In my home: a scale model of the Parthenon (purchased in Greece), a replica clay lamp (purchased in Italy), an imitation Viking coin (purchased in Sweden), a Tardis (made of Lego), an iron sword (pictured, purchased at Hot Topic in the mall). The iron sword is actually made of foam and is an officially licensed Minecraft product. Surprising no one, you can buy artifacts from video games in the real world to play with/display.
I bring this up because it seems to be a human need to acquire stuff, and depending on your interests/obsessions, that stuff can be meatspace-manifestations of your favorite pop culture escapes, or of your favorite ancient civilizations. Sometimes both. We crave souvenirs. We want what we cannot touch in video games. So we make them. Virtual artifacts of cultures that exist only within games become real through independent or corporate creativity and industry. That Minecraft sword serves the exact same purpose as a wooden gladius purchased at a Renaissance Faire. It’s a fun reminder of another place and time.
This intersection of tchotchkes and entertainment is nothing new. Kids in the ’50s could send away for decoder rings from their favorite radio programs, or rayguns from their favorite comics or science fiction serials, or replica props from TV and movies. It was only natural that video games would follow suit. It fills a fundamental need of belonging or of feeling close to a culture (pop or ancient or other).
This need is perhaps most visibly manifested in cosplay. The material culture of comics, television, film, and games is robust and deep, evidenced at comicons worldwide, and at special events such as BlizzCon where cosplayers create true-to-life(?) clothing, armor, weapons, accessories, and more, as students of the game. Think of serious restoration specialists and conservators, but for games. Some will authentically recreate what George Washington wore when crossing the Delaware as depicted in great detail in Emanuel Leutze’s 1850 painting. Others will invest just as much time and as many resources into recreating Grom Hellscream’s clothing and arms from World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor. In meatspace, we sometimes call these people “historical reenactors”. In the virtual world, they are “cosplayers”. Both take what they do very seriously, and their attention to their craft is often professional-grade and scarily accurate.
With video games we see two levels of material culture: intra-game and extra-game. In the game, the artifacts are literal, to be collected and used by players for combat, crafting, or commerce. In meatspace, these replica artifacts represent what is real in game, absent any magic. But these can still be used in combat (always mock so far as I know), crafting, or commerce (Google “Etsy” and “Skyrim” for example).
Let’s fast-forward 500 years to when archaeologists are excavating us and all of our junk. Out of the rubbish heap comes a shattered helmet . . . of Master Chief. Will we know enough then to recall and understand the connection to the Halo universe? I can imagine pop culture and video game specialists on-site who were trained for this very moment of discovery.
Thinking back 2,000 years now, was there any evidence of cultural kitsch, of souvenirs in antiquity? The majority of existing/preserved Greek painted pottery was actually found on Italian archaeological sites (albeit largely in the Greek colonies). When did humanity begin to collect representations of things and places they loved? And in this second golden age of video games, who were the first to create the first real-world artifacts of items found originally in games? Atari comes close with its Swordquest prizes, the virtual made real.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming