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About this book

At the intersection of astronautics, computer science, and social science, this book introduces the challenges and insights associated with computer simulation of human society in outer space, and of the dynamics of terrestrial enthusiasm for space exploration. Never before have so many dynamic representations of space-related social systems existed, some deeply analyzing the logical implications of social-scientific theories, and others open for experience by the general public as computer-generated virtual worlds. Fascinating software ranges from multi-agent artificial intelligence models of civilization, to space-oriented massively multiplayer online games, to educational programs suitable for schools or even for the world's space exploration agencies. At the present time, when actual forays by humans into space are scarce, computer simulations of space societies are an excellent way to prepare for a renaissance of exploration beyond the bounds of Earth.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. A Virtual Launch into a Computational Cosmos

To provide an overview of the multiple applications of computer simulation for exploration of social issues relating to spaceflight, this chapter begins by defining simulation, with the historical examples of ENIAC and Geniac. A discussion of the current structure of computational social science provides the context for modern academic approaches in computer simulation of human behavior. Based on ethnographic observational research, the chapter then introduces a popular version of space-related simulation in the non-game, user-created virtual world, Second Life. Next, the massively multiplayer role-playing game, Star Trek Online, illustrates the compromises apparently required in the design of virtual spaceships in order to engage a wide audience in exploration of the final frontier. Remarkably, 10 of the 50 most innovative personal computer games of all time, according to a respected list voted by critics, concern spaceflight. The chapter concludes with analysis of questionnaire data on the personal values of volunteers for an historic but failed experiment to simulate a Martian colony, not on Internet, but in real life.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 2. Simulated Martian Social Science Laboratories

To provide an historical background for the chapters that follow, and to provide the reader with clear understanding of key technical features of social simulations, this chapter presents the logic and outcomes of a series of computer programs written by the author that model stages in the colonization of Mars. In contrast to the massive simulations explored in the later chapters of this book, each program is simple, reflecting a coherent conceptual structure focused on a specific issue. One considers the social structure of communication within a small team of scientists and engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as it struggles to achieve a specific discovery. Another employs a minimal genetic algorithm to model evolution of a hypothetical species native to Neptune’s moon, Triton. Three programs employing neural nets in multi-agent systems model stages in colonization on Phobos, Deimos, and Mars. Another set of more ambitious programs explores the consolidation of religious culture after a substantial Martian colony has been established.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 3. The Effect of Cultural Drift on Interstellar Colonization

Often called the Fermi Paradox, the apparent failure of other intelligent species to have invited humanity to join a galactic civilization suggests that intelligence may be very rare in the cosmos, or interstellar travel is technically too difficult, or some as-yet undiscovered socio-cultural factor is at work. Based on computer simulation research originally done for the British Interplanetary Society, this chapter suggests that cultural drift may be responsible, limiting the expansion of interstellar civilizations even after several solar systems have been colonized. It shows how variables may be adjusted in multiple runs of a simulation to measure the changing range of outcomes. The chapter concludes with a simulation that models not physical colonization but radio communication in a hypothetical galaxy that already has tens of thousands of intelligent species, that may or may not evolve toward shared regional cultures.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 4. Educational Simulations of the Evolution of Spaceflight

Most space-oriented educational simulations focus on astronomy and the technology scientists are using to study the universe around us, rather than the associated social interactions and implications. For example, a NASA website offers a limited but high-quality simulation of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, but lacking any representation of the Earth-bound team operating it. Several attempts to create more social simulations that might prepare school children and the general public to understand the human future in space have not achieved their lofty goals. A recent simulation of social organization in NASA and other such organizations, Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, is quite sophisticated but not popular. Similarly, the beautiful 2017 early-access social simulation of Mars colonization, ROKH, is educationally rich but has attracted very few users. At the other extreme, a popular game describing the biological evolution of a species up through the era of interstellar colonization, Spore, has been criticized for its scientific inaccuracy. These facts should concern advocates for public education concerning the human future in space, and motivate them to seek more successful approaches.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 5. Computer Simulation for Space-Oriented Strategic Thinking

