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Dark Side Of The Jam: NASA's Grand Game Experiment

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We live in astounding times. Not so many years ago, it would’ve been unthinkable for NASA to even so much as glance at our primordial ooze blob of a medium. Now it’s making games and – most recently – endorsing jams that allow creators to do as they please with its technologies and assets. Seriously! That was the premise of Dark Side of the Jam, a mighty brain conglomerate that convened at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Even so, the Nightrover Challenge spin-off wasn’t entirely expected. I mean, the San Francisco Bay Area’s indie-heavy jam scene meets an extension of the US government? How does that even work? I landed my rover that’s shaped like a car that’s shaped like a shoe in NASA’s backyard to investigate.

Growing up, I always wanted to be an astronaut.

Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t even know where I picked up that cliche. Probably TV or my parents, both of whom spent their respective infancies weened on a diet of rampantly anti-Soviet space propaganda. Me, I wanted to be an artist or a writer or – for a brief, yet initially promising span – the version of Godzilla with multiple heads.

I don’t want to call the intergalactic portion of the grand American fantasy “dead,” but it’s certainly starting to smell a little funny. Really, though, in spite of all our “space age” technology, human fascination with space travel’s pretty low these days. Or perhaps we only look up at the stars while emitting especially thunderous yawns because of all our neat new toys. Between the Internet, games, TV, politics, books, hobbies that range from horseback riding to Brony-isim, all-consuming jobs, constant social obligations, and every other result of a constantly connected world, we have plenty to occupy us down here on good old terra firma. Too much, some might argue.

Is it any wonder, then, that the mightiest young brains in engineering are heading for the exceedingly blue/amorphous pastures of Facebook and Google while the average age of NASA employees has skyrocketed up to 47? And remember when major news outlets slept on the fact that we landed a hyper-sophisticated thing on Mars? There were mohawks involved, for the Space Pope’s sake. What more do you want?

Old methods, quite clearly, aren’t working anymore. So NASA’s branching out. It’s holding multi-million dollar competitions to court private enterprise. Also, it’s decided that videogames – in spite of incontrovertible proof that they’re responsible for 87 percent of the world’s evils (including youth violence and liberal arts degrees) – are pretty cool. Put those together and stir with a dash of Pink Floyd, and what do you get? Dark Side Of The Jam.

“You’re right,” began NASA representative Sam Ortega after I’d given him my spiel. “Back in the day, everyone wanted to [grow up to] be an astronaut. But what were astronauts doing? They were exploring. And I think that’s the more fundamental premise we’re trying to foster. Everybody wants to be an explorer. Now, as things have advanced, not only do people want to be explorers, they want to be innovators. They want to be technologists. Technology can solve problems. So we’re trying to foster exploration of that.”

“Games are something new for us, and it’s the first time we’ve ever done it. It was an idea brought to us by The CleanTech Open for Nightrover. It sounded like a good opportunity to reach a different demographic than we usually do,” he added, matter-of-factly.

Event organizer and Nightrover Challenge executive director Josh Neubert echoed Ortega’s sentiment, further noting that the stigma surrounding games limits their reach as tools to educate and inspire.

“I’m not worried about [violence or anything like that],” he said. “My perspective is, games are really inspirational when done in a way of putting the right stuff out there. So sure, you can have very violent games, but I also think that just by way of being connected with NASA, most of these people are not creating first-person shooters or anything like that. We didn’t put any restrictions on people as far as what they could create – well, except ‘Don’t use pornography’ – so we them to use their own best judgment.”

“I think a lot of it is that the younger generations now don’t recognize what it means to be a part of NASA. There’s no one program that’s the guiding light of NASA – just pushing people out there. In a way, that’s good, because NASA’s doing a lot of really cool, different stuff. But on the publicity front, it’s not like the inspiring uprising of kids saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut because I can go to the moon!’ I think that’s what it comes down to. Without an Apollo program for our generation, no one has that real drive to join NASA.”

