Curiosity Takes Us to "the Mun" and Beyond

By iThrive Games
February 24, 2017

"Curiosity is nature's built-in exploration bonus. We're evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we're wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow." - Tom Stafford

This week's exciting news of the discovery of several Earthlike, potentially life-sustaining planets 40 light years from our own solar system is the perfect illustration of the big payoffs of curiosity, a strength of character that drives us as individuals and as a species to explore the vast unknown and to gather knowledge and experiences for their own sake. Curiosity about space is one area of inquiry that's found an outlet for expression in video games, and games like Kerbal Space Program can, in turn, stoke the fire of teens' curiosity about science and technology. iThrive's Creative Director, Heidi McDonald, shares a story about her son's experience with Kerbal:

A couple of years ago, my (then) 10-year-old son—who is not especially passionate about science (he's more of a performer at heart)—became obsessed with trying his hand at rocket launches thanks to the video game, Kerbal Space Program. This rocket-building simulation game lets players use concepts from actual rocket science to conduct space explorations and send Kerbals—adorable green creatures that resemble the Minions from Despicable Me—to the "Mun" and other destinations in the Kerbal universe. My son's favorite character in the game was a Kerbal named Jebediah, and he poured hours into finding a way to get that lovable creature to the Mun.

Kerbals from Kerbal Space Program. Photo source

The day came when the in-game mission was a go. My son sat rapt, watching as the rocket containing his friend Jebediah went up, up, up toward the Mun...but then missed the Mun completely, and flew directly toward the sun. Apparently, the calculations were a bit off. All my poor boy could do was sob as he watched his favorite Kerbal float helplessly toward the Sun.

Fortunately, the Kerbal Space Program developers weren't so cruel as to have Jebediah char to a crisp. Instead, Jebediah's ship was now in constant orbit around the Sun. From then on, whenever my son played, he would sigh deeply each time he saw Jebediah make another revolution—a sad reminder of how he had failed his buddy. "I'm so sorry, little dude!" he would say every time.

Orbiting the Sun in Kerbal Space Program. Photo source

We talked about whether or not he should just reinstall the game. The potential issue with doing that was it might mean that he'd never see Jebediah again, depending on the way the game was designed. Games like The Sims randomly create a set of characters to populate the world for gameplay. This is called procedural generation. My son and I didn't know whether the Kerbals were procedurally generated or not. If they were, he could reload the game, but Jebediah would not exist in that new version. My son wondered, do I continue to watch my friend orbit the Sun forever, or do I reload with a chance of never meeting him at all? It was the most intense existential crisis I've ever seen a 10-year-old have.

As it turned out, I was headed to IndieCade that October. Kerbal Space Program was going to be exhibiting there, and my son begged me to ask the developers about procedural generation in their game. When I approached Kerbal animator Daniel Rosas (not at all crying or grabbing him by the lapels and explaining my son's desperation!) he kindly invited my son to email him directly with his questions. As it turns out, most characters in Kerbal Space Program are procedurally generated, but there are six which were specifically created...and Jebediah is one of the six! This gracious developer also explained that it was possible, using the real science in the game, to mount a rescue mission and bring Jebediah back from the Sun!

My son was THRILLED to hear this. He emailed the developer and in return got a few tips on how to mount that rescue mission. He was adamant that he didn't want the answers—only clues to help him figure it out for himself. It took him seven more months, but, with curiosity as his motivation, he was finally able to rescue his favorite character. And he eventually conducted a successful space mission that put Jebediah on the Mun.

A triumphant Jebediah. Photo source

Games have the power to inspire our curiosity about science, technology, and the world around us, and this was clear watching a 10-year-old boy play Kerbal Space Program. Heidi reports that she had never seen her son so passionate about wanting to explore what he didn't know as when he was playing the game. Suddenly, he was asking philosophical questions, questions about the design of the game itself, and questions about things like torque and trajectory that he needed to investigate to get Jebediah home and to the Mun. His curiosity gave him the tenacity to go straight to the developers for answers.

Kerbal Space Program created a fantastic environment for a young boy to exercise his curiosity about how things work, and it made him want to mount his own space missions. The developer went one step further to individually encourage and reward his curiosity. We don't know if he will ever be motivated to scan the skies for habitable planets as a career, but if he is, there's a good chance that the seed of his curiosity was planted by a great video game.

Check back with us next week, when we'll dig into other ways games might prompt players to practice curiosity.

What games have made you curious about science, game development, or the wider world? Share with us in the comments!