Diablo II Inventory (Image: Gamasutra)
Diablo II Inventory (Image: Gamasutra)

Let’s face it. Archaeologists like to get trashed. And by that I mean that we seem to find ourselves in other people’s rubbish heaps, middens, landfills, and dumps from prehistory all the way to the present day. When the people you are studying take the fine china with them, they leave behind the scraps, creating an intriguing picture of daily life. What we leave behind tells perhaps the truest story of who we are and how we treat our most basic commodities. But that’s in the real world.

I’ve been playing MMOs (e.g., World of Warcraft) seriously for years now. When I first played WoW, one of my guildies took pity on me, and showed me the ropes and taught me the vocabulary. One of the things you learn in the first five minutes of playing is to loot your corpses. You stand over whatever it is you just killed and basically strip it of anything of value: clothing, weapons, armor, and knick-knacks. Junk items showed up as gray text (and were called “grays”), meaning they are good only as items one can sell to vendors in cities. This kind of stuff sells for mere coppers, and is collectively called “vendor trash” for that reason. Players — especially n00bs with low-level characters — can begin to save money to purchase upgrades through converting vendor trash into cash. It’s a kind of recycling.

MMO players (and also players who are into RPGs and adventure games) have a finite inventory of items, and this is a holdover from the earliest dungeon-crawlers, which themselves inherited much from Dungeons & Dragons. “I need a place to put my stuff.” It’s a universal. So I might have pockets or a “bag of holding” or a backpack, or just inventory slots accessible via a side-screen. Inventories by their nature fill up. People (by their nature, too) like to acquire stuff. It doesn’t take long to accumulate enough junk to force you to start making some real-life decisions: buy a bigger bag (or bank box), or choose what to throw away in order to keep something just-discovered.

With all of the attention to detail given to stuff (which is really what archaeologists are after), what happens to the things players throw away is startling:

It disappears. Well, most of the time.

In WoW, and in other Blizzard titles such as Diablo II, the items you choose not to loot (or that you tentatively discard) stays where you put it, at least until you log out. In Elder Scrolls Online, I can’t drop anything to pick up later. If it’s in my inventory, and I want to discard it, I have to destroy it.

Loot in Diablo II (image: The Classic Gamer)
Loot in Diablo II (image: The Classic Gamer)

So by and large in games, even in those that do their best to obey the laws of physics, rubbish behaves in an unnatural way. What happens to the trash? Who collects it? Where does it go? And how does this effect the archaeology of the gaming space?

When you consider this from a purely practical perspective, the amount of trash left by players discarding junk they don’t need would be astronomically big, even in games that are hosted by server farms. The amount of memory needed would be staggering, and the piles of trash would ultimately bury the cities so carefully crafted by the game developers.

But when you think about it, this is exactly what would happen to real-world cities without proper trash collection, removal, and recycling procedures in place. Different worlds, different realities, different mechanisms in place. In a game, who cares what happens to trash. As I player, I am through with it, and never need to see it again. And I certainly don’t want to wade through piles of crap left by other players. That’s what the auction houses are for.

As an archaeologists, though, I have a ton of questions that will likely never be answered. My high hopes for Elder Scrolls Online included trash middens created by players outside of town. I also wanted to investigate patterns of travel and also patterns of trade based on what trash was left where. Just the simple data of what’s being thrown out by players in various regions would have been interesting to interpret. But again, all of that junk eats memory and storage space and processor time. Developers favor seamless, streamlined, uninterrupted, instant game-play, something that complex data eats up.

So what to do? There are such things as loot tables that show what mobs (i.e., enemies) drop what gear during encounters. Games such as WoW also record data on what is collected in-game. But it is doubtful that companies like Blizzard record what is dropped, left behind, and/or destroyed by players. If Blizzard would ever reply to my emails, it’s a question I hope they would answer, and data I hope they would share.

So real-world archaeologists have it easy: drop a spade; find trash. In games, trash is temporary, and it’s possible we will never fully understand the daily life of players and their interaction with common objects via their disposal patterns (outside of monitoring our own habits of course). Imagine asking to be embedded in a guild or raid or pick-up group just to record the loot earned and the loot discarded. If I were leading the raid, I’d either kill myself or kick the archaeologist out of the group for slowing everybody down. But maybe with the right guild or group, things would be different. If anyone’s volunteering, drop me a line.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


  1. This let me think about initiating an entire “MMO Trash Day” !
    Everyone takes part isn’t allowed to throw away anything for one afternoon. No restrictions. FFA.
    After time has expired all participants could met same Time/Server/Place for a big throwout.
    This would be a real good source and a real representative cross section through all kind of players and artifacts.

  2. Not volunteering, as I’d really screw things up for everyone else. But your post reminded me that the issues of trash & clutter emerged way back when over in Second Life – http://electricarchaeology.ca/2007/07/06/archaeological-clutter-dumpster-diving/ . The dumpster project is still online – http://meineigenheim.org/projects/longtermprojects/dumpster/index.html and they discuss problems they ran into (too many prims) solutions (a script to cause them to slowly decay!) and the kinds of things they found discarded… some good honest to goodness archaeology going on. Worth checking out.

    • Never heard from it before, thanks. Article comments are also worth reading!
      But i should have better called it MMORPG-Trashday. With Second Life you can demonstrate the similarities of virtual worlds including doing archaeology – but it hasn’t much of a game. Second life is pure open world, 100 Sandbox. If you want create anything make your tools, games, theater – it is everything (which is (technically) supported. Also of interest are the other restrictions i think. Progress in the game, the existence of classes and the fact that the players mostly have no means of production is reminiscent of our first reality. I think MMORPGS like ESO , WOW, or EVE with an fixed playtime (5hrs?) would provide us with very different results. Item quantity, looting , player Level, death ratio?, money, and perhaps overall playtime. If it could be possible to fetch all the data from such an Event.

  3. I’ve been playing Fallout New Vegas recently and I think its a lot more realistic. There are semi-‘grey’ items, but you can combine them with others and craft something useful. You can also drop loot on the ground. It forms a neat 1-meter fairy ring round you. Surprised Skyrim doesn’t let you drop loot. Pretty sure Oblivion had that capacity.

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