Space-based Games and American Space Policy

The recently released space exploration adventure No Man’s Sky is the latest in a line of games that give players the chance to explore a massive sci-fi universe. But even as they self-consciously affirm the possibilities and allure of space, these games stand in stark contrast to the absence of actual human space exploration and the weakness of American space policy.

During the 1960s, America and the U.S.S.R. were locked in global conflict. The Cold War contest between capitalism and communism was disastrous, and led to a number of “hot” proxy wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rhodesia.

In the area of scientific research, however, the Cold War was a boon. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, space was seen as a future battlefield, a place that both nations wanted to defend, spy, and — if necessary — attack from. Coupled with the symbolic value and national pride that a superior space program inspired, these mutual anxieties translated to massive investments in space research and exploration. The Space Race was on.

The United States lagged badly behind its communist counterpart in the early phases of the Space Race. The U.S.S.R. was the first nation to put a satellite into space (Sputnik, in 1957), the first nation to send a human into space (Yuri Gagarin, in 1961), and the first nation to perform a spacewalk (Alexey Leonov, in 1965).

Sputnik was launched in 1957.
The U.S.S.R.’s Sputnik, launched in 1957.

The United States, for its part, has done a good job forgetting this history and remembering instead its single significant astronautical achievement: the Moon landing. In 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins became the first humans to land on the Moon, America reached the zenith of manned space exploration.

There were five other Moon missions.  Eugene Cernan commanded the last, Apollo 17, in 1979. Upon returning to Earth, Cernan optimistically expressed his belief that “We’re not only going to go back to the Moon, we will be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.”

Cernan wasn’t alone in his vision of the future. Experimental physicist Gerry O’Neill argued forcefully in favor of space colonization through the 1970s and 1980s. He believed that “when we open up the high frontier by building colonies in space, and have those colonies extending farther and farther outward in our solar system, there is going to be room for people who want to leave Earth to go out and to develop their own colonies and do their own thing.” His 1976 book The High Frontier expanded on these ideas and offered a convincing portrait of a truly spacefaring civilization. The book won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science (the scientific equivalent of winning an Oscar) the following year.

Since then, NASA has dispatched robots and probes out to Mars, Saturn, and Uranus, but large-scale human habitation and exploration remains elusive. Spending on space science went into a slow, steady decline after the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991. The most visible nail in the coffin was the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. And as the Planetary Society points out, the 2015 Congressional budget continued “large cuts to the part of NASA that explores the solar system – the Planetary Science Division. This continues to undermine the health and potential of NASA’s deep space capabilities.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has made similar observations, noting that “The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history; two years’ U.S. military spending exceeds it as well. Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar.” Space spending pales in comparison to video game budgets, too. The total production costs for the 2009 hit Grand Theft Auto V was $265 million; NASA earmarked just slightly more — $306 million — for exploration research and development in 2015. In 2014, when NASA’s entire budget was around $17.6 billion, consumers spent over $22 billion on games.

But despite the sorry state of U.S. space policy, American gamers have been going to space. The latest iteration of the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect 3, sold a combined 890,000 units in its first day of release in 2012. By the end of its first week, developer BioWare had moved 3.5 million copies. The series takes the player-character, Commander Shepard, from Earth to Mars and worlds beyond in an effort to stop an alien menace. While the game is largely consistent with the tropes of the genre, the depth of the universe sets the series apart. When not leapfrogging from colony to colony, the player engages in exploratory side quests to analyze planetary composition, recover space junk that can fuel or fund your expedition, and mine natural resources. In the original Mass Effect, racing across uncharted worlds in your M35 Mako Infantry Fighting Vehicle (read as: space tank) can easily become a game unto itself. Overall, the series has sold more than 14 million units.

The galaxy of EVE Online is even larger than that of Mass Effect. The massively multiplayer online RPG boasts over 7,000 solar systems and a massive interstellar economy fueled by mining, manufacturing, piracy, and exploration. While the game started with around 25,000 subscriptions in 2003, it grew rapidly to half a million subscriptions by 2014. Like Mass Effect, EVE Online emphasizes the opportunities and adventures that await a spacefaring civilization. Players lucky enough to locate wormholes are rewarded with temporary shortcuts through space. Gas clouds — nebulae or fullerite reservoirs — can be “mined” to develop booster drugs, improved engines, and stronger armor. Successful planetary exploration yields ore that can be sold or used in manufacturing.

The way that exploration within the game yields practical results gestures toward the real-world products that space science has given us. Lasik surgery, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless power tools, and GPS technology are just a few of the many technologies that have directly or indirectly come out of the space program.

