Should space-themed games get the science right?

A little while ago I wrote about space as a theme in games, and how one compelling reason to use it as a them is because space is inspiring to so many people. That, then, begs the question: do space-themed games have an obligation to “get the science right?” And if so, how much of the science?

Of course, the answer depends on a lot of things.

As an astronomer, I’d love for games to get the science right as much as possible, but I also recognize that it is not always reasonable. In fact, it might be best to view space games on a spectrum of science realism, rather than judging them by their absolute scientific accuracy.

Pure Science Fiction

Games like The Captain is Dead or Gloom in Space are pure science fiction, and as such, I don’t expect them to model accurate science. They are set in space as a way to incorporate some of the science fiction troupes (an almost hopelessly damaged and alien-infiltrated ship in the case of The Captain is Dead). Their educational value is more for inspiration rather than teaching the players about specific astronomy or physics topics.

Getting the Science Right

On the other end of the spectrum, Planetarium and Eons are highly researched games that try to get the science as right as they can while still having a balanced and fun game experience.

In Planetarium, players are collecting materials onto one of four primordial planets in an alien planetary system to create various conditions. In some ways, this process models planet formation as we understand it* – where debris around a newly-formed star starts to clump together, forming new planets – if overly simplified and driven by player actions rather than real physics.

In the game, two of the four planets are terrestrial – rocky planets like Earth and Mars – while the other two are gas giants – like Jupiter and Uranus. Some of the planetary characteristics available to players to assign to the planets are restricted to one type or the other, which, again, seems true-to-life. However, I do remember playing some of the unrestricted characteristics and wondering if, in fact, they would work on a gas giant.

In addition, throughout the game the characteristics can move the planets toward or away from habitability – all of the planets, terrestrial and gas giants alike. I question whether gas giants could, themselves, be habitable. However, I assume that these details were concessions that happened to keep the the game balanced.

Eons is another game aimed at modeling a real process in the universe – the life cycles of stars. In the game, players collect stars, which come with a number of elements (resource cubes) that can be “traded up” for other elements. Eventually the stars can “die,” turning into white dwarfs (if they are small stars) or neutron stars or black holes (if they are large stars). This is, indeed, a fair overview of how our universe went from being almost entirely hydrogen and helium to having some amounts of the elements we see around us (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, gold, silver, etc.).

The process of trading up elements is greatly simplified in Eons, of course, skipping many of the elements. Plus, there is a mechanism for turning heavy elements back into hydrogen and helium, which is not how things work in a star. Again, I assume these mechanics are both intended to make the game manageable.

These kinds of simplifications or mechanics, to me, are perfectly acceptable. The games still get a point across about some aspect of how our amazing universe works, while also managing to maintain a fun gaming experience.

Middle Ground

I consider games like Gravwell and Pulsar 2849 to live somewhere in the middle ground between highly researched trying-to-get-the-science-right games and pure science fiction.

Gravwell, where players must move their ship in the direction of the nearest other ship, reinforces the idea that everything is gravitationally attracted to everything else. However, it ignores the fact that the giant black hole that everyone is trying to escape would have a gravitational field that overpowered the minuscule gravity of the other ships in the vicinity.

Pulsar 2849, on the other hand, is primarily science fiction, with a myriad ways to get points including exploring planets, developing technologies, and harnessing power from pulsars. However, pulsars are real objects that are absolutely weird and cool. Could we harness power from them? In a time when we can actually travel from star-to-star? I wouldn’t rule it out. But, we would never be able to transfer that power instantaneously, as suggested by the game background! Physics prevents that, and it always will. I suppose it’s a minor nitpick, but something that would have been so easy to get right.

The Answer?

There is, of course, no single answer. If the game lends itself to the science of the theme, then I do expect there to be some effort on the part of the designer to make the science as right as possible. However, it is perfectly fine for a game to “simply” inspire and capitalize on interest in space, as long as there is no expectation of learning something from it.

What about you? Do you look for science realism in your games? Are there particular games you think do a particularly good job? Or bad job? Share your thoughts in the comments!

* In fact, we are learning a lot of new things about planet formation, thanks to all the new planetary systems that missions like TESS and Kepler have been discovering.

I participated in a panel discussion at PAX Unplugged about space themed games and their potential educational value. This is the second in a (sporadic) series of posts where I explore this topic based on what we discussed in that panel.

3 Replies to “Should space-themed games get the science right?

  1. It also is a matter of what you consider realistic. Science is not monolithic where everyone agrees on everything. Is a game with ships using the Alcubierre drive realistic? I would consider the game I’m making realistic even though it has warp drives, stargates and psychic abilities.

  2. Many games you listed take the same approach as comic books, and lots of movies & books…they ask you to concede SOMEthing, like superhero flight, healing factors, or dragons, and then strive for realism despite/within that concession.

    “In a world…where…”

    1. Funny you should say that. As I was prepping for our PAXU panel, I realized I look for scientific accuracy in my games the same way I look for it in my sci fi. I’ll give the author/director a few concessions for story (like faster than light travel), but once those rules are set, I want some effort to keep the rest of physics as we know it. Of course, it’s not a hard and fast rule…I like campy, dumb stuff, too ?

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