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Are Games Astronomy?

By drawing unexpected parallels between game design and the ancient science of astronomy, we can make interesting observations about the potential of games, and how they can make us better understand what it is to be human.

Cross-posted from

This time last week was the excellent GameCamp 4 - an unconference, in which attendees were encouraged to come along and give a talk about whatever was on their mind regarding videogames and non-digital games alike.

I decided to use this as an opportunity to try to elucidate some of my thoughts about videogames, the lens through which I see them, and my personal game design philosophy. I gave a talk in which I asked that ever-trite question, Are Games Astronomy? I've decided to write it up here, and better elucidate it where I can.

I should provide the caveat that this talk contains no practical or even useful advice, other than the mad ramblings of a fledgling game developer, on what I think is a lovely way to see the beauty and the wonder and the loveliness of video games.

So, videogames and astronomy, then; I think there exist some exciting, lovely parallels between the two - and, furthermore, that these parallels are made possible, uniquely, thanks to the power of computation. The former, astronomy - beyond simple observation - attempts to model the universe, its nature and contemplates our place within it. Indeed, Professor Brian Cox, in his companion book to the BBC Wonders of the Universe series says:

“ characterise the ancient science of astronomy as a spectator sport would be to miss the point. The wonders we see through our telescopes are laboratories where we can test our understanding of the natural world in conditions so extreme that we will ever be able to recreate them here on Earth.”

I believe that the greatest value of videogames also lies within a similar domain. If we’re to talk about how games can, perhaps, make us better at being human - help us become better people - then things like the recent gamification trend are, sadly, missing the point about the value of games. It is, instead about the potential that games have to teach us about our beautiful, flawed, complicated selves. To teach us about the universe, and way things work. Both games and cosmological software attempt, on varying scales, to model the universe. To model all there is, and all there ever will be, and try to understand it.

There are some ways in which astronomy and games can be the opposite, of course. While astronomy deals with the unthinkable vastness of the cosmos, games can deal with the tiny. The minutae of human experience. The complexity of our interactions, of our feelings. Our beauty, our flaws, our bizarreness, and our horror.

Ultimately, our struggle to understand ourselves is also a kind of astronomy. To explain why, I should start at the beginning. The very beginning.

About 13.7 billion years ago, the Universe as we know it exploded into being (we think), and has since ended up expanding from a tiny, unfathomably dense seed, smaller than an atom, containing all the ingredients needed to make up the universe as we know it, assembling into all the beautiful complexity that now makes up the cosmos, with its 100 billion-odd galaxies, spread across 45 billion light years.

We’re made of this same stuff, too. The same things that makes all the stars, galaxies, and nebulae, also makes us. As the great Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is also within us - we are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” We are, simply, and yet also, at its most beautifully complex, "Star stuff contemplating the stars." Again, this is gorgeously echoed by writer/wizard, Alan Moore, in his beautiful spoken word piece, Snakes and Ladders:

“Through us, the cosmos gazes on itself, adores itself, breaks its own heart. Through us, matter stares slackjawed at it’s own stardusted countenance, and knows - incredulously - that it knows. And knows that it is universe.”

The universe is unthinkably vast; the infamous Powers of Ten video, or this wonderful interactive Scale of the Universe reminds us of what we so often forget. That there is a lot of space out there. Of course, this unthinkable vastness, and our, for now, aloneness here serves to underscore our responsibility to one another.

The Pale Blue Dot - Earth as photographed from Voyager 1, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

Carl Sagan once said that “astronomy is a humbling, character-building experience”. The above image of the Pale Blue Dot, the furthest away from which Earth has been photographed, gives us an enormous sense of perspective of how tiny and fragile our existence. By understanding this nature of our existence, we can better understand ourselves, and how to live our lives.

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

Astronomy, and videogames can both, from a broad perspective, help us in our dealings with one another. We model the universe in order to find truths about ourselves; about reality. This is why both disciplines are so beautiful.

Also, the reasons that these disciplines can both exist in the way they do, is basically, because we have computers, and we have the power of computational simulation.

As I discussed in my recent(-ish) piece on Digital Romance Lab, entitled "On Simulation, Science, and Love" simulations are, essentially, an embodied model of our understanding of something. As such, there are scientific models - that is, models based on the best scientifically-deduced understanding we have. And, there are subjective models - our own way of seeing the universe, of understanding people, and human systems, and how they work.

Simulations are not objective, and videogames especially are interesting in this respect. As noted by Harvey Smith, “it’s through the interactive systems–as related to the player’s agency–that we see the artistry in video games”. Indeed, this is how games create meaning through the gap between its rule-based procedures, and the player’s subjective response. This is what Ian Bogost calls the simulation gap. Therefore, in playing video games, we are able to critically reflect; to learn something about not just the game’s creator, but about ourselves. I recently read the lovely little book Form+Code, which is an introduction to computational aesthetics. In it, it states:

"Software is a tool for the mind. While the industrial revolution produced tools to augment the body, such as the steam engine and the automobile, the information revolution is producing tools to expand the intellect... ...If computers can be used to model what we know, then perhaps we could also use them to simulate what we don't know."

Videogames are, then, excellent tools by which we can explore what it means to be human; to help us to explore, and unravel our subjective selves.

"We are insensate molecules. chemicals mingle in our sediment, and in their interactions and combustions, we suppose we feel, we suppose we love.” - Alan Moore, Snakes and Ladders

We are formed of a beautiful, subtle interrelationship between simplicity, and complexity, and this too is something that games help us elucidate. Our thoughts, our behaviours, all of our cognition are made up of complex systems. We relate to one another through complex systems. But how do games model this, more specifically? How does the computational simulation in a game work to teach us truths about ourselves, the way that simulations of galactic collisions can help cosmologists learn truths about how the universe works? The process of game design is, in part, about breaking down these complex, human systems into their constituent parts. It's about going from star stuff, to game atoms. To borrow a term from Raph Koster, these are the tiny constituent parts which make up a system in a game, all making up the complex compound which is eventually the whole game.

The Cosmos is rich beyond measure - in elegant facts, in exquisite interrelationships, in the subtle machinery of awe. - Carl Sagan.

“Theres a mystery at the heart of science, for which, as yet, we have no explanation, and that is that this universe is simple. Underlying all of the astonishing complexity appears to be a magnificent simplicity.” - Brian Cox

Seeing the world as a series of systems, with our behaviour as emergent properties of this, is a part of procedural literacy. To be able to take some part of the human experience, and break this down into a symbolic way of representing the world through procedures, is what game design does. This is important, and lends itself to long-term thinking, also. Perhaps, if we were all to adopt this kind of thinking, the world would be a slightly better place. But, that's another topic. In a way, while, as Sagan said, "Astronomy is a humbling, character-building experience", so too is game design.

So, are games astronomy? The answer is yes. Videogames allow us to unravel ourselves, to explore what it means to be a beautiful, complicated human. They allow us to explore what we do not know about ourselves, and to see if the truths we think we do know, can hold up under extremes we cannot recreate in our daily lives. Videogames, just like astronomy, are about star stuff contemplating star stuff.

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