Capturing Culture from South Karana to San Andreas

First thing’s first: I confess I’m not a gamer.  

As an 80s baby, I naturally have a fondness for good ole Mario and its various permutations along with Donkey Kong and a few other Nintendo classics.  But World of Warcraft?  Grand Theft Auto? Pokémon?  Not so much.  I didn’t even know what Everquest was until I did the readings for this week.  When I began to delve into the readings, I suddenly became concerned that I was not the right person for this blog post.  Reading through the first oral history example in Josh Howard’s “The Oral History of MMOs,” I struggled with a complete disconnect with the interviewee, “Swiftarrow.”  Intellectually, I knew that this individual was trying to convey the formation of deep connections and friendship.  Yet, as the player described camping at “the claw monoliths around Splitpaw” and the gift of “a full set of Banded Armor,” I couldn’t find a single way to connect with this person’s experience.  By the time I reached Henry Lowood’s description of  player initiated 9/11 vigils with glowing virtual weapons in “Memento Mundi: Are Virtual Worlds History?,” I was downright distressed.  I was desperately trying to figure out how I could relate to this large community of individuals with a very serious stake in the preservation of their digital worlds.  

“Early in my adventures, maybe around level 12, I was camping the claw monoliths around Splitpaw.  Two players who were passing by threw me a full set of Banded Armor and wished me well.  About a month later, I would join their guild.” -Swiftarrow as quoted in “The Oral History of MMOs”

Then I read Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire’s “The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and it suddenly clicked.  Reading through the descriptions of the focus groups and the meanings created within those circles, it occurred to me that I would never “understand” the world of Grand Theft Auto, or World of Warcraft, or Everquest -not in the same sort of deep, experiential way at least.  Why?  Because these virtual worlds are first and foremost about a specific organic culture that comes together often out of mutual interest.  Qeynos will never mean anything more to me than “a big digital city” as described by Howard just as I will never truly understand the interplay between “play” violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and real life violence as experienced by the adolescents in DeVane and Squire’s study.  And yet as a historian and a digital curator, the importance of preserving these worlds becomes abundantly clear when reading the emotional recollection of relationships formed between MMO players, online conflicts so heated they spill over into “in-world” attacks as described by Lowood, or the varying interpretations of race as described through demographically different groups of young men.  Even unprecedented events like Twitch Plays Pokémon where over a million people participated in a game together make me appreciate that there is a massive and immediately relevant culture thriving in these digital worlds.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The same can be said of performance art as well.  As indicated by Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins in “Performance Anxiety: Performance Art in Twenty-First Century Catalogs and Archives,” there is specific culture surrounding that realm with vested interests in how those worlds of art will be captured and represented for the future. L. Smigel, M. Goldstein, E. Aldrich, and D.H. Coalition echo this sentiment in Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide as they list “representing the cultural impact” as a crucial reason for preserving dance documentation along with representation of the process and of the event itself.  In this instance, the community wishes to preserve not just their culture in isolation, but how it affects others as well.  Much of what these authors grapple with is how to preserve the essence of the underlying culture related to virtual worlds and active art.  It is a pivotal question since, as Lowood indicates, preserving the software or the recording of a performance means little if you don’t also preserve the interactions, meaning, and culture that made those moments significant to begin with.  

Creative Commons Image from
Creative Commons Image from

The other complicating factor in the preservation of virtual worlds and performance art is its temporality.  The fleeting nature of both genres is part of what makes them so meaningful for their respective cultures.  There is something magical about being present for the moment when that act is performed or that guild was created or that world unlocked.  In these cases, it’s not just the interactions which are temporal.  It’s also the space itself.  This is clearly evident in the gaming world when a server goes down for good.  However, it’s also true in performance art when an experimental artist’s installation is dismantled or when the congregation present for a performance disassembles.  The moment is gone.  The space which surrounded the performer is gone.  The act itself is gone like a flash.  From Howard to Lowood to Manzella and Watkins- the field appears to acknowledge that the space and/or medium and the action must be preserved in conjunction with the culture of the community utilizing and producing the art.  Preserving one without the other leaves behind a brittle record for future gamers and historians.  Perhaps the larger question is how much focus do we place on preserving one or the other better?  Where should curators cut bits if the budget doesn’t stretch?  The above authors seem to lean towards emphasizing the culture around the experiential art, but I’m curious as to how gamers and performance artists/aficionados feel.  

“Thinking of virtual worlds as history reminds us that our solutions to these problems will need to provide access not just to software, but to materials that document the events and activities that took place in the virtual spaces created by that software.” -Henry Lowood

I’m still not a gamer.  I’ll likely never exchange goods in the Commonlands Tunnel or hang out with a troll on a train ride to Nettleville.  Because of this, I am and will always be an outside observer of the culture.  So that left me with a nagging question: does that matter when it comes to preservation?  Can someone outside the gaming or performing arts culture effectively assist in the preservation of these worlds, or should the preservation efforts be led by someone from within the culture?  

8 Replies to “Capturing Culture from South Karana to San Andreas”

  1. I am also not a gamer. Video game playing pretty much stopped at Nintendo for me, so most of the games described are foreign territory for me. However, like you mention in your post, there’s no question these games and the culture surrounding them should be preserved.

