Monday, May 23, 2016

Kerbal Space Program and Rializm

"Against the law to talk about the rocket in the park
I sent it off to be examined by a scientific team
On the moon, on the moon, on the moon, on the moon"

Rasputina - Things I'm Gonna Do

Lookit me circlin' da Mun!
Periapsis 4273m, yeah, s'up biznatches? My satellite, that's what. I am the greatest cosmo-guy that ever astroed naught. Eat that, you NASA chumps!
Errr... by which I mean Kerbal Space Program is a clean, wholesome and edifying activity for the whole family.

You've probably heard about it. You probably haven't played it. That's ok. You may be excused for mistaking this game for some sort of hipster fad or "educational" product or some other achingly pointless gift your aunt Mildred forces you to fake a smile for receiving. Sadly (or perhaps happily) KSP fails miserably to actually utilize true scientific parameters. You know what? That's okay. Kerbal science is like Europa Universalis' version of history: once you get past the fact that Norwegian conquistadors turned central Africa Eastern Orthodox in 1500, you get to learn some nifty place names and terminology.
What, you think I actually knew what the hell "periapsis" meant before playing this?

And hey, guess what? Despite our talk of tropo, strato and other spheres, the atmosphere doesn't organize itself into neatly delineated layers with discrete densities, either. Many of the Kerbal-related complaints (and praise... and anything Kerbal) tend to fit into the old debate about the desirability of realism. An old, old debate.
When Counterstrike replaced Team Fortress Classic as the most popular Half-life mod around Y2K, it was praised mostly about such hyper-realistic mechanics as crouching to increase weapon accuracy. Immediately gun nuts started critiquing the finest details of the in-game weapons from muzzle to... errr, whatever the opposite end of a gun's called.
When the next generation of Half-Life mods came along like Day of Defeat, it in turn was praised for even more hyperer realism of not just crouching but going prone while shooting to increase accuracy even more. At the same time, criticism arose that despite the one-shot kill ratio of damage to health, bullet wounds were not realistic enough.
When STALKER came out it was lauded for the realistic demands in keeping your character fed and bandaging wounds to stop bleeding. Nonetheless others immediately complained that these actions were too quick and didn't carry the true realism of bandaging a wound. I don't doubt I could probably find some whack-job who thinks eating's not realistic enough in computer games unless you actually have to move your character's jaw to chew bite by bite.

Look, take it from an old lycanthrope who's gained the wisdom of ages on this matter over a couple of decades of playing everything from Pong to Skyrim. It's not realism that truly matters but complexity. The number of objects you can interact with, the number of actions you can take, the interconnection and nuance which ties them together and gives meaning to the player's choices, that's the game. Now, of course if you're adding that many elements to an otherwise abstract activity in a virtual medium, you may as well lend some of them recognizable forms and functions. That appeals to our monkey brains, same as popular tropes in books and movies allow the reader / viewer to situate oneself vis-a-vis the relevant demands that activity places upon consciousness. "Realism" is immersion. It plays the same role as sound and visual arts on the whole in fleshing out a game but it is not the point of the activity in itself.

In terms of complexity, Kerbal is a very interesting game. It demands you think about a lot of factors in order to get whatever junk-pile you slapped together off the ground. Many of these factors carry familiar names like "gravity" "mass" and "friction" but at its core Kerbal satisfies us as primates because it addresses the unique genius of the vertebrate order mostly known for its grasping appendages: our skill in estimating ballistics. That same visceral satisfaction our ancestors got from tossing poop and jocks get from tossing rubber balls around and khaki-clad murderers get from the distant reverberation of a perfectly-angled mortar round also feeds the nerdy satisfaction in nudging a satellite's trajectory just right so it loops around da mun.

And yes, of all the activities listed above, KSP's the most cerebral (though some of my launches have looked like piles of crap) because you do have to keep in mind, all at once, that large bodies exert a constant attractive force around them and that a denser medium offers more resistance to motion and a propulsive force is only as good as the lack of mass of whatever it's shoving up your well.

But it's still a game. Real space exploration looks like math. Real science in general looks like math. Hell, counting gophers these days involves enough statistics to make Archimedes cringe. Shelter is no exhaustive dissertation on the life of badgers either yet was still wildly successful in making the player feel badgered. My own area of study involves nondescript globs of white slime in Petri dishes. Wanna hear how realistic I think Spore should've been?

If you want to play football you buy a bouncy rubber object and bounce it around with a couple dozen other apes and accept that you'll get sweaty and eat some grass. You don't need FIFA or Madden umpteen. If you want the full homemaker experience you don't play The Sims; you find a mate, spawn some podlings and waste the rest of your life trying to raise their social standing. If you want realistic spaceflight you study your ass off for two decades and join the European Space Agency and maybe find a space-squid under the Europan ice sheets. If you just like thinking about it you watch the movie. Or maybe you play Kerbal.

KSP's not perfect. Plane wheels seem hopelessly misaligned, making spaceplanes nearly impossible to get off the ground. Components sometimes fly apart for no discernible reason. No two launches are ever the same no matter how often you revert your flight back to launch. Your spaceships will look less like sleek, glorious conquerors of the universe and more like ridiculous layer-cakes. You get plenty of do-overs to allow you to get creative and the career mode is open enough to allow you to more or less choose your own next challenge. More importantly it's challenging enough that reaching that next milestone feels like more of an achievement than slaying any number of zombies in the latest FPS.

It's enough to satisfy nerds in general. It doesn't require an engineering degree to play; just a brain. It's a game for geeks of a wide swath of ages and denominations. And hey, you will eventually get a much more realistic virtual rocketry experience... a couple decades from now, if the average level of education keeps rising, if general knowledge encompasses more and more physics... if scientific education isn't completely destroyed by postmodernism and its bastard offshoots of cultural relativism and spiritualism and animal rights and feminism and anti-intellectualism of all brands. Just as Europa Universalis contains more actual historical factoids than the Society for Creative Anachronism could have dug up three decades ago. We learn, we grow. We pile more knowledge as best we can into public consciousness.

Kerballistics is good popular science now, as it is. Enjoy flinging poop around da Mun and dreaming of the vast outer reaches of space. Marvel at that band of white dots appearing above you as you break free of the suffocating, blinding confines of the atmosphere.
Escape gravity. Pun intended.

"I have half a mind, it's cracked and breaking
It's recommended as great for tasting
Spit in the face of the tried and true one
These are things that I'm gonna do"

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