The archaeologists who are using No Man's Sky as a dry-run for exploring actual space

These scholars are trying to create a system of ethics for-- someday-- exploring real space ruins.

According to Hello Games, there will be 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky. Most will be uninhabited, while on others, you’ll find life that’s only recently crawled out of the ocean. At times, you’ll find a barren wasteland where a great civilization once reigned.

That’s an exciting prospect to players, but it’s even more thrilling for Andrew Reinhard, an archaeologist who’s brought together a team of gamer-academics to explore and catalogue this evolving star map. For the men and women of the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS), this procedurally-generated universe will let archaeologists conduct research at the bleeding edge of their field -- and provide a test bed for everything from studying AI-created culture, to interacting with aliens, to the real-life archaeological exploration of our solar system.

“No One Really Knows What to Expect”

Though Reinhard is a classic dirt-and-brushes archaeologist -- he made his bones excavating sites in Greece -- No Man’s Sky isn’t Reinhard’s first in-game expedition. He’s previously used his blog Archaeogaming to study coins in The Elder Scrolls games, create a typology of Elf pottery in World of Warcraft, and write about the potential of seeing in-game glitches as artifacts. Back in 2014, he led the famous excavation of ET cartridges at the Atari burying ground. But to him, No Man’s Sky is something entirely new.

“No one really knows what to expect once we enter the universe of the game,” says Reinhard. “We have ideas, but nothing concrete.”

Until this point, all the games Reinhard has investigated were human-built affairs where game designers selected every detail and gamers had roughly the same experience. But Hello Games promises that in No Man’s Sky, players will encounter undiscovered planets no one -- including the design team -- has seen before.

“The team is conducting the first formal archaeological survey of never-before-seen procedurally generated virtual environments,” says Reinhard. “We will encounter life, sentient and otherwise, and discover structures and artifacts.”

Reinhard’s small group hopes to use this unprecedented opportunity to survey, chart, and explore the in-game world of No Man’s Sky using the same methods they’d use in the deserts of New Mexico or the equatorial jungle. They’ll fly above the landscape looking for structures, geo-tag points of interest, and explore sites on foot, trying to make sense of how the game constructs habitation sites and how the varied environments shape local cultures. The team members -- cheekily dubbed “archaeonauts” -- specialize in areas as diverse as space archaeology, anthropology, and ethics.

“Every member of the team has their own research questions, some of which include documenting new cultures as virtual ethnoarchaeology,” Reinhard says. The effort is partially educational, hoping to engage the public and spark discussion about archaeological methods. As the team gathers data, they’ll post their findings on a wiki so other players can have access to the survey.

Though the group has no central goal or mission statement, it does raise some big questions -- including ones about our real-life quest to find intelligent life and study our impact on outer space.

Excavating Outer Space

“One of the goals of the NMSAS is to see if we can come up with some best-practices and workflow for conducting actual exoarchaeology and xenoarchaeology off-Earth,” Reinhard says. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of No Man’s Sky is that it gives researchers a virtual sandbox where they can practice a theoretical interstellar survey.

The universe’s size, for example, already simulates a major problem with xeno and exoarchaeology: with a universe this large, how do you find worlds that may be inhabited, or sites that may have had living inhabitants thousands of years ago? How do you survey an entire universe full of Earth-sized planets? Is it even possible to find the remains of a one-meter wide Soviet probe on the surface of Venus?

“Luckily we have spacecraft,” Reinhard jokes. The team plans to fly both orbital and sub-orbital transects at different altitudes, geo-tagging features that they can return to and investigate. In a way, it’s similar to what undersea archaeologists do when they scan the ocean bottom for possible man-made objects, then send down divers or unmanned subs to see if it’s a shipwreck or just a rock formation. These dry runs could give future, real-life mission planners an indication of what’s the best way to survey from orbit, select sites for on-the-ground exploration, and even catalogue alien geography, geomorphology, architecture, and artifacts.

“It's been a delight to find how much of archaeology is scalable,” says Reinhard, adding that current survey methods are already applicable to the game’s massive planets. “Also, this survey will be both orbital and sub-orbital, so we’re taking our cues from real-world space archaeologists such as Alice Gorman on what to do with any non-natural space debris we find.”

