I’d been thinking about returning to Second Life for a while, and at the suggestion of fellow Punk Archaeologist Bill Caraher, actually did it (and blogged about it) yesterday. I was curious to see how things had changed in the Metaverse since I last logged in in 2015. I was shocked. And now I want to go back for an extended look. In April, before the Society for American Archaeology (SAA, #saa2015) conference in San Francisco, I’ll be teaming up with four other archaeologists to explore what has become of Second Life‘s Mainland. At this stage, it’s a matter of planning teleport locations (really) so we can maximize our time on the ground. In playing with time and geography between this world and the virtual one, it’s a bit like Interstellar, and I’m curious to see where we end up, and if we have chosen our locations wisely.
So what do I hope to find? (I’ll let the others on the team articulate their desires and questions once the group is locked in.) I’d like to see if the Mainland is abandoned. If it is, what has happened to the plots and sims? Have they decayed or atrophied? Have they been tagged with graffiti and advertisements, or left alone in pristine condition? Or perhaps they have been repurposed into something completely unintended by the original builders? And if the sims/plots we visit have not been abandoned, who is using these and to what purpose? Are these the same builders and residents from five years ago, or has the torch been passed to another generation of makers and users? For some of the sims (such as Roma SPQR that I visited yesterday), how does the current state of use and construction differ what I can remember from 2010? How permanent is that memory, and how accurate? Can we find images from five years ago from other sims we explore, and match the topography five years on?
I’ll begin to identify plots in Second Life for us to explore — hopefully a mix of ancient and modern sims, popular ones from the Old World when Second Life was new. I want to visit old, in-world excavations, and previous reconstructions that builders imported from Maya 3D. I want to find and talk to current Lindens to ask them about how they use the space now, and how (or if) that usage is different from earlier. Is there now sprawl, or was plot-planning deliberate? My colleagues on the expedition will come with other questions, too, and I look forward to sharing our experiences here and elsewhere. Watch this space for names, date(s), and time(s). -Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming
In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson, the eponymous hero returns to The Land, an alternate world to Earth, where time passes much more quickly. An absence of a year on Earth might equate to centuries gone in The Land. And so it has been with the virtual world of Second Life. For those readers who are unaware of Second Life, this is a pre-Minecraft virtual, open space where “players” can tour public plots of land or maintain private islands. I put “players” in quotes because Second Life isn’t really a game, but is instead a Utopian sandbox where anyone can create anything from clothing to architecture to the wildly fantastical. As might be predicted, avatars created places in-world that mirrored the real, and this included reconstructions of ancient monuments and reimaginings of ancient cities.
I first used Second Life as a home for a Latin-language villa in the Roma SPQR sim when I was the Director of eLearning for Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, publisher of pedagogic materials for teachers and students of Latin and Greek. I wanted to build a virtual space accessible by anyone in the world who wanted to come and role-play in Latin within the context of a Roman virtual space. In 2008, five speakers from the U.S., England, and Sweden converged to have the first oral Latin conversation in Second Life using Ventrilo, voice software, as a proof-of-concept. The villa was active from 2008 until 2010 when I left for another position at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Five years have passed since I last logged in to Second Life, and now that I am interested in archaeogaming, I wanted to return to the virtual world to see what had changed. Was Second Life even being used anymore, and by whom? What was the in-world culture like now? Were the sims and plots that I used to frequent still there, and if so, how had they changed, or had they just been abandoned? On a whim this morning, I created a new avatar, Archaeogaming, and logged in with my underclocked PC. I immediately felt at home, graphics glitches and all.
After I composed myself, I walked to what used to be called “Orientation Island”, surrounded by about a dozen n00bs. As there is no need to buy anything or to level up in Second Life in order to explore, I called up the World Map, ran a query for “Delphi”, and then teleported there. I did not expect to arrive amidst a one-person fishing derby and a row of beach cabanas littered with advertising. There was nothing ancient here.
