There are a lot of games SET in space, from the primitive but ground breaking games like "Asteroids" to the complex three dimensional environments and thousand year histories of games like Starcraft and Star Wars the Old Republic. Even non-space-based games like Warcraft have woven space travel as a key component of their mythologies. But never before have games been developed to play IN space, and it may just be the right time to start developing them.
Researchers recently released a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Mathias Basner et al.,Mars 520-d mission simulation reveals protracted crew hypokinesis a...] detailing their findings from a study of a simulated mission to mars. The study, held outside of Moscow beginning in 2007, followed six volunteer astronauts living in an isolated habitat for a total of 520 days to simulate a future trip to Mars. The report identifies key concerns for human travelers including significant sleep pattern disruption and an increase in sedentary behavior. These behavior changes might then lead to poor health and reduced readiness to take on the challenges presented upon arrival to Mars; somewhat of a concern given that the trip will take billions of dollars of investment, and that help for the astronauts will be many millions of miles away.
So what might we do to help our future space explorers? Some proposals that I have seen in the internet commentary have suggested a standard series of remedies. As one person wrote, "Hence the running track on Discovery (2001: Space Odyssey) and the racing around the decks on the Enterprise." And sure, we might add exercise equipment to keep folks in shape or, "incorporate tactics such as timed light exposure,"[Matson,http://www.scientificamerican.com "Mars Flight Habitat Volunteers Lost Sleep and Fitness"] to maintain regular sleep schedules and internal system rhythms, but since when has behavior change been simply about adding resources? To actually use these technologies and motivate persons to live in a way that promotes sleep and fitness, we will need a more nuanced solution.
Games provide a potential answer to the puzzle. 520 days is a long time after all, and the monotony of a 10 x 10 enclosed daily routine might be enough to drive anyone wacky. Games can take the small world (or in this case, the tiny space capsule) in front of us and help connect it to the greater purpose and people that aren't so easy to see. Instead of "the daily routine," a game might help an astronaut visualize and experience just how valuable her 30 minutes on the treadmill is to the future of a small girl taking 4th grade science in Kentucky. Perhaps maintaining daily activity and a complete work routine can build rewards over time that can be used to earn status among your space traveling peers (e.g. ARD games like Chore Wars). Maybe colleagues in the capsule and at home can give experience points for work logged, hours slept, and exercises completed (e.g. plus one me). The games will need to be adaptive and have progressions so that they don't get old over the course of a year and a half trip; and following good gaming practice, the games should be voluntary for the astronauts to play.
Whatever shape or form the games take, it seems as though it might be helpful to start thinking of the trip to Mars as an alternate reality adventure. By re-imagining the journey as a game, and infusing the activities needed to sustain oneself en route with real time feedback, connections to a larger purpose, connections to others, mastery of tasks, etc., we might help space travelers arrive at their destination happy, healthy, and energized for the task at hand.
What do you think?
Check out the report and let me know what type of game you might use to help astronauts get to Mars.