KerbalKon 2012!!

If you haven’t played Kerbal (<—- download it here), do it!  It’s amazing.

Prepare for launch!

It’s fun, it’s funny, and it has a fantastic solar system of planets and moons that you can explore.  Spacecraft motion and orbits are governed by the laws of physics, so it’s like a simulator, but it’s not so much of a simulator that it isn’t fun.  It’s really fun.  It’s even fun to blow up immediately off the launchpad.  Have I mentioned it’s fun?

You’re in freaking orbit!!!!

Of course, to get there you have to build your launch vehicle and a lander and successfully pilot it from the launchpad to the surface of another world.

Land your awesome spacecraft on another planet… now let’s find some gas and minerals! Amazeballs!

With the latest update (0.18) you can now explore the solar system using scientific instruments that map the surfaces of moons and planets and tell you how much gas is available to be mined.  Later down the road, planets and moons in Kerbal will have cloud layers that require you to use scientific instruments to survey their surfaces before you send your poor little Kerbals down to the surface.  It’s really a fun game and anything I would write wouldn’t do it justice, so please just go play it!

I was honored to be asked to speak about my experience on MSL and Curiosity during the LiveStream even for KerbalKon 2012!

Hello KerbalKon!!

I haven’t been able to find a link to the full interview, but I did find a clip.

It was so great to speak with everyone, and I hope I can talk to all the Kerbal fans and the developers again soon.  Aside from all the enthusiasm from the fans and devs, I was really really excited that the devs were so excited about using Kerbal to teach people about science and engineering.  This is exactly why I started this blog, and brought together Astrum Terra!  I hope that we all can work together to bring science and video games together and it’s already happening in Kerbal!

Right before I had to leave the LiveStream, I was told that “Craig Kerbal” would be making an appearance in Kerbal.  It will be so much fun to blow myself up from the launchpad, or successfully strand myself on the surface of another world!

NASA scientist finally sees The Matrix… tries to prove we’re in a video game?

A genuine NASA scientist, Rich Terrile, thinks we’re living in a video game.

One NASA Scientist’s Quest To Prove We’re All Trapped Inside A Video Game

He actually says that the real world behaves the same way as Grand Theft Auto, at least on a quantum mechanical level, where what you need to experience only loads-in when you need it.  He’s got an interesting point, but I think the hypothesis is going to be really tough to prove.  Furthermore:

‘Terrile supports his theory by pointing out “the observable pixelation of the tiniest matter and the eerie similarities between quantum mechanics, the mathematical rules that govern our universe, and the creation of video game environments.’

It’s a really cool idea, but just a word of caution…  claiming the real world is just like GTA is probably not the best comparison.

A Diversion: Mystical Piano Journey to Mars

Warning: This post has nothing to do with video games, but maybe a little teeny bit to do with science…

I like to play the keyboard in my spare time, and when you’re living on Mars time you do get some days off.  So yesterday I decided to write some music and came up with a piano piece that tries to mimic the stages of Curiosity’s journey to Mars, from launch to escape from Earth’s orbit, to transit, and finally entry, descent and landing on Mars.  Perhaps it’s too abstract and a little hastily thrown together… doesn’t matter, it was a fun and relaxing way to spend part of my day off.

It was all done in one take, with some post-processing and effects thrown in at the end… mostly to add some electronic elements for when Curiosity finally arrives at the red planet and phones home.

[m4a] Curiosity.m4a , [mp3] Curiosity.mp3

PS:  you can hear lots of my (much more carefully produced) music over at

Mars Game Laboratory

There is now a video game where you can drive a rover around Mars!  Other than exploring, which is awesome because the game uses real high-resolution imagery and topography data from Mars, there currently isn’t much to do.  I want to change that and that’s what I’m talking about today.  First, though, check the game out here.

Sometimes… maybe all the time, what makes a video game fun isn’t having unlimited power and resources, but having a limited amount of resources to accomplish your goal. In pretty much any game, and in real life, you have to work within a set of constraints… unless you’ve reached the “using money as a household rag” stage. I recently moved across the country to start a new job as a scientist working on the next Mars rover and so far I’ve found that not only is Mars exploration fun, but it can help to think like a gamer.

