Around 12 million people play Blizzard's online game World of Warcraft - and they are, obviously, overflowing with an insatiable curiosity about the game's nonsensical fantasy world. In a recently released expansion pack to the game, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the developers offer a new way for players to explore that world: as archaeologists. "Archaeology," they explain, "is a new secondary profession introduced in Cataclysm that can be trained along with Cooking, First Aid, and Fishing."
There's a zany, Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-esque story behind the introduction of archaeology in WoW:
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.
Indeed. The main point, as the archaeology blog Middle Savagery explains, is that avatars can now travel to "dig sites" within the WoW world and search for artifacts there. Archaeologist Colleen Morgan explains: "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?"
As it turns out, in-game archaeology is a curious mix of the true-to-life and the fantastic. On the true to life side, one of Morgan's archaeologist friends has been playing, and avers that "the in-game play action of archaeology is incredibly tedious, which is perhaps appropriate." When people complain about the slow gameplay online, he tells them: “This is what I do in my real life too!”
On the other hand, the game plays fast-and-loose with the term "artifact": fossils, for instance, are not artifacts, but are treated as such in WoW. ("Night elf" artifacts aren't exactly realistic either, but what do you expect?) Perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of WoW archaeology is that in-game archaeologists get to keep the treasures they find. Morgan suggests that they ought to get what real archaeologists receive: "a reward of a more abstract kind in lore or experience points."
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.