I then decided to teleport to Roma SPQR. In 2010, the sim was both public and private, with the public area set for spectacle including an arena for gladiatorial combat, a Macellum for shopping for Roman-themed goods, a triumphal arch, a dedicatory column like that of Trajan, a Senate House, and farther on, the reconstructed port of Ostia. The private space (which guests could walk around in) is teh Subura, the suburbs, which contained private, locked villas and gardens, plus small shrines. Although the space blended elements of the Roman Republic and Empire, the space still had an airy, getting-there feel to it, although much better crafted than all other ancient-themed sims I’d been to when looking for a home for the Latin House. When I arrived in SQPR Roma five years later, I was shocked to feel as if I’d left Rome in the first century B.C. (in 2010) and teleported into the fourth century A.D. (2015). Instead of abandonment and entropy, the sim had grown with obvious urban planning and extraordinary care. And there were people present. I was in for several surprises.
The first person I met was tagged as a “Virtual Historian”, a citizen of the sim, who seemed to be hanging about on the chance someone stopped by and wanted a tour. He was polite and was also impressed that I had come back home after being away for so long. Claudius was in real life an archaeology post-graduate in Germany, and in Second Life was both tour guide and keeper of lore and history of this sim. The fact that the sim has its own lore and history recorded in the real world was exciting to me. After a moment, Claudius was able to look up the location of my villa so we could visit the plot. He also wanted to show me the sim’s best reconstructions of ancient Roman buildings.
As we walked, we talked about other avatars I might have known. As luck would have it, Nina Tiberia was also present in-world. When I met her in 2010, she was plainly dressed, but after five years, she wore Imperial purple and had become a mother. She had helped me build the Latin villa, and she remembered me. We shared a mutual astonishment, and the emotion I felt at seeing long-lost friends in a space I had spent so much time in was overwhelming. Nina showed me where my villa used to be, which was now a small wheat field. When I left, Second Life removed the villa, and the plot is still available to build upon.
Nina is not an archaeologist, but is instead a designer also based in Germany. She is responsible for the textures of nearly every material used in the reconstructions. She and Claudius showed me to the baths, which she said were excavated near her real-world home.
Nina and other citizens of the sim went to great lengths to be as authentic as possible in their reconstruction of the baths. For the benefit of the public, signs were posted showing the floor plan of the baths, an aerial photo of the bath complex post-excavation, and additional signage and a note card for my inventory explaining the bath’s history.
As I walked, I remember how the street had been lined almost exclusively with villas and houses, but that now we were flanked with municipal buildings. I found myself wondering if the old foundations still remained under the reconstructions.
At the station house, I learned that the floor plan was really almost all of what had been preserved in the real world. The citizens consulted with German archaeologists in order to create a best-guess as to what the structure might have looked like in the second century A.D.
The reconstruction took months to build, as did the others. When I commented on how proud I was that the sim was better than when I had left it, and that they were to be commended on all of their hard work with recreating ancient structures from when the Romans were in Germany, they said, “we love this land.” We’re in a virtual space, but with so much time and labor poured into the work, and with a 7+ year history of building up Roma SPQR, I can understand why.
The sim is owned and managed by avatar Torin Golding, the Emperor, who has worked at Pompeii and at another Roman site in northern England near Durham. It is used for public and private events, and even in-world conferences, which are held in a purpose-built curia. I regretted having to leave, but know that I will certainly return again soon to continue to explore the new city, comparing it to what I remember about the old one. I was moved by the impromptu visit after having been away for so long, and it was a pleasure speaking to the citizens responsible for the upkeep of the sim. I call this the “Old World” of Second Life: the mature public lands, which are likely lost to many of the current users, yet for those who know where to look, they provide a glimpse into what the virtual world used to be, and in some lucky instances, still is.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming
As part of my world tour of Sweden in March 2015, I presented a 45-minute lecture at the University of Umeå, “You Call this Archaeology?” In the lecture, I explored how archaeologists and archaeology are received/perceived by video game developers and players. I didn’t have enough time to show the video clips, so I’ve created a list below. There are scores of others, but these will get you started. For those of you who are new to the Internet, click on an entry to play the video:
BONUS! Play these two archaeology games for free RIGHT NOW!
