Ethnoarchaeology in No Man’s Sky

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Portal, Hova’s Hidden Paradise, with communications stations and monument, 7 Oct. 2017

Ethnoarchaeology is “the study of the social organization and other ethnological features of present-day societies on the basis of their material culture, in order to draw conclusions about past societies from their material remains” (oxforddictionaries.com, Oxford University Press). Conducting archaeological investigation in No Man’s Sky then is largely ethnoarchaeology. The game dates to 2016, and the game’s population of human players is, at this writing, just over one year old. One of the goals of the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) is to discover and observe how human players interact with a procedurally generated universe, what they decide to build for themselves, where, and why.

On the evening of 7 October 2017 I was invited by player KingJamesHova, with whom I had toured the ruins of the Bez-Harr Embassy a few days earlier, to attend a “portal party” starting at 2030 Eastern Time. As I would learn, a portal party is when a group of NMS players converge on a portal of a world in order to construct and leave communications stations, elements of material culture containing messages for other players to find and read. When viewed ethnographically, we’re looking at a ritual performed by a group of people unique to the culture of this particular video game. Possibly the biggest portal party was the one held on the Legacy Hub’s capital planet of Lennon (Drogradur) prior to departing for the new Galactic Hub.

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Communications stations placed by KingJamesHova and VanCorc, 7 Oct. 2017

I was the fourth person to arrive on Hova’s Hidden Paradise, in the Gladiosa system, Legacy Hub, Euclid galaxy, discovered by KingJamesHova on 7 Oct. 2017. Player Miken187 had already come and gone, but I was able to tour the area around the portal with players KingJamesHova and VanCorc. The image above shows VanCorc reading the two communications stations placed on a hill to the north of the portal.

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Monument placed by NMS-Archaeology and VanCorc, 7 Oct. 2017

VanCorc and I created a monument to our meeting on this planet. Only one monument is available per planet, so this is a special honor. This was the first time KingJamesHova had seen a monument created by two other players. Monuments are permanent features that can be visited by other players as spots of pilgrimage or commemoration.

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Locations of communications stations, Hova’s Hidden Paradise, 8 Oct. 2017

I stayed about twenty minutes before I had to leave, and five communications stations (aka “pods”) had been placed. I returned on the morning of 8 October 2017 to see if more pods had appeared, and three more had been left by other players, for a total of seven pods on this planet by the portal, and one left a short flight to the south. Below are images of each pod, which correspond to the numbered circles in the image above.

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Pod 1 placed by Miken187, @Oldbiker187 Paid a visit to Hova

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Pod 2, placed by epicdrwhofan, Epicdrwhofan wuz here

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Pod 3, placed by KingJamesHova, Hell of a view, huh?

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Pod 4, placed by VanCorc, Sure is. . .now where’s my camera?

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Pod 5, placed by JonTheCoconut, Now you two hold still

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Pod 6, placed by zachxcross, Ill [sic] be back with my ship

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Pod 7, placed by NMS-Archaeology, NMS Archaeology 7 Oct 2017

[Pod 8 placed ca. 30-minute walk south of the portal; not visited]

The video below shows the location of the first four communications stations placed around the portal at Hova’s Hidden Paradise before other pods and the monument were created.

Analysis

The seven pods were placed almost exclusively to the east of the portal along the ridge overlooking the valley below, the first area to catch the planet’s sunrise. Three of the seven pods at the portal (1, 2, 7) commemorated their visit. One pod (6) indicated that the player would return for further exploration. Three pods (3, 4, 5) formed a short dialogue regarding how photogenic the planet is. KingJamesHova placed the first pod remarking on the view, followed by VanCorc placing a pod agreeing. Player JonTheCoconut placed a third pod after I had left that asked for the two players to “hold still” for a summit picture. Here we have material-based communication in action. While the audio was live during the party, the pods contain the only material remains of the event. Only my pod (and the adjacent monument) contain the Earth-date for the pods’ placements.

Six of the seven pods observed were colored default orange. Players have the option to change the color of the items they create and place on the worlds they visit. Only VanCorc opted to place a green pod.

Six of the pods were placed around the ring surrounding the portal, with one pod (6) placed within the “temenos”, or space near the portal. Other portals I have visited start with pods placed around the ring surrounding the portals, typically on hills/peaks, gradually filling in the space inside the circle. This would indicate an initial reverence or respect for the portal and its power. I placed my pod on the ring to keep it away from the portal in deference to the arrival of future travelers whom I though should have an uncluttered view of the world they are visiting for the first time. This might indicate why all of the pods in the area were placed behind the portal’s exit. People arrive and then walk around to the back to see the view and leave their mark.

The communications stations are a kind of NMS graffiti, not unlike those marks left behind by 19th-century participants of the Grand Tour. As humans, we want to be remembered as, if not the first person to discover something, as just having visited at all. The graffiti left (so far) on Hova’s Hidden Paradise has been polite with a gentle humor. I’ll return every so often to see if more pods appear, where they are placed, and what they say.

These pods assist the archaeologist in understanding player culture in No Man’s Sky, a culture that remains open, inviting participation as well as study. This raises the ethical question of whether or not the archaeologist-ethnographer should participate in rituals like the one described here. In video games, the archaeologist is also a player.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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