Material Memory in Video Games


To me, this Minecraft cookie is like Proust’s madeleine.

Thanks to a recent fika with Gísli Pálsson after the European Association for Archaeologists annual meeting in Maastricht (words I never thought I’d type), I found myself dwelling on the concept of “material memory.” Pálson is a landscape archaeologist, and we spoke about landscape archaeology in (and of) video games, to consider formation processes of landscapes in games, and of player agency affecting synthetic landscapes. But material memory? This is baking my noodle. Here’s why:

Let’s start with definitions. “Material memory” can mean: 1) things (e.g., a pot, a building, etc.) provide a link to the past, an articulated/manufactured memory of what was that persists in the present, and 2) an actual memory triggered by interaction with a thing. When I visit my brother, I see the Star Wars toys I received for my sixth birthday, which his kids now play with. Holding the Luke Skywalker action figure triggers a memory of opening the present, taking the figure out of the box, activating the plastic lightsaber (and later learning how to remove it, promptly losing it). When I visited Athens for the first time in 1996, I walked among the ancient buildings atop the Akropolis. I had no real memory of these structures (aside from all of the data learned in school), but the buildings persist through time, a tactile memory of what was. So how does this work in video games?

Dunstan Lowe wrote about ancient architecture in games, “Always Already Ancient,” where he notes that most games present Greek-y, Roman-y, Egypt-y buildings as weathered and time-worn. They rarely (if ever) appear as new. I see these buildings as representing a presumed past that never really was. It’s a design choice, hinting at a lore to be written. In game design, the present writes the past. For simpler games (such as Paper Mario and Mario Kart and the Dry-Dry Ruins, pictured below), the ancient is used as a backdrop created to evoke a sense of an older time while players negotiate the present.


Racing in the Dry-Dry Ruins in Mario Kart for the Wii (image:

The ruins-as-pictured are not from the ancient past (even though they reference an imagined past via design tropes). The ruins-as-pictured date to 2008, which in game-life is somewhat old. When I go back and play this game, the ruins-as-pictured not only evoke an Egypt-y place that might have been (but never was), they also trigger a memory of the first time I raced this special course, and of the best run I ever had. Mario Kart Wii has become a material memory, the game itself a monument of the past that is played here in the present.

Let’s look at another example: the Mace of Molag Bal (pictured below, right, from The Elder Scrolls Wiki).


I acquired this weapon (a “Daedric artifact”) by completing a quest chain (series of related missions), and have enjoyed griefing my enemies with it. The material artifact of the mace contains robust lore of its initial forging and later use, a memory of the second and fourth eras of the Elder Scrolls canon. It is material memory of that bygone era. What I didn’t know (at the time) was that the mace is available to players who complete other quests in earlier Elder Scrolls games (including Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion). In the game-lore’s terms, the mace is an ancient artifact. In terms of the absolute chronology of the series, the mace is evocative of CE 1996, 2002, and 2006 respectively, its initial creation courtesy of Bethesda Softworks in 1996. So the mace is the material memory of the second Elder Scrolls game.

Things get even more interesting/weird when you consider the fact that you can (as I did) play the Elder Scrolls games out of order, playing games made in 1996 but in the present, 2017. Material memory gets confused a bit, especially since I will remember playing the game in 2017 even though it was released in 1996, evocative of that time. I will remember the mace, but in a later version of the game, encountering it again, but from a much earlier lore-time, but only a year’s difference in real-time. There is then a web-of-material-memory instead of anything chronological, with the Mace of Molag Bal at the center of that web, its presence radiating out across all timelines and narratives, a kind of digital singularity. This is not unique to the experience of gameplay, but is one of countless examples of items found in video games that are tied to lore of manufactured antiquity, and also to present and future interaction through play. More strangeness: there is more than one of these maces; there are millions, one per player-character who ever experienced the game. This artifact is unique to me, but not unique to the player-community, yet we all have shared memories that this unique/not-unique artifact evokes.

Moving away from 100% designed games, video games set in synthetic worlds, specifically those that are procedurally generated, exhibit a unique kind of material memory: there is none, at least not at first. As I travel over the brand new, procedurally generated landscape of a world I discovered in No Man’s Sky, I note that the planet is perceived to be billions of years old, but has in reality only existed for a few seconds upon my arrival. Walking the new landscape of this new-old world, I discover a building of indeterminate age. That building is also brand new. It has/exhibits no material memory. I actually create that material memory be observing the building for the first time. I can use the building for geolocation. The next time I see the building, I will remember it. I know its age because it appeared as soon as a saw it, which when you think about it, is an utterly bizarre statement. Would it have appeared if I hadn’t seen it? Probably not, based on the PCG algorithms in play that are tied to player-agency. In a game such as NMS, I make the landscape by observing the landscape. I make the building by observing the building. I remember the building because I made the building (with the unconscious help of an algorithm). I wonder then if this is what happens with new architecture, that material memory has as a starting point that can be traced back in time. The landscape remembers the footprint of a structure, of a site.

As we finished our coffees, Gísli and I talked about player-memory in MMOs, specifically World of Warcraft, which we both played fanatically, and then quit for various reasons (which is another story). We wondered if WoW remembered us. Likely not. As many years as we invested in that game-world and in our toons (avatars), we left not a trace on our respective servers. Nothing we crafted remains in those worlds. We built no monuments. The world persists hosting millions of other players, but not us. We are small things, forgotten. Our toons might have even been scrubbed from the servers by Blizzard Entertainment based on our inactivity and cancellation of recurring billing. I don’t even have any screenshots of my toons, and the memory of my main’s (a Tauren hunter) undistinguished career in the Mythos guild on the Feathermoon realm could not be recalled by any from 10 years ago. Philabovis is gone without a trace.

I remember when I hit the level cap of 80, I celebrated by returning to Bloodhoof Village where I began my adventures in WoW. I wanted to see the village Elders, to listen to the ambient sounds. The NPCs failed to recognize me as the prodigal son returned home. I was without place, not even remembered by ones I’d considered family so long ago, digitally homeless and alone in a world of millions. Just like everyone else.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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