tomorrow(!), I thought I would scribble some things unscientifically to start collecting my thoughts on this. Your constructive comments and questions are both welcome and desired because:

What we do now in creating archaeological methods for documenting virtual worlds will inform future archaeologists (next month, next year, next century perhaps) on how to operate within a set framework while adding to it.

It is also important to understand that:

Material culture (and just plain culture) within video game worlds are created by people grounded in established cultures of their own. Granted, some games such as those in the Assassin’s Creed series (Ubisoft) open with the comment: “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Other games come front-loaded with lore and canon perpetuated and debated by thriving, robust user groups that are, in turn, consulted by the game developers themselves when making new expansions within those worlds (Emily Johnson and Tara Copplestone pers. comm.). And in games such as the forthcoming (2015) No Man’s Sky, described by Hello Games as “a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy,” the thrill of which is discussed in this interview with developer Sean Murray in Digital Trends (Jan. 10, 2015), worlds, life, and perhaps even culture are created via math.

Archaeogamers must come prepared with a background in chaos and complexity theory to understand how these iterative, never-before-seen worlds are made, and if, over time, these worlds create life that in turn creates culture that starts to make stuff: stuff we’ve never seen or possibly even imagined. We have to check our preconceived notions at the door of what culture is, and can something that theoretically is not-alive actually create something that can then be studied in an effort to understand its creation. How the fuck do you do that?

We start with what we know. And while for many of the games we have played in the past, and for many contemporary games it is impossible to do any kind of real “dirt archaeology”, we can begin to explore these spaces, mapping them, filming and photographing them with software tools, creating typologies of coins and pottery, examining mortuary habits, defining religious accoutrements and documenting rituals, and coming at these places like most gamers do, with a sense of the vaguely familiar (i.e., knowing what a dwelling is, but not necessarily what it might look like in a gaming world), but with an open mind and an eye for recording detail.

The games we have now are for archaeogaming practice, and we can begin to create the manual which will guide us to those games that are coming that follow perhaps a deist model: a universe made by a creator who does not interfere with its operation post-creation. Granted, there will be patches and upgrades and expansions, but I predict that the games in the late 2010s and beyond will trap players by infinite numbers of new worlds and new life and civilizations to explore. Sound familiar?

And once we have been archaeologists for these new cultures, what then? Is the material culture of virtual spaces the same as those of our “real” world? Do we place the same values on artifacts and art and architecture? I would argue that the virtual spaces to come will teach us a bit about how to study “real” world cultures, and that we can apply what we know about “real” world archaeology to the virtual. But it could be that one day we encounter a civilization created by an algorithm that lives and breathes as we do, and that the exoarchaeology we’ve considered for Mars and beyond will actually be borne in our machines.

More to follow as I think about this, but I’m out of wine.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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