App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential at the intersection of gaming, science, education and society.
By Ryan Martinez, researcher and project assistant in WID’s Games+Learning+Society research group
I was put on a solid-covered surface. I was not very sure as to what to do next as the sky was dark and there were no giant arrows to guide me. Eventually, I saw some instruction on the bottom of the screen that told me how to move and how to shift my perspective. I complied with the instruction but I felt as if it did no good. In time, I found some objects on my surface to assemble some type of gun, and was told to use it on the large black sphere above. Before I knew it, I had shifted a moon, and the sun it revealed brought a whole new depth to the planet I was exploring. Everything had changed, except my confusion.
As a disclaimer, I would not consider myself a hard scientist. I study how people react in game spaces and am very interested in how people can self-guide their learning in free learning resources such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). That aside, I’m not what you would think of when you walk past a building full of beakers and computers. When I was younger, I was given a chemistry set by my mother, and I’m pretty sure the extent of my scientific know-how ended up in creating stink bombs, which made me very popular with absolutely no one. With all that said, I do consider myself an explorer, and when I find new and interesting things I get just as excited as the boy who made those stink bombs so many years ago. But it really comes down to exploration of an unknown idea. Whether it be to find an unknown element or to understand just how people construct their own digital learning experiences, it goes back to that needing or wanting to know that can help inspire the next physicist, botanist or educational researcher.
To me, MirrorMoon EP is both maddeningly frustrating and ambitiously engaging as a game.
There is very little instruction given to the player as he or she explores what seems like a never-ending series of planets. Once you actually make it off the first surface, it took me what seemed like forever to understand the designer’s intention with the puzzle. You board a spaceship, where like the surface, the instructions are just as sparse and vague. Just to guide the spaceship itself took longer than expected and after a few hours of play, I have only “solved” one other planet. So why would I ever write about MirrorMoon EP as a game worthy of consideration, let alone of play? If anything, MirrorMoon EP represents what I think is the core value of science: exploration and questioning.
“But instead of thinking of it as simply trying to win the game, I now value the game as providing me one of the best ways to understand what makes science so interesting and fun: the exploration of the unknown…”
— Ryan Martinez
The game is unforgiving. Solving the puzzle on the first planet only gave me a very basic understanding of the game space. There were no points, minimalist (but amazing) music that gave few cues of progress and no sort of end game. Even after combing through online message forums to see if anyone else had figured out the game, all I could find was a look interpretation of the spaceship controls, and that folks had the ability to name planets. While I know there is a community out there being able to name planets, I have never been able to communicate to any of them through the game, and the landscape itself gives off an isolating feel — one I’m sure was designer intended. Each new planet is an entirely different puzzle, and only the most basic controls that you learned in the beginning apply, and even then they are of very little help.
The game itself did very little to make these problems well-designed, as I didn’t have a clue either from the game mechanics or the aesthetics of the game itself. As you can see in the illustrations, the visuals are striking, but minimal. Without the message boards, which as I said previously provided very little help, I felt isolated. The quiet in which this game revels in probably has much to do with the background being space. It made me think of films that deal with isolation in space, such as the 2009 film Moon and the 1968 film Solaris. Both stories took place in space and had the main protagonists deserted in space. The isolation of space takes a toll on the characters, and they start to experience inflection that, for better or for worse, causes them to face their own demons. This paragraph may seem like an unnecessary aside, but give me a moment to explain.
When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, it ushered in a whole element to the existing Cold War between the United States and the then Soviet Union. The United States made it an absolute must to get to the moon. We had very few ideas as to what space had to offer us when we developed NASA, but we knew that space offered things we have not seen on this Earth. Astronauts were romanticized and the discovery of brand new stars and planets became causes for celebration. Now due to budget cuts, we have a private industry that is doing more to make it to outer space than NASA. Our ability to explore what is beyond Earth is now stymied. The dream of becoming an astronaut or space scientist seems to be shelved. We have temporarily lost our ability to explore space and to understand what is really out there. When I started to really think about that in relation to this game and especially thinking about those films, I started playing in a whole different way.
I started to take the time between traveling planets to position myself in that space itself. I would use headphones and play in the dark to heighten the experience of that isolation and pretend that I was actually a space explorer, moving through the galaxy and trying to discover the new worlds. I started to look at the puzzles on those worlds as a way in which to understand how that planet was constructed. It was no longer about trying to figure out what pressing the “A” button would accomplish; it was about helping to chart that galaxy. I became more interested in the galaxy itself, and I still wonder if there is an end game or a finite number of planets to track. I imagine there would have to be. But instead of thinking of it as simply trying to win the game, I now value the game as providing me one of the best ways to understand what makes science so interesting and fun: the exploration of the unknown, the ability to reach outside of your own comfort zone, and what comes from simply trying it out.