World of Warcraft’s Archaeology Skill

From Blizzard’s website:

Hunting the unknown, discovering the lost, knowing the forgotten. The Explorers’ League of Ironforge is redoubling its efforts to learn the secrets of the past. The league has begun teaching the discipline of archaeology to all members of the Alliance in a bold attempt to procure as many ancient relics as possible. This initiative is being matched by the campaign of the Reliquary — a Horde faction formed from an unknown council based in Silvermoon. The Reliquary is training members of the Horde in the art of the dig and challenging them to find any and all artifacts of historical significance before the Explorers’ League does. Each side now jockeys for position, relishing in the chase, vying for control of time-lost relics, and jealously guarding any valuable information the objects may impart.

With their latest expansion release, Cataclysm, World of Warcraft has added a “secondary profession”–archaeology. Players of WoW can now survey for, find, and reconstruct artifacts.

In the above video, the basics of the archaeology skill are demonstrated. In a large map, areas that you can “excavate” are indicated with a trowel. Once you are there, you activate a “survey” skill to help find the artifact. I found this “survey” mode to be the most interesting, as you place what looks like an old-school theodolite and evaluate the flashing light next to it. If the light is flashing green, then you are close to treasure. If it is flashing red, then you are far away. What archaeologist wouldn’t like that? If you go to the correct area, then you find a bag on the ground (perhaps dropped by a previous, clumsy archaeologist?) with an “archaeology fragment” or a (“fossil fragment”, sadly) inside. When you get 30 fragments, you can piece them back together and it creates a useable item.

As a non-WoW participant I became aware of this new development in the game in two ways.  One of my fellow archaeologists in Qatar has been playing as an archaeologist in WoW. Apparently the in-game play action of archaeology is incredibly tedious, which is perhaps appropriate. He says that people complain on the special WoW archaeology chat channel about it, and he tells them, “this is what I do in my real life too!” If he’s like me, he dreams about archaeology as well, which would complete the 24-hour cycle of non-stop archaeology. The other way I found out about it was a slightly more troubling development. A google search for “how to do archaeological survey” turned up with WoW links. It looks like it has changed now, perhaps specializing its search results to my particular interests, but it is a good reminder of what an incredible juggernaut WoW is in gaming culture. There are 12 million subscribers to this game, and while individuals may have more than one subscription, that’s still a substantial fraction of people playing an online game, sharing experiences and forging communities of practice.

What does the new WoW profession of archaeology mean to the broader definition of archaeology? Well, already they have some blatant failures in that they include fossils of ancient ferns as artifacts, though the fact that they also have “night elf” artifacts may remove that somewhat abstract designation of artifact typology. It also is typical in gaming realms that the archaeologist keeps the treasure. A simple change might be a reward of a more abstract kind in lore or experience points.

While this is the kind of nitpicking that Cornelius Holtorf takes issue with in his Archaeology is a Brand, there might be an interesting set of talking points for education here. A side-by-side comparison of the depiction of archaeology within the game and of true practice might make for an entertaining lecture in an introduction to archaeology class. A well-phrased letter from an archaeology society to Blizzard may not actually change much within the world, but may help guide future development of this skill. Engagement with this game’s audience may prove enlightening and fruitful in the end.

Do any other archaeologists have experience with this skill in WoW? Any further commentary?