is our monthly column about video games, and how the way we play is changing
A strawberry Christmas cake, sexy pants, a pool table, three red jet planes, a hippy bandana, a dog sled, a jetpack, a pair of Adidas trainers, a Tudor throne, a bullet stopped in mid-flight, an iced frappé,.
In 2007, US-based artists Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger bought a 4096-square-metre piece of barren land on eBay and turned it into a dump. They put up posters inviting people to come and leave their unwanted items. So far, so civic-minded. But this was Second Life, and they quickly ran into problems.
Many games use abandoned objects to tell their story. In, you piece together a family’s history by sifting through objects in their empty home. In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, released in August, you wander around 1980s Shropshire as the last person on Earth, with only the things people left behind to help you work out what happened. But Lamprecht and Moderegger were interested in what players leave behind – not objects that have been planted by game developers.
Unless you delete them, virtual objects don’t go away; they don’t degrade or decompose. This makes them excellent records of human activity – but also a nuisance. The simplest solution is to have discarded items just disappear. But to do that, you need to know what is no longer wanted.
This summer, things came to a head in ARK: Survival Evolved, an online game in which players form tribes, build forts and ride dinosaurs. The clutter had become unbearable. The game’s world was filling up with structures that players had made and then abandoned. It took up territory that the remaining players wanted to use, and was also an eyesore.
Some players took things into their own hands. Armed with rocket launchers and explosives, they destroyed what buildings they could. But this took time and wasted valuable resources. Eventually, the game’s developers added the code that players had campaigned for. After eight days, forts now start to degrade and other players can more easily dismantle them.
Putting the trash out
Lamprecht and Moderegger hit upon a similar solution. The pair initially set up their dump out of curiosity. “There was an attempt to recreate every human activity in Second Life as realistically as possible,” says Lamprecht. You could dance, sing, brush your teeth, have sex: everything except throw something away. Second Life was full of kitsch clutter that players had created or bought – and just as soon discarded – but there were no bins. “Emptying the trash was just a computer operation, an abstract click.”
The pair wanted to give people this ability, and let them see what others were discarding. “We imagined people would love to come and bring their trash,” says Lamprecht. “Within a year we would have an enormously high pile, a monument.”
People certainly came. But after only a month they had reached the limit for the number of items allowed in one place, a technical restriction to keep Second Life running smoothly. One player offered to take away the rubbish in his rocket.
Eventually, Lamprecht and Moderegger hit on the idea of getting the rubbish to decay. They wrote a short bit of code that would make items slowly disappear over time.
Suddenly the dump took on a new light. “It was hard to see things disappear; it was like living with daily loss,” says Lamprecht. Some objects were intricate, things people had put care into making. Many were no more than a few months old. “When is a digital object ready to die?” she asks. “It doesn’t look chipped, it doesn’t become spoiled, it doesn’t start to smell bad.”
In the end, the feeling of loss led them to become more like archivists than rubbish collectors. “I think that’s why we spent so much time at the dump maintaining and documenting it,” she says.
Going on a dig
Others were interested in documenting it too. Archaeologists got in touch, excited at the prospect of digging through a digital dump. Andrew Reinhard has been on digs in Italy and Greece. He also led the team of archaeologists who took part in the excavation of thousands of. A few years ago he became interested in the things that players discarded in online multiplayer games and Second Life.
“Archaeologists have always been concerned with trash,” he says. “That’s mostly what people leave behind.” Reinhard suggests that games can teach us about ourselves as much as the real world. “When you’re looking at players, you’re really looking at human universals – how we interact, how we treat commerce, how we treat rubbish.”
Reinhard admits that his ideas have attracted a certain amount of scorn. However, next year he plans to work withat the University of York, UK, to carve out “archaeogaming” as a new formal discipline. “We all know what the tools are when we’re digging in the dirt,” he says. “But how do those translate to an immaterial environment?”
Reinhard is particularly keen to trace the routes that objects take as they pass between players in a game. In his day job, he is a publisher for the American Numismatic Society in New York, which caters to people who are interested in tokens of currency such as coins and paper money. “It’s interesting to see how these portable artefacts get from point A to point B because it reveals patterns of commerce,” he says. “I’m interested to see how that works in games.”
For example, some items might get dumped beside the body of a looted enemy. Others will be carried to another part of the game entirely before being sold or exchanged for something better. Tracking them can tell us about what items different players value, he says.
To do this well will require getting game makers to share their data. One of the games that Reinhard is most excited about is No Man’s Sky, currently being developed by Hello Games in Guildford, UK. Set in a vast universe automatically generated by algorithms, the game. Reinhard is interested to see examples of machine-generated culture in the game – artefacts that even the developers may not have anticipated. He has asked Hello Games to let a group of archaeologists look around an early version. “This is all still part of human history, even if we’re playing inside a box,” says Reinhard.
Others are drawn to empty spaces just for the atmosphere.is an artist and game developer based in Australia. One of his favourite pastimes is wandering around abandoned games. “It’s quiet and eerily uncanny,” he says. “These spaces that were once full of action and noise now reside in a still, silent, and eternal limbo-like state.”
Old games such as Quake, for example – a shooter in which teams fight it out in online arenas – often now have empty areas where the only signs of human activity are the clan tags or jokes that past players have scrawled on the walls.
Abandoned Minecraft games are particularly good places to visit, he says. Players make their mark on a randomly generated wilderness. “This makes it especially potent when you come across something left behind in the nothingness,” says Pash. Sometimes he finds small traces – a table sitting alone in the landscape, or a small outpost carved into the side of a mountain where someone spent the night.
Occasionally, he finds entire ghost towns. “One server I explored years ago had a massive city complete with a park, a quarry, skyscrapers, castles, shops and halls,” he says. “Night was falling as I wandered around. I eventually came across a huge multistorey hotel and ended up staying in a little room looking out over the city until the sun rose again.”
His most memorable experience took place when playing Discworld. Released in 1991, it is a text-based multi-user dungeon – an early kind of multiplayer online game – played by reading on-screen descriptions of what is happening and typing commands. With a large world and so few people still playing, Pash has put hours into the game without seeing anyone else.
Yet now and then he comes across things that suggest he’s not as alone as he thought – such as random items lying in the middle of the road or a group of dead monsters. “These are just little hints that the game still has a beating heart and there are other people out there somewhere”, says Pash.
(Images: eteam, SL Dumpster, 2009)
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