Episode 21 of the ArchaeoTech podcast (aired Jan. 11, 2016) features an interview with me by co-hosts Chris Webster and Chris Sims on the general topic of archaeogaming. After talking about the nascent subdiscipline to anyone who would listen since 2013, I got a question that has been bothering me (in a good way) for over a week. To paraphrase the recently departed David Bowie, sometimes the really important thing is to ask the question rather than to pursue the answer.
Chris and Chris asked me a doozy. Paraphrasing: do you know of any instances in virtual worlds that are protected or designated as historically significant? That is to say, is there an in-world/in-game version of a UNESCO World Heritage Site? If so, what is it? If not, why not, and when might we see one, and where would it be, and why would it be assigned that status?
It’s a simple question that has, as simple questions sometimes will, blown my mind. But think about it. In meatspace, people are typically not far from some kind of landmark, roadside sign, historic home, or something that some locality (or larger governing body) has designated as being important to either preserve or mark in the earth in a permanent way. I live in the Princeton, New Jersey area. I can throw a rock and hit a statue, marker, or milestone that dates to the 1700s. My friends in the UK can do a lot better than that. But what about in virtual worlds?
When asked about this on the podcast, I did not have an answer. I couldn’t think of anything in a video game, especially in an MMO or shared open world where something important happened in a spot in a game some time ago that warranted historic status that would be physically commemorated by the community or by the developer. Thinking on this some more, I have one example that I saw myself, and could think of a couple of others, but nothing quite in the spirit of what I was asked by Chris and Chris.
When I was playing vanilla World of Warcraft in 2007 as a Tauren hunter, I encountered an early quest in Mulgore, “Kyle’s Gone Missing!” The goal of the quest is to find food for a runaway dog, Kyle, and then put it out for him to lure him back to his owner, Ahab Wheathoof. I remember liking this quest, and wondered why there was a non-WoW name given to the dog. My friend who got me into the game told me that this quest was part of a Make-a-Wish Foundation request. Ezra Chatterton visited Blizzard Entertainment, creator of WoW, and designed this quest as his Wish. The quest is available to Horde players on every WoW server, and serves as a permanent memorial to Chatterton. I wouldn’t have known that, however, unless someone had told me the story, and I had confirmed it online. It’s close to a memorial that Chris and Chris were thinking of, but not quite.
I then thought about Minecraft. I remembered attending a paper in Sweden at the Challenge the Past conference, which focused on reconstructions of the World Trade Center that were built as memorials by players in the game on their own (or shared) servers. I found dozens of different Minecraft memorials and reconstructions on Google Images, but these were examples of virtual spaces created to remember a meatspace event. This, too, was not quite what Chris and Chris were after.
I also thought of Second Life, recalling that Linden Memorial Park was active from 2009-2011 to honor SL residents. Since then (and also before the creation of that space), there were several plots and islands created in rememberance. Click here for a list that includes a Battleship Yamato memorial, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and others. But this still evades the question of a virtual monument or official historic designation placed in a virtual world commemorating an even of historic importance that occurred in-world FIRST. While the player community or developer could commemorate such an event, the real test will come when (I say “when” instead of “if”) UNESCO (or similar) will step forward to assign World Heritage Status to something that is not of meatspace.
Back in 2014 I had a Twitter conversation with @spacearchaeology who told me about the historical events that happen in-game with Eve Online. The MMO has been around for over ten years, and the server cluster serves a single universe of players (unlike WoW that has groups of players on separate, identical servers). The game’s tenth anniversary saw a world record 65,000 players logged in all at the same time to participate in in-world events. Those who did received a special ship for their hangars, a commemoration for an in-world activity that crossed between meatspace and virtual space. Related to the game is a book that is underway by Jeff Edwards, which collects player recollections of a massive in-game conflict called The Fountain War. This book (as described by the author) sounds a bit like Thucydides or Xenophon reporting on the Peloponnesian War. While interesting in a virtual historical sense, it still does not designate any in-game space as a virtual kind of Ground Zero.
I propose that actual, historical designation of something akin to (or even the actual thing) a UNESCO World Heritage Site will appear within the next 50 years. It will likely appear within a communally shared virtual world (an MMO or whatever’s coming next). But what will the historical event be that will trigger this award of status? UNESCO offers ten selection criteria, which I argue can be used in both meatspace and in virtual space:
to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);
to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
Note that UNESCO says that something must only meet ONE out of ten of these criteria. So think about the games we have created so far, and which might have a space deserving of universal attention.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming