Henk Rogers has always had his eye on the future, often long before anyone else has begun to fathom what it holds. By 1984, the Dutchman was introducing Japanese gamers to their first proper role-playing game with The Black Onyx, two years before Dragon Quest and three years before Final Fantasy.
By the late 1980s, he had begun cementing a legacy as the man who would bring Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris to the west, untangling the game’s legal ownership from a vast web of illegal licenses, sublicenses and a master license with the Russian government that earned its creator six percent of six percent of six percent. Years later, after landing one of the industry’s most lucrative deals in securing Tetris as a pack-in game for the original Game Boy, he negotiated a deal with Sprint that made Tetris the top selling game on early mobile phones for three years straight.
For most people, becoming an integral name in an industry’s history book might be enough, but not for Rogers. Since founding The Tetris Company, the exclusive licensee of the Tetris brand, Rogers has used the considerable finances accrued to set his sights on the politics of power consumption in his home state of Hawaii, and to the stars far beyond.
As above, so below
Having spent most of his youth in Hawaii (thanks to a fortuitous stop in his father’s plan to move the family to Japan), Rogers immediately fell in love with the beautiful vistas and coral reefs of the northern shores. It was a stroke of fate (and tax credits) that allowed him to move his company, Blue Planet Software (formerly Japan-based Bullet-Proof Software), from San Francisco to his favorite locale after about six years on the mainland.
In 2007, after reading about the ocean’s increasing acidification threatening to destroy its coral population, Rogers founded the Blue Planet Foundation with the expressed goal of ending the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“I don’t particularly care what your reason is,” Rogers says, reflecting on Blue Planet’s inclusive strategy. “You can be a Republican and think it’s a waste of money, or you can be in the military and say it’s a security issue. There’s a lot of reasons for ending carbon-based fuel. We can all agree that importing oil is a stupid thing to do, not only for Hawaii, but for every island in the world.”
Since its founding, Blue Planet has found a number of successes convincing voters to pressure local politicians to support renewable energy. In 2015, at the behest of voters spurred by Blue Planet’s actions, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill that directed the state’s utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources by 2045. Hawaii is the first U.S. state to enact such legislation.
“That is, I think, our crowning achievement,” Rogers says.
Of course, the road to such legislation (and Blue Planet’s cache of other successes) took no small amount of inventive activism on the organization’s part. According to Rogers, it began with changing the nature of the conversation surrounding fossil fuels, and finding meaningful ways to make people simply listen to the pitch. One such method, the “Better Bulb Blitz,” involved sending young children into Hawaiian communities to pitch residents on more energy efficient lightbulbs, exchanging over 300,000 bulbs, resulting in $40,000,000 being saved over the course of the bulb’s lifespan. Blue Planet’s “Hui Up!” program brought 394 energy efficient refrigerators to island communities, where families must traditionally fly off-island and pay an exorbitant amount of money to ship any major appliance home.
In addition to selling the refrigerators at their base price, Rogers and the Foundation staff required that recipients trade in their current refrigerator, rather than let it sit in their garage to store nothing but beer. Blue Planet sent out high school students to not only pitch the program, but also photograph each recipient's refrigerator and measure the amount of energy it used to ensure they were receiving the correct fridge.
“We built a reputation among people, first of all,” Rogers says. “Then people push politicians. We have to get people to identify us as the good guys. We’re on your side; we’re just going to make this happen no matter what we have to do. There’s something in it for everybody, except the oil industry or electric company.”
Rogers practices what he preaches, converting a former island ranch into a 28 acre home, completely off-grid, along with 110,000 acres of conservation land. While much of his sights may be set on the verdant islands of Hawaii, Rogers’ other love is set amongst the stars.