Dr. Gorman, a senior lecturer at Flinders University, indeed thinks the NMSAS can provide valuable data for her own research. As a space archaeologist -- a field that studies aerospace artifacts like the Apollo landing sites, crashed probes, space stations, and launch sites -- Gorman mostly focuses on orbital debris, which she has to study from the ground due to the cost and limitations of current propulsion systems.

“The NMSAS will be the first time we can really simulate the practical issues of recording and sampling … objects that are travelling at extremely high speeds in a four-dimensional space. I’m expecting that the survey will devise new methods which can form the basis for planning future field expeditions.”

Imagine, she says, an archaeological vessel approaching a planet with a swarm of objects rotating around it. Surveying that is a huge task. The first step would probably be to identify the cultural objects amidst the natural material, then set up in-orbit or on-the-ground instruments to record data, and finally date the materials that may cover a timespan stretching back millions of years. In this scenario, NMSAS-based experiments might help answer the biggest question: where to start.

“I’m extremely interested in what they will make of the space junk, and how it relates to what you might see on the surface of a planet,” says Dr. Gorman. “We have such a limited sample: pretty much just the Earth, our Moon, and Mars. The relationship between the material records of orbit and planet surface might be very different in other places.”

But unlike most archaeological surveys, the NMSAS won’t just be studying space debris or even a ruined alien city -- indeed, they may land on a metropolis full of sentient, even hostile, beings. To deal with that, they needed a code of conduct -- a Prime Directive for the virtual archaeologist.

When Suicide is the Most Ethical Option

With a project this wide in scope, and involving un-trodden ground, it was clear the NMSAS had to lay out some sort of ethical guidelines for its archaeonauts.

“It's important to remind ourselves that even though we’re not conducting archaeology in the real world, our actions and interactions will likely affect the action of the game,” says Reinhard. “Remaining neutral observers (if we can) would seem to be the best tack. But we're exploring a place with constructed physics and new cultures that have their own morality, even if that morality is created via algorithms.”

To create an ethics statement for exploring this unknown universe, the team turned to Dr. Catherine Flick, an ethicist who studies human-computer interaction and ethics in virtual space. According to Dr. Flick, the biggest challenge in was to create a governing philosophy for the group -- a document that would be more than a checklist of Dos and Don’ts.

“I think especially for this game -- which we still don’t know much about -- it’s important that this is a working document with the ability to be flexible,” says Flick. “But we need some strong main principles of ensuring no harm comes to worlds, peoples, animals, societies, cultures, and artifacts that might be found while exploring No Man’s Sky.”

Flick’s NMSAS Code of Ethics emphasizes non-intervention, fusing Star Trek’s Prime Directive -- that prohibits Starfleet from interfering with the development of civilizations -- with more traditional ethics statements that govern archeology, anthropology, and software engineering.

‘I think we capture some of the [Star Trek] philosophy in our first principle, which requires archaeonauts to, where possible, not interfere with normal development of societies and cultures,” she says. “Other than that, it was important to capture the archaeological side of things … so I made sure that archaeological codes, which mostly focus on ensuring that archaeologists work with local people and ensure that the artifacts are treated in respectful ways, were included here, and updated them for non-human societies.”

Another difficulty came from writing ethical guidelines for a world that exists entirely in game systems -- which presents both unique questions, and unique solutions. For example, information from Hello Games indicates that discovering and trading alien artifacts will be part of the game -- an action that would be highly unethical in the real world, but is a key part of the upgrade system. The team ultimately decided to allow it so the archaeonauts could progress in the game and keep surveying new worlds. Similarly, an in-game ethics statement can ask their researchers to do things that it never could in reality.

“Instead of engaging hostiles, for example, it’s suggested that archaeonauts simply commit suicide and respawn,” says Flick. “If this were in the ‘real world’ we’d have to balance that out with the fact that death could leave behind technology, which would violate our first principle.”

Dr. Gorman agrees, adding that the team considered site contamination a major issue while drafting its Code of Ethics. “Terrestrial space treaties, like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, are clear that alien environments should not be contaminated. Of course, this has never really been put to the test in the context of finding other life. The NMSAS has a chance to develop and practice protocols, and this is why the NMAS Code of Ethics is so important.”

