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The future of archaeology starts with No Man’s Sky

The future of archaeology starts with No Man’s Sky

Destructive treasure hunters like Nathan Drake and Lara Croft tumble through decadent crypts, dismantling rare artifacts in their wake. Their scrabbling work, however incidental, is the antithesis to the careful field of archaeology. Yet, in marketing materials they’re labeled both as explorers and, yes, archaeologists. It’s for reasons like this that I’ve found myself, as a student of archaeology, increasingly disillusioned with the way videogames treat artifacts and history.

The problem is that these types of games tend to disregard preservation. Our favorite protagonists utilize priceless pieces of history as landscape to be clambered over and, inevitably, destroyed. While no one is upset enough to protest, this does seriously misrepresent the actual archaeological process, which is especially disappointing for a medium that presents a potential chasm to fill with exciting, intersectional research. This is the basis of archaeogaming.

“the archaeology of an entire galaxy”

Archaeogaming, as defined by scholar Meghan Dennis, is “the utilization and treatment of immaterial space to study created culture, specifically through videogames.” It’s a new field of study that is only now starting to dig its way into academia. Three books on the topic are scheduled to arrive in 2017 alone, the latest of these being The Interactive Past, which was successfully crowdfunded by the VALUE project on Kickstarter.

Andrew Reinhard is a pioneering force in the rapidly emerging discipline of archaeogaming. He’s an archaeologist who has excavated in Italy, Greece, the United States, and most recently in Alamogordo, New Mexico at the Atari Burial Ground. He is currently writing two books on archaeogaming, which should be out in 2017: Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in (and of) Video Games, and Digging Atari. He has also appeared in the documentary Atari: Game Over (2014). Reinhard is widely considered the founding father of the discipline, presiding over its main port of call, the Archaeogaming blog.

Coinciding with the release of No Man’s Sky this June, Reinhard and a team of talented academics will be conducting a full-scale archaeological survey of the game, dubbed the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey. It’s the first of its kind to take place in a virtual space, and a revolutionary step forward into the future of archaeology. I was able to catch up with him to discuss the project and unpack the main ideas behind the discipline.

Versions: How did archaeogaming come to be and get where it is right now?

Andrew Reinhard: I and others have been thinking about the archaeology in (and of) videogames since 2010, and I finally started the Archaeogaming.com blog in 2013 when the Atari Burial Ground story broke. The two initial goals of archaeogaming were to look at videogames as physical artifacts, to understand our contemporary material culture in an increasingly digital, globalized society, and also to conduct archaeology within the games themselves—seeing games as both archaeological sites and artifacts from the inside out.

In the past three years, we’ve seen the first academic conference dedicated to archaeogaming, which was held at the University of Leiden in April, archaeogaming articles accepted and published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals such as Public Archaeology and The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and more than a handful of PhD students focusing on videogames and archaeology, specifically at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage as well as at the University of Leiden and elsewhere.


VS: What attracted you to No Man’s Sky over other games for an archaeological survey?

All the virtual worlds that have come before have been of a finite size and scope, hand-crafted by game developers. Open world games such as World of Warcraft (2005) and Skyrim (2011) served as sandboxes for archaeological play, but don’t offer any real procedurally created content, especially when it comes to built environments (structures, villages, monuments, etc.). We’ve seen this before in games such as Dwarf Fortress (2006) and Elite (1984), but not to the extent of full procedural realization that has been realized in No Man’s Sky.

In this game there are billions of worlds to explore, some of which have life, some of which is sentient, and some of which have gone on to build things. Granted, these worlds, creatures, and structures are all built on a set of rules/algorithms, so it is interesting to us as archaeologists to observe how these rules are interpreted, what they generate, how material culture is created on individual worlds and between worlds, and if there is anything exciting emerging from the complexity of hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

VS: What are the goals of your project? And what implications might the results of the survey have for the discipline of archaeogaming?

The NMSAS team is comprised (so far) of around 15 archaeologists with interests as varied as space archaeology to the more traditional zooarchaeology. We even have a professional ethicist aboard to help the team navigate issues of in-game intervention with other species, potential conflicts, how to deal with the possible removal or repatriation of artifacts. Each of us have different research questions. It’s a bit like an archaeological voyage of the [HMS] Beagle into inner-space with all of us spread throughout the galaxy, but comparing notes in real-time.

Our initial plans include mapping and tagging of potential archaeological sites on the worlds we visit, seeing if we can draw some preliminary conclusions about the material culture of the non-human races we encounter, and creating a record of what we find, while asking questions that any archaeologist would ask of real-world sites. Personally, I will also be looking for glitches created by the complex convergence of code and player action, as well as bizarre, unintended game behaviour (think Breaking Madden . . . in space!), the existence of which I class as artifacts in their own right.

So there really are two archaeologies at work in this project:

1) How the game creates material culture through procedural algorithms (something we’ve never seen at such scale and detail)

2) How the game itself is affected by its own code in strange ways.


VS: Having a wealth of excavation and survey experience, how closely will you be implementing your knowledge, and using actual survey techniques in-game? Do you have a code of ethics you plan to follow?

We somewhat cheekily thought to follow the canon Prime Directive from Star Trek, and that was merged into the guidelines for ethical conduct by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Prof. Catherine Flick, our ethicist, drafted a final version of the NMSAS code of ethics, which further incorporates guidelines from the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) and the ACM Software Engineering Code of Ethics.

Survey archaeology is not excavation. What an archaeological survey aims to do is to identify sites for future visits; it samples the landscape for signs of occupation and/or use; it attempts to explain at a macroscopic level the history of a geographic area. From there, other archaeologists can follow to conduct other kinds of archaeology, including excavation, which will be possible in No Man’s Sky because there are tools and technology available to explore underground.

“It’s not about digging anymore, and we’re not fetishizing artifacts. We are looking for connections.”

For archaeological survey methods (at least to start in June) we will be following those established by the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) and the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Survey (PKAP), and will be incorporating elements of landscape archaeology and even GIS along with image and video capture, and our own database (with linked data from the game’s shared Atlas data repository). We are also hoping, if it’s possible through modding via Steam, to create interstellar archaeological drones that we can program to conduct surveys of worlds we could never hope to reach in our lifetimes, collecting and relaying data back to us to give us a bigger, better picture of the archaeology of an entire galaxy.

VS: How do you plan to share and visualize the data you are collecting from the vast, unique worlds of No Man’s Sky?

We recently partnered with Dr. Eric Kansa and Open Context, an Open Access archaeology publication platform funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. Open Context will be able to host shared data, multimedia, survey reports, and the maps and data visualizations we produce, with anyone who wants this content. This is the first non-Earth archaeological survey to be hosted by the site alongside other, real-world sites such as Poggio Civitate (Murlo) and Petra, among others.

We’re currently reviewing data visualization tools, and will have a better handle on what will work with the data collected from No Man’s Sky after we launch in June. For people interested in the day-to-day, we’ll be regularly tweeting our progress @nmsarchaeology and have a Twitch channel  where we’ll broadcast planetary surveys in real-time as public outreach.

VS: Do you have any plans to extend the ability to contribute to the project to the wider public?

Definitely. We’re starting small with a core of professional archaeologists-who-game and PhD archaeology students so we can figure out best-practices for the survey and for recording data, creating vocabularies, etc. Over the next few months, we’ll refine our procedures to create a set of guidelines for anyone else who wants to help. We’re treating this as Open Access citizen science, and can’t wait to see what others discover in their explorations.


VS: Are there any other games coming in the near future, or perhaps some games from the past, that you think might have archaeological promise?

I think that all games have archaeological promise, following on the theme that games themselves are both sites and artifacts. At the Leiden archaeogaming conference, I briefly explored the archaeology of Solitaire for Windows XP, highlighting its history of use, an operating system-specific bug, the oral history of the game’s development, and its context that it shared with individual users, corporations, and hardware. I’m certainly not the first to talk about the entanglement of people and things, and archaeology these days is largely about stuff and the environment in which that stuff is created, used, and discarded, and what happens after.

If we want to play an “archaeologist”, there are literally dozens of games that allow us to do that, from Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) and Lego Indiana Jones (2008), and down from there. We can level our toons’ archaeology skill in World of Warcraft (2004). Or we can explore and interact with a virtual world not role-playing as an archaeologist, but as an actual archaeologist interested in context and meaning, while observing player behavior towards in-game cultural heritage with respect to the ever-present looting mechanic.

That being said, having just finished the end-game in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2015)—which had plenty of lore and archaeology quests—and working on a write-up of the archaeology of Hearthstone: League of Explorers (2015), I really should focus on Fallout 4 and Uncharted 4 prior to No Man’s Sky next month, which is going to border on the impossible with everything else going on. There is not enough coffee in the world.

VS: How can people support the survey and the discipline as we near the release of No Man’s Sky?

The best thing to do is to just play the game. The more people play and explore No Man’s Sky, the more data [will] get fed into the Atlas, and the more the player community will write about their in-game experiences on Reddit and elsewhere. We’ll be watching/contributing to those discussions, seeing what other people are asking as research questions, and doing our best to help answer those. Watch our play-sessions on Twitch, and keep an eye on our Twitter. Read the data and survey reports when they appear on Open Context. Ask questions. And if you want to get some archaeological experience along the way, we’d be happy to have you.

This is real archaeology conducted within a universe in a box, following the newer methods and theories of Renfrew, Shanks, Hodder, Holtorf, Ingold, and Parikka. It’s not about digging anymore, and we’re not fetishizing artifacts. We are looking for connections. And archaeogaming is perhaps uniquely poised to integrate complexity science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, and anthropology into the interdisciplinary field that archaeology has always been and continues to become. In 100 years (likely less) we’ll be seeing more and more archaeology of the digital. What we’re doing now helps pave the way for the archaeology of the future.

Catch Andy on Twitter @ArchaeoGaming and follow the project @NMSarchaeology.

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