I’m standing in front of the new Xbox 720 prototype…. not really. Actually, that’s the Mars Science Laboratory testbed rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA

The rover is called the Mars Science Laboratory and on August 5th, 2012 it will land in a big crater on Mars. The crater is named Gale, and in that crater there’s a mountain of layered rocks over 5 kilometers (18,000 feet) tall. Near the base geologists think the deposits are somewhere around 2 billion years old. These rocks formed a very long time ago when we know that Mars was a much different, and much more wet place, so we’re hoping to find some really interesting clues about what Mars was like when there was generally much more water around.

Gale crater, Mars. The rover will land somewhere in that yellow oval.

In the real-life game of exploring Mars, your own Mars Science Laboratory rover is the size of small car (think Mini-Cooper) loaded with a variety of scientific instruments that each tell you something different about the surrounding rocks and environment.  Some of these instruments are mounted to the rover’s body and others can be deployed on an arm for up-close analysis. One of them, called the Alpha-Proton X-Ray Spectrometer or APXS, can tell you how much of a given element is in a rock. Very useful information! But you do have some trade-offs to consider… the instrument needs to be placed very close (not more than a few centimeters) to the sample. In order to move APXS into position you have to move the whole robotic arm, which weighs around 90 kg, so moving it takes a significant amount of power. APXS also requires a relatively large amount of time, several hours, to acquire enough statistical information to make meaningful conclusions about the abundances of the elements that are detected. But what it lacks in speed, it more than makes up for in the wealth of information gained about the elemental chemistry of the rocks and, as a bonus, the data can be stored in a relatively simple text file which can be transmitted back to Earth rapidly. So you’ll have to consider when to deploy and use the APXS strategically, as the science return can be great but it might take a significant amount of time and power. By contrast, another instrument called Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (or DAN) can, within a matter on minutes, tell you the abundance of just one element, hydrogen. This instrument does not need to be deployed on the arm and its power usage is minimal. The data produced by DAN is also small, and similar to APXS, the data can be stored in text files. The advantage of DAN is that it can be used to accurately determine the abundance of hydrogen using very little power and data storage, but unlike APXS you are only getting information about hydrogen and not nearly the entire periodic table.

In video games and science, when in doubt, just blast everything with high powered lasers

OK, but say you don’t care about the composition of the rocks (what are you, some sort of physicist?) … well, your rover also has a variety of high resolution digital cameras, two on a mast that serve as the rover’s eyes and another mounted to the arm for close-up images. The cameras require relatively little power to focus and snap a picture, and the scientific return from the images can be invaluable… but what about the size of the data for all those pictures?  If you want a full-size image to come back to Earth it could be around 2 Megabytes, which doesn’t sound like much but when you’re talking about getting that data back from Mars, along with all the required engineering and telemetry data, those images can add up.  So you can scale-down the images and send back a lot of them each day, but the resolution may not be sufficient to get much scientific information.  In order to accomplish your science goals, you have to choose carefully what full-size images get sent back to Earth.  There are a bunch of other cool instruments on your rover and… I’m not even joking, one of them shoots laser beams!  But rest assured, each instrument tells you something different about Mars, has it’s own set of power requirements, generates different amounts of data, and will take different amounts of time to operate.

“Should we fire the mass acceleration cannon, Jim?” “No, let’s do some sweet jumps first.” If only planetary exploration was really like driving the rover in Mass Effect…