Cruising through space in EVE Online.
Cruising through space in EVE Online.

Like EVE Online, Frontier Developments’ 2014 effort Elite: Dangerous offers a massive, multiplayer open universe. The game owes much to space science. Designer David Braben used publicly available star charts to recreate a miniature Milky Way of 400 billion star systems. Of these, 150,000 star systems — the ones visible from Earth — are positioned right where they should be in the galaxy, with orbital periods and rates of rotation consistent with real astrophysical data. The rest conform approximately to the laws of astrophysics, but are procedurally generated rather than individually programmed. Designed on a 1:1 scale and rendered with exquisite detail, the galaxy is truly awe-inspiring. In an interview published shortly before the game launched, Braben is almost giddy in his description of “some four hundred billion stars, their planetary systems, and moons … all waiting to be explored.” Players can engage in ship-to-ship combat, upgrade their ships, and collect data on planets and other astronomical bodies. The data can then be sold to Universal Cartographics, the corporation that maps the Elite: Dangerous galaxy.

This design choice is appropriate, since the new frontline for space travel and exploration is, indeed, in the private sector. Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, for instance, has founded a host of ventures aimed at promoting space science and exploration. His most notable contribution is the XPrize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers cash prizes to individuals or organizations that solve various problems with scientific solutions. In 2004, XPrize awarded $10 milion to a team that created a private spaceship capable of suborbital flight. One of their current contests offers $20 million to the first private team to develop and land a moon rover. Elon Musk’s space transport company SpaceX is another major player in the industry. NASA’s total budget of $18 billion remains significant, but SpaceX is valued at $12 billion and growing. The company has received over $5.5 billion in government contracts alone. And while NASA has a manned mission to Mars planned for the 2030s, SpaceX aims to land humans on Mars by 2025.

The newest entry in the space game genre is the much-hyped No Man’s Sky. The game takes the discovery mechanics of previous space games and multiplies them across a universe of over 18 quintillion planets (that’s the number 18 followed by 18 zeroes). The game’s central objective is to reach the center of the universe by adding to and utilizing The Atlas, a shared database of planetary coordinates and information. But No Man’s Sky encourages terrestrial as well as space exploration. With each planet estimated to have a total surface area of around 78 square miles, the game is easily the largest of all time. Fortunately, its size hasn’t hindered player exploration: in the first 24 hours following the game’s release, players discovered and uploaded data on more unique species than exist on Earth. The thrill of discovery and exploration in No Man’s Sky is partly due to our recognition that the game’s universe — its incomprehensible size and scale, at least — resembles our own. No Man’s Sky is the closest we’ve yet come to living among the stars.

Great games are premised on the extraordinary, the unusual, and the impossible. Thus, visiting other worlds in EVE Online and Mass Effect, or cruising the galaxy in a starship in No Man’s Sky, is in fact a tacit indictment of the current sad state of human space exploration. Instead of Gerry O’Neill’s space colonies, we got EVE Online. Instead of settlements on Mars or elsewhere, we got Mass Effect. Sure, the games are fun. But the massive disconnect between the expected historical trajectory and the modern reality of space exploration — a reality in which space-based video games function, in some sense, as a substitute for a robust space program — deserves attention.

The continued popularity of space-based games should remind us that space colonization and exploration remain distant — but worthy — dreams. It is unclear if more realistic space-based games can inspire new generations of space scientists, astronomers, engineers, and concerned citizens to organize in favor of a strong space program. One thing, at least, is certain: no matter how beautifully rendered a game is, it can never replace actual exploration and scientific discovery.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Richard Marcil holds a B.A. in history from the University of Michigan, an M.A. in history from Wayne State University, and a J.D. from Widener Law Commonwealth.

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  1. While I love Mass Effect, the sense of exploration was what I DIDN’T get from this series though, especially after the first one where that was more downplayed into more linear spaces. The first game tried a bit more, but the planets with the Mako felt like someone playing with the Unreal terrain editor, except they forgot to put much actual content and life into those spaces.

    The paragon/renegade choice system was pretty polar to me, and didn’t provide enough of the grey area choices I’d associate with episodes of Star Trek. I still love the way the series builds alien races, but I don’t really like how they construct levels or spaces in general. I wish they went the route of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with constructing cities, but on planets that aren’t earth.

