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Video games can and should inspire entire societies to do better

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Reach for the stars

Project Eagle
Blackbird INteractive

If the medium of video games wants to be considered great art it needs to move beyond simply motivating the individual and strive to move entire societies.

"If you want video games to be treated as art, some, not all of you, are going to need to step it up," Dr. Jeff Norris, mission operations innovation lead at JPL NASA, told a gathering of developers in Las Vegas this week.

Speaking at this year's DICE Summit, Norris pointed to the seminal work of Chesley Bonestell, a pioneer in the creation of art that blended scientific fact with best informed guesses to deliver stunning images of space.

It was through that work, Norris argued, that the American people were both convinced of the potential of — and motivated to back — early NASA projects that helped land mankind on the moon and kickstarted efforts for the exploration of Mars.

Bonestell’s work, such as his painting of Saturn as viewed from Titan, appeared in the likes of Life magazine. His work in illustrating a possible scientific route to the moon ran in a major household magazine of the day, helping to win over supporters and fans.

Today, Norris said, video games can pick up where Bonestall's efforts left off.

Norris is so convinced of this, that he tracked down a game studio willing to create a sort of interactive diorama, designed to depict what life on Mars would be like. Not at the moment we land there, nor in a distant future where human life on Mars is a norm, but in the early pioneering days.

Rob Cunningham, CEO of game developer Blackbird Interactive, took on the challenge free of charge with a group of game makers from his studio. They did the work of creating this interactive painting in their off hours, early in the morning before starting work or late into the night after their daily jobs were done, he said.

They kept in close contact with Norris, who provided them detailed data from NASA's ongoing exploration of Mars and then used that data to recreate a section of the planet using game technology.

Next, the group — the developers and the scientist — set about imagining what life on Mars would look like and how people would spend their days on the distant planet.

The end result is Project Eagle, a sort of diorama that depicts a single Martian colony. At the center is a massive dome, while out buildings provide support for a variety of important functions like algae ponds, light wells and deep wells for fresh water.

While the project was up and running at the summit, it's hard to describe it as a game. Instead it's more like something that is part informational graphic, part ant farm. Trucks automatically rove across the Martian deserts extracting minerals, other vehicles explore the surrounds of the colony. If you look closely enough, you'll even see one inhabitant floating gently above the main entrance to the living dome in a space suit.

It's an interesting exhibit, but after clicking around it for a few minutes, it's easy to lose interest.

Norris told me that they're not really sure what they're going to do with it next. And, to be fair, the project just wrapped up days before the trip to Vegas.

"In terms of what's next, the vision we had when we started this project went just as far as this," Norris said. "We wanted to publicly exhibit a project that shows what this medium could do for inspiring space exploration.”

Among the possible future plans are releasing the project to the public for free or finding a home for it where it would accessible to a large portion of the public.

"We do want to figure out how best we can get NASA to engage the video game industry to support and encourage these kinds of works," Norris said.

Blackbird's Cunningham said the project took about 28 days to complete.

"It was fun and we did it with the blessings of our publisher on another game we're working on," Cunningham said. "It was the first game with no gameplay we've ever created."

Aaron Kambeitz, Chief Creative Officer of Blackbird Interactive, sees the team's creation as something that has a lot of depth, despite being not very game-like.

"A game-free Mars colony or Mars sim is a double whammy," he said. "The concept is bound to create some existential angst.

"What we have here is a blank slate. Mars is a blank slate of a planet. A game without a gameplay is a blank slate. It's a starting point to ask what kind of games would belong in this discussion."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.