Now lets get back to games.  Games don’t teach us how to interpret geologic information returned from a Mars rover, and they don’t teach us how scientific instruments like APXS or DAN work, but if Mars exploration were a video game those wouldn’t be the “playable” parts of the game anyway.  In this fictional game, interpreting the geologic history of Mars (or the history of ancient alien civilizations on Mars – whatever floats your boat) is the game’s story, it’s why you play, and you’d let the writers of the game dictate how that played out.  The inner workings of how your scientific instruments work?  Well, that’d be like asking how the assault rifle in Halo works or how pylons generate energy for the Protoss in Starcraft.  Yes, it’s part of the game world, and it’s probably explained in one of the novels based on the game for players who are interested but it’s not central to much.  What is central to the assault rifle in Halo or pylons in Starcraft?  The answer is… what do they do?  And in a game about Mars exploration, the answer is the same.  What do your scientific instruments do?  For the purposes of a game, gamers don’t care how these instruments (or guns) work, the important thing is what they do and in what situation one is preferable to another.  Too often, video games that try to incorporate science get this very important part incorrect.  They incorporate science at this level of detail, giving you explanations about the details of story components or explaining how details regarding your armor or weapons rely on scientific principles.  While this method of incorporating science is commendable, it doesn’t engage the player or give them the feeling of really understanding.  In a way, the science stays above the player, and talks down to them a bit.  What I’m proposing is we give the scientific instruments and principles to the player, bring it to the level of actually using them while playing, and they’ll start to get comfortable with it.  Even if you take some liberties to make it “fun”, it’ll go a long way to making people feel more comfortable with real science.

How does this pylon work? I don’t care, but it helps me obliterate hoards of zerg.

So in the game of Mars exploration, the fun is in how you do the exploring, what instruments you use, how you use them, and how you manage your resources.  On top of this is a compelling story, graphics, and detailed background about the individual game elements.  Playing the game would involve managing to discover new, amazing things on Mars under all the constraints you’ve been given.  And as you can see, the constraints can be numerous, highly variable and (I think) fun!  What’s especially fun is that there are multiple ways to solve problems.  In the absence of any oversight whatsoever, you could accomplish the goals of Mars exploration by simply ignoring the constraints.  Drill every rock!  Take every picture!

You might be successful using this method but it will take you longer, you might wind up doing more than was necessary, you’ll use way more power, and if you use up too much time and resources, something unexpected might happen which may keep you from accomplishing your long term goal.  There’s something fulfilling and fun about finding a more elegant solution to the problem.  Gamers do this all the time, working with constraints and finding numerous, fun ways to play.

So with all this in mind, let’s get back to the Mars rover.  There is one more “fun” constraint you have to work with.  Consider that the seemingly simple act of getting data back from the rover is, in itself, determined by a process with it’s own set of advantages and limitations.  We (humans) have several satellites in orbit around Mars, and we typically use one of them as a data relay between Earth and Mars for communication to the rover.  This is great because it means we don’t have to store the data on the rover and we gain the ability to transmit relatively large quantities of data back to Earth.  But, the limitation is that the satellite only passes over Gale crater twice a day, so all of the sending and receiving of data needs to be done during those two passes of the satellite over the rover’s landing site.  And for added fun, you can only transmit so much data before the satellite passes over the horizon and you have to wait for the next pass… so you have to prioritize what comes down first, and if you don’t do it right, you might wind up sitting on Mars for an extra day without that critical piece of information you needed in order to move on.  So effectively, you’re on the clock every day to make a science plan, command the rover to take the actions that complete the plan, wait for the rover to execute it, and then to evaluate the data that came back and start all over again.  Go ahead and wrap all of these time constraints in another time constraint, which is that the rover itself, mechanically, has a limited lifetime.

Gamers are pretty familiar with managing a variety of resources… in this screenshot from World of Warcraft the bottom of the screen lists all the spells and abilities available, on the right side of the screen are all the quests the player is on, as for what’s on the left, who knows… it’s probably reminders to get up and eat a Hot Pocket every 7 hours

I described all of that stuff not only because I think it’s cool, but because it’s interesting to me that in Mars exploration and in games there are trade-offs.  Engineers, who are probably facepalming, deal with trade-offs all the time.  (Scientists… yeah, we’re aware of these things called trade-offs but they’re super inconvenient)  Gamers, too, make choices about trade-offs in many strategy-based video games like Civilization and Starcraft.  Role playing games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, World of Warcraft and Mass Effect also require a player to manage a variety of resources which have trade-offs.  I’d also wager that a game set on Mars, focused on exploration with an intriguing story line would get the attention of a lot of gamers.  And hey, I’m only partly kidding here… but what would work really well, and be cool, would be to implement this idea into a first-person shooter.  Instead of shooting a gun, you have an infrared spectrometer, thermal imager, an APXS and a neutron detector… and, well sure, you can have a gun too.  The closest we’ve come to this has been with a Portal gun, but there’s no reason why a bit more realistic of a scientific basis can’t be just as much fun as portal-based science.


