The archaeologist who delves into the ruins of video games to save us from another dark age
Andrew Reinhard (North Carolina, 48 years old) has looked with the same eyes at the remains of vessels from ancient civilizations in Greece and the abandoned buildings on the alien worlds of the video game No Man’s Sky. For this American archaeologist, author of the book Archaeogaming, the investigation and preservation of humanity’s wanderings through the digital realm is a task we are late for. “In a thousand years you won’t be able to see the photos on my phone. The cloud will not exist. And all this sum of human creativity that even for the last ten years is massive will disappear ”, he predicts in a video call interview. “Preserving that and finding a way to maintain access to that content is tremendously important to having a record of the modern human experience that can be understood from the future.”
The alternative, he warns, is to inaugurate a new “dark age” like the one that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean world and of which the scarcity of sources prevents a complete story from being constructed. Those who study our remains will know that we used computers and that we did something inside them, but they will not be able to peer into the lives we build on the other side of those screens.
To get ahead of oblivion, Reinhard has entered the video game worlds as No Man’s Sky, Fortnite O Fallout 76, whose vast communities of players can interact with each other and leave behind an equally massive amount of information. Investigate how they have inhabited their virtual spaces, why they have left and what they have left behind by leaving their settlements. “These are the same questions you would ask yourself if you were in an archaeological site in Spain. The Romans are gone, but there are their ruins ”, he says. The difference is that the Old Age of this archeogamer it dates back to the not so distant 1970s and deteriorates at speeds much higher than a Greek amphora.
His project began to take shape a little over a decade ago, while he was playing World of Warcraft. “There I came across the ruined temples in Azzshara and wondered why the developers introduce archeology and architecture into the games?” He recalls. His explanation is that, with code instead of brick, we build these spaces for others to inhabit. “And because millions and millions of people use these places and interact with them, we can consider them to be cultural heritage,” he continues.
The legacy of those synthetic universes spills over into the physical world and extends through the life experience of different generations. Reinhard played Legend of Zelda in 1986. Thirty years later, his daughter plays one of the most recent titles in the series Breath of the Wild. “We have a shared connection. That oral tradition and that nostalgia becomes something that archeology must study. There is a lot of time, creativity and emotions invested in these spaces. Of course they are archaeological ”.
No Man’s Sky is an exploration and survival game in which users enter a galaxy made up of an infinite number of planets where they can build homes, space stations or research terminals, trade and map whatever they find. In 2017, Hello Games, the developer of the video game, introduced an update that left uninhabitable an area where there were several settlements of players who were forced to flee. “Nobody expected this. Basically catastrophic climate change occurred, ”says Reinhard. “My thought was: ‘I have to go photograph and record all those places or as many as possible to preserve them. Because they are going to be destroyed. ‘ So it was. The following updates ended up erasing any remaining activity in the area. “You can visit the planet, but it doesn’t look the same. There are no constructions. There is nothing”.
Reinhard is convinced that watching the beards of our digital neighbors burn can help us understand the implications a similar catastrophe would have on the natural world. “It was very interesting for me to see how this digital refugee community dealt with what happened. And we can draw lessons from that event and translate them into the natural disasters that occur practically every day on our planet, ”he says. “Digital spaces and games provide us with a way to test and model human behavior without permanent repercussions.”
How much to save
Reinhard is aware that his is an impossible task. If we barely conserve the ancient civilizations of the physical world, we will hardly be able to account for how much is generated in a long and ever-growing list of virtual universes. His solution also comes from traditional archeology. “Not all of Pompeii has been excavated. What they do is focus on a particular area and get as much information as possible, ”he explains. Instead of collecting all the information from the thousands of maps that titles like Fallout 76 generated for every thirty connected players, the expert proposes to take representative samples of each game.
The good thing is that more and more hands are digging up what we leave in those places. “What started as a handful of people who thought they were on their own has turned into a community of hundreds,” says the archaeologist. Standards have emerged from their parallel work regarding the way in which this type of research should be carried out. “We talk to each other. If something doesn’t work, we find out why and find ways to improve it. “
And what about the digital part of our lives that goes beyond video games? “At this point, any computer program is archaeological,” says Reinhard. We spend hours in the worlds of word processors like Microsoft Word or Open Office and have watched them change and evolve for decades. Some of us live on Android, others inhabit iOS. “I am an American citizen, but I am also a Microsoft citizen. I am a citizen of Apple. And a citizen of Zelda. “
The relationship that we build with these digital environments, whose habitability is less evident than that of simulated worlds in a video game, is not so different from the one we establish with physical spaces. “I move around the landscape on my Macintosh and I know where things are. I place them where I like because it is an environment that I interact with and manipulate as a human being, just as we have manipulated rivers for thousands of years. People think it is different. But it’s the same, just in a different environment. “