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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.