No Man's Sky Archaeological Project

Andrew Reinhard, 2019

Data copyright © Andrew Reinhard unless otherwise stated

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Andrew Reinhard (2019) No Man's Sky Archaeological Project [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


No Man's Sky Archaeological Project

The No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey was conducted by Andrew Reinhard, PhD candidate at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology and Centre for Digital Heritage (Sara Perry, supervisor) as one of three case studies successfully demonstrating the validity and viability of conducting traditional archaeological investigation in purely digital spaces. No Man’s Sky is a multiplayer video game (Hello Games, Guildford, UK, 2016–present) containing an infinite number of algorithmically created places for human exploration and settlement. One population of several hundred players established the Galactic Hub in a region of the game’s online space only to have their settlements ruined by an unintended, catastrophic software update. The settlements became disaster ruins overnight, and the players began a digital diaspora resettling elsewhere after a long search. Their ruined homes and farms remained behind, however, leaving traces in the archaeological record of architecture, agriculture, and digital cultural heritage, which could be surveyed as well as excavated. These archaeological investigations answered several research questions of settlement and abandonment bolstered by inscriptional and physical remains.

The importance of this digital heritage research became obvious with the input of the player-community and the sharing of Reinhard’s archaeological data with the community’s leadership and staff dedicated to the online heritage of the “Hub.” Meaningful to the players and to the history of computer gaming, these abandoned sites have all since been completely destroyed by further software updates, robbing players of their heritage sites. All that remains of these settlements from the game’s earliest period are shown in Reinhard’s comprehensive data as archived here.

This project marks the world’s first formal archaeological expedition into a purely digital landscape inhabited by human players, and shows the realized potential for conducting archaeology in digital places. It serves as a prologue for archaeological projects to come, those focused on human habitations in digital built environments as the Anthropocene bears witness to the diaspora of entire groups of people into navigable and social realms accessed only through screens. One can also draw conclusions and take lessons from this project’s data relating to the very real-world concerns of climate change, climate-induced migration, and human settlement and abandonment (albeit on a smaller scale), as they played out by a real, human population in a digital environment.

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