This post is much shorter than it needs to be, and over the next few weeks I hope to unpack the provocative statement that “there is no difference between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ culture.” I have been poking this idea with a stick for months now, and worked up the courage to pitch it to a roomful of my peers in Gothenburg, Sweden, in my first true, public Archaeogaming presentation as part of the Challenge the Past conference. Fellow gaming archaeologist Tara Copplestone blogged about it capably here.
My thesis that I am coming around to actually believing is that the material culture of races and civilizations in the virtual world of Tamriel is exactly the same (or at least pretty darn close) as studying, say, the Aztecs or the Etruscans. Maybe archaeogaming just jumped the shark, but maybe not. Some points to consider/discuss:
Millions of real-life humans inhabit in-world avatars of other, alien races not found on Earth in meatspace, and interact with all manner of objects that exist in virtual space, inhabiting landscapes and architecture that change over time. This is no different than in meatspace.
MMOs have their own economies/economics and system of trade, which is often driven by supply and demand for natural resources and crafted items. This is no different than in meatspace.
MMOs have their own in-game communities, tribes, cultures, and subcultures, which not only lend themselves to diverse in-world experiences, but also branch off into gaming linguistics including evolving vocabulary, orthography, syntax, and even epigraphy. This is no different than in meatspace.
Archaeogaming queries include asking why buildings and cities were constructed as they were (and who designed and built them), how the landscape affects settlement and other “human” activity, why some places were abandoned and others repurposed, and how things change over time. This is no different than in meatspace.
Mature games (those that I define as having been around for five or more years and continue to be played, and continue to be developed by both the game publisher and an active modding community) build upon an often complex, robust lore system, integrating story with world-building and action in-game, creating myths and legends as well as origin stories and religions and folkways that are eagerly explored and adopted by players. This is no different than in meatspace.
I will continue to add to this list, and welcome other suggestions as well as criticism of this leap in logic. Millions (and possibly billions) of contemporary people inhabit both “real” and “virtual” spaces simultaneously, interacting with the cultures in each. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the number of players in a video game set in Imperial Rome outnumbered the actual, historical residents? Both Romes exist, and within the genius (i.e., idea) of Rome-as-city, there are multiple iterations spread across several games, both played as single-player and as a community, as well as the many Romes that exist over centuries in the “real” world, all running in parallel.
At this moment in time, there is no difference in cultures real and virtual. There is only culture. The worlds in which this culture is found is immaterial.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming