archaeogaming

Archaeogaming and Podcasting

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We specifically timed the release  of this new podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network (APN) so it would coordinate with the Day of Archaeology. The timing to us, couldn’t be more perfect. The APN had worked to create a channel of sorts for all things podcasting about archaeology. At times that’s made it push the envelope for the use of new media in communicating and sharing of archaeology. It’s fitting then, for this network to be the first to dedicate a podcast to the breakout field of Archaeogaming.

This isn’t to say that blogs on the topic have never existed before. A quick glance at the show notes for episode 1 gives an incomplete but informative look at those pioneering the field. The show’s hosts, Andrew ReinhardMeghan Dennis, and Tara Copplestone, consider themselves to be part of the second wave of archaeologists in archaeogaming. They list several researchers before them, but even those only go as far back as the early 2000’s or late 90′. That makes this quite a new branch of archaeology, and like many such branches, there is, at times, strong discussion over if such a thing is even necessary.

Most people are not sure what to do with archaeogaming exactly, it seems new and weird. For the most part it has been received positively, as many can see the need to study the fastest growing part of the entertainment industry. One that is interactive and creating culture around and inside of itself. Reinhard argues that there is no difference between real and virtual culture, that all culture is man-made, therefore even computer generated culture can be studied archaeologically. This idea has been met with some push-back, but overall, his argument stands. You don’t even have to play games to see “gaming culture” in general and genre specific culture in particular.

Archaeogaming examines the culture inside of games as well, and Dennis focuses specifically on the ethics in and around games. Most famously, for example, is it ethical to loot a tomb? What if that is the only option the game gives you to complete a level? What if, in the game world, you are “saving” artifacts by looting them? What if you need to sell those same artifacts for game world money? Dennis is working on these and other questions for her Ph.D. thesis, and explains a bit more about it in her interview on Not Just a Game Episode 2: Looting Mortuary Spaces with Meghan Dennis, the bi-weekly podcast with Dr. Catherine Flick.

Archaeogaming also examines the game code itself as an artifact. Copplestone looks at this intersection of game and archaeology, and it’s a very interesting concept. How does real life archaeology affect game world archaeology? Why do game designers represent archaeology they way that they do? Can we as archaeologists use games as a way of communicating archaeology better to the public? How? What would that game look like?

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At which point all of this brings us to the No Man’s Sky Survey, led by Reinhard. This ambitious real life survey of a huge virtual world is probably not the first of it’s kind, but it is the first to be done on such a detailed and massive scale. Reinhard, Dennis, Copplestone and others have worked hard to create survey and excavation forms, data collection standards, and even a code of ethics for in-game and out of game interaction. Reinhard plans to publish updates on the progress of the survey as well as produce a peer-reviewed paper for presentation and publication. I’m really excited to be part of this and plan to keep track of my own progress over on my own blog (you know, if you want to read it).

In the meantime you can listen to our newest podcast on the APN and learn a lot more about what archaeogaming is and what we hope to accomplish with it.

ARCHAEOGAMING AND THE NO MAN’S SKY SURVEY – EPISODE 1

July 29, 2016

In the first Episode of 8bit Test Pit: Main Campaign we meet our host panel Andrew Reinhard, Meghan Dennis, and Tara Copplestone. We talk about what Archaeogaming is, the history of the field, and what the overall goals of studying the intersection of gaming and archaeology are. We also talk about the upcoming No Man’s Sky Survey and why a survey like this should be done.

No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey

No Man's Sky Archaeological Survey mission patch

Mission patch design by the author

On 9 August 2016, the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) will mark the first time archaeologists have attempted to record in an archaeological way virtual material culture in a procedurally generated universe. One goal of the 3-year project includes documenting machine-created material culture, or how worlds, cultures, artifacts, built environments, lore/history, and even spoken and written language are created by algorithms created from over 800,000 lines of code. Another goal is to attempt to observe and identify emergent behaviors from the complexity of the code and player interaction with it, documenting game-created “artifacts” (i.e., glitches) and unexpected interactions that are more a part of the deep syntax of the game itself rather than the virtual environments it creates.

(image: Hello Games)

(Image: Hello Games)

For those readers who do not know about No Man’s Sky, this is a video game created by Hello Games (Guildford, UK) for PlayStation 4 and PC, which has, for all intents and purposes, created a universe-sized virtual universe of billions-and-billions of planet-sized planets to explore on a 1:1 scale. Some of these planets have virtual life, and some of those planets will have sentient life paired with non-natural constructions, architecture, and artifacts both large and small, old and new. The reason NMS has received so much attention is that every bit of the game (including audio) is procedurally generated. The developer has created a large set of rules and design elements that will combine to create unique spaces to discover. So how will this look in the game, and how will the game “interpret” those rules to create material culture on-the-fly? Our team of archaeologists wants to know.

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(Image: Hello Games)

Because the universe is life-size, it will be impossible to explore all worlds. For this reason, I wanted to conduct an archaeological survey that would planet-hop towards the center of the universe. The team’s survey methods are directly derived from two real-world survey projects, the Pyla-Koutspoetria Archaeological Survey and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. Both surveys use modern surveying methods on how/where to survey, what to observe and collect, as well as a new way of thinking about object typologies, “chronotypes.” I scaled these projects’ methodologies to apply them to surveying entire systems, and borrowed (with permission from Bill Caraher) the survey and fieldwalker forms used, converting them for conducting surveys on a planetary scale.

