PhD Case Study: Skyrim VR and Archaeology

vr

Image: IGN.com

My three case studies for my PhD at the University of York were recently approved by my committee, and while one of the three (No Man’s Sky) is under review by the Archaeology department’s Ethics Committee, I have been granted permission to begin my case study using Skyrim VR. Thanks again to the University of York’s Department of Archaeology for the micro-grant to purchase the PS4 VR headset rig, which I am using for this case study.

I began playing this weekend (the game was released on 17 November 2017) in order to learn the controls and to begin to experience the world of Tamriel in its VR glory. I am training myself to not vomit during sessions, and am also leveling my avatar (a Breton named Yorkio…) to a suitable level so he doesn’t die while conducting archaeological investigation in this VR environment.

Below is what I will be doing for the next three months for the PhD. As always, questions and criticism are welcome.

Introduction

In 2011, Bethesda Softworks released the fifth title in its wildly successful Elder Scrolls series of open world fantasy role-playing games: Skyrim. Set in the snowbound northern reaches of the continent of Tamriel, Skyrim features art, architecture, crafts, books, and even recipes modeled after the Vikings. The game includes archaeological ruins as well as its own archaeologists with whom players can interact. On November 17, 2017, Skyrim will be released as a 100% virtual reality game, making use of the Sony VR headset and controllers, rebuilding the Viking world from the ground up, turning the adventure from 2D into fully immersive 3D. This marks the first time a popular 2D game has been redone completely for the 3D VR experience, fully immersing players in a Norse-like landscape where they can explore the interiors of stavkirches, houses, markets, and other buildings, created via either laser-scanning or photogrammetry. I have played the original game for over 200 hours, and am interested in starting over with the VR edition to see how the landscape and archaeology of the world has changed, and has been reimagined. York funded my purchase of the Sony VR headset, and I am eager to use it within this archaeological context.

Unlike the first case study with No Man’s Sky, this case study features a 100% designed world without procedural generation, that is made for single players only. There is no multi-player or community option. By playing Skyrim VR, I am curious to explore the concepts of psychogeography of a reimagined synthetic world, as well as phenomenology of born-digital things and their interpretation, use, and context in digital spaces. These are observations that cannot be obtained through exploring the games in Case Studies 1 and 3. The goal of all three case studies is to demonstrate the variety of archaeological questions that can be asked of disparate digital built environments and the tools and methods available to help answer them.

Research Questions (low-hanging fruit)

  1. What is the level of detail that can be observed by a player wearing a modern VR headset when exploring a world created largely from photogrammetry? Can anything archaeologically meaningful be garnered through close-up/macro observation, and what might that mean for archaeologists wishing to share their own VR visualizations of their projects with colleagues who could conceivably work on sites remotely via VR hardware?
  2. How has the world of Skyrim changed between the original 2D edition and the VR version of the game? That is to say, has the VR version of the world merely transposed the 2D original into a 3D, 360-degree VR model, or are there differences between the two versions? Can the concept of psychogeography be suitably explored in a VR environment, specifically related to the differences between the 2D and 3D renderings of the same world?
  3. How can archaeologists address the issue of “embodiment” when exploring a landscape (and structures within the landscape) as mediated through VR? I define embodiment as human occupation of a digital homunculus that includes haptic feedback.
  4. What archaeological data can VR communicate to the user that goes beyond mere spectacle of immersive 3D environments?
  5. Does the use of VR create new ways of seeing things archaeologically?

Research Questions (“higher-order” questions)

  1. How can the lessons learned of playing a photorealistic, history-based game such as Skyrim in VR be applied to archaeological projects that want to use VR for site visualization and tourism?
  2. Does the complexity of VR create opportunities for glitches and other anomalous behavior that can be investigated archaeologically?
  3. How do VR worlds handle the idea of phenomenology, either subverting it or redefining it within the context of born-digital spaces?
  4. How does the VR realization of a Viking-informed, designed digital world compare with modern realizations of similar spaces and things in places such as the Jorvik Viking Centre? What can archaeologists learn from these two methods of reconstructing cultures?
  5. Is it possible to conduct in-game photogrammetry of digital things/artifacts in the VR space and then produce actual 3D-printed reproductions of them?