According to Dr. Flick, No Man’s Sky has the potential to let us reflect on what we “need” from other life forms -- particularly since it looks unlikely that the archaeonauts will have Star Trek-style translators. Encountering non-humanoid life we can’t communicate with raises questions about the ethics of colonizing worlds and exploiting natural resources.

“In such a case with little ability to communicate effectively, we need to ensure we that we treat [aliens] with respect and thoughtfulness,” says Flick. “Even if the life isn’t sentient, we can’t just swoop in and start up a mine on their planet or disrupt their ecosystems.”

While in No Man’s Sky the team will have to engage in mining and resource-gathering in order to sustain the mission, Flick says real-life archaeologists would have to be satisfied with observing planets without changing the environment. This hope -- to get what we need without affecting native species -- is a major worry academics have about human space settlement. “If we were to pursue a need for materials, or space for humans, or simple greed, it’d destroy a lot of potential worlds. And that’s something I would want us to avoid.”

But if Earth ever becomes unable to sustain us, Flick says, we may have to think these questions through very carefully. Perhaps, she suggests, the ancient and abandoned relics scattered through No Man’s Sky are a dire warning of what may befall us if we overstep our place in the universe.

What Does AI-Created Culture Look Like?

As other researchers wrestle with the ethics of exploring the cosmos, and how to best survey a planet from orbit, team-leader Andrew Reinhard is grappling with a much more present question: what does an AI-created culture look like?

No Man’s Sky, Reinhard explains, has over 800,000 lines of code that autonomously build planets, topographies, alien species, spaceships, and buildings. In many ways, it’s the first time we get to see what a machine creates when it’s given the license to cobble together civilizations from a set menu of possibilities. This is particularly interesting because -- if NMS marketing material is to be believed -- the procedural generation system operates in layers that deeply affect each other. For example, the color of the minerals may influence the color and composition of the plants, which will in turn select the animals that evolve.

“I’m interested in exploring … observable emergent behavior where the game behaves in unanticipated ways,” says Reinhard, referring to these interconnected systems that shape both NPC and the group dynamics of player behavior. “These emergent behaviors are really artifacts in the archaeological sense, but have been produced through algorithms, one step removed from human design. How does the underlying code generate built environments and material culture, and can we work backwards from the physical evidence to see the deep structure of the universe itself?”

Similarly, Reinhard is looking forward to studying how these machine-crafted environments produce glitches, which can be considered artifacts in their own right.

“Understanding when and why glitches happen is very much like studying formative processes on a real-world site. It's emergent behavior caused by the intersection of several variables.” Reinhard argues that much like physical artifacts, glitches reveal a great deal about the game world and the people who created it. “It would be cool to create a typography/typology of glitches, which really are part of the history of any game.”

Countdown to Launch

As the NMSAS archaeonauts count down to zero hour on August 9th, they’re already planning the next phase of the survey.

Once the No Man’s Sky modding community gets going, the NMSAS team hopes to recruit a few modders and build drones that can travel to other planets autonomously, broadcasting archaeological information back from the field. In fact, the team at Hello Games has already built its own drone fleet, finding that probes are the best way to explore their own massive universe. Reinhard points out that autonomous probes are actually more realistic than a manned survey operation, since the vast distances in our universe make human space travel -- or even remote control -- impractical.

“If we can teach these deep-space remote sensing tools how to discriminate between natural and non-natural formations and constructions we'll have achieved something that can be used both in space and here at home,” says Reinhard, pointing out that scientists are working on similar Earth-surveying satellites. “One of the results of doing NMSAS is that if we can determine what those [space probe] instructions should be, we can test them out without expending any cash.”

Dr. Gorman concurs, adding that she’s particularly interested in building autonomous probes that orbit a site for a long period of time, recording how man-made objects decay on the surface. That kind of data would be useful in future efforts to study moon landing sites and Soviet probes deteriorating on the surface of Venus. “Learning about the decay of human or non-human manufactured materials after their discard -- something archaeologists routinely do on Earth -- could have very practical applications for the design of future space missions.”

And while NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) haven’t taken notice yet, Reinhard hopes that governments might see the potential of their bootstrapped survey.

“Maybe once things get going in August, we can have someone from NASA or the ESA ride along with us.”

If someone’s going to be your co-pilot, after all, it might as well be NASA.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp