Video Game Glitches, Complexity Theory, and Quantum Entanglement

(Image: Jaz Reviews)

(Image: Jaz Reviews)

To me, this is the heart of archaeogaming, and what has been dominating my archaeological thinking since before I began this blog in 2013. I submit to you the following:

  1. Video games are each their own discrete archaeological site.
  2. Video games often have glitches upon their initial release.
  3. Glitches, which can appear at an observable game-space and game-time, are artifacts within the game, and therefore have archaeological context.
  4. Glitches are artifacts created from the complexity of code.
  5. Glitches are artifacts created from the entanglement of hardware, software, and platform.
  6. Glitches are artifacts that temporarily exist in a quantum state.

Let’s deconstruct these observations:

1. Video games are each their own discrete archaeological site. In meatspace an archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved, and which may be investigated using the discipline of archaeology, and represents part of the archaeological record (the body of physical evidence about the past). This definition applies to video games. A video game is a discrete entity where the place can be defined as where the game in installed (not necessarily its installation medium, which is a whole other story). The past activity is the coding that created the game. Its elements can be directly observed and manipulated, part of the record of the game.

(Image: beatdownboogie)

(Image: beatdownboogie)

2. Video games often have glitches upon their initial release. A glitch can be defined as unintended functionality created by code. 1978’s Space Invaders had one of the earliest glitches, which actually remained in the game, speeding up the aliens as the player killed off rows of minions. 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider has a glitch (spoilers) near the end of the game that “breaks” the game. Despite quality assurance (QA) testing, games ship with glitches, and those glitches remain until they are patched by the developer. Please note: there are loads of websites focusing on glitches, but in a non-archaeological way. Search for “game glitch” and lose hours of your life to the topic.


(Image: Telegraph)

3. Glitches, which can appear at an observable game-space and game-time, are artifacts within the game, and therefore have archaeological context. An artifact can be defined as something made or given shape by a person (or people), such as a tool or a work of art, especially an object of archaeological interest. In meatspace, an artifact is often excavated. Prior to removal, its archaeological context is recorded: its relationship to its surrounding environment, its absolute location, and other metadata including the date in which it was recovered. Following discovery and preliminary documentation (notes, measurements, in situ photography), it is removed and relocated to another place for additional study. In gamespace, the glitch is the artifact (and perhaps the only class of artifact) to be observed and recorded. Everything else within the game is a deliberate creation of one or more game developers, which taken as a whole could be considered “landscape archaeology”. But glitches are true intrusions into gamespace, and as such can be classed as “significant finds”.



4. Glitches are artifacts created from the complexity of code. As stated above, video games are the summation of conscious design and coding decisions, where each element with which a player interacts is there for a reason. No developer deliberately creates glitches within a game s/he distributes (otherwise they would be classes as “Easter eggs“). A glitch is the unintended result of coding. This raises two questions: a) is a glitch made by the code alone, and b) if so, is it still classed as made by a person, and therefore able to be called an “artifact” in the classical, archaeological sense? I propose that the answer to the second question is “yes”, arguing first that the code was written by a person (or even machine-written code derived from initial human-created code), and also by analogy that people make mistakes, and the archaeological record is full of physical evidence of those mistakes (e.g., misfired pots). Complexity, when used in this context, can be considered in the mathematical sense, specifically computational complexity, where processes having a large number of seemingly independent agents can spontaneously order themselves into a coherent system, but that the complex system contains an inherent level of chaos or noise as created by the entanglement mentioned in No. 5 below. I ultimately want to partner with a mathematician to write the math underlying the complexity of glitches created by code.



5. Glitches are artifacts created from the entanglement of hardware, software, and platform. This is called “entanglement”, something archaeologist Ian Hodder has written about in his book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) that, according to the publisher, “explores the complexity of the human relationship with material things, demonstrating how humans and societies are entrapped into the maintenance and sustaining of material worlds.” I think the same can be said of the maintenance of virtual worlds, where glitches are the product of the complex interrelationships between code, the code’s platform (for a definition of “platform” in this context, visit Platform Studies), and hardware used by players. It is not code alone that causes glitches (although there might be some instances where it does). Instead, it is the chaos introduced into the system by the variables of code, platform, and hardware that creates these artifacts.



