Applying Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to Games


Tomb Raider (2013) map with UTM. Image:

Archaeology is all about space-time: what happened, when, and where. We assign Cartesian coordinates to sites and artifacts as well as to places of intangible heritage. When we merge spatial information with data, this information can get fed into a geographic information system (GIS), which can then produce data-rich maps as a data visualization tool. Patterns emerge, and archaeologists can play with data in new ways.

Many video games contain 2D or 3D virtual environments, which players can navigate. Some worlds are “open”, meaning complete freedom of movement for non-linear exploration. Other worlds are more linear (“semi-open”), funneling players between plot points. And then there are games with interactive maps where players can click on a point and move to another space for play without the need for real-time travel. Because these games contain both space and data tied to localities, they contain X and Y (and sometimes Z) coordinates for towns, buildings, placement of NPCs and encounters, artifacts, etc. Occasionally a game (e.g., Tomb Raider (2013)) will display coordinates (UTM or otherwise) on the in-game map accessible by players. These coordinates can be recorded by the player in a spreadsheet into X and Y columns, and then dumped in to software such as the Open Source QGIS or in to ArcGIS for mapping and data visualization.

The application of GIS principles to video games and fantasy worlds is not new. Read “Catrography in the Metaverse” and “Geospatial and Photogrammetry: When the Mapping World and the Gaming World Collide.” For a fun, interactive map of all of the places in The Hobbit created with GIS, lose an hour here. Game developers can create games set in the real world (e.g., Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty), using GIS maps of actual cities containing roads, buildings, etc. From an informatics view, archaeologists exploring these games based on real-world locations can conceivably geotag everything from where an event happened, to the locations of arms caches or treasure/artifacts or anything else for which they need to collect data. This is no different from the needs of non-virtual archaeologists who need to visualize what they recover/record in a spatial way. It is possible that through deploying GIS with video games containing 2D and/or 3D maps/locations that distribution patterns might appear, or clues as to the procedural (or other) algorithms that are in play, setting the rules for how virtual worlds are built, sometimes on-the-fly.

The serious issue, however, is how to apply GIS to open or semi-open worlds that have no overt coordinate system, which might have been intentionally obfuscated by the developer. Short of looking at the code (which is nearly impossible), video game archaeologists need to find a way to create a GIS application that can be applied to virtual environments, generating X and Y coordinates and in some games, Z for height/depth. The tool should be scalable to games/maps of various sizes, transferable to any spatial game. This Open Source tool could be developed game-by-game as a mod or add-on, but to be used practically, it should work with any game, where a grid can be applied and tweaked via settings on the archaeologist’s computer either while the game is running underneath, or as the game runs on a separate machine.

It is my hope that I will be able to partner with someone in the GIS community to create such a mapping/recording tool that would ultimately live on Github for anyone to use. I will keep you posted as the development proceeds. If you (or someone you know) would like to help, please write to me at archaeogaming at gmail.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


2 thoughts on “Applying Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to Games

  1. Random aside: I tried doing GIS / game stuff yonks ago with DotA2 mapping (was nerding it up trying to make a way to assess whether you could use GIS to assess in real-time how effective a ward placement was, not super archaeological, but none the less). It is possible to push stuff from a game to GIS using exposed data and some pretty hacky geodatabase stuff. Pushing that into the game interface is not something I have done (seems like it would be a standalone thing, not connected to GIS, that then wrote some text-files that could be parsed to GIS, but dunno, too complex for my tastes).

    Upshot was: it depends entirely on xy data being exposed by the game, being able to somehow meaningfully push that to a geodatabase and then update that quickly-ish. The main issue I had was that the xy I could pull (hammerunits) was consistent across all deployments BUTTTTTTT becuase the game didnt have data on exclusion zones (ie: things like trees) it became impossible to make it useful. Then they updated the engine and the whole thing burnt and died a horrible death because the data I needed was no longer exposed at run in a way which would work (ie: I could pull data after the fact, but not whilst it was running through sourceTV).

    Point of this rant was: GIS can be fairly easily applied to games after-the-fact using text file stuff, but doing it in-the-moment is much harder and fairly dependant on the game (as units / scale / exposed data) vary pretty significantly. Also, because of the way several engines work in several different ways it is pretty difficult to get data that makes any kind of comparable sence without you having to make pretty big guesses (ie: 1 unit in one engine does not neccesarily equate to 1 unit in another engine, and neither of those things equate directly to m / cm in the real world, so you have to make an arbitrary comparison and judgement when setting it – maybe someone is cleverer than I and can figure out how to do this more scientifically).

    Anyway, I know that there are some clever folk at the DC labs working on something for DotA2 now too which might be useful – also another group was working on something for StarCraft2 (both for casting purposes, but could equally be applied for storing data after the fact). Try looking at how they develop tools for casting and maybe approach some people working on this? It would be a pretty sizeable undertaking to get it to work consistently across multiple games, but it sounds like a cool project.

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