Archaeological Activities

I plan on engaging in the following activities within various areas and environments in Skyrim VR:

Photogrammetry: Creating 3D-scanned and printed artifacts has become commonplace in archaeological practice. I would like to attempt to do the same with artifacts discovered in born-digital VR environments utilizing the Sony PlayStation 4’s photo and video tools and 3D-visualization platforms such as Sketchfab and/or Blender. Is it possible to create a printable 3D artifact from a digital-only space? Secondary to this, I would like to attempt to record and share my VR experiences/site tours from within Skyrim as recorded, stereoscopic video that can be seen on inexpensive viewers such as Google Cardboard. The benefit here is to create something for public outreach for those people who do not have a way to access the synthetic VR environment themselves in real-time because of limited access to hardware or software. Lessons learned here should be scalable to VR representations of sites in the natural world.

Glitch-Artifacts: In the likelihood that I discover VR-induced glitches in the game, I will photograph and video their appearance, documenting when and where they appear, and in the context of my actions as an agent within the synthetic world (and in which version of the game, as glitches are patched quickly by the game developer). I will compare my discoveries with those of other players, especially in looking for reproducible glitches.

VR Reception and Reconstruction of Material Culture: Contemporary archaeology now includes digital (often 3D) reconstruction of artifacts and buildings. The same is true of game-design, especially those games (such as Skyrim) that base their fantasy material culture on that of the natural world (in this case Vikings). How does a game like Skyrim VR recreate immersive 3D spaces, and how does that compare against similar reconstructions and interpretations of actual Viking material remains both digitally and in a museum setting. During one of my 2018 trips to York, I plan on visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre to help me answer this question, and I also plan on speaking with York archaeology alumni (such as Hannah Rice) on how they went about creating 3D digital reconstructions of ancient and medieval structures. If possible, I will attempt to contact Skyrim’s digital artists to ask similar questions, and will touch base with Emily Johnson (MA at York) to see if her research on Skyrim (2011) addressed this issue. I am curious about accuracy v. authenticity in reconstruction, something Tara Copplestone has considered in her work.

Psychogeography of VR Spaces: I am curious to learn how Skyrim references itself between the 2011 original and 2017 VR recreation, and if certain elements of the original poke through into the VR edition as a kind of psychogeography of a synthetic world. I will be able to refer between the two editions, and will select 2–3 discrete areas for comparison and contrast. Open world games such as Skyrim also allow great freedom in navigating massive landscapes, and I want to explore how I travel between locations, creating my own desire lines. How does the landscape affect my mobility and decision-making as a resident in the synthetic space, and is that reflected in the established/programmed paths of non-player characters (NPCs)? What can the archaeology of the presumed ancient in a game tell me as I occupy more recent spaces that happen to contain in-game archaeologies? Evidence will be recorded through screenshots and in-game video, supplemented by journaling.

VR Phenomenology: How do archaeologists understand the concept of “things” in synthetic worlds? In Skyrim, a bowl is composed of the same material as a sword (pixels), but have different “code DNA” separating form and function. These things work in a digital space because of the real-world baggage they carry because of shape and context of use. A bowl is a bowl, but is also an assemblage of pixels, and is also part of an assemblage forged between the player and the game environment. With digital things, the concept of phenomenology takes an unexpected turn relying more on context and its presence within a larger assemblage of disparate, heterogeneous parts. I will document several examples of things recognizable in the natural world, as well as things unique to the game and how I interact with them as object-actors, and what additional data VR grants to these things and their in-game interpretation and use.

Outreach

My goal is to share my progress with the public as well as with archaeologists on my blog, on Twitter, and through live-steaming gameplay as I experience Skyrim VR from an archaeological perspective. With outreach in digital archaeology, it’s important to share with one’s peers and colleagues as well as with the public at large.

Publication

I would like to publish (as Open Access) my final report in a peer-reviewed archaeology journal, likely either Advances in Archaeological Practice or Computer Applications in Archaeology. I hope to be able to showcase the new archaeology of synthetic worlds as viable in virtual reality while also explaining the lessons learned through conducting archaeological investigation in VR and how that can apply to projects hoping to leverage VR for scientific inquiry and/or for public outreach.

Time to Completion

I forecast that it will take three months to satisfactorily answer the proposed research questions and write up the final “site report.”

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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