Taking over as chairman of the Pacific International Space Center for Explorations Systems (PISCES) in 2014, Rogers has arguably become Hawaii’s chief advocate for space exploration and colonization. Rogers has already established a Mars habitat on the island of Mauna Loa, where a series of small volunteer groups spend four to 12 months in isolation from the rest of the world. Adventures outside their sealed dome abode must be performed while in a spacesuit, and any messages transmitted are delayed by 20 minutes to simulate the distance between Mars and Earth.
“In thinking about what the future of space exploration in Hawaii should be, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need a big-ass project,” Rogers says. “The big-ass project I’m gathering support for at this point is for us to make a moonbase.”
Roger’s home turf is often considered a prime location for testing the possibility of a moonbase. The soil surrounding much of Hawaii’s volcanoes is the exact same material found covering the surface of the moon.
“We have to learn to build stuff out of regolith,” Rogers says. “We’ve already heated and powdered it. It makes a powdered sand, and you heat it up to a certain temperature. After that baking, it’s stronger than commercial concrete.”
Rogers’ hopes of utilizing innovative construction materials don’t end there. He also hopes to utilize “robotic termites” that can dig up the regolith and then build various structures in a fashion that Rogers calls “3D printing by little robots.”
Even with such a lofty mission in mind, Rogers says he feels little trepidation, same as his endeavours fighting against fossil fuels. The relative isolation of Hawaii gives him the power to utilize “state's rights,” a concept historically used to push back against Federal regulation, and instead use it to push legislation and ideology that he believes will benefit humanity as a whole, rather than investors. Even with a political administration that’s historically been for the escalation of fossil fuel use and cuts to NASA, Rogers’ demeanor is one of determined self-suredness.
“[The project] is gaining a lot of energy,” Rogers says. “Engineering in Hawaii, politics in Hawaii, connections to Japan, to the European space agency. I’m going to get everybody involved. This is not going to be like the International Space Station; it’s going to be the International Moonbase. Hawaii is nice because it’s part of the United States, so it’s kind of politically stable, except for Trump. NASA is stuck with Washington. When Washington changes its mind every four years about what they’re going to do, they cancel big projects, so we cannot depend on them. NASA knows this, and they don’t want to be the ones to lead this either. It’s going to be done outside. I think we have a pretty good chance of doing this.”
The 63-year-old Dutchman isn’t stressing about whether or not he’ll see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime either. Odds are history will have plenty more surprises by the time the next generation must pick up where he leaves off.
“We’ve always been wrong about these predictions,” Rogers says. “One of the Wright brothers was asked if they thought trans-Atlantic flight would ever be possible, and he said ‘no, because an engine hasn’t been invented that runs continuously for 24 hours.’ It was so interesting, from the guys who invented the technology.”
While a career spent negotiating tense licensing deals with huge corporations and governments certainly helped prepare Rogers for the world of political and scientific activism, it’s perhaps his history as a game developer and chairman of a development studio that colors his feelings on our place in the universe most.
“When I say ‘save the planet,’ I mean the planet is going to be just fine without us. So we’re not saving the planet; we’re saving the environment we live in,” Rogers says. “All the damage we do will be healed once we’re gone. Nature will regenerate new species and so on, so it’s about our survival. That’s the first mission. The second mission is to make a backup. In terraforming Mars, we’ll learn all the techniques we need to go back to Earth to put it back the way it was. If one of my programmers came up to me and said ‘well, I lost the entire game because I didn’t have a backup and my hard disk crashed,’ I’d say ‘are you kidding me?’ You make backups, and you make sure that the people that work for you make backups.”
Rogers still acts as the chairman of The Tetris Company, though he admits he keeps up with the game industry far less than he used to, letting industry trends like the Nintendo Switch flit past his attention altogether. Despite this, he still carries a philosophy of never publishing a game that he wouldn’t want his children to play. Though his eyes may often be on the future of science and technology, he doesn’t forget who it’s all for.
“We in the games industry, because we have the eyes and ears of so many young people, it’s actually our responsibility to take some of our beliefs about whatever it can be and give it to our children,” Rogers says.