Exploring The 'Universe' In A Video Game

Dec 10, 2015

Who doesn't want to play God — to have the feeling of creating new worlds with the push of a button? (Although gods presumably don't need buttons to create worlds.)

This is the promise of No Man's Sky, a new game designed by Sean Murray and his team from Hello Studios. The game is to be released on Sony's PlayStation 4 console. Fans wait impatiently as the release date gets pushed back due to technical issues. However, a video of Murray playing with Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony's Worldwide Studios, gives us a feeling of what to expect.

The game makes use of some scientific facts: that the universe is huge, with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, most of which have planets — for example. It creates a dizzying diversity of possible worlds, created on the fly; that is, as the player moves about space.

Consistency requires rules to be followed: Structures and patterns must make sense, corresponding to our possible expectations of what alien geology and life may look like. The game has room for something like 18 quintillion worlds, each featured with exquisite detail of geology, flora and fauna. (When appropriate. I imagine that many worlds, hopefully the majority, are barren. Maybe boring for the explorer, but certainly consistent with what we know: Life is an exceedingly rare property of matter.)

Just to clarify, a quintillion is a 1 followed by 18 zeroes (so, a million trillion). In No Man's Sky, the player is expected to get lost in exploration. This being a video game, occasionally the player also confronts foes as paths collide. On an interesting planet featured in the video, sentinels protect planetary life forms against any attack. If you harm one, they respond with increasing force. Violence leads to more violence.

A player starts in a planet in an outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal, if the player so chooses, is to move toward the galactic center to uncover a key mystery that lies there. You do this by using hyperdrives of increasing power. (In real galaxies, the mystery at their centers happens to be gigantic black holes. I wonder what's going on in No Man's Sky? Perhaps the galactic centers are portholes to a universe-wide network of wormholes so that the whole cosmos is linked as a single organism? Would that be a VR version of a deity? But I speculate...)

Sequences of random numbers, that is, numbers that follow in no apparent order, generate the details. A seed (say, a phone number) is fed to a few lines of computer code and the program quickly generates long strings of random numbers. Somehow these numbers spawn different planetary and life properties. Scientists use random numbers all the time in simulations that require some kind of noise or statistical variance. I use them often to simulate thermal agitation during phase transitions — that is, in situations where a system changes behavior due to interactions with an external environment. For example, when water freezes due to a drop in temperature. (Here is an example by my graduate student, Damian Sowinski. The initial fluctuations — tiny dots — are generated using random numbers.)

As Raffi Khatchadourian reported in his New Yorker article about the game, in order to cover such amazing diversity of worlds with high-resolution graphics and realist amounts of processing demands, the game focuses on the region where the player is, rendering only what is immediately visible. As Murray remarked, "You can get philosophical about it. Does that planet exist before you visit it? Sort of not — until the maths create it." Interestingly, reality is only defined as the observer (the player) interacts with it, reflecting a sort of solipsistic worldview.

Games like this have an enormous potential, not just as plain fun but as pedagogical devices. I'm not sure yet how consistent with modern science the dream-like worlds of No Man's Sky will be. However, I imagine that, with some modifications, different versions of the game could turn into amazing educational tools to explore cosmology, astrophysics, chemistry, biology and life's evolutionary history. If we have the power to create a hypothetical universe in a game console, we can unleash the human exploratory drive to go where no one has gone before, learning as we wander about.

As the great physicist Michael Faraday once said, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature." We now have the capability of exploring what is capable, given a basic set of scientific rules. The results, if ever made part of a game, would be nothing short of exhilarating.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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