The Biased Frontier


Earlier this week I read that NASA was getting into the MMOG scene (Link – PDF for internal call for proposals). Far from coming as a surprise, I find it odd that they’ve not already developed a space-based property. How many people have ever played simple “Lander” videogames where you have limited fuel and have to settle your little 2D vectorized, spindly-legged spaceship on harsh “moon” terrain? Many, I’m sure. It’s an old game. And it always seemed to me that NASA was a natural for this stuff.

I suspect the reason we’ve not seen a NASA-sponsored MMOG is that the powers that be at NASA believe serious, academically-minded people don’t play games. The problem I have with this specific announcement is that when serious people decide to acknowledge games, they seem to see it in some appropriately serious context which they can accept; like Educating our youth because our Nation needs scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians, and so on and so forth.

What crap.

Over the past few months I’ve been eying EGOSOFT’s “X3: Reunion” space-based videogame. I’ve been interested in trying “Eve: Online”, the sprawling and sometimes controversial space-based MMORPG, but I’m not willing to put in the time and thus would rather not give up payment information; I do that enough already. So last weekend after reading some reviews, I downloaded the “X3: Reunion” demo and decided to give it a try. The screens were too interesting, the reviews too complimentary, the graphics too beautiful, and the passion of the hardcore users to intense to dismiss.

The reviews of the game jive with what I’ve experienced with the demo: it’s a relatively complex little game with only a passable user interface. The relatively sparse official documentation doesn’t help. However, once I got past that and started to figure things out, I started doing what I always do: studying the designs.

The models themselves are very well done. However, I couldn’t help but notice how the different races seemed to share so many similarities. Even the foreign (and thus evil) Khaak are familiar in their little pyramid-constructed scout vessels. There’s a distinctly human sensibility to all these designs.

Further, when I look at the space stations, they all remind me of the International Space Station; modular and logically assembled. There are even rotating stations which, I’m sure the designers probably know – because this is now ingrained in our shared cultural awareness – provides a kind of artificial gravity. Consequently, it’s clear that whoever is designing these game models has mixed a large amount of reality in with the fantasy; probably even researched the ISS and some of the other serious concepts floating about on the Internet. And it’s this sort of thing that’s worth pointing out imo. Not just the research, but the solutions as well.

The issue I have with serious organizations emphasizing the Educational aspects of videogames is a) it’s biased and b) this ignores how the mind works. People play. People sometimes define Work as Play, and vice versa. And some important achievements have been the result of someone’s Play, even if those things don’t seem like fun to others. For example, I’d not hesitate to say that some of the world’s test pilots considered their dangerous activities a form of Play. And had it not been for them, many of NASA’s greatest accomplishments would never have come to pass. And if someone told me the people who designed the Mars Rovers were having fun when they built those incredible machines, I’d say the results indicate as much. People arguably perform at their best when they enjoy their work; when it’s like Play. The Rover teams must have had a blast “working” on that project.

Serious organizations would do well to understand Work and Play, and not arbitrarily define them or attempt to control them. And by no means should they dismiss them. They are Activities and as such both are equally likely to produce “work” (in the classic engineering sense). To focus only on games as a means for providing learning opportunities is, imo, both condescending and shortsighted. The opportunity is broader and if they’re going to go through the trouble, not taking advantage of it makes little sense to me.

I don’t doubt that there will come a time when a humble videogame or shared virtual space will lead to the solution of a difficult and serious problem. It may just be some scientist taking a break and allowing his sub-conscious mind to unravel a particularly difficult challenge while he “goofs off”, or it may be some kids modifying the game, designing their own devices, and solving some currently unaddressed and unforeseen problem. But then NASA’s initiative doesn’t seem to me to allow for any of this. A shame.

Worse still, I just learned that NASA has postponed even this effort. But then I suppose that’s not unexpected. After all, no one seriously believes stories of teenagers re-inventing scientific devices, do they?

{Quick update: Just wanted to point out a nice piece regarding this story over on GigaGamez – Link}

{Image source: screenshot from X3: Reunion by EGOSOFT}

2 thoughts on “The Biased Frontier

  1. Have you visited NASA’s Space CoLab sim in Second Life? It’s right next to the International Spaceflight Museum’s sim, and is used by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other orgs. It includes a beautiful, functional structure by The Magicians’ own DaVinci Doctorow, a nature trail, a sandbox area, and more.

    Info here:

  2. No, I haven’t. Will make some time to stop by and take a look though. I’ve been curious about their efforts in non-game virtual spaces. Thanks for telling me.

    And btw, so there’s no confusion, I’m addressing their “MMOG” effort. I’ve never considered SL a “game”.

    What I’d like to see (in addition to non-game efforts like CoLab) are applications that combine fun and learning in a way that incorporates real-time collaboration; what I understood Valve to mean when they once used the phrase “collaborative building games”.

    I’ve been looking at Valve’s Source engine more closely for my own reasons, and it’s a great example of the potential for videogames. On one level HL2 is a fun game, but the overall package and the company’s support for mod-making (e.g. Garry’s Mod) makes it great for learning… some things. What’s missing imo is collaboration.

    Right now mods are still done the old-fashioned way: people form teams on forums, set up a website, and use traditional communication/filesharing tools (email, FTP, aso) to create the mod. But what if they could work inside the game ala Second Life? The asset tools (SoftImage, Photoshop, etc) could remain external, but what if those assets could be added “live” while people are still connected? Imagine prototyping user interfaces this way (I’ve previously discussed the opportunities for UI development using videogames: reLink). Or having it so that anyone inside the game space can change an equation which governs a virtual mechanism’s function. If a team member had a 3D design and it was added the traditional way (for now; assuming adding those assets dynamically is further off) but with the ability to dynamically and collaboratively change it’s scripted parameters, that would still make the “game” take on a different and more serious character.

    What I’m suggesting is something like Second Life, but with a focus on the game; something like a collaborative, mod’able X3 or Eve Online.

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