UpdateCheck this out! I had nothing to do with this whatsoever, but I’m really glad to see this type of thing on Xbox Live.

First Some Facts, Then Some Figuring. Terra Nova-style.

Craig Hardgrove

Here I am, trying to encourage scientists and video game developers to collaborate, and I go writing this… but I just can’t help myself.  Stick with me, please, because I’m really not trying to shoot myself in the foot.  I think by the end I’ll have a salient point….

The Science and Entertainment Exchange links up entertainment professionals with scientists who can help them with scientific content. It’s awesome!

There is a fantastic program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange which is run by the National Academy of Sciences.  The program partners interested scientists (pro-bono work only) with content creators (TV, film and now video games) interested in incorporating some science into their work.  Before I got the idea to start Astrum Terra, I submitted my name to them to be a scientific consultant.  The Exchange is a great way to gain experience giving scientific advice to anyone creating content or media that needs a bit of help with a particular story point or establishing believable scientific content.  Their primary focus is on TV and film, which has been bread and butter of (for pay) scientific consulting.  Keep in mind, getting paid to do science consulting is pretty rare anyway and making a living off of it is probably even more rare.  Regardless, the Science and Entertainment Exchange is an awesome way to encourage smaller creative operations with much less disposable income to partner with a scientist.  It’s also a great way for scientists to interact with the entertainment industry.  But why is the focus so heavy on TV and film?  Aren’t video game revenues pretty darn high at this point, and aren’t video game studios becoming pretty large operations?  I did some research.  According to this article, video game industry revenues were $22 billion in the US in 2008, while the global revenue for the film industry was $27 billion.  The current estimate for worldwide video game revenues is somewhere around $60 billion and it is widely accepted that the video game industry has surpassed the movie industry in terms of total revenue.  So if the TV and film industry have been using science consultants for a while now, why not video games?

I don’t know the reason, but I have a hunch, and I’m not just saying this to be nice… but I think it’s because the people that make video games are really freaking smart!  They know how to use the internet, read books, and generally look up the story information they need about, say, quantum mechanics or robotic arms.  The people that make video games are smart enough to know that a lot of the information you’re going to get from a science consultant is available on the internet, for free, and they know enough to read it, digest it and incorporate it in some form into their game.  Whatever form science consulting takes for the video game industry, if it takes a form at all, it will not be the traditional model of passing along some science-y words and hanging up the phone.  It’s going to need to be creative, collaborative, and most importantly, unique.  Because you’re not going to impress a video game developer by putting on a lab coat and flashing a spectrometer at him/her… you need to be some sort of scientist-artist, adding a little bit of science wrapped around the main plot, or pointing out areas where some real data could add to the game world, and you need to know where to back off and let them do what they do best.  You need to know a lot about how video games work, how game mechanics might be improved by adding a realistic physical effect.  You need to know something about what makes video games fun, and where some bit of real science might create a more immersive environment for the player.  You can’t just walk in with your science-hat, and toss around some science-words, and ride off on your science-horse…

“There ya go, Betty. There’s that quick science injection you asked for. Is there anything else I can do for you?” “Why yes, there is. Is there anything you can do to dull the burning from all that confusing jargon at the injection site?”

Anyway, I wrote all of that because I wanted to bring you along with me up to this point.  I wanted you to understand how I’m viewing scientific consulting, because yesterday I came across this article on the Science and Entertainment Exchange website.  The producers of the show Terra Nova requested the expertise of a geologist and were put in touch with Dr. Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab.  According to Dr. Grazier, they asked him for,

…some geologic concepts that were close enough in their ultimate outcome to be mistaken for one another, but disparate enough to be contradictory.

