Archaeologist Andrew Reinhard has worked on digs and excavations around the world, but his latest project requires no shovels, brushes or chisels. All he needs is a game controller.
Reinhard is part of a renegade breed of self-styled "punk" archaeologists who work on the fringes of academics. They're writing a paper on a massive trove of Atari games found in a garbage dump, and studying the migratory habits of man camps in the Bakken oil fields. But their latest project isn't based in a New Mexico desert or the frozen forests of North Dakota—it's happening in video games.
"I'm staking what some might consider to be an insane claim: that there is no difference between cultures in either real or virtual environments," says Reinhard.
"Archaeogaming" involves the archaeology of and in video games. Reinhard, 43, coined the term two years ago and started a blog to discuss everything from the use of video games to teach archaeology, to the intricacies of coin design in the Elder Scrolls universe. It's amassed a substantial following, but slowly the field is evolving from slightly geeky pastime to intensive academic pursuit—thanks to an innovative new game called No Man's Sky that could change everything.
Reinhard, 43, earned a master's degree in archaeology from the University of Missouri-Columbia nearly two decades ago, spent years working in Athens, Greece and has conducted excavations around the world. But ancient ruins we never his only passion.
"I'd always been interested in lost civilizations and other cultures, not really for the people, but for the stuff they left behind," he says. "Merge that with a love of classic science fiction and adventure stories, and I was programming myself for archaeogaming, although I didn't know it at the time."
Like many children of the 80s, he grew up with Space Invaders, Asteroids and Atari. By the time he got to college he was a hardcore PC gamer, reveling in games like Wolfenstein and Doom.
Reinhard always especially enjoyed games that featured ancient cultures, or virtual spaces with ancient themes in games such as Second Life. But it wasn't until he discovered the 2010 Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft that included an Archaeology skill that he realized there was potential to conduct real archaeology within the games themselves: surveying new landscapes, mapping out how ruined buildings came to be, and studying the use of items by various in-game cultures. He noted how pottery was different between Blood Elves and Night Elves, for instance, and kept track of various goods found in graves and how they were related. Reinhard also started studying how looted items and artifacts were sold in auction houses, and how they affected in-game and real-world economies.
Next, he started more closely examining the Elder Scrolls universe, the newest version of Skyrim and the surprisingly deep history in World of Warcraft. His 12-year-old daughter has been showing him the intricacies of Minecraft, which, for Reinhard, has gotten especially intriguing since the Greek mythology expansion.
"These early steps into archaeogaming seemed to be more theoretical than practice," he says. "Archaeogaming was looking for what questions to ask that archaeology could answer."
These days things are a bit more advanced and forward-looking. Reinhard wants to "continue to create this new kind of archaeology, where excavation can be done at the level of the source code, looking at the DNA of any given game," he explains. "It's quantum physics then, and a kind of chemistry, with a bit of alchemy thrown in."
Methods are a little more advanced these days and vary widely. Some archaeogamers are interested in the virtual culture and how it changes, while others are curious about archaeology and how archaeologists are perceived within the games.
"As I see it, video games are human creations, and are thereby artifacts in and of themselves, but also contain a wealth of story and objects that lend themselves to archaeological thinking," Reinhard says.
And now, he's taking his passion to a new academic level. This year he was accepted into the Digital Heritage program at the University of York's Department of Archaeology in the UK, and will begin his full-time research in 2016.
He hopes to lay the groundwork now for future study of games that include everything from pottery typologies of the race of Nords in Skyrim to documenting major events in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and how they affect in-world economies and politics in games like Eve Online.
"Archaeologists need to get our heads out of the literal sand and into the silicon spaces of gaming worlds," he says. "[They] are as rich and diverse as anything humanity has ever created."
Soon, he and other archeogamers will face their biggest, most exciting challenge to date.
No Man's Sky is scheduled for release sometime this year. Inspired by a creator's experience growing up in the Australian outback and exploring a seemingly endless expanse, the game is set in an "infinite procedurally-generated galaxy," as explained on the website.
This means the universe is programmed to keeps generating new worlds and creatures, generating 18 quintillion planets—allowing players to literally be the first to discover new places. While many players are simply excited to start on adventures, Reinhard is keen to start researching these machine-generated civilizations.
"We're going to be exploring cultures that have never been seen before, never been thought of before," he explains. "We're going to have to target them, catalogue them, and see if we can come to any universal truths about machine-generated or artificial intelligence-generated cultures and compare those to what we know of here on earth."
There is no official release date for the game, but Reinhard is eagerly awaiting his turn.He hopes to use No Man's Sky as a kind of test case to prove the importance of 'archaeogaming' as a legitimate field of study.
"I want to go out and see things that nobody else has seen, and do things nobody else has done," he says. "These new environments in these worlds allow you to do that from the comfort of your chair."
Lead image: The flooded ruins of Lornesta are part of the Darkshore zone of World of Warcraft. As with the Badlands' Tomb of the Watchers, the architecture is roughly the same, perhaps pointing to a shared culture at one point, now long gone and seized by monsters and other inhabitants. Credit: Andrew Reinhard/Screencap from World of Warcraft