Games as Hyperobjects, Manufactured Landscapes, and Archaeological Driftwood


Landscape from Spec Ops: The Line. Image: Dead End Thrills

Over the past few days (thanks to Peter Campbell) I have read about hyperobjects (Timothy Morton), manufactured/intentional landscapes (Edward Burtynsky), and archaeological drift (Þóra Pétursdóttir, Bjørnar Olsen), which have become an unexpected potent cocktail bordering on the psychotropic as I consider how each theory in turn (and taken together) affects video game archaeology and how we understand synthetic space. Take that bite of mushroom and follow me as I first introduce each of the three theories, and then attempt to tie them all together as they relate to digital environments.


Climate change as hyperobject. Image: Public domain


Timothy Morton published Hyperobjects in 2013, which describes these things as spatially and temporally massive, dwarfing the human scale, and affecting people whether they realize it or not, whether they consent to it or not. The major example he gives is global warming (a term he prefers over “climate change”), something that is present in our lives all day every day with direct and indirect impacts on every single thing we do. The global market/economy is a hyperobject. Landscapes are hyperobjects. The atomic bomb is a hyperobject. Morton’s theory states that these things can be as big as the universe and operate in Deep Time, things a human being cannot comprehend through direct observation. We can only see parts of a hyperobject at any given time in any given place, drawing connections with quantum mechanics and how the strange physics of subatomic particles interact with the social milieu of the Anthropocene (see Karen Barad’s work on this). Hyperobjects add a top-level layer to object-oriented ontology (OOO), but this layer is porous, viscous, changing as these massive objects intersect with each other to create superclimates not just of weather, but also of behavior.

So what do hyperobjects mean for the archaeologist, and for archaeology generally? I see archaeology as the study of things, how they interact, and how they are interacted with by human and non-human agents. Morton makes it clear that hyperobjects are things, although they are not so easy to grasp as nouns you can hold in your hand. Because of the spatial and temporal scale of hyperobjects, they must be observed and recorded indirectly. As it happens, all archaeology studies hyperobjects, or rather the residues of hyperobjects. Archaeologists look at things through the lens of the hyperobjects in which they were produced and are embedded.

First, our things will outlive each of us personally. Second, the sheer quantity of manufactured things will survive the human race and likely all living things. What the archaeologist sees then in the archaeological record is the deposition of things left behind by a slowly creeping glacier that thaws under the attention of pick and shovel. In nature, receding glaciers deposit car-sized boulders in fields. In archaeology, sites and artifacts are also deposited with cities growing up around them, turning these into anachronistic curiosities, the ancient amongst the modern (see Kenny Brophy’s work on this). These sites and artifacts are residues deposited by one or more hyperobjects that not only operated in the past, but continue to operate long after ancient civilizations crumble. The effects of human-induced climate change will outlive us all as the planet attempts to absorb pollutants into the very rocks over hundreds of thousands of years.

Hyperobjects are things I would like to call “active-artifacts.” Active-artifacts are of the past, present, and future all at the same time. It’s not that a thing persists through time, but that it is an active persistence that continues to affect the world. Examples of this include e-waste landfills, industrial emissions, etc. Active-artifacts were created in either the distant or recent past, persist into the present, and will continue to affect the future. These artifacts are not passive—they’re not just sitting around buried and waiting to be reactivated as Josh Reno suggests. My thinking has changed on this. These artifacts continue to change and affect change over very long periods of time. Hyperobjects—active-artifacts—are the Ents of archaeology, operating at a much slower rate of change when compared to the hyperactivity of people. They are not in suspended animation, awaiting discovery by the archaeologist, which is an anthropocentric way of looking at things. Instead they exist on their own, acting and being acted upon by non-human forces, occasionally intersecting with human intervention.