The episode’s plot called for a famous geologist to come through the portal to Terra Nova, only unbeknownst to everyone he was not the famous geologist, but an impostor.  So the writers thought it would be cool to have the impostor’s dastardly-self get exposed as an impostor by incorrectly describing a geologic phenomena.  Sounds good, I like it.  Now, I’m not going to say anything about this before you read it, but here is what Dr. Grazier suggested the show use (The faux-geologist impostor’s name is Dr. Horton).

The impostor Dr. Horton begins a discussion about serpentinization (a geochemical process by which water alters basaltic igneous rock into ‘slipperier’ serpentine, thus lubricating the slabs on either side of a fault) when Maddy is actually referring to the real Dr. Horton’s writings on slab pull (a geophysical effect in which the weight of a descending subducting slab of crust speeds plate motion).

“I told you not to try and cram another pterosaur into that box… you’ve seen what happens when they’re overpressurized!” “I told you I don’t understand any of those damn science words!!!!”

Guess what?  The producers of the show didn’t include it in the final cut.  I’m sure you are saying to yourself, “Really?!  I was sure that the Terra Nova audience would be enthralled by the possibilities of slab pull induced serpentinization.”  In fairness, I don’t know what the show’s dialogue actually said, and it may be that their intention was just to blind the audience with science-words (which, for the record, I feel has a totally appropriate time and place).

So am I really all that upset by this?  No, because I like that shows are trying to use science and I really like that caring people like Dr. Grazier are putting their time and effort into trying to include real science in TV and film.  My point is that, although these concepts are real scientific phenomena, the suggested science would be heard by the audience as nothing more than techno-babble.  They might as well have been inductively-coupling the dilithium crystals to Data’s positronic matrix so the Enterprise could perform a Riker Maneuver out of the negative space anomaly.

*slow clap*

Thank you.

But in all seriousness, the concepts addressed in the proposed Terra Nova plot (serpentinization and slab pull) aren’t that difficult to explain in plain english.  And you know what’s great about describing things in plain english?  You don’t have to use words like serpentinization and slab pull.  The following wouldn’t fly in a discussion amongst scientists, but if you’re addressing, say, the audience of Terra Nova I’d suggest something like this instead:

The impostor Dr. Horton begins a discussion about the alteration of minerals in volcanic rocks when they are exposed to water, when Maddy is actually referring to the real Dr. Horton’s writings on the increasing speeds of moving tectonic plates.

Yeah, it doesn’t sound as badass, right?  I didn’t blow you away with amazing science, I know, and I’m very sorry.  But I told you the same things and I didn’t make you feel dumb.  Sure some details are lost in my version, but there’s less jargon.  I would hope that most people have some idea about the words I used… in fact, the only ones people might have trouble with are “tectonic plates” and “volcanic”, but I think most people have, at the very least, a vague picture of these concepts.

Remember this from school? Ben remembers….

This seemingly more simple explanation is more likely to connect with the audience.  If you address your audience like they’re intelligent, try to not talk above their heads, and use scientific concepts in a way that’s familiar, you might just intrigue them into being interested in science by sparking that part of the brain that hasn’t thought about “tectonic plates” since high school.  That doesn’t happen when you say the word “serpentinization” to someone.  What does happen is that the audience says to themselves, “I have no idea what that guy just said, but scientists much be a lot smarter than me.”  The truth is, there are a lot of smart people doing science, but that doesn’t mean the people who aren’t doing science aren’t capable of understanding what scientists are doing.  Some really famous scientist-type guy named Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it…”  And he invented general relativity, so naturally, he must have thought that general relativity could be explained simply.  I bet he’s right.  I know I can’t explain it simply, but that’s because I don’t understand it.  I can understand the desire to use specific terms when talking about science, because on some level science can be about classification, however, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, and why there is a term for something in the first place, because before that term existed there was a way to describe the phenomena without using that term… the word or definition just makes it quicker to say.  But anyway, I’m seriously digressing and this topic is probably less about science and video games and more about communicating science.