The history of computer simulations connects to strategy games in many ways, notably in their common origin in Kriegspiel, the tabletop war games used for two centuries to train military leaders. The most noteworthy historical connection to spaceflight is the century-old chess variant, jetan, invented by science fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and set on the planet Mars. This chapter surveys 7 examples of recent space-related computer strategy games: Master of Orion, StarCraft, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, Stellaris, and Kerbal Space Program. All of these model the careful building of the necessary technology and economic resources required for space travel, and all but the last also simulate competition across culturally distinctive societies or social movements. While their degree of astronautical realism varies, all require users to think carefully, to learn the contingencies operative in the environment, and thus to develop strategic and tactical intelligence.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 6. Interstellar Travel Across Virtual Galaxies

A very significant challenge in society’s relationship to spaceflight is the impossibility of quick travel over the cosmic distances that separate stars across our vast galaxy, leading contemporary computer simulations to adopt some of the literary conventions of classic science fiction, or Internet’s metaphor that a simple click on a hyperlink can leap instantly anywhere. Some massively social online simulations, like Jumpgate and EVE Online, explicitly use near-instantaneous teleportation between solar systems. Another challenge for galaxy simulations is how to create vast numbers of different planets and solar systems, and the solution used by Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky is procedural generation algorithms that do the work without the need for people to create each and every simulated planet. Once it becomes possible to travel to vast numbers of worlds, the question becomes what forms of economic and social interaction will be possible.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 7. Convergence of Real and Simulated Spaceflight

The creator of an ideologically rich simulation of interplanetary colonization, Richard Garriott, has himself really traveled into space. The son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, Richard was a pioneer in creating the computer game industry with his Ultima series, then attempted to use the industry as a vehicle for promoting popular interest in spaceflight with Tabula Rasa, a massively multiplayer online game set on two imaginary planets, Foreas and Arieki. The name Tabula Rasa refers to the blank slate on which the player collects powerful Logos hieroglyphics hidden by an advanced intelligent species named Eloh that has apparently vanished, while battling the Neph traitors from Eloh civilization and their Bane army, in partnership with the Forean and Brann aliens. This conflict dramatized a rather sophisticated theory about the alternate meanings that interstellar travel might assume, in the history of our galaxy.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 8. A Virtual Human-Centered Galaxy

Computer simulations of extraterrestrial social behavior need not be extremely realistic models of actual existence on other planets, if they serve as virtual laboratories for understanding our own human values. Each of the 95 Star Wars videogames released by 2017 may be considered a simulation of the galaxy that the general public wishes it could inhabit, already populated by interesting cultures ready to engage in traditional forms of human interaction, rather than of the astronomically accurate Milky Way. Star Wars: The Old Republic allows players to pretend to be members of many alien civilizations and to interact with reasonably synthesized personalities, both as friends and enemies, in emotional, economic, and moral relationships. A census of 23,611 players on 27 planets and 2 space stations documents the popularities of factions and worlds, in the context of a complex narrative.

William Sims Bainbridge

Chapter 9. Social Life on Distant Alien Worlds

Planets readily habitable by humans, not requiring massive terraforming or construction of domed cities with artificial atmospheres, are probably rare and therefore distant. Two innovative computer games offer complex simulations of colonies around far stars in our own galaxy, and one high-quality game even in the Andromeda galaxy. Anarchy Online models socio-political interaction after the disintegration of a corporate-controlled colony on the planet Rubi-Ka, large territories of which are now dominated by rebels, while Entropia Universe models a free market economy on the planet Calypso. A census of 58,400 avatars on Rubi-Ka compares the popularity of different professions, while a dataset describing 897 groups with 31,179 members on Calypso compares their changing activity priorities over the period 2003–2017. Those two colonization examples are massively multiplayer, while very recently, Mass Effect: Andromeda demonstrated how the complexity of social interaction could be modeled in a solo-player game through artificial intelligence and pre-scripting of non-player characters. It is rather realistic in its depiction of the varying natural conditions of five barely-colonizable planets, and the astronomical structures of solar systems, while exploring a number of social issues largely focused on trust versus distrust between strangers.

William Sims Bainbridge


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