So what do hyperobjects have to do with video games? Everything. First, one must consider hyperobjects from the player-perspective. Everything I do in a video game is permitted by the game’s code. The code is itself a hyperobject. I can’t escape it as a player. Even if I try to exploit a bug or glitch, that is still code-related. The code is an environment, and it creates the environment in which I play. I suppose it is a macro-artifact, a thing in and of itself, a created set of natural laws under which I operate as a player.

One could also consider a game itself to be a hyperobject, especially when it is a blockbuster release where one’s field of vision is filled with promotional materials both online and also out in the world. For the past month I have been unable to escape Red Dead Redemption 2. It is everywhere, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Hyperobjects, however, also affect video game creation and gameplay externally. To understand that, we must turn to landscapes, which are hyperobjects themselves.


Coal facility in China. Image: Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes.

Manufactured/Intentional Landscapes

Morton’s work on hyperobjects prompted me to find the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky whose 2006 book and documentary Manufactured Landscapes reveals a world that is both built and deconstructed by people and introduced into the planet on a massive scale. His 2018 book and film, Anthropocene, continues that work with stunning, gorgeous images of factories, mines, and trash, and how humanity continues to make its own landscapes out of its industrial creation and waste. Landscapes, manufactured or otherwise, are hyperobjects because they persist through geological epochs of time and dwarf individual humans with their scale.

With Burtynsky, a giant factory in China is a manufactured landscape. It takes up square kilometers of space and affects thousands of workers and tens of thousands of people associated with those workers, which include families but also those involved in the local economy providing goods and services to the workers and to the factory itself. In Manufactured Landscapes, a massive dam in China is also a hyperobject taking decades to construct, being over two miles long, and damming a river to prevent future flooding affecting millions of people. The dam’s construction, however, displaced nearly one million residents in the area to be intentionally flooded, as this metal landscape was built.

When one sees landscape in the wilderness, it is natural and artless, affected by climate and other environmental factors. The landscape changes when acted upon, but the action is unconscious and unplanned. Of course wildlife show purpose when foraging for food, but is perhaps unconscious that over-foraging in an area might lead to erosion, which affects change on the landscape.

Construction sites, however, are intentional landscapes. Earth-moving equipment and requirements of the builders and of the clients affect natural landscapes (but also other, earlier built landscapes), and this construction is planned, meeting and changing the landscape by design either in harmony with, or against that landscape. We make our own mountains; our suburbs are forests of houses. The landscape changed because of direct human intervention.

When considering digital spaces (e.g., video games), these are also manufactured, intentional landscapes. They are built environments. The landscapes of games are completely manufactured either by people directly or by automated procedures indirectly (think of robots in a factory or recycled procedures/loops of code). Digital games are created from “nothing.” Their landscapes are not derived from an already existing landscape, but are created fresh. Updates and expansions and sequels could be considered as manufactured landscapes also because they impose themselves upon existing structures and manipulate them into something new.


The intersection of game development and production contributes to the creation of manufactured landscapes in the natural world because they are made, and the act of making, especially on a large scale) impacts the natural world:

Game development affects human, social, and environmental landscapes, and should require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to the launch of a game’s development cycle. How will this game-development impact the environment? (It’s not a question of “if” but rather of “how much.”)

In-house, gamedev requires the retirement of old hardware and software in favor of the newest technologies. This means the creation of e-waste both in the recycling or other disposal of old technology as well as the e-waste generated by the creation of the new technology purchased by the game studio.

Second, during crunch (the end of the development cycle immediately prior to publication/distribution), games require exponentially larger quantities of electricity for machines as well as water, food, etc., for workers, causing an unexpected stress on local environments. This spike in resource-demand and consumption also affects the wider environment, introducing stress to an already overburdened system of water and power. The human cost of “crunch” itself impacts the environment and contributes to the larger environment of the corporate culture for that studio, and will occasionally spill into the wider world, which is what happened with Rockstar Games and Red Dead Redemption 2. This microclimate of game-development then impacts the larger climate of technology companies, worker relations, and project-planning as well as the market itself with players deciding whether or not to spend US$60 on the game, or by not buying it to protest working conditions.

