Grand Ages: Rome (Haemimont Games)

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


  1. I posted these initial thoughts over on twitter earlier, and Andrew asked me to repeat them here. Note that I haven’t really thought this through, so these are just gut reactions:

    a) There are no immaterial spaces. All culture is bound to the material plane, whether by brick or by bit. Kirschenbaum’s ‘forensic materiality’ is an obvious reference point here.

    b) I think the key difference between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ is one of relative permanence and stability; a virtual world like Second Life or World of Warcraft exists only as long as the servers keep running and can be deleted or rewritten at a stroke (as can the lore – the fictional history and culture – of Azeroth or Tamriel or whatever within these games). This is however a difference of degree, not a binary distinction.

    c) Access to a virtual culture is mediated by a device, to some extent distanced from immediate human experience. This is of course not exclusive to virtual cultures, but it is a distinctive characteristic entailing assorted issues of accessibilty, privilege, and potential estrangement.

  2. First, let me say, i’m sorry for the length! Perhaps, i overshoot the mark here a little bit, i tried a shorter version, but in the end, i feel bad cutting sth. of. I hope it’s readable, i’m also working on my english skills!

    Here is the result of my brainstorming:

    I agree that it’s all culture. Virtual Worlds and gaming environments are connected with and represent the real World’s culture because the are used and created by inhabitants of our societies. These spheres aren’t separated.The virtual Worlds of Computer games need to be explored in the same way we try to interpret and explain parts of the real world , our present and even ancient cultures. That makes it hard to argue against computergames or online gaming environments as an subject of archaeological interest.
    The creation of virtual gaming environments is one aspect of todays culture, as mentioned in Articles here before, spending much time in there is part of many people’s social reality and practice.

    Learning and understanding the Lore and materiality of these Worlds is not different from doing it elsewhere.
    It’s not longer a scientific domain to take part of the creation and Interpretation of the past and human history.
    So people build their own „virtual Rome“ , it becomes part of their reality and understanding of what Rome is or could have been.

    That virtuality depends on reality you can see in MMO’s. MMO’s are part of the virtual materialization of our culture.
    The ability of organization and communication, the use of interface tools and understanding game mechanics and algorithm are a simplification of skills you also need as an employee in an IT or Media company. Even the hierarchic structures you can find in the virtual space. The entire understanding of what an Company is, a team based competitive network. Today, the border between play and work seem to disappear, you often hear the word gamification, if it’s true or not is an other discussion.

    Many people are in use of project management tools to organize their private life, and nobody get’s frightened if you say the human brain works like an Computer. But there is still much Imagination and Ideology in there. Virtual Worlds are also a part of this immaterial sphere and the result of creativity, learning and understanding.

    This kind of (virtual) culture is more than a mediation via device or machine, it’s a way of thinking, it depends on how work and social life is organized.
    Culture is always mediated. First there is Family, then friends, you have teachers within or outside the Institutions like school and University and work. Culture is mediated through books , films, newspapers and computer based media.

    But Culture is nothing stable. It’s always changing. It’s a process in which every direction and way is possible. And nothing prevents a specific culture for someone’s pulling the cable. Evolution isn’t straight forward. So culture isn’t either. Everything is possible, anytime. There maybe many kinds of different cultures in human history we can’t even imagine. It’s the same with lost virtual environments. Nothing prevents them from dying.

    Even the Archaeology is an creator, an actor, by using media and technology. Archaeologists are already in use of digital Artifacts, they create environments where the virtual reconstructions of the past are arranged.
    All archives and media could get lost or destroyed.

    But even if some Worlds are lost, the building of these worlds in general shows us an specific way of thinking and experience. Perhaps future Archaeologists found some fragments of these Worlds and try to imagine and ask how and why people interact this way, and which understanding of the past and presence they had. And which technologies they have used to give them an expression. Like the Lore can changed by the developer of these games, our understanding of human history is always changing, too.

    The history of Archaeology even shows us that interpretations of the past supported national, imperial and colonial ambitions. The specific view of the past helped the inhabitants of modern societies to believe in development technology, and competition. An evolutionary understanding of technology was always an topic of archaeology. It seem to fit quite good for the computer-era.

    Of course not everyone ist connected to these globalized parts of the world. But that didn’t change the way how work and life is organized in the era of globalization and new Economy. If you don’t know what to eat tomorrow, you don’t think about WOW or getting the new Xbox, that’s true.

  3. even thoguh I am a big fan of videogames and try to get psychologists and teachers to use them in their field I was quite sceptic about his claim first

    then I got to the part about mature games and realized you were right: fans do come up with their own headcannons and expand the universe of certain games by making up more stories and filling the holes, and cosplaying at cons could be even seen as a way of worshiping or mimicing their beloved mythical characters to harness their powers to some extent

    please do make a post about Team Fortress 2, Valve might even pick it up and provide you with better publicity

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