Could Astronauts Play MMOs to Relieve Boredom?

By Wesley Fenlon

Just playing video games on my Mars-bound spaceship. No big deal.

Video games have proven therapeutic in helping kids along the recovery process after a serious injury. They're a perfect distraction, engaging the mind and distracting it from pain. On Wednesday BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker proposed another use for video games that could prove just as crucial: Curing boredom.

But wait, isn't that why many people play video games? In this case, it's not about why video games are being played, but rather, who is playing them. In Koerth-Baker's hypothetical scenario, astronauts on the way to Mars may be playing games to keep themselves occupied on the long, long trip.

"Particularly after the halfway point in a journey, and on the way home from Mars, researchers worry that the mundane reality of life on a spaceship could push some astronauts into a state of chronic boredom — a situation that's associated with symptoms of depression and attention deficit disorders," writes Koerth-Baker. Neither of which you really want to experience in a place where small mistakes or overlooked responsibilities could lead to catastrophe."

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The proposed video game solution comes from Shirley Bishop, who "studies human performance in extreme environments at the University of Texas Medical Branch." Bishop has a particular type of game in mind. We can imagine astronauts playing a game of Civilization or Minecraft for months on end, but a more social experience could go a long way towards relieving the isolation of years away from Earth.

Bishop thought about MMOs. But how can you play a massively multiplayer online game when every data transmission will have, at minimum, a 20 minute delay traveling back to Earth? Koerth-Baker writes:

"Her proposed solution: A hybrid of real-time MMORPG and a vs. the Computer strategy game. People on Earth might be able to join a MMORPG, hook up with a group, and play just like they do now. Meanwhile, millions of miles away, astronauts en route to the Red Planet could open up the same game and play it in a slightly different way — responding to decisions and scenarios set up by real people, without having to be in direct, constant contact with those people. 'It would give you something to look forward to,' she said, 'and what real people do is not as predictable as what the computer would do.' "

Assuming a Mars trip was a multi-astronaut mission, of course, it would be easy to play games together over a local network with no lag. But being able to play with Earth, even asynchronously, would be pretty incredible. And Bishop's suggestion doesn't sound all that far removed from some aspects of insanely complex MMORPG EVE Online. What if one of the largest corporations in EVE was run by someone actually on Mars? Impossibly cool.