Physicists and astronomers tend to maintain two schools of thoughts on space exploration. The first school focuses on cost management and quick results and concludes that robotic, unmanned missions prove the best approach to space exploration. The second school advocates for humans to travel to space. “It’s our prerogative as an intelligent species, our cosmic mandate, children love it, and love science for it,” physicists and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser pronounced in a NPR article. Yet few individuals meet the requirements mandated by NASA to travel in space. For those who don’t, Elite is just one video game title that continues to provide a rich format to explore space from your own home.
The origins of the game extend back to 1982, when the British Broadcasting Corporation launched the Computer Literacy Project with the aim to introduce adults to computing through direct experience with programming and the uses of a computer. Sinclair Research created the BBC Micro to serve as the dedicated microcomputer for the campaign. BBC Micro served primarily as an educational platform, but the computer also had the potential for game creation. At a chance encounter, undergraduate students David Braben and Ian Bell bonded over their interest in programming and decided to use the BBC Micro to create Elite, a space flight simulation and trading game.
The pair spent countless hours working out of a cramped dorm room at Jesus College in Cambridge. Braben advocated for an experience that enabled players to explore the galaxy. Elite gave players the opportunity to explore an expansive universe by switching to different visual perspectives. The pair also used vector math to create a vast world filled with asteroids and spacecrafts. Braben initially used randomly generated numbers to plot the star systems, which caused the universe to appear different every time they reloaded the game. In order to ensure that the galaxy remained identical each time the game loaded, Braben used the Fibonacci sequence to plot the star systems.
In 1984, Acornsoft hosted a launch party at Thorpe Park and released Elite for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. The company distributed an elaborate package, which included Space Trader’s Flight Manual, a reference card, a ship identification poster, and The Dark Wheel, a science-fiction novella by Robert Holdstock. The final version of Elite invited players to tour space and earn credits through piracy, military missions, bounty hunting, and asteroid mining. Braben and Bell did not provide tutorials or guided paths—a player achieved elite status by whatever means she deemed appropriate.
Today, Braben is working on Elite: Dangerous, the fourth game in the Elite series, expected for full release in late 2014 (backers of Braben’s Kickstarter fund to raise money for development have been able to play early-access versions of the game). In the game, a player maintains a first person perspective from the cockpit of a spaceship. Elite: Dangerous is the first game in the series to feature massively multiplayer game play, which means that a player’s actions impact how others interact with the universe. Braben is trying to create a game that he refers to as future proof; some players do not yet own systems powerful enough to enable all of the graphical effects and the early-access version of the game already supports the forthcoming Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
The galaxy might prove the most promising feature of the game. Braben sought to make it as accurate as possible. He included stars that a player sees when she looks up at the night sky (approximately 150,000), the clouds that make up the Milky Way, and nearly 400 billion stars, their planetary systems, and moons. Some scientist believe that details such as these help resolve the types of programs encountered in astrophysics that equations cannot and others believe the games like Elite help us to define new missions for exploring space.
Space exploration provides infinite possibilities and the Elite series demonstrates that video game simulations help us to understand our galaxy and to play with another dimension.