  2. I love space exploration games like the ones you listed in your article. I had a really nice experience play No Man’s Sky the other day. Landed on a mild planet with lush red grass and bubbly blue trees, and then I found a beacon that pointed me to an “outpost” that was around 45 mins walking from my current location. I decided to walk it, because why not? It was so nice and relaxing! I let go of the anxiety of leaving my ship behind, and I crossed oceans, explored caves, learned about 30 new alien words, and interacted with some of the planet’s fauna. Eventually I did end up at the outpost, and lucky me, there was a landing pad. Made a bypass chip and called my ship to me. That was a perfect way to spend a couple hours in NMS.

    To all those who are wondering if this game is “fun”: No, it’s not fun. But that’s ok, because it is awe-inspiring, humbling, and relaxing. It’s good to have some things in our lives, and even our gaming that’s like that. I do enjoy running around full speed in Halo shooting everyone in the face, but I don’t need that all the time, and not everything has to be exciting.

  3. Quality above quantity anytime anyday.

    Many open worlds gamers are suffering from the same problem. Oh a big world. yeah a big boring world of the same copy n paste recipes Ubisoft and others.

    Less is often times more.

  4. Thank you for writing about my favorite genre of gaming; space games. IMO one of the best trilogies in gaming history is ME, and I’ve played since Atari. Not looking to start fights or debates about better series, because I know plenty of good series that match up to Mass Effect (and some that are better). But the laughs, the frustration, the sadness, Mass Effect made me feel everything, a mark of a good story.

  5. ME is the best space trilogy ever made! the best episode was the second for me, much deeper then the others

  6. Desperately looking for a game to play, everytime i get kind of interested, i watch twitch streams and it stops me from purchasing.

  7. I like NMS. I’ve spend quite a few hours wandering around on fascinating planets, either exploring it’s life forms or grinding. I was able to buy a bigger ship, and expand my inventory. Nothing I do is frustrating anymore, due to upgraded tools and equiment. But there’s one thing that bothers me a lot: The world seems so hollow. Every solar system is inhabited; there are space stations and multiple species which apparently have access to advanced technology, with interstellar trading systems and a rich culture. The planets are developed. Creatures are living there, mostly waiting in a room, doing nothing all day. Ships land and leave again. But I’m still alone. You don’t meet anyone, you don’t see other creatures grinding, no one needs my help beyond giving them some resources or answering a question. I wish there were long term effects of your actions (I once, apparently, agree on marrying someone, this poor creature is gonna sit there, at home, waiting for me to come home all its life). I wish there were cities with an actual society and people living their life. And there is no actual story. I don’t know what Atlas want from me. So far, I just agreed on everything without even having the option to ask what the fuss is all about.

    • Merilyn

      I agree with many of the points you’ve made, but I will remark that there are some barren planets; I’ve found at least two. They probably didn’t want to make the game like reality where nearly every planet is devoid of life, as a big part of the game is cataloging the lifeforms on each planet (and regarding that, I’d note that I have yet to fully catalog a single planet, as there are usually one or two creatures I can’t seem to find, and in one case a tiny little dragon that the scanner refused to scan, probably because its flight pattern was so irregular I couldn’t get the scanner on it for long enough).

      It does get monotonous — the purpose is what you make of it. I just repaired a new ship yesterday with a Warp Drive Sigma upgrade, so my new goal is to stray from the beaten (mapped) path and try out some of the planets around the other star types (there are four star types, three of which require a ship upgrade to travel to). Every so often I experience that moment of wonder again, like the first time finding an ocean planet, or a tundra planet, or a lush planet, or some interesting wildlife. I’ll keep playing till I’ve seen every star type and the planets it has, at least.

  8. good article! excellent read.

  9. The only people disappointed with “No Man’s Sky” repetitiveness are the ones who bought into the hype of “18 Quintillion unique worlds to explore” without really understanding how procedural generation works.
    Yes, you will indeed have 18 Quintillion worlds to explore, all being just slightly different from each other.
    Have fun!

    • I’ve made a 2D procedurally generated space game, it is basic as all hell but it features gas giants, to mention one thing that NMS could have easily added. Terraria is procedurally generated and has so much variety you can still be surprised after dozens of hours of play. A lot of roguelikes are procedurally generated and even if all that results in is different corridors with different enemies it *matters* because the stakes are high, those enemies are dangerous, and not knowing what will try to kill you next is the difference between an easy game and an edge of the seat experience. NMS has very poor variety even for a procedurally generated game, AND it doesn’t do anything with it. The game is easy, and when it’s not it’s because something annoying is going on (extreme weather conditions, aggressive critters). None of these things constitutes an especially interesting challenge, merely a waste of time.

    • I know how procedural generation works, and it’s all about fine-tuning the parameters of procedural generation.

