In March 1914 the bespectacled scholar Bronislaw Malinowski was put down by a greasy tug boat on the sands of Mailu Island in Papua New Guinea. Standing awkwardly for a while on the too-hot earth, he described himself as feeling – for a moment – a sense of deep discomfort and revulsion.
Straightening his tie, the cotton of his shirt sticking in patches to his skin, Malinowski made his way from the rolling breakers to a group of women standing at the edge of a forest clearing. He was there to live among them, a “participant observer” whose role – as an anthropologist – was to describe and understand their lives in terms of social organization, family, and ritual. He is an outsider who not only peered inside, but attempts to clamber through the window and join them for tea. He will have a lo t of questions before he’s through. He goes on;
“Imagine yourself then, making your first entry into the village, alone or in company with your white cicerone. Some natives flock around you, especially if they smell tobacco. Others, the more dignified and elderly, remain seated where they are […] the first visit leaves you with a hopeful feeling that when you return alone, things will be easier. Such was my hope at least”
Putting aside, for now, Malinowski’s rhetoric – the civilised white man entering an “other” place – what stands out from his confessional writing is one of the first thorough engagements with what it is to be an anthropologist, and of what his “method” strives to understand. That is, to “get at” and explain the social mechanics behind a whole, complex world. To be both on the outside, knowing nothing, and to be on the inside – knowing everything. The job of the anthropologist, then, is perhaps to understand a society in terms that would be both recognisable and unrecognisable to the people who actually live in that society. To understand it in an external (etic) way that people within the society would themselves not necessarily see (the emic).
The open world game – for all of its illusion – is ultimately an attempt to give the impression of a real, functioning world. Its environment is supposed to be both congruent and accessible, populous and ancient. As I said, this is an illusion — unlike the “real” world out here, there are artificial and formal constraints on our actions and behaviour in this world. We cannot go against what is not possible – what has not been coded for. If that building over there is simply a shell, a frame, then we cannot go inside it. If there are no dialogue options for that character, then we cannot speak to them. The trick is to give the impression of congruence and reality. Done well, we won’t notice. Or care. We believe it, and so suspend disbelief.
To put it briefly, my contention is this; that the player – or, more accurately, the act of engaging in an open-world game — is anthropological. We – the player – are dropped, quite like Malinowski, an outsider, into an “other” world a world in which we must both retain our outsider status and continue to engage and explore. In the opening scenes of Skyrim, for example, we are literally an outsider – captured attempting to enter the great northern land. To us, at this stage, it is a beautiful and complicated riddle – our map is empty, out inventory bare. We have few signs to understand the significance of the things we see around us. Our interpretive tools are very limited. In order to understand the world – and thus to “beat” it – we need to enter it both as outsider and insider, at both the emic and etic levels. Compare what you knew two minutes into Skyrim against what you know two, and even twenty, hours in. The mystery is stripped away, the signs read. We have learnt its secrets and thus have “mastered” it, but we remain – forever – an outsider. We are not a native, and can never be one .
So what does this actually mean? Put basically, like the anthropologist – like Malinowski – we need to make our “first entry into the village”. As he puts it later, “there is all the difference between a sporadic plunging into the company of natives, and being really in contact with them”. If we simply list about the place, never absorbing ourselves into the world, then we ultimately remain outside of it, unable to make headway against its confusions. In Skyrim, we have to do quests, pursue tasks, work as a soldier or intermediary in disputes. This gains us new knowledge, markers on our map, status in the world. For assisting at Whiterun – the first major settlement stumbled upon – we move from being an outsider to becoming a valued member of its community. For this, we are granted even more opportunities and information. A game rewards our being part of it – really “in contact” with the world – rather than sporadically plunging into and out of it. As Malinowski points out, we begin to look “forward” to events, to participate in gossip, to help others and build friendships with them. As time rolls on, our close engagement with the world is rewarded with our being absorbed more fully by it. We gradually build up a picture of it that is structural, relational and symbolic (we understand how it is organised, how to tell types of person apart, to identify specific types of places or roles). Our “field notes” expand (literally, often, in our inventories and “quest logs”).