So Ortega and Neubert decided to go out on a limb. The end result? A government-agency-endorsed gathering of fiercely independent game developers. So basically, it’s all the folks whose every action defiantly screams “Fuck the man” working with… the man. No money changed hands, no “selling out” occurred, but still: you’d figure the two sides might not entirely see eye-to-eye. The final results, then, were… mixed. A host of differing priorities collided and swirled together, but you certainly can’t fault Ortega, Neubert, and co for trying.

The weekend began with the hosts bringing heaps of authentic technology to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California and enlisting a team of NASA researchers to give game developers a crash course in How Space Actually Works 101. No bald marines cavorting about, giggling as they hide behind rocks to avoid the tickle of alien bullets? MY ENTIRE LIFE IS A LIE.

No, for better or worse, the moral of NASA’s stories tended to center around an all-too-real issue: tightened belts and strained resources. It doesn’t exactly scream “fun game,” but many developers ran with it.

“The message I got from the talks was the amount of logistics and resources and money that it takes to get anything done,” explained designer/artist Randy O’Connor, who’s also contributed to the likes of Waking Mars and Escape Goat 2. “So the idea of my game, E.R.C.K., is that you start from one place, have a limited amount of energy, and you can build harvesters. If you want to know what’s out there, you have to get your shit together and play smartly. If you build a scout when you don’t need a scout, you might be in trouble.”

“My game is not necessarily fun. It’s kinda got an element of roguelike. You try and survive, but you probably won’t.”

Authentic, but maybe not the best way to have throngs of people screaming down NASA’s doors. Other developers, then, decided to guide with a far gentler hand – which is generally defined as the type that doesn’t leave its students stranded and starving in the endless vacuum of space. Also, they added pretty colors.

Space Printer is a resource collection game, like everyone else made,” began Brad Johnson of Be-Rad Entertainment, as he guided a tiny rover, building structures from red, yellow, and blue resources as he went. “It’s NASA’s fault. They put it into my brain. So this is some tech NASA’s working on: 3D printing. What they want to do is be able to go to the moon and create resources from objects that are already on the planet. That way, they don’t have to bring a bunch of minerals and all that kind of stuff.”

“Listening to a few of the NASA guys doing speeches, they were talking about how they want to get people interested in science. I feel like a good way to do that is to start with younger people. Kids. So I wanted to make it somewhat approachable for everyone. Kinda bright, colorful graphics.”

The end result was an exceedingly simple game, but it certainly leveraged an interesting piece of technology. Staying completely on-message, however, only gets you so far, and a few impressively outside-the-box games gave a tantalizing glimpse of where a marriage between NASA smarts and gamerly ingenuity stands to take us.

I couldn’t help but stare at Alex Austin’s Rocket Builder as I passed by during the feverish final hours of his development process. As he bounced back-and-forth between an up-close view of an intricately constructed wireframe ship taking off and a breathtakingly vast view of Earth’s atmosphere, my eyes went so wide that I felt like I was prancing around on the moon without a helmet. As it turned out, that sense of wonder was exactly what Austin was shooting to capture.

“Exactly,” he replied when I asked if he was hoping to really put the ramifications of space travel in perspective. “A long time ago, I did a game called Bridge Builder, and it was kind of similar physics. You’d build a bridge, and then a train would go across. This is kind of the same idea, I feel. It’s more to inspire people to learn about it rather than teach them the actual math. You don’t have to do any math or anything, but I think it conveys the concepts really well.”

BROVER, meanwhile, merged two highly unlikely inspirations: the Bill Gates and Bill Clinton (among many others) backed Code.org initiative and Will Wright’s evolutionary experiment, Spore. The end result? A rover builder that teaches crucial skills like programming and why it’s a bad idea to put wheels on every conceivable surface of something except the one that makes it move.

“Each part has meaning,” explained a member of the BROVER dev team. “The cameras are actually cameras that show up on screen. If you don’t put any wheels on it, you can’t move. If you use solar panels, your energy goes up over time. If you wanted to, you could put the wheel on top or wrap around a camera to have the rover look at itself. Anything you want. Then you deploy it and program it. So we had some basic educational goals: people can learn basic programming and the iterative process for engineering. Those kinds of things.”

