Elite: Dangerous, Frontier Developments’ new deep-space flight simulator, bored Ian Birnbaum out of his mind in just a few days. Birnbaum describes what he calls “the loneliest video game” as having a wanderlust draw — jumps through star systems, asteroid fields and remote colonies — a lot like Mikael Levoniemi’s two-month journey through 60,000 light years of trading and exploring across the galaxy.
This deep space scenario of “venturing out beyond the borders of civilized space” takes me back to Starflight, a simulator my big brother and I would play, sometimes together, sometimes asynchronously (dare I say ahead of our time). We would chart new worlds on graph paper — a collaborative practice for overactive imaginations that made the fantasy real. But just as Birnbaum realized a few days into his personal space odyssey, simulations of the universe aren’t exactly what we see on Babylon 5 or Deep Space Nine:
Thousands of players have spent their time plotting courses out into the blackness of space, scanning undiscovered systems, and journeying back to make bank. Traveling through hyperspace tunnels is pretty fast, but the process of plotting a course, jumping, and refueling off of nearby stars can make a hundred-light-year trip take half an hour. Multiply that out by tens of thousands, and you start to rack up the hours spent alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the empty blackness of a galaxy-sized massively multiplayer online game.
It’s a similar dynamic (albeit less painfully human) to ICBM, a ‘reality is boring’ historically accurate Cold War simulator where “the only real challenge is passing the time”.
No matter how lonely, simulators will never get old. But will they always be boring? I’ve been thinking about how to put all those hours of gaming to work — to ‘gamify for good’ — and even with limitless possibility hurting my brain, I can see how folks like gaming guru Jane McGonigal are onto something when they say “games are essential to the future of the human species”.
McGonigal is a big proponent for gamification for social good. In this 2010 TED Talk she points out how humans invest billions of hours a week playing online games. She says the number “is not nearly enough gameplay to solve the world’s most urgent problems”, but we’re headed in the right direction. As of last year more women and people over the age of 50 are gaming, and our gaming habits are going more mobile across the board (source: The State of Gaming 2014).
With technology and gaming more ubiquitous than ever, and initiatives like IGDA in the lead, ‘global good’ might just be on the verge of an epic win. And you can’t win if you don’t play.