“FOR THE HORDE!” he bellowed, inches away from my face, kickstarting my tinnitus. The call to arms was heavily accented—and not directed at me. The convention was heaving, thick with the sweaty jostling of thousands, and this person had noticed a symbol my companion’s shirt. It was a subtle black against a dark grey background, understood by those who play World of Warcraft to be the crest of the Horde faction. We had been identified by someone entirely unknown to us as fellow members of a community from a digital realm. My companion raised his fist and nodded, making brief eye contact with the originator of the salutation before the fleshy river of attendees pressed us onward. For an instant on that loud, crowded day in the mid-2000s, my friend’s physical self intersected with his digital self, and another member of his community had recognised him through his material culture. I was merely guilty by association.
My mind wandered as my head continued to ring. Was it a bit like a Puebloan traveller along one of the great Chacoan roads finding pottery they recognised as coming from a village near their own? No, more about personhood, perhaps community. Perhaps nation. Perhaps it was more like a Roman soldier identifying a compatriot by their insignia rather than language or something else? Surely not, I thought at the time, with a trace of distaste. How long would it be before my friend’s shirt or other videogaming tat emblazoned with orcs became archaeology?
In this post, I will introduce some of my ideas for approaching the study of computer-mediated communities archaeologically. If we accept a broad definition of archaeology as the study of material culture or physical evidence that can be attributed to the behaviour of humans (not “Men”, thank you very much, unless reference is being made to a group with mythical status equal to “Orcs” and “Elves”), then such an exercise is certainly possible.
The great strength of archaeology is using any form of material culture to produce knowledge about human relationships and identity. These materials are commonly conceived of as excavated artefacts, e.g. gold torcs, ceramic pipes, animal bone, stone tools, etc., but can also include elements of architecture, modifications to landscapes, and so on. We also integrate other strands of evidence from Art History, Sociology, Veterinary Science, and many other seemingly unlikely fields to bolster our findings. But there is no reason why the material culture of online communities, including video gamers, couldn’t be investigated archaeologically (some recent material culture of my own is shown below).
But hasn’t a lot been said about this already? Online games, especially the popular “massively multiplayer online” video games such as World of Warcraft, are the subject of numerous works from ethnographic, philosophical, and phenomenological perspectives. Articles about Pokémon Go and augmented reality abound and multiply, particularly in the realm of digital heritage, where the potential to enhance broader understandings of local histories is being realised. There’s also the #archaeogaming movement, which includes strands investigating the archaeology of code and gaming formats, in-game archaeological surveys of procedurally-generated universes (like No Man’s Sky), the ethical implications of “looting culture” in video games, and digital forms of cultural appropriation. The University of Leiden hosts VALUE, a research centre for Videogames and Archaeology.
Does the world need more archaeological videogaming research?
In fact, there are some excellent reasons for doing so. These communities are vibrant, widespread, economically-important, and increasingly relevant. The prominence of video games as part of digital media makes this an opportune moment to study the material culture of videogaming communities. Such an examination could illuminate aspects of past diasporic or ‘imagined’ communities. Archaeologists have studied other communities without physical proximity. The relative novelty of videogaming communities provides an opportunity to study the evolution of this type of group as they are forming. When we study the archaeology of ancient groups, we cannot chart the fine chronology of their emergence and development—but the rapid rise (and turn-over) of far-flung digital communities could offer a helpful archaeological parallel. Furthermore, videogaming communities today have an important commonality with many past communities without physical proximity: they are communities of choice. This means that membership is defined at least in part by electing to be part of that group (unlike the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe, for example).
Above: the author, a member of the Elder Scrolls Online community
So, going beyond identifying and classifying the material culture of videogaming communities, we could ask questions like: At what stage do videogaming communities have a distinctive material culture? What aspects distinguish these items from that of other communities, and how might overlaps in communities be reflected in material culture? When do identity, intersectionality, and deviant behaviour come into this? Can we identify similar processes in the development of communities of choice in the past?
This would be an immense and sweeping project, best suited to a diverse network of investigators. Before I go any further, it will be important to discuss exactly what I mean by “community”, which will be the topic of a future post.