Practical and extremely in-demand skills, absolutely, but even their star-scraping antics fell short of the real issues here: namely, feral penguins. Also, ethics. The sadly mobile-only Nostos explored what might happen if humans took to the stars via a series of political, economic, and environmental planet-terraforming choices. The moral of the story? Humanity really, really, really needs to shape up before it ships out.

“We wanted to play with economy and ethics,” said artist Rachel Blue. “If you actually manage to save the planet, it ends up looking suspiciously like Earth. And if you notice in the introduction, it says we destroyed our planet again. Really, you’ve cycled all the way back around to the original Earth, and you’re trying to terraform it to use it again. So it’s a loop of finding and destroying.”

Ultimately, though, it was the most lo-fi game of all that had the most to say. Split was a dual-sided piece of Twine speculative fiction – focusing on a near-future Earth and Mars, respectively – authored by two different writers. At a jam whose goal was authenticity and official technology and physics that weren’t just about making the silliest-looking limb windmills, it seemed like a total outlier. In reality, however, its presence made perfect sense – whether NASA was trying to encourage it or not.

“I was struck when they were doing the presentations by the fact that the average age of NASA employees has gone up from, like, 28 to 47,” explained Earth story writer Matthew Balousek. “That horrified me. So I sort of wrote the dark version of that outcome – where everyone in the story is part of a very small space community and in their 60s. Stuff like that. It’s basically about what could go wrong if people stop caring about space.”

“There’s also the privatization of space going. So in this, there is no public program. There is no NASA. Even if you look at the Ames center itself, it’s full of private companies. It’s an interesting marriage, and an interesting question of how NASA will be relevant in the future.”

Meanwhile, on Mars, writer L. Stiger opted to focus on humanity at large, and – once again – the big takeaway wasn’t necessarily optimistic.

“We were trying to explore how two civilizations had started out the same and then branched off,” she said. “We wanted to see how they’d interact after they reconnected. I think living on Mars would produce some uncanny-valley-style physical changes. The needs of the resources of the societies would be completely different, so how would they react to each other? We wanted to use it as a lens for social change. Dealing with issues of alienation and othering.”

So basically, even if we cast aside our petty differences and work together to get off this rock, we’ll just find new prejudices to make up for them. Pretty bleak, huh? And yet, that was the exact moment the whole jam clicked for me. I realized that this seemingly bizarre marriage of grass-roots indie culture and the government might actually blossom into something longer-lasting. Like I said, growing up, I never wanted to be an astronaut. But, as Balousek put it:

“Find one person here who doesn’t want to be a sci-fi author.”

Yep, that pretty much sums it up. But the would-be sci-fi authors of yesterday are becoming the game-makers of tomorrow, and the present – what’s actually possible right now – can only inspire so much. It’s the writers, dreamers, and creators that spin out grandiose visions of what (they really, really, really hope) is coming next, and ultimately, that’s where legitimate excitement comes from. But, even more powerfully, we’re hitting a point where anyone – small indies, you, me, an especially dexterous giraffe, etc – can make a tiny universe with their own two hands. We can grasp at the stars more tangibly than ever before.

Whether by accident or on purpose, Nightrover (and, by extension, NASA) struck a highly resonant chord. Games – not just playing them, but the ability to create – could well help define humanity’s future ambitions, just as other open, increasingly involving mediums have in the past. Or not. But I certainly hope so. Meanwhile, Ortega, Neubert, and everyone else involved in Dark Side certainly want to hold another event, but for now, they’re just seeing where the maiden voyage takes them.

“I think the interest has stayed there,” said Neubert. “I don’t think there’s a lower interest [in space]. I think it’s just a matter of, people don’t really understand what it means to be part of NASA. There’s interest, but for some reason, there’s not national priority. Game jams, I think, could be a really powerful way to start changing that around a little bit.”

“I think what we’ll see out of this is, well, we’re all geeks at heart. So let’s do something that highlights what NASA’s doing, because most of the people building these games have a soft spot for exploration. All the people who are into these things – whether they’re techie types or space lovers – have this passion for creating new things. The possibility there is just huge.”

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