Our surveyors will select promising planets to orbit, and will complete several orbits prior to flying their survey spacecraft over the surface of these worlds, geotagging surface features for further study. Following the completion of several flyovers, the surveyors will touch down and conduct a handful of fieldwalking surveys, noting types/numbers of artifacts within 1 sq. km (or more), repeating a few times on the planet’s surface, again tagging features while taking screenshots and video. We expect that some surveys will yield sites that require proper excavation, and it is our hope to return to these worlds to map and dig. For the time being, the team will only survey.

faims-home

Regarding data collection, NMSAS has partnered with FAIMS (Field Acquired Information Management System) to create a set of custom/bespoke online forms, which run on Android devices as well as PC and Mac desktop clients. FAIMS has provided tools to several archaeological projects, the NMSAS being the first one to 100% occupy a virtual world. One set of forms pertains to orbital and suborbital transects, and the other set of forms pertains to fieldwalking units conducted post-transect. The two screengrabs below show only a portion of each form.

Portion of the Transect form created for NMSAS by FAIMS

Portion of the Transect form created for NMSAS by FAIMS

 

unit

Portion of the Unit form created for NMSAS by FAIMS

The data collected by each survey team member is automatically synced with the FAIMS server, which is instantly available to all other surveyors. Ultimately the data and media collected will be ported over to the online Open Access archaeological publication platform, Open Context.

Open Context

The NMSAS team look forward to sharing its findings with anyone who wants to see them. After the first month or so of initial exploration, the team will create and publish a white paper explaining best-practices along with a standardized, working vocabulary and typology for the crowdsourced side of the project. After the first three months, we will publish a preliminary report online and Open Access, followed by a one-year report of the project so far.

Members of the team will blog, tweet, and stream their progress. At the start, the main communication channels for the NMSAS project are @nmsarchaeology on Twitter at NMSArchaeology on Twitch. Email can be sent to the team as well. Comments and suggestions are always welcome.

NEEDS: If you have GIS expertise and an interest in exploring the game archaeologically, please send an email to the above address. Also, if you have modding experience via Steam, we need to discuss the construction of probes and drones for use on planets, and for interstellar survey.

To learn more about the archaeology of No Man’s Sky, click here. To read the NMSAS Code of Ethics for the survey team, click here.

Archaeogaming and Ethics in Destiny

I spent this year’s Day of Archaeology laid up in bed, not because of any injury received in the field, but because I managed (somehow) to tear a leg muscle in my sleep. I mention this to highlight a contrast. A year ago, had I received this injury, an injury that has put me on pain meds, made me unable to drive, and left me temporarily with a cane, I would have also ended up having to go on unemployment. You can’t walk in the woods on opiates, you can’t drive a car when you can’t feel your foot, and carrying a cane while handling a compass, clipboard and survey paperwork is near impossible. In most areas of archaeology, CRM included, if you receive a debilitating injury, you can’t work.

Thankfully, this year, my research is digital and theoretical, which means that apart from being a little loopy, I was actually able to keep working through the last few days of pain and bedrest. I propped my leg up on a pillow, popped my meds, arranged everything I needed within arm’s reach, and did some archaeogaming.

My current project, while preparing for a PhD to start at the University of York in January, is looking at how the Cryptarch, or Crypto-archaeologist, functions within the universe of Bungie’s 2014 console game, Destiny. This case study will eventually be a chapter in my dissertation, which is focused on representations of archaeology, archaeologists and antiquities trafficking in videogames.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

The original Cryptarch, who collects items provided by player characters, identifies them for money, and resells the objects.

Within Destiny, the Cryptarch is a non-player character presented as an accredited and official expert on antiquities. He (as of the last expansion there are now two examples of this characterization, but both are male) is tied into the game’s monetary and item progression system, one of its core mechanics. The Cryptarch’s role is to buy and resell artifacts that lack provenance. It is functionally impossible to progress in the game without taking part in this system, which forces interaction with the Cryptarch to accrue funds and items necessary for progressively leveling play.

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The new, second Cryptarch, who performs the same function as the original, but in a more problematic context of being located on a culturally “other” world.

In addition to presenting an unavoidable mechanic that emphasizes unethical behaviors, Destiny puts the player in the position of behaving unethically themselves, functioning as a looter of antiquities, collecting items from buried contexts and the dead to bring them back to the Cryptarch, who provides valuations and the previously mentioned merchant service

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The glowing green ball is an “engram”, an item of unknown type that is identified by the Cryptarch. Engrams vary in rarity and value.

But why should we care? Why do this research at all? Why not just let a videogame be a videogame?

Within its first week of sale, Bungie, and its distributor, Activision-Blizzard, sold more than $500 million worth of copies. Internal numbers, published by the companies, indicate that over 13 million people have played Destiny since launch. That’s a lot of interaction with a system that misrepresents the role of archaeologists, misinforms on the rights of individuals to own objects of cultural patrimony, and encourages participation in illicit and illegal trafficking of artifacts. As archaeologists and heritage management professionals, that should concern us.

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A recently released armor item, showing a clear Egyptian aesthetic. This item was obtained via an engram identification by the Cryptarch.

I don’t yet have the answer to how to fix this problem. I don’t know what resources we have, as a discipline, that can compete with the amount of money within the game industry. I’m not even entirely sure it’s a fight that we can win, which is disheartening. I will, however, be spending the next three years trying to figure out why this is the depiction of our field that predominates in interactive media, what it says about the perceptions of our work, and what influence it’s having on unethical behaviors involving artifacts in the “real” world.

Hopefully I won’t have to do it on a bum leg.

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My avatar, who isn’t currently suffering my same mobility issues.