However, if we were fully absorbed by the game, the “meta” plot would never unroll. We would settle down in Whiterun, raise chickens, and loll around on benches. “I used to be an adventurer like you”. We’d be that guy. But, compelled by our ambition and interest – our curiosity about the world and our role in it – we plunge on, ever the outsider caught between not being part and being part. Our tools of acquisition and knowledge accumulation are those of an anthropologist – we fill our glossary, don many guises, join different and even contradictory guilds and groups. We “taste” a society but never settle in it.
Take, for example, Adrianne Avenicci. She is one of two blacksmiths in Whiterun. While at the forge, she does not have – unlike the player character — the ability to level up and spend skill points. If she takes part in combat, as with the town guard, then she stays the same – her knowledge of the world and her role in it circumscribed by her social/structural position in it. She won’t, we know, wander off to become an adventurer, or study at the College of Winterhold. Her role is circumscribed by the game. This is the life she knows and cares for. She is part of it – without game statistics to account for her actions in the world. Statistics are the tool of the anthropologist-player, the one always gathering data and stuff of “external” interest to the world we participate in. We see their world – Adrianne’s world — in a way not familiar to them – having both a broad “overview” of it and an glimpse of being inside, personally. It is the difference between being “a” local – a native, for want of a better word – and of being a transient who, for just a little while, is part of a locality.
The meat of the challenge – for the developer – is to create a world that is congruent. This means that you should be able to “skim” through it, dipping in here and there, without the guise of “the whole thing” being disturbed. Take Red Dead Redemption, the open-world Western game from Rockstar. As John Marston, you should be able to – say – ride through Tumbleweed as if Tumbleweed exists while you are not there, and will continue to go on after you’ve left. It’s partly about size – if it were only a general store and a saloon we’d see the unreality off the bat -, but it’s also about atmosphere, aesthetic and interaction. Doors can be opened; conversations can be struck; citizens will respond to you in ways that are, while conversationally limited, also quite “real”. We are, here, a transient – we want to gain skills, equipment and information from this place, and move on. We know – we know – that we (John) will never be a citizen or resident here. We have a quest, a “log” of missions and tasks. Our horizons stretch beyond those of the town itself. And so, we do what Malinowski does – we allow ourselves, for a while, to be absorbed by the place, forever aware that we still have another foot in the “external” world (John’s primary quest). We want to gain a “picture” of the place, an interpretation of it, so that we can ultimately move beyond it.
At first glance, in any open-world game, we’re on Malinowski’s beach – all unfamiliar and new and unassailable. But, once we “dip” in and let ourselves be absorbed for a while, we begin to know things. We know where the Sheriff is and what his relationships are with the townspeople – who respects him, who doesn’t like him. We know where people gossip, where they get drunk, and what they think about developments in the wider world (locomotives, telegraph wires and electricity). We gain an etic picture of the place by being – temporarily — emic . That is to say, our external picture of a society or culture is enhanced by the virtue – as many have said – of “being there”. Anthropology is all, when it comes down to it, about “being there” and the postures and implications of that encounter.
Of course, this too is an illusion. What there is “to know” is not unlimited, in a game world. Probe too deeply into this “open world” and its shallow waters become clear. You simply can’tlive there as a native because there is no “living” to be done. The world is oriented, quite like the strange mannequin chambers of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, simply for the gratification and possibilities of the player. For our delusion. As such, there is necessarily a distance that we must maintain from these worlds in order for the bait to be taken. And so, if we actually think about Whiterun then it doesn’t really hold together – there are more merchants than citizens. There aren’t enough houses. There is no agriculture beyond the walls, or not much – not enough to support a thriving town. It is – ultimately – a stage, all props and smoke and mirrors.
The problem is extended, and exploded, when we also take into account the changes that have ruffled and rippled through anthropological fieldwork itself. Malinowski’s essay — quoted from above – represents a particular moment in the ethnographic mind. In more recent years, “fieldwork” has become something continuous and ongoing beyond the field itself. Disciplines change, as do people. The old assumption that anthropologists were folk who turned up to some “tribal” society, static like a photograph in time, and described their social structures as if they were root systems for plants, is long dead. But, as it happens, this is not so for games. Whereas real societies do change over time, reacting to the anthropologist just as they react to globalisation or the World Cup or deforestation or soap operas, game worlds do not change. In this sense, the Malinowskian analogy is sort of maintained. The beach is still there, the waves still rolling, the “natives” still stand at the forest’s edge waiting for us to approach.