(Im)material Culture: The Archaeology of Machine-Created Environments

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On June 16, 2017, I had the honor of participating in the University of York’s Department of Archaeology “progression” presentations, given by PhD students. Each talk was 10 minutes long with five minutes for questions, attended by archaeology students and faculty. I’m only six months in to my PhD, and so gave an overview of what I am writing about and what I hope to achieve after three years of thinking on the subject of “machine-created culture” (MCC). My five slides are here, annotated, for an overly brief introduction to my thesis topic.

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I began the presentation by making a brief case for games-as-archaeological-sites. It doesn’t matter if the game is played in a cabinet (e.g., Pong or Dig Dug), on a PC (e.g., King’s Quest V), or console (e.g., Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), all video games are built digital environments. One or more people created spaces for others to occupy and use, which gave rise to both internal and external material culture, as well as coded human and non-human cultures within the gaming environments.

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My idea for “machine-created culture” stems from procedural content generation (PCG). PCG is not new to video games or other software development. It allows programmers to save space and to use a kind of shorthand to create software elements through algorithms. In a game such as No Man’s Sky (above), Hello Games has taken PCG to extremes where developers have created colors, textures, and rules for organizing these into playable spaces and features on alien landscapes. This kind of PCG approaches MCC, but still requires a lot of human intervention and imagination to populate a world with structures.

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Going one step further, there are a scant handful of games in development that approach the idea of true MCC. Mark Johnson’s labor of love, Ultima Ratio Regum, combines literally thousands of rules and rule-sets to create viable, playable cultures never seen before on Earth. The worlds created in each instance of the game are always new, always organized in a new, logical way, and always feature new cultures with which players can interact. As the developer, Johnson sets the universe in motion, but the results are clearly derived from complex rules that give rise to new, emergent behavior. It is this kind of result that I am interested in: when given a set of instructions, how are those rules “interpreted” by software to create something that is both novel and culturally viable? How do we as archaeologists study and document those new, emergent cultures?

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I see my thesis (so far) as having four main goals: 1) defend the notion that virtual spaces merit serious archaeological attention; 2) identify and update real-world archaeological methods/tools for actual archaeology in digital built environments; 3) define and identify machine-created culture in video games; 4) employ complexity theory, agent-based modeling, and artificial intelligence to understand automated emergent cultural behaviors.

For #1, I’m standing on the shoulders of York colleagues such as Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry, as well as people like Gabe Moshenska, plus media archaeologists like Jussi Parikka who have taken an archaeological approach to understanding modern media. I am focusing squarely on video games (which I am more loosely defining as digital built environments). For #2, I have already played around with a Harris matrix for documenting the history of a video game, and thanks to a micro-grant from York’s archaeology department, I recently acquired a Sony PlayStation VR headset to use in future explorations as well as for creating Big Data visualization tools in virtual reality. For #3, I continue to follow the work of Mark Johnson, and constantly keep tabs on new games that employ PCG more and more. I do think that we will see games in the very near future that will create a fully realized version of MCC as I am imagining it. For #4, I have been learning more about complexity and agent-based modeling (ABM) thanks to a summer MOOC hosted by the Santa Fe Research Institute, the home for complexity science. I hope to apply lessons learned there to my understanding of how coded rules translate into playable actions.

Questions from the audience:

  1. What is ABM and how can it help archaeologists? Agent-based modeling allows a researcher to create an environment with certain parameters assigned in order to observe what happens to an agent within that space. ABM allows one to set variables with the agent as the control in order to create behavioral (and occasionally predictive) models. Imagine recreating an environment and then using that model to forecast where sites might most likely be found.
  2. How to game developers use archaeological data to create environments? Most (if not all) current gamedevs don’t use archaeological data per se (unless they are including 3D reconstructions of sites/buildings/artifacts and/or photogrammetry), but are instead using platforms such as Unity to integrate art and code to create a playable experience. Reviewing that code can help video game archaeologists understand the logical underpinnings of an environment, conducting a kind of code epigraphy or palaeography.
  3. How can the tools/methods developed for archaeogaming be leveraged by real-world archaeologists? What might this do for archaeology? I think that anything we do with ABM will be helpful to any archaeologist. The same can be said of developing tools for pattern recognition and Big Data visualization. The way we approach and document new cultures that are born digital could help us reflect on how archaeologists conduct ethnographies or interact with current living cultures. How do we deal with our agency and interference, and how can we mitigate that? As to what archaeogaming generally might do for archaeology, there is certainly the public archaeology aspect to consider, using video games to communicate archaeology both as a playable thing, and also in opening up discussions on archaeology of the recent past, digital preservation, and more.

Thank you to Prof. Steve Roskams for facilitating the event, to Paul Edward Montgomery for managing the technology and telecommunications, to my supervisor Prof. Sara Perry, and to everyone who attended the talks.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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