23 June 2010

World of Warcraft Introduces Archaeology Profession

World of Warcraft, the world's largest online multiplayer role playing game (MMORPG), will soon release the third expansion pack for the game, 'Cataclysm'. In Cataclysm, players revisit WoW's world of Azeroth after it's been scrambled by cataclysms brought on by the advent of a dragon lord. The über-dramatic trailer shows a post-apocalyptic atmosphere and radical climate change, while magazine previews suggest a number of gameplay tweaks.

WoW Cataclysm: there be dragons.

One of the tweaks has implications for those of us who love old stuff. Though the core of WoW is monster-killing and questing, players can also add professions that allow them to earn money, create artifacts, and experience the virtual world in different ways. In 'Cataclysm' archaeology joins alchemy, blacksmithing, fishing, mining, first aid, and other skills as a possible profession for players.

This addition fits with the premise of Cataclysm: since much of the old world of Azeroth was transformed or destroyed by the advent of the dragon, there will be ample areas to search for ancient artifacts. eurogamer.net got a preview of the expansion:
WOW's landscape is studded with ruins, and you'll be able to search these for artefacts - narrowing down your search within marked regions, rather than using nodes like mining. You'll uncover fragments which can be assembled into artefacts for the pure pleasure of collection and completion, as well as - for lore-junkies - filling in gaps in Azeroth's history. You'll get some loot too... But the main point is to add texture to the world and a new avenue for box-ticking comfort gaming - as well as, quite appropriately, to document the past of a virtual world that has begun to change before our eyes.
The idea of documenting the past of a virtual world from within it is really intriguing. Normally I would be critical of this old-fashioned stochastic model of social change (one big event changes everything), but I think dragon attacks get a pass. This is what the 'Archeology Journal' where you record your finds will look like:


WoWwiki summarizes what you can do as a World of Warcraft archaeologist:
  • Intended as a casual profession for players to enjoy in their "downtime".
  • Focused on locating, piecing together, and appraising artifacts unearthed by the Cataclysm.
  • Interacting with an artifact you find is similar to other gathering professions. It has been specifically stated that you will be able to track both Artifacts and your regular "tracking" for gathering professions. Instead of tracking individual nodes, you will instead search marked regions.
  • Artifacts will go into a new artifact journal instead of your inventory.
  • Placing an artifact in your journal will allow you to "study" it and progressively unlock new rewards.
  • Unlocks unique rewards such as vanity pets, mounts, and other "toys", with occasional rare quality weapons or armor.
  • Players will be able to read ancient runes found amidst ruins and in dungeons to provide themselves and other players with buffs.
  • Some items and discoveries will be heavily geared towards expanding the game's lore, filling in plot holes, and documenting the history of the world as it was before the Cataclysm. Players will reportedly be able to compile what amounts to a lore database.
  • A mock-up of the Archaeology interface is presented as a hand-written journal, with a listing of artifacts, relics, and related reagents and tasks, as well as artwork and a description for each relic. Artifacts are also given a "black market value", indicating that they can perhaps be sold for profit. There has been an indication that your journal may come with some form of "mini-game" to study findings.
Over at Blizzard Games, there seems to have been an internal struggle about the 'social relevance' of archaeology. Archaeology was originally intended for release with the now-defunct 'Paths of the Titans' expansion (scrapped late last year), where it was going to be more integral to the storyline and to character development. In 'Cataclysm' its role has been reduced to more of a collecting game independent of the plot, which drew a mixed review from IGN UK:
Originally, Archaeology was going to help advance players along the Path of the Titans, but with that gone, it is now a profession more keyed towards the casual player base. It functions as a collectible meta-game that rewards players with mostly cosmetic items. We were told, though, that players would be able to sometimes get something not only functional, but powerful from the profession. We're not sure how we feel about the change it has undergone quite yet.
To translate a little bit: in the original conception, collecting artifacts was the key to understanding past events. Players would need it to advance, in other words to achieve their goals in the game's present tense. The Cataclysm version, by contrast, seems to be centered around collecting and trading interesting objects for the fun of it, with limited career applications - a hobby, rather than a profession. Here's a Blizzard employee talking about the original version:

Don't worry, I don't understand the bizarre WoW-speak either (the free trial was really fun, but I never got deeper than that), but it shows you how deeply concepts derived from archaeology are embedded in the game's specific culture.

Of course, the details are scarce as yet, since Cataclysm won't be released until this fall. But it's clear that contemporary debates between archaeologists and collectors are being reflected a strange mirror here as Blizzard decides whether archaeology is a way of understanding the present by telling stories about the past, or just a collection of pretty things that can be sold on the black market.

Of course, you might be asking why archaeologists should care about a video game. First, the numbers: WoW has almost 12 million players worldwide. If a significant number of them are going to spend time looking for artifacts in ruins and putting together puzzles about the past, that's hundreds of thousands of people doing archaeology - or thinking they're doing archaeology. What they're doing, and the way the discipline is portrayed, has a long-term public significance.

Second: videogames have been one of the world's main cultural activities for a generation now. A lot of people - youth, but also adults - spend as much or more time playing games as they do reading, listening to music, or socializing with friends. Whether you like that fact or not doesn't matter. If thinking about videogames tempts you to deliver a pious lecture about the superiority of books and board games, you're willfully ignoring reality. Videogames will become more pervasive - the relevant question is what people are learning in games and how it affects real-world attitudes and behaviors. For archaeologists, it matters if players think that looting relics out of ruins is all the profession is about, and carries no consequences.

So, when will we see a real collaboration between archaeologists and videogame designers? Or do readers know of any successful examples? When will UNESCO add videogames to the intangible heritage list?

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