All games teach you things as you play. In the most abstract sense, games consist of a set of rules, a schema of interaction, not usually found in real life. Since you won’t be able to rely on your experiences and intuitions, the game must show you how its rules work in order for you to interface with it and have fun. The least elegant way of doing this is for the game to have pop-up tutorials, glowing objective markers, constant on-screen text telling you what to do, et cetera. The most elegant way of doing this is for the game to guide you, through its level design and obstacle placement, towards experimentation with your available options, which in turn lets you learn on your own in a natural way.
Ever since the advent of the personal computer, there have been explicitly-educational video games. Often called “edutainment”, these games seek to teach the player about information pertaining to the real world, such as math, reading, logic, business, or typing. I grew up in the heyday of games like this, and now I’m going to rattle off a list of my favorites to tickle your nostalgia glands: Math Blasters, Number Munchers, Word Munchers, Midnight Rescue!, The Castle of Dr. Brain, The Island of Dr. Brain, Reader Rabbit, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, The Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand. Feels good, doesn’t it? You’re welcome (provided we’re around the same age).
Some of those games had mechanics we would classify as explicitly “game-y”: resource management, levels to navigate, limited numbers of lives/attempts, movement mechanics. Others were more free-form mechanically and aesthetically, focusing on the information being presented. Most of these games had a very narrow focus as to the type of information they sought to teach. The Dr. Brain series was a notable exception that included puzzles ranging from simple memory tests and mazes, up through astronomy, circuit design, chemistry, programming, and computer science. The Oregon Trail was about forethought and planning, but also history. Mavis Beacon taught typing.
Alongside these games that sought to convey raw theoretical information, we saw the rise of simulations. This genre by and large seeks to “game-ify” larger systems. A lot of these were released by Maxis. Everyone knows Sim City, of course. Sim Ant (my personal favorite), Sim Tower, The Sims, Sim Earth, all sought to take a particular set of interactions and put you in charge of managing all the factors and variables involved in an engaging way. You could make the argument that simulations are also educational, in that you learn something about the system being simulated by managing it. However, such an argument assumes that the picture being presented of that system is objectively correct and without bias, which cannot be the case.
The designing of a simulation game involves a series of political decisions that color the final product. This is most obvious in the case of Sim City and its successors. When you assign a variable to pollution and its impacts on health and happiness, for instance, or when you choose at what level of taxation citizens will start complaining, you are saying something about how you view the world.
This is less true of, say, flight simulators. Purely-mechanical simulation games (often with titles like “[Foo] Simulator [Year]”) generally seek to replicate an experience, rather than laying bare the mechanics and variables of a larger system. These are role-playing games in the truest sense of the term, but using real-life roles rather than fantastical ones. While you could make the argument (if you wanted to be pedantic as hell (and I often do)) that our knowledge of the physical world depends entirely on the structure of our brains, and that even our measuring instruments were designed and are operated by those same brains in a self-fulfilling prophecy loop, and so true objectivity is actually not possible for us or indeed any incarnate creature, I think we’ll forgo that level of existential contortion and just say that Euro Truck Simulator 2018 is about as objective as we’re going to get vis-á-vis trucks and Europe. After all, we play games, drive what we think are trucks, and perceive the layout of what we think is “Europe” with the same brains that designed the game. So it’s fine. Anyway.
Into this storied triple lineage of edutainment, simulator, and simulator, enter Kerbal Space Program.
Kerbals are cute little bug-eyed creatures that are not smart and who live on a planet about 1/10 the size of Earth, called Kerbin. KSP is the story of these creatures as they go to space to do Science! (with an exclamation point) and explore their solar system. Obviously, you help them do this. You start with a handful of rocket parts and 4 Kerbals: Valentina, Jebediah, Bob, and Bill. These are the heroes (of varying levels of bravery and stupidity) who will fulfill the dream of their people by flinging themselves at the sky until they break through. Or splatter on the ground. But hey, now we know we need parachutes. Progress!
Fast-forward 100 hours, and I have a passing knowledge of orbital mechanics that includes all kinds of fun new words: apoapsis, periapsis, delta-v, ascending and descending nodes, normals and anti-normals, prograde and retrograde. I can figure out Hohmann transfers (though I didn’t know that’s what they were called until I looked it up), and I know about transfer windows. I know why it’s best to launch rockets at dawn (it has to do with the thickness of the atmosphere, which affects fuel efficiency and heating on ascent). I can’t quite calculate, but could tell you more-or-less intuitively, whether a given payload has enough thrust behind it to get it into orbit (from Kerbin, anyway). I can explain to you why SSTOs aren’t really a thing in real life, but I also know how to pilot one to orbit, how you need to switch over your jet engines to closed-cycle “wet” mode above a certain altitude to avoid a flame-out and kick in the rocket engines once you’re ready to approach orbital velocity. I know about staging, drag, heat management, and how to effectively pilot through atmospheric re-entry with either a space shuttle or a bare Apollo-style command module. I know if you open your parachutes too soon, they’ll burn up instantly or shred from atmospheric forces. I know how to negotiate a lander down to the surface of a body without an atmosphere.