6. Glitches are artifacts that temporarily exist in a quantum state. The classic example of a quantum state of being is the fact that light is both a particle and a wave. Things get weirder when we consider that we cannot know the state of a quark without directly observing it, but that the quark can exist in all number of states at once prior to observation. Quantum entanglement occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently. Video games do not obey classical laws of physics when experienced as a player, even though the developer has spent time and effort to recreate a believable physics within the gamespace. A glitch, then, is an aberration in which at least two states of being can be observed simultaneously: that what is, and that what is supposed to be. Going one level deeper, the actual game (code + platform + hardware) is subject to meatspace physics as well as quantum physics, which are operating within the twin theories of chaos and complexity, resulting in something unexpected by both player and developer alike.



These glitches, these artifacts, are destroyed (fixed) by patches, and are then lost to time, living on only in the documentation of the archaeogamer as well as in the public record via media services. The memory of the glitch-artifact is preserved, but not the glitch itself, unless the archaeogamer retains an unpatched version of the archaeological site (the game). These glitches are part of the game’s history and document a specific part of its development and life-cycle, much like various stratigraphic levels of meatspace sites. The game’s build- and patch-numbers equate to a time-based stratigraphy, and any glitch-artifact (gamifact?) must be recorded not only with its game-time and game-place of observation, but also with the build- and/or patch-number for proper contextual reference.



Glitches are not the only artifacts created by complexity/entanglement. I believe that in procedural games (where code creates stuff in gamespace in a more randomized, but still logical way), the complexity of code will lead not only to glitches, but also to unexpected elements in built environments, a “happy glitch” instead of a “sad glitch”.



A note on time: all game-time is relative to the game being excavated and will likely be affected (or reflected) by time in meatspace. If the game has its own date/time stamps or method of telling some kind of absolute chronology, use that. Otherwise, one of the first things to do is to identify and note the time used in gamespace, working off of that during note-taking. Many games will use only a kind of finite time, which resets post-gameplay. This should also be noted, and set against a meatspace chronograph or stopwatch to indicate HH:MM:SS into gameplay when things are identified as being archaeologically relevant.

For fun, watch “The Glitch“, a live-action film about video game characters encountering a glitch in-game.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


2 thoughts on “Video Game Glitches, Complexity Theory, and Quantum Entanglement

  1. First note – one thing I think that is missing from this write up is the role of the player / interaction with the system creating / manifesting the glitches. IE: it is only from the activity of the player (in actually playing the game) that glitches / bugs / whatever come to be manifest in that discreet time / space you talk about. There is also the potential for players to create glitches by interacting with the system in ways which exceed the structuring of the system (for example, you can surf the invisible walls on Serious Sam, gain enough momentum and catapault yourself skywards using the hilariously janky physics… or as another example, b-hopping, not in itself a glitch – its part of the intended written code – but through players interacting with the system in ways that are unexpected you produce unintended outcomes that are system breaking).

    Second note – What is the delination between glitch / bug / exploit / system failure / unexpected outcome etc here? ie: a glitch is usually defined as a short blip, a kind of transient fault that is super hard to pinpoint the cause of (due to random distribution etc) whilst some of the things you talked of seemed more like bugs, whilst other things you talked about with regards to procedural generation would probably be better explained as either a) unexpected outcomes to the structured code (though still within the parameters for creation so not inherently glitch-y) or if undesired a bug in the code (as in it would be replicable and isolateable). I feel like (basing this purely off my own work) there is a differece when I make something that truly glitches vs somthing that is buggy. Following this thought, debugging is acutually super archaeological (ie: you tag and identify phenomena, proceed to isolate it, test and resolve). Anyway, I digress.

    Third note – many games don’t patch out the glitches / bugs / exploits, but embrace them as part of the continued culture of the game, one example being Ghandi in Civilization (where due to the way where the code was structured he would be super passive – aggression rating of 1, but if he adopted democracy, which had a -2 effect, his stance would loop around to the maximum aggression of 255 thus meaning he would outright declare war etc). B-hopping, wall-climbing etc being others.

    Anyway! I have some more thoughts on glitch as aesthetic / mechanic / narrative (ie: when they intrude in a way which is mechanical, aestehtic or narrative bending) but I will return to this at a later date.

    • Thanks for these, TJC! I was thinking that the human interaction was what brought quantum mechanics and game design together. Just as with the Uncertainty Principle, a glitch can only appear when directly interacted with by a player. Complexity theory is also apparent as you describe above, where a glitch is a transient fault that is hard to pinpoint the cause of due to random distribution. Two glitches I found recently in Rise of the Tomb Raider have not been able to be reproduced even after trying to replicate the exact conditions. This is also where games can behave like the real world, complexity and chaos adding to an environment of chance. I personally like it when built systems behave in unexpected ways, and now, thanks to your comments, we can create typologies for types of glitches, bugs, etc.

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