My minecraft expedition was a success. Let me share some observations.
Firstly -> I seeded the wrong world. I used
as seed for ‘large biomes’ when I should have used it for ‘default’. Reading the map incorrectly happens all the time in landscape archaeology though. Transpose some digits, and soon you’re hundreds of metres in the wrong spot.
Framing my expedition in my mind as a kind of steam-punk exploration helped get me back ‘in the game’:
I found the village quite easily this time. It was filled with NPCs going about their mysterious business. I, a stranger, wandered into their midst and had no impact on their lives. Doesn’t that often seem the way of a ‘foreign’ expedition? When as a graduate student I was excavating at Forum Novum, our world and that of the people whose local marketground we were digging up really did not intersect, except in very particular contexts: the bar and the restaurant. On market day, we would all head back to Rome. Canadian lad flies in, digs, figures it all out, writes a paper, never explains/connects with the locals. As I remarked at the time,
And so I bumbled away, trying to record stratigraphically what I was up to. The different kinds of blocks do help differentiate context – sand fill is quite different from the sandstone blocks the temple was built with. Unfortunately, sandstone is also part of the geology of Minecraft, and typically happens around 3 or 4 blocks down from the surface in this biome. So it became difficult to figure out where the temple ended and the local geology began. Since the temple is of a common ‘type’ in Minecraft, I could just dig to exhume that prexisting type-idea and poof: complete temple. The act of excavation creates the archaeology in more ways than one, it seems.
Channeling my inner Howard Carter there. But – in this world with no ‘rules’, no overarching ‘story’, deciding to go an an archaeological expedition forces a story on us. Interacting with the NPCs, and the crude excavation tools, pushes us towards a 19th century frame of mind. In my steam-punk narrative I was constructing on twitter, the archaeologist-as-better-class-of-looter trope seemed to emerge naturally out of my interaction with the game mechanics.
And then this happened.
We’ll come back to that. Suffice to say, this encounter with the ‘otherness’ of the inhabitants of the village was oddly discomfiting.
Clearly, Notch has watched too many Indiana Jones films. Meanwhile, the villagers continued to trouble me.
And then night fell. I decided to try to spend it with the villagers.
I broke the door, quite by accident. Clumsy foreigner. Interfering.
From above, I watched the zombies and creepers and who knows what else hunt each NPC down and kill them.
So I managed to set into action a chain of events that resulted in the death of the entire village. Now obviously *real* archaeological excavation rarely results in the deaths of the locales, but there are unintended consequences to our interventions. Here, the game holds a distorted fun-house mirror to life. But were I doing this with a class, this would be a teachable moment to consider the impact of academic archaeology in those ‘distant’ lands we study.
For my minecraft adventure, I left the expedition and struck out on my own. Soon I discovered more temples, more villages, more ruins. If you’re exploring too, you can find them here:
266.9 66.87 1036.99
-219.24 65.270 13.56
58 67 347
487.73 46 560.3
247.76 66 784
430 63 929.8
692 70 1256.7
Now, one could use those coordinates to begin mapping, and perhaps working out, something of the landscape archaeology in this world. One of those coordinates belongs to a vine-covered stone temple in the jungle. Here, our expectations of what ‘archaeology’ is (informed by the movies) come to the fore.
Now, it may be that I should mod this world more in order to enable a post-colonial kind of archaeology within it. But the act of modding is itself colonialist…
So what I have I learned? I have often argued in my video games for historians class that it’s not so much the ‘skin’ of a game that should be of concern to historians, but rather the rules. The rules encode the historiographic approach of the game’s designers. You’re good at the game? You’re performing the worldview of the game’s creators. But in a game like minecraft, where the rules are a bit more low-level (for lack of a better term), what’s interesting is the way player agency in the game intersects and merges with the player’s own story, the story the player tells to make sense of the action within the world. It’s poesin. Mimemsis. Practomimetic? So while some of the game’s embedded worldview can be seen to be drawn straight from the Indiana Jones canon, other elements, like the agency of NPCs, discomfits us precisely because it intersects our own worldviews (the sociocultural practice of academic archaeology) in such a way as to draw us up short.
It will be interesting to see what Andrew’s expedition uncovers…