I attended the conference, Challenge the Past, Diversify the Future (#ctp2015), at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, from March 19-21, and presented my shortest-titled paper ever: “Archaeogaming”. The intent over the 30 minutes was to present a history of my thinking into this emerging subdiscipline of archaeology, and how my thinking has changed over time about the archaeology in (and of) video games. I have written about much of this theory here on the blog, but I wanted to focus on where my thinking has led me now. But first, a quick recap:
1. When I first thought about archaeogaming, I was mostly interested in the reception of archaeology and archaeologists by game developers and gamers, and to get the impression of other archaeologists on how they are portrayed in games. This really is the low-hanging fruit, but is valid to archaeology as we consider how to use our portrayal to create a dialogue with a gaming public.
2. I then thought about archaeology of video games, merging “dirt archaeology” with media archaeology to synthesize how we excavate and what we can learn from hardware, cartridges, and other game materials recovered in the real world. The case in point is of course the excavation of the Atari Burial Ground, but there are also other, newer examples of finding Gameboy material in the Midlands of the United Kingdom, or a Playstation controller in the woods behind my house. What do we learn about our media culture and history of use from these artifacts? In what context were they found?
3. I also thought of conducting archaeology within video games, and became curious as to what new methods and tools would need to be developed for this kind of science. This split into two parts, the first being actually surveying and possibly digging in alien worlds created by developers in either a static way (such as open world MMOs), or in a procedural way (using code to generate worlds and culture on the fly). That got me to thinking about what constitutes an artifact in a game, and what does it mean to treat the game itself as a relic?
Starting with the obvious, archaeologists who explore gaming environments are guilty of thinking like archaeologists. We perform this kind of role-play where we’re archaeologists who choose to play archaeologists, and explore the space to find artifacts, to examine and record these, and to consider their context, design, and function. Creating a pottery typology within Skyrim is a good example of this. Taken at this level, this study takes a look at how material culture translates into immaterial spaces. It can also serve as a kind of field school or training environment for new archaeologists, a virtual sim of actual practice.
To me, there is another, deeper level, and to reach that level, one needs to stop thinking like an archaeologist and instead consider the game from the outside looking in, perhaps as how a computer might see the game-world, where real-world physics has no bearing on the game’s code and appearance, where north and south and up and down make no difference. Going one step beyond that, one must consider the nature of a game artifact. In this case, it is not a dish or a sword at all. It is instead a glitch, perhaps in the software, or perhaps in the software as it relates to the hardware on which the game is played. Random lines on a screen, visual anomalies, and outright bugs all qualify as artifacts by this definition. And like real-world artifacts, these are found in discrete places and for a finite amount of time before they are either fixed or masked or removed by developers.
With this, we get into the realm of philosophy of the archaeology of video games as the gaming archaeologist considers what these artifacts tell us. Are we looking at human or machine error? Can we observe a game-world without considering the nature of its maker? Or by recording artifacts in games, can that tell us anything about the nature of creation based on the game’s design and flaws? Are these artifacts preserved, or are they just whitewashed over after being reported by the gaming community?
I don’t have answers as I continue to explore what archaeogaming is and what it can be, and of course all of the above begs the dreaded “so what?” comment/question. I would argue that the archaeology conducted within and upon video games can tell us much about humanity, but also about how machines interpret the instructions they are given to render playspaces. How can math create culture, or can it even? What happens to these cultural spaces in games over time, and is time accelerated therein? Does player interaction and observation interfere with how procedural gaming worlds evolve? I don’t know, but hope to begin to find out.
After I delivered the paper, I took questions from the audience, but was expecting criticism, skepticism, and doubt. I even waited to be taken aside afterwards and either dressed down or seriously questioned, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, people found me to give me suggestions for further study and research. One delegate said that there is an online museum full of artifacts from Diablo II that were only available in the game for a short period of time. Another delegate told me about an real-time event in Eve that disabled starships and left a graveyard for others to explore as a period of game history that bridges both the real and virtual worlds. This kind of blending is becoming more and more frequent, confusing the definition of what reality is.
NB: Archaeologists are a skeptical lot, and I continue to hope that one or more of my colleagues and peers will ask some really difficult questions and give some tough love to the concept of archaeology within video games. In fact, I invite all readers to ask questions in the Comments area for this post, so we can better define what archaeogaming is while attempting to prove its usefulness within the grand scheme of things.