I know these things because KSP helped me learn them. When I say the game is the story of the Kerbals going to space, I don’t mean like a story with cutscenes and dramatic dialogue. The game is a sandbox with 2 flavors of optional “career mode”: one where you have to manage your organization’s money and reputation as well as doing science to unlock new parts, and one with just the science and no money or rep. The story is one you write yourself; it’s in your craft descriptions, on your flag plaques, and etched into the ground and the sky by your failures and successes. There is a natural progression in the two career modes, wherein you have the capability to go farther out into the solar system as you unlock more powerful rockets and larger fuel tanks. But there’s no set path, only your own goals, your own imagination and drive, and lots of trial and error.
The game does come with an in-game “encyclopedia” which teaches you some basic concepts, but it does so with only the most bare-bones of hints and nudges in the right direction. All of the practical experimentation is left entirely up to you. For instance, in its section about planes, it tells you about the existence of lift, drag, thrust, and weight, with 4 arrows and a picture of a plane. It doesn’t tell you that, for instance, if your rear wheels are too far forward of the center of mass, that the plane will skitter into a spin on the runway and explode in the grass. It doesn’t tell you that as you burn through your fuel supply, the weight distribution of your tanks changes and can cause you to start doing flips until you tear yourself apart. That’s the juicy stuff you’re supposed to discover on your own.
At its heart, that’s the core loop and the core appeal of Kerbal Space Program. It’s a continual cycle of experimentation and fixing problems that arise during testing, in order to learn basic rocket science, astrophysics, orbital mechanics, and aerodynamics by brute force. The physics of the game are a close enough approximation to real life that you can learn things with real applications, provided you understand that things are greatly simplified and sometimes wacky or inconsistent in KSP compared to IRL physics. The game doesn’t go into the plumbing of rocket engines, for instance, or the various kinds of attitude control with any detail beyond just “reaction wheels”. There’s a real feeling of accomplishment at figuring things out and overcoming the engineering challenges in your way. When you set foot on a new celestial body, or manage to lift a new payload that will let you accomplish one of your goals, or successfully dock with a space station that you previously placed there, the thrill is real. The most remarkable thing about the game isn’t that it teaches you; as I said before, all games do that. The great thing about KSP is how much fun it is!
Expansions and updates to the game have tweaked the physics to be more realistic, added new training and challenge scenarios, networking and communications mechanics with satellites and antennas, and Steam workshop support. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t talk a little bit about a controversy involving user privacy and rights, which coincided with the release of the Making History expansion.
KSP was one of several games found to be using a piece of commercial spyware called Red Shell to collect data from those who installed it without their knowledge or consent. As of the time of writing, the developers have pulled Red Shell from the code, and the game no longer uses it. However, the game still uses Unity Analytics to collect some data. They rolled this back after a great hue and cry from the user base as well, and you can now opt out of this if you wish. Finally, the game’s rights were purchased by Take Two Interactive, who added a new boilerplate EULA giving them full rights to re-use anything anyone makes using KSP’s engine, without owing royalties to the creators. So, every Let’s Play, every tutorial video, every craft you upload to the workshop, it all technically belongs to Take Two, since you can’t play the game without “agreeing” to the EULA. I personally think this is insanely fucked up, and that there can’t possibly be any kind of legally-binding contract that just gives a video game company a blanket authorization to steal from its users, but the video game industry is like the Wild West, and good luck asking for more oversight and regulation in the capitalist hellhole that is America.
I personally have a lot of love for KSP, but there was a period of time when I uninstalled it from my machine. Privacy is one of my political hot-buttons, especially given the overall climate of the US since the early 2000s (since the Reagan era, if we’re being real here (since our colonial days under Mercantilism, if we’re being WOKE AF)). I’m still quite leery and wary of the EULA put into place by Take Two, as well as wondering about what other nastiness might be hidden and waiting that we just haven’t found out about yet. However, since the EULA doesn’t personally affect me (I’m not someone who makes a living in whole or in part by creating KSP content), I’ve decided I can live with a lack of solidarity for the sake of a game that’s given me so much knowledge and enjoyment over the years. But I don’t like that I was forced into that choice or that compromise. Such is life in a capitalist nation that we are constantly forced into moral compromises for the sake of getting by and enjoying what we have. But there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. I wish KSP hadn’t reminded me of that. I wish Take Two hadn’t acquired it. But here we are. If you resent politics in your video game talk, get bent because I don’t care. Close the gamer gate, abolish ICE, workers rise up, eat the rich, unionize your workplace now, dissolve all borders.
See, this is the fun thing about having a blog. I can just write whatever I want!