    Your question whether someone within the culture should lead preservation efforts is a good one. I’m beginning to think that maybe both views, from the inside and the outside, are valuable. Like you describe, I also had a complete disconnect with the interviewees in Howard’s article, “The Oral History of MMOs.” I checked out his Public History Norrath site and it reminded me of looking at someone else’s vacation photos. They might be pretty, but there is no meaning attached to them. DeVane and Squire’s article however put the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in a time and place for me. The interviews with the three groups of kids and how they viewed the game gave me the context I was looking for.

    So, for me, I think both perspectives are valuable, but maybe that doesn’t matter if you are catering to a certain audience? Every organization has their community of users and they are our main consideration, so perhaps the broader view I appreciated from DeVane and Squire wouldn’t be relevant?

    1. I like your notion of how Public History Norrath is similar to looking at someone else’s vacation photos. As someone who played a lot of Everquest while I was in middle school, I felt… actually, I felt very similar. PHN seemed to lack stories from people who weren’t die-hard Everquest folks that reached high levels and were in guilds (I started playing right when the game launched and had no idea how to play—like many others in the nascent MMO scene—nor the patience to get to high level. I just liked to explore cool virtual worlds and pretend to be someone else.). Of course, this is very understandable, as serious Everquest players are likely more attracted to projects of this type. But, just as a vacant MMO server doesn’t tell us anything about the culture, a history that is informed by only the elite players is incomplete. This reminds me of Adi Robertson’s work to “rewrite geek history” by showing that gaming has always been more varied than the “boys only” club that is perpetuated. Perhaps this type of counter-storytelling, if you will, can only hope to be captured by using the archival framework discussed by the Dance Heritage Coalition—grabbing as much contextual information and as many stories as possible from online discussion boards, Let’s Plays, etc.

      Another thought that crossed my mind: PHN only asks details regarding the character and the world, not the player (like in the DeVane and Squire article on different groups playing GTA: San Andreas). The required survey on PHN does ask if you’d be willing to participate in a more in-depth survey at a later date, but there is no further detail given. While I can understand PHN not wanting to force submitters to give personal details, this type of information could be very interesting to researchers. Who are you and what attracted you to playing an Ogre shadow knight, and so on?

      1. Yes, you’re right on PHN only detailing the character and the world – I hadn’t even thought about it that way. It would be interesting to see what’s happening or happened with that survey. The players could still maintain their privacy if they chose, but it would be interesting to see (and record) inside the culture of serious gamers.

  2. I agree with Kerry that both an insider and outsider perspective is useful. I think the audience for many of these pieces were readers that are “in the know” about these games or who are mainly focused on preservation rather than explaining what is happening in the game. Whereas the piece on GTA San Andreas is more accessible to you and the rest of us because they actually give more context about what all of it means. The context preserved through user experience is important but additional context is needed to understand what they are describing. Getting to your last question, I think it is important for those preserving these games to have knowledge of the topic, but I think that can be gained through a lot of the more traditional sources that document the game which don’t require playing and being a part of the culture. Like historians who study much more distant time periods, they can immerse themselves in both the primary and secondary literature to get as complete of picture as possible. Yet, in attempting to document these online worlds, outsiders still have access to and are relying on the people in the culture who know what is important and what is not. In the end, I think it is less crucial that the preservationist be from within the culture but rather that they engage with it.

    1. Yes! I agree with you all regarding the inside and out approach to preserving the culture. In fact, the more I evaluate the games and culture (especially when looking at something like PHN), I think it’s essential to have a team where both experiences are recognized. Those with “insider” knowledge will be able to add context to the world where preservationists on the “outside” will likely be able to better analyze the gaps in the overall preservation narrative. Presumably, we’re preserving these worlds for future individuals who will have had little to no contact with the culture. Therefore, a current outsider will likely be able to identify how best to communicate the world which the insider knows so very well how to represent. It’s just one more example of why we as curators have to form collaborative teams in order to effectively preserve these digital worlds.

      1. Lowood says: “I have believed for many years that the problems of digital preservation can only be solved through collaborative work.” He admits that he has his strong points (selection, assessment, description, access, technical aspects of gaming) and his weak ones (repository design, emulation, migration, and RDF). This type of thinking could used as a framework when it comes to creating collaborative teams for digital preservation: we should each outline our strengths and weaknesses, and group together accordingly. In this way we can work at a digital work from all angles and try to create the fullest context possible, including the insider and outsider’s perspectives.

      2. In addition to what’s been said here already, it may be interesting to think of the need of “translating” experts’ knowledge. I say this because this may essentially be a question of accessibility. That is to say, with documentation, we want to provide the access to the digital artwork based on its linguistic description. Therefore, it may be crucial to think about “the voice” of such records, because if the language is too foreign, “readers” of digital artwork may feel the sense of isolation–something most of us seem to have felt this week.

        Concerning the feeling of looking into someone else’s vacation photos, I think this can also be tackled with the notion of translation. As Lowood writes in “Memento Mundi: Are Virtual Worlds History?,” there are meanings why we play games. I hope the rich documentation can help convey the future generations what meanings members of our generation find in interacting with games. If the documentation fails to convey the enthusiasm and leaves the readers feeling disengaged, something may be lost while trying to convey why the artwork is preserved in the fist place.

        1. “If the documentation fails to convey the enthusiasm and leaves the readers feeling disengaged, something may be lost while trying to convey why the artwork is preserved in the fist place.”

          ^Absolutely! This is one area where I feel like the participants in the culture have to bring their expertise. I don’t see any way that someone outside of the gaming culture could effectively inject that same enthusiasm. As we’ve all emphasized, collaboration is essential to this effort.

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