I don’t yet know if scientists and game developers will work side by side, but I think they should (and I’ll give some examples in the future of where this is already happening).  This type of collaboration is critically important for the future of science in video games.  The key point, however, is that computer programmers and game developers already think like scientists, so scientists working with them need to speak and collaborate with them as equals.  And likewise, scientists need to contribute to game development as part of the team, not as an outsider looking in.


It’s Tea Time for Science!

Craig Hardgrove

Oh, those crazy brits!  It’s amazing how almost every time I find work being done (either making an actual game or doing a research project) on science and video games, it’s based in the UK.  Is it also a coincidence that any good music I’ve come across in the past 5-10 years has also come from UK artists?…. but I digress.

I recently came across an article posted on  The site is essentially the web-based home for new ideas in museum curation and public education.  They’ve had quite a bit of success with their web-based game High Tea, in which you play a British smuggler of opium and tea in the 1830′s.  The game creators worked closely with experts in this field to add just the right about of historical accuracy to the game.  It turned out that the history of this subject, as is often the case, is rife with issues surrounding the politics and ethical issues of the opium trade, particularly in China.  The game drew in so many players with it’s gameplay that many became interested in learning more about and discussing the Opium Wars.  Just the right amount of historical accuracy actually added an additional level of intrigue to the story that players of the game found themselves drawn to find out more about the real history surrounding the game’s story.

I can’t help but think of Bioshock, where I’m certain that at least a handful of people decided to pick up Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead after hearing so much in-game discussion about free markets, capitalism, and the political ideas of libertarians.  Bioshock took an idea fundamentally grounded in philosophical and political thought and thoroughly expounded upon it.  I would argue that the game world was made infinitely more rich by basing its fundamental ideology and story behind a real-world idea that the player could actually go read about.  In this way, the story of Bioshock entered the real world and could become a starting off point for further reading and discussions.

A real bug caught in amber which you could totally probe for some DNA

Take another example, this time more related to science.  Would Jurassic Park have been nearly as cool if they never showed you how to genetically engineer a dinosaur by extracting DNA from prehistoric mosquitos caught in amber?  That is an actual scientific idea (that doesn’t work… yet) that non-scientists who watched the movie realized wasn’t even science fiction… they were left asking, “Wait, why don’t scientists just do that?”  And if they found the answer, they might learn something about DNA, biomedical engineering, or the ancient Earth in the process.

So what does this have to do with science in video games?  … everything.  You add a dash of the real world to a video game and that realism is enough to propel the game’s message directly to the hearts and minds of the player, because the player will establish their own connections to those ideas.

Rivers and lakes of methane on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, reconstructed from images acquired by the Cassini-Huygen's lander during it's descent to the surface.

View from the surface of Titan, as seen from the Cassini-Huygen's lander.

So if your game is set on Titan, why not start it off showing the actual descent and landing images from the Cassini-Huygens probe that landed on the surface.  Players will know that it’s real, not necessarily because they’re familiar with the images, but because it will seem real… because it is.  Better yet, set your game on Mars where we have hundred of thousands of real images of the surface.  We can construct 3D terrain models for some of the really interesting places (more on this in a future post).  There are countless numbers of images that can be used in this way.

3D view, constructed from real topography of Mars, of Valles Marinaris.

There is a wealth of data out there that scientists have access to, both for the Earth and other planets, which could be integrated into video games to add to the sense of realism.  I hope that in my future writings, I can convince you that some of the bits I know about could add a bit of a “science-themed backdrop” to a video game… for example, in addition to 3D digital terrain models, there are data sets available that will allow you to make your proportions of rocks to dirt (using thermal inertia images) more realistic based on your geologic setting, or to make the colors and layers of rocks look realistic by making maps of spectral parameters (using near-infrared absorption bands) you can’t see with your naked eye.  Like the makers of High Tea, game developers will hopefully see that the scientific community is a resource for drawing players into their game world by tying the game world to the real world.