Click here to download the slide deck for my presentation, which I am making available under the CC0 license. As I have said many times before, any idea that I have and mention in a public forum immediately ceases to become my idea and belongs to the world. Hopefully some of you will see a slide or will take away a thought that you can run with and explore better than I can. Take it; it’s yours. There’s certainly more than enough for us all to play with.
For a full reporting of the conference, read Tara Copplestone’s excellent write-up here. I would also like to thank Tara for pushing me to blog more on archaeogaming here, as she writes about the subject on her blog. The more we write and talk as a community, the better we can define and defend what it is we’re doing.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming
I sent the email below to Hello Games, developers of No Man’s Sky, to see about forming a xenoarchaeological team to document the material culture in the game (should there happen to be any). Let’s see what they say! If you don’t know about No Man’s Sky, it is a “procedural” (read “infinite”) game of space exploration where literally billions of truly unique worlds and life-forms are created by algorithms. Don’t take my word for it, though; visit the site!
I’ve been looking at archaeogaming all wrong since 2013. Well, okay, maybe not all wrong, but today something clicked in my tiny little Pooh-sized brain. Until today, I thought that archaeogaming had three — possibly four — dimensions to it, from which descended various tendrils of possible study:
1) Archaeogaming is the study of the archaeology of video games. This is the media archaeology approach where we look at a game as the artifact. We look at the box, the manuals, the disks/cartridges. We explore its history of use on a personal level as well as at its commercial level and everywhere in between. The Atari excavation in 2013 took this idea to the most literal of extremes. From this concept, we can now study hardware and software and how they combine for gameplay. We can compare the use of gaming on physical media to downloading our content from places such as Steam. We can explore modding communities and how games change through ownership. We can explore how games change within a series, and how they affect other games in a long tradition of flattery and theft.
2) Archaeogaming is the study of archaeology in video games. This is the reception studies approach where we see how games, game developers, and gamers perceive what archaeologists are and what they do. We can explore the phenomenon of looting. We can see how games let players conduct archaeology. We can examine the tropes of popularized archaeology and how they contribute to the gameplay experience.
3) Archaeogaming is the application of archaeological methods to conducting archaeology in virtual space. This is where we do our in-game fieldwalking, our artifact-collecting, our typologies, our understanding of context, even aerial/satellite photography. Instead of studying the material culture (and non-tangible heritage) of cultures and civilizations that exist in “meatspace”, we instead study those in the immaterial world.
4) Archaeogaming is the approach to understanding how game design — done either by people directly or indirectly through the virtue of artificial intelligence and algorithms written by people — manifests everything we see in-world.
And the — dare I say — 5th dimension/element of archaeogaming? It is the entire game itself, one level deeper than actual gameplay. To explain further: many archaeologists are focused with what is under them. We dig or we dive. Gravity has drawn our collective past meters and kilometers below the surface for us to find. In a video game, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing dirt archaeology. Our avatars/toons/characters walk around. In most cases there is gravity to reckon with. Normal physics applies. Even in space games, we (as humans) learn how to orient ourselves, and immerse ourselves in these play-spaces.
What we need to do is to remove ourselves from working in a virtual space where we deal with up and down and with cardinal directions. We should go even further to suggest that there is no difference between earth and sky, that the horizon line is artificial, and that the ship we pilot is no different from the sea on which it sails. It’s all pixels and math. And when archaeogamers are able to bring themselves to this “there is no spoon” moment, I am curious to see what patterns emerge within the structure and execution of the game itself. Are there flaws (i.e., hickeys in Photoshop images are called “artifacts”)? Can we recognize the maker’s hand? And what else is at work? We have the space we can see and in which we interact, and behind that we have the dark matter of code. Behind that, the creators, or the idea of them.
When video games are taken in this perspective, as multi-sensory collections of interactive math, what deeper meaning(s) can the video game archaeologist infer? It is perhaps a new kind of archaeology in and of itself, requiring new methods and a new set of tools. This perception does not invalidate the other interpretations of archaeogaming as a subdiscipline of archaeology, but it finally lets us look at these worlds in a way that is at once completely engaging and also far removed from the literal action happening on-screen.