Gaming Your Way into the Future: Europa Report and Extraplanetary Rovers

nasa rover

The K10 Black planetary rover during a Surface Telerobotics Operational Readiness Test at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

By Yonatan Gordon

If there is anything that science fiction has taught us, is that if you want to inspire people today, you need to first paint a possible reality of tomorrow. But if it were only that Jules Verne inspired submarines and helicopters, and Gene Roddenberry, the iPad, Google Glass, touch screens, and about 18 other once futuristic technologies, then the role of Sci-Fi would be firmly established for us in our generation. Simply depict the next generation’s gadgets, and then build a fictional world around it.

But the fact that science fiction today has lost much of its ability to inspire today’s youth, has given us reason to pause. If this genre has degraded to become another means to display doom and gloom, then what good does it serve? Or to say it another way, what happens when the “science” component of Sci-Fi no longer instills a sense of wonder and adventure?

As Neal Stephenson writes in his essay “Innovation Starvation”:

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at [the] Future Tense [Conference]). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.

What then is the way to inspire and involve today’s youth in thinking about the future? Perhaps we can find the answer by looking at what they’ve already decided to occupy themselves with: Games.

How then can we encourage kids with games? We’re not now talking about strictly educational games (although they also serve a vital learning function). We’re talking about experiential, fun, engaging games, that would beat out any Playstation or Xbox game on the market today.

Interplanetary Scavenger Hunts

Two-and-a-half years ago I had a Twitter account called Product2Day. It didn’t really go very far, but I did manage to write down some cool ideas. Here’s a few tweets:

Now I didn’t really bring these tweets to impress you. Instead, the primary intent was to show that these ideas can be placed with the context of what’s actually happening today! For instance, if you read the article from Universe Today entitled “Future Games: Astronauts Tele-Operate An Earth-Bound Rover … From Space!” you can imagine very clearly what the next generation of games may look like. Aside from issues of violence and so on, one of the main problems with gaming today, is that it doesn’t take the player anywhere. Kids began by immersing themselves in a fictional world, and they are still there, hours and days later.

Some attempts were made to work on this problem, with trans-media storytelling and ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). But these mediums are also limited in that there is always some fictional component, that seems to always stay fictional.

Then we witnessed the thrilling past twelve months of the Mars Curiosity Rover, and this “remote controlled” rover from space, back down to Earth. Could gaming then on other planets, help inspire the next generation?

As we mentioned in the tweets, the first step is to map out new planets, moons, and previously unexplored underwater areas. How then could we begin mapping out our gaming terrain of Mars? We now have twelve months of images from the Curiosity rover. That certainly is a very good start.

Included in these gaming missions would be challenges and obstacles in need of being overcome. But more than the difficulties involved of maneuvering a rover past boulders and ditches, is the potential for real-world discoveries. To effectively become part of NASA for a time, and assist in the mission itself.

What if the next stage of the mission, involved sending a pod filled with smaller-sized rovers, that players here on Earth could operate? For instance, one mission could be to find the Utopia Planitia Shipyards. Maybe NASA doesn’t know themselves exactly where it is, and they need the help of the public to find it.

While the first generation of these games may be virtual tours through photographed terrains (something that can be done today), eventually the goal is to advance beyond this. Using quantum-level communication, maybe soon we’ll be able to maneuver robots in real-time, making real-time discoveries?

The first step is to get more rovers out there on Mars and other planets. But once that’s successfully completed, the issue of lag-time also should be resolved.

This is the deeper reason for why the processing speed of these game consoles is of such interest (see: Microsoft bumps Xbox One’s GPU clock speed from 800 MHz to 853 MHz). But instead of taking us through fictional worlds seamlessly, the goal is to be able to operate within new real extra-planetary worlds, in real-time.

Europa Report

The new science fiction movie Europa Report is also a good example of what we are now saying. While every effort was made to ensure that the astronauts travel to Europa (Jupiter’s ice-covered moon) was scientifically accurate, there is was one notable criticism from a reviewer on Amazon. Namely, that they should have sent robots first:

“…the biggest ‘suspension of disbelief’ needs to be reserved for the possibility that we would send humans to Europa without first sending even a fraction of the robotic exploration we’ve sent to Mars. I think the movie could have mentioned a few more advanced robotic missions as prelude to the manned mission to help with the authenticity of the premise.” — Michael

What we are now trying to construct is how to turn all these explorations, into inspirational games. Or in this case, from “Europa Report the Movie” to “Europa Report the Game.” For this, as Michael said, maybe the best way to get started is by robot or rover simulations. This is not because we don’t eventually hope to graduate beyond these robots, just that to make the game compelling, we need to first start with the most workable scenario.

The Game of Chess

If we’re going to begin reworking the game industry, then we should probably start from the most classic game of all: Chess!

Every game has a consistent set of rules, and if it is a good game, requires the players to make rational moves in order to win. The question then becomes, whether we should include in our game the ability to change the rules of the game itself? To account for the fact that the player may make irrational moves in order to win.

We generally start off with the premise that the moves made by the players in a game are rational. Every game has moves and counter-moves that are thought out. The classic game around the world is chess, and its origins are attributed to King Solomon (the “wisest of all men”). Chess is a fine example of our point. While Chess is a game of war, there is no example in chess of making moves that would simply waste all of a player’s treasures.

Our rover game, however, does seem to open itself up to irrationalism. If you steer the rover in the wrong direction, maybe this “treasure” will indeed be lost. It would be hard to say how any of the fictional games out there today reach this level of irrationalism. That in order to play the game, maybe you need to compromise the game itself. Usually we don’t think of throwing the Playstation or Xbox out the window; but in our rover simulation, this is the risk we take every time we play.

Unlike his father King David, King Solomon couldn’t grasp this level of irrationalism (in the language of Kabbalah, King Solomon did not inherit the super-rational keter, crown, or essence of his father). Every move in chess is rational, no move is wasted, and if you decided to throw the board out the window during a match, the judge would probably hand over the win to your opponent. This is an advantage that these simulations have over games like chess. Built into the rules of these simulations, is the ability to transcend the simulation itself.

The real challenge then is how to win, even after your rover has fallen into the ditch. On on a personal level, to come close to God, even if you feel yourself to be far away. To ask God to change the rules of the game , even if we seem to have lost given the present ones.

Excerpted and adapted from:



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