      Minecraft is procedurally generated too, but you’re excited to find a jungle temple, or decide to settle around some sky islands, or stop to appreciate the Ice Spikes. You walk for hours, trying to catch a horse, only to discover a wide plain with over a hundred horses grazing. You enter a random cave and find an enormous crevice with dozens of lava waterfalls.

      The procedural generation simply doesn’t make the billions of square kilometers of the game all the same. The functions that make certain objects appear vary over distance, and vary a lot, with scarce, few local spikes where things uncommon or outright legendary appear in abundance. It’s not a white noise where everything appears in roughly the same proportions over the span of ten minutes of travel, but a real treasure hunt, where objects of interest are scarce enough and valuable enough that the discovery is thrilling.

      It’s not me who doesn’t understand procedural generation. It’s the NMS authors.

  10. I found that The first Mass Effect, with the proper mods (ENB, + Textures only) was the most enjoyable of them all. My first time through, I hated the graphics and was pushed away. Second time, it looked the best among the 3 and I loved the RPG type gameplay.

  11. Danyell

    Really nice article ! Thank you for sharing !

  12. No Man’s Sky has a decent core concept but there’s little to follow up to bring it past that point. If one could combine the planetary exploration of NMS, the flight and combat of Elite: Dangerous, the community interaction and skill/research interface of Eve Online and maybe say… the easier to use overview of the universe and system map like in Stellaris then they might have something worth playing.

  13. Kevin

    Great article! I think something interesting to further speculate on is how these games simulate political and cultural consequences for space travel and colonization, both on the human-human level and the human-alien level.

    I felt like ME had a great representation of possible alien encounters/politics, and it felt great to be the representative of the human race as the first human SPECTRE.

  14. LoveChild

    ME is a space drama with fairly scripted combat scenarios and mostly enclosed spaces. Its definitely not a space ship game, space ship manager, planet mining sim or open world sandbox. And its spectacular at what it does. I do however want a sim-like ME game. I want deep space exploration and planetary exploration.

  15. Hinojosa

    Mass Effect is one of the best games of all time and always will be. People have a hard time understanding that decision making and storytelling are an RPG element which is the vast majority of ME and what makes it an RPG. ME2 gave up a lot of the ME1 elements for more conversation and more decision making. Essentially what ME does is combine all the games into one big story that you create.

  16. No Man’s Sky in a nutshell is exploration for the ADD society.

  17. Jeneeve

    Good article. I played NMS and honestly, I found the game to be a shallow, hollow experience. Poor graphics, bland combat, uninteresting exploration and mainly a resource grind.

  18. Less is more, and that is a lesson that some of these game developers need to remember. I found No Man’s Sky lacking in content outside of an unlimited amount of planets to explore. For the average gamer, that just is not enough. But, that does not mean its not a good game. Your article did give me many ideas for my search for a different space game, and I thank you.

  19. Love the Mass Effect reference. Favorite space exploration game of all time.

  20. Open world, exploration games can be exceptionally limiting in game development. Mass Effect and No Man’s Sky are two of the ones listed here that I have personal experience with, and feel like they were very well done. When you leave worlds open for exploration, the developers need to create interesting content to make exploration worth it. You have to pique the “need to explore” in gamers. This isn’t always easy to do, as a story line is often a driving factor for game enthusiasts, so the balance needs to be pretty delicate. Mass Effect is a great balance of a heavy story line with exploration built in. If one was inclined, they could spend the entirety of the game on the story path and be pleased with the visuals, but the option to explore is alluring. You want to wander from your goal and see what’s just outside the edge of the screen.

    No man’s Sky is similarly on the other end of the spectrum. With undefined goals and a storyline that is haphazard at best, the best part of the game is in the exploration. What will I see over here? What color are the trees on this planet? It’s fascinating.

  21. I’m hoping both the real space industry and games like Star Citizen can meet the grand expectations of themselves.

  22. Speaking outside of fantasy, I love the direction space games are going.
    NMS gives us an example of our end-goals, what else would there be for us out in space? We have exploration ,discovery and mining for resources, I feel humanity will come face to face with a “level cap” in the near future. If humanity has no problems and all we have left is exploration then our goals become whatever we want them to be.

  23. I love how you dissect how each media piece was successful and how they all tie into a reinvigorated passion for space exploration.

  24. I loved playing No Man’s Sky, however, there wasn’t enough lore about who you are and what you’re supposed to do.

  25. Joseph Cernik

    An interesting essay the way you blend US space policy in with gaming. I wonder if any of these games, or others, are studied by, say, NASA scientists for insights.

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