Stepping outside of the development studio, when new AAA games are released, this often boosts the disposal of old consoles and other gaming hardware, inspires the production and purchase of new consumer hardware (consoles, displays, and peripherals), which creates stress on landfills as well as on the planet, which must provide additional natural resources for hardware-production.

The game—any game—sits at the center of a massive web of production, consumption, and waste, a monument of human creativity and labor fed by natural resources, impacting the natural landscape in the pursuit of creating a synthetic one. These digital monuments are built in anticipation of demand, not necessarily because of it, and their construction still impacts the planet with both human and environmental cost even if the majority of new games are downloaded instead of being produced, distributed, and consumed on physical media.

Our entertainment impacts natural landscapes. We can revisit the “Atari Burial Ground” in Alamagordo, New Mexico, to make this point clear. Overproducing game cartridges led to the creation of Atari e-waste, which in turn created a purpose-dug landfill cell, later filled in, then rediscovered based on photogrammetry of the New Mexican landscape, then re-excavated, and then reburied the e-waste, which will not be re-excavated and will continue to seep into the desert biome. Mountains of e-waste in China, Ghana, and elsewhere continue to grow into the horizon like new islands in the Ring of Fire.


Assemblage at Eidsbukta, Finnmark, Norway. Image: Þóra Pétursdóttir, “Walking the Drift”

Archaeological Drift

As we continue to drill down into games-as-hyperobjects and games-as-intentional-landscapes, we find ourselves considering the concept of “archaeological drift” as proposed by Þóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen. Pétursdóttir’s fieldwork in the far north of Norway focuses on a driftwood beach at the intersection of two competing currents. The currents not only deposit driftwood, which for centuries has been collected by the locals for fuel, but also deposit a rich and varied assemblage of human-made/discarded detritus. If taken out of context and viewed on its own, this unintentional assemblage of ocean-borne trash would make little sense. Why are these things grouped together? What relationship(s) do they share? When viewed within the context as objects deposited by currents over time, the relationship is made clear in that they have a single major, shared feature in their collective history, but apart from that, it is just a random assortment of junk that tells the story of what people are throwing away, what kinds of objects might have perished in a storm thousands of miles away to end up on a Norwegian beach above the Arctic Circle, and how our contemporary trash refuses to disintegrate even in the harsh cold and salty environment of a northern sea.

Pétursdóttir calls this “drift.” Seemingly random things come together over time, drifting into each other to mingle. The drift is unintentional; the currents are created from the forces of land- and seascape and gravity, pushing anything that floats into a catchbasin. Pétursdóttir and Olsen apply “drift” to archaeological theory, and see different theories as floating around, bumping into each other, and evolving. Theory can also be a hyperobject.

When considering “drift” for an archaeology of the digital, one can look at the materials used for the creation of the digital, everything from silicon to rare earth metals, from plastics and paper and inks to copper-wiring to glass to petroleum products, from every material used to make a DVD to the cardboard used in the boxes containing the DVDs in their own plastic boxes to the box-trucks carrying the cartons to warehouses to the containers on the ships to the ships themselves. The riveter in the shipyard likely has no idea that the single rivet just placed will ultimately impact the gaming experience I have. The same applies to the person who designed the machine to produce that rivet. And as a consumer, I have only just started to think about the incredible amount of human labor needed to create the game I play. These disparate materials are created and then drift into each other in fabulously complex ways to create curated experiences by way of manufacturing, leaving behind a trail of materials and things that all contribute to the archaeological record of the Anthropocene, or what Donna Haraway calls the “Cthulhucene.”

We have created intentional landscapes of manufactured material leading to synthetic environments impacting the natural world, all within the sticky, amoral umbrella of the hyperobjects of capitalism, of consumer culture.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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