Digital Archeology: How to preserve online cultures?

There are at least 150 active MMORPGs in existence today. Add to this number other virtual worlds that aren’t strictly part of that genre such as Second Life and other social worlds as well as the many non-commercial worlds either created entirely by individuals or that are run as questionably legal ‘alternative’ servers for other game clients and we see that there’s a large number of distinct spaces each with its own community.

I’ve always found the question of culture in these worlds to be thought-provoking. Its immediately clear that there’s a sort of umbrella culture of gamers, and online gamers in particular, that users of these worlds are a part of. This is a culture with its own boundaries, rules for membership, social norms and expectations, as well as the host of unique vocabulary terms that are applied to these games in general. However, I argue that each of these worlds holds within it a unique community with a shared history and experience. This is more evident in some games than others.

Recently a few institutions joined together under a grant to examine the issue of preserving virtual worlds. This is very interesting work. The original project is finished (view the report here) but it seems that a second project is currently being planned. Here’s a link to the original project website which includes a wiki and a blog.

However, having pondered before about the issue of preservation with regards to games, specifically MMOWs, the issue of cultural preservation seems to fall as a distant second to that of physical or digital preservation in this work. That is, much emphasis is placed on preserving data about the game including issues of hardware, software, code, graphics, etc. but rather little effort expended on examining the networks of people who inhabit these worlds and their cultural practices.

Here I’d like to look at a game that I’m quite familiar with, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds. While it may seem necessary to preserve the code and information about the “physicality” of the game, how its software is structured and how its servers run, I feel that preserving this would provide only the barest of representations of our world. It would be like saying that a 3D digital representation of New York City was an accurate preservation of the whole. Of course, without the inhabitants and their behaviors, quirks, feelings, and movements, this representation would not even begin to approach the complexity of the city as a whole.

I haven’t begun to look into the next phase of this project just yet, but it would be my hope that these researchers begin to focus an eye to preserving the cultural heritage of multi-player worlds as well as just their “physical” structures.

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About Benjamin Tarsa

In addition to my work as a student I also work part-time at The Saylor Foundation, a local 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation which aims to provide high-quality educational materials online free of charge to the public. Currently I am working to coordinate the production of high-quality A/V materials to further augment our courses in areas where there currently exists no high-quality openly-licensed material. I am also working to develop the social portion of the website, with a focus on taking elements of game design and using them to make the site fun and interactive.
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