Valenwood, home of the Bosmer (wood elves) in Elder Scrolls Online

I recently met with Prof. Joshua Kirshner who teaches at the University of York and studies human geography. The purpose of my meeting was to see if there was anything I could learn from his experience with city planning and also with natural resource management that could be applied to understand human (and non-human) cultural activity in synthetic worlds. Before we get too far, let’s think about heritage and place.

We learn from Graham, Ashworth, and Tunbridge (A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture & Economy, p. 4), that heritage is inherently a spatial phenomenon. Looking at heritage geographically then, heritage belongs to someone in any given location, and is inseparable from people at that location, even if constructed from non-human elements. Also, as the authors remind us, not all heritage is bound to specific places and can be moved across space. Lastly, heritage is scalable, meaning that places can have heritage at local, regional, national, continental, and international levels, and a particular heritage artifact can function at a variety of scales. “Geography is concerned with the ways in which the past is remembered and represented in both formal or official senses and within popular forms, and the implications which these have for the present and for ideas and constructs of belonging” (p. 4).

Before heritage, however, comes initial settlement, be it for the very first time within a landscape, or for the first time for a particular group of people be they immigrants, refugees, or conquerors. The decision by people to occupy a space can be considered to be “human geography.” Mark Boyle in A Concise Introduction to Human Geography states that “the mission of Human Geography is to describe and explain how and why human beings locate themselves and their activities unevenly over the earth’s surface, create distinctive places, generate various kinds of ecological footprints, connect places into webs and networks, and invent regions of various scales” (p. 6).

From human geography comes cultural geography, a way of situation culture within a location, contributing to the affect of place and the material and intangible heritage within it, Boyle reports (p. 139) that according to the Berkeley School, cultures are best thought of as superorganic entities:

  • Cultures are guided by their own internal laws and workings and beyond the control of any particular individual or social group; people are passive bearers of culture, not creators of culture;
  • Cultures are homogeneous groupings; everyone belonging to a culture shares a common world view, has a similar set of traits, and conforms to a singular set of values;
  • Cultures are causal agents in their own right, working to make the world alongside social, political, and economic processes.

“Cultures have a life of their own. They are born, grow, live, and die according to their own lifecycle. Human geographers should not try to explain this lifecycle. Instead, working alongside anthropologists and archaeologists, they should simply attempt to map traces of culture on the earth’s surface – their material deposits and etchings onto the landscape” (Boyle, p. 139).



So what does all of the above mean for synthetic worlds, specifically open worlds in video games? These games are populated by actual human players, even if those players are interacting with the world through avatars/humonculi. Everything surrounding players in the game is built heritage. That knife you want to purchase from the auction house was not hand-knapped or forged by a smith underneath a mountain. That knife was created either through an algorithm or through outright design, given a randomly generated name and magical attributes, and possibly even lore to contribute to the understand of the fabricated heritage of that world. That knife was built, not crafted. And that knife isn’t even a knife. It is an assemblage of digital material imbued with a sense of knifey-ness, which is governed by rules that have also been designed. The exact thing could be said of any building in any game: it was built digitally from other digital resources imparted with certain restrictions and attributes, and then invested with heritage (or a sense of antiquity or cultural purpose), then placed somewhere in the world that makes sense.


When we consider game design, two things happen. First, the game’s developers need to determine the rules of the world’s creation, in effect determining how society will function in the created space. Edward Castronova talks about this at length in Synthetic Worlds. The landscape is constructed. Artists work with the developers to create a sense of lore, of heritage, and of cultural cohesion sometimes from scratch, and other times based on actual Earth history. They build a city. They build a marketplace within it. They add a sacred space. They add houses and streets giving quest-givers a reason to be there, to employ the player by assigning tasks, and to give the place a sense of familiarity for when players return for additional tasks, or to socialize with other players.

In some games, however (I’m looking at you, first-person-shooters), items (cultural or otherwise) appear almost at random, or with no explanation. This happens so often that there is a suspension of disbelief by players. Freya Fenton mentioned this in her recent talk on Tomb Raider in the archaeogaming session at EAA Maastricht: “of COURSE there’s a shotgun upgrade in this sarcophagus.” In games such as Half-Life or Elder Scrolls players continually break open crates or smash pottery in order to get goodies inside. Why are there health kits in some crates when the crates are not anywhere near a hospital? Why are there crates at all in a given location? The location of these artifacts in these spaces can make little sense, but they do contribute to the greater culture of game-play to such an extent that players expect to find things in places where they don’t belong. They expect to smash crates to get to these things. It’s part of how we play games, and meets our modern expectations. It has also become part of player-heritage and lore, where we wax nostalgic about all those crates we had to break with our crowbar in Half-Life. And by the way, what was that crowbar doing in Black Mesa Labs now that you mention it?

I’m willing to bet that not many professional game developers have a background in city planning, geography, anthropology, archaeology, sociology. Maybe some do. But they know how to construct a narrative. They know how to engage with a player through the creation of space. They know how to create a sense of affect (a feeling or sense) of place through ambient light and sound, by working with artists on textures, on mood. They know that cultures present themselves through outward signs and symbols, through clothing, jewelry, color, shape, designs, language, ritual, and that those shared personal affects tie in to the place they inhabit when players first encounter these NPCs (or players playing as representatives of different cultures), whether they are in the place of that culture’s origin, or are encountering someone on the road to somewhere else.  Whether they know it or not, the game developers are following Boyle’s above three points to identifying culture. Players inherently understand that cultural differentiation.

Game developers simultaneously situate synthetic cultural heritage into digital landscapes. The land and player-races are built side-by-side. For example, in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Nords (a Scandinavian-like race) populate their home region of mountains and snow, while the Bosmer (wood elves) inhabit the forested region of Valenwood. Over the course of game play, these cultures can intersect, trade, fight, but they originate within the landscapes made for them. One can almost hear the dialogue in the office: “we need some wood elves. Where do we put them to start off with?” “I dunno. How about a FOREST?” Although it could be the other way around, with the landscape built first, followed by indigenous and visiting populations of digital people.

This also leads to the consideration of natural resources distributed throughout open world games. Where do we find wood? Stone? Herbs? Do the developers (and their algorithms) pay attention to where to site settlements based on these resources that can be region-specific, or are the towns built, the surrounding wilderness populated with random resources for players to discover? It could differ between games, and I need to conduct additional research on how developers create the worlds we inhabit. And when we inhabit these worlds, do we make human decisions as to where to congregate in cities, following our own desires, or do we fulfill the expectations of the designer who projected correctly exactly where we would go to be social or to conduct business?

A final word on synthetic culture (for now). Human players have the option in many games to choose the race they want to play. Some players will consciously role-play, behaving in the world just like their fabricated race would (or that they imagine they would). Other players choose a race based on stats, that it to say strength, dexterity, health, magic, etc. It matters not if the race is a lizard-person; the starting stats are great and would encourage survival in the early stages of a game. Even though we occupy a shell representing another culture, a player can behave however the player chooses. This plays with the very notion of culture, that we can be a part of a manufactured world-view with manufactured traditions, yet choose to completely ignore that aspect and play as one normally does, spawn-camping from the shadows, ninja-ing loot from a successful raid, or fighting other players from the same culture as you, just for fun. If the rules of the game-world allow it, then it is possible, and players will take advantage of the rules to play however they like.

The fact remains, however, that culture and heritage, even though they are digital constructs, are purpose-built to give a sense of life, history, and diversity to the synthetic world, and will remain long after players have abandoned the game for something else, some new shining city on a hill, an exodus of player-culture from one place to the next, abandoning the previous world for the promise of a new Valhalla.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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