In the future, astronauts might play MMORPGs to fend off boredom

My newest column for The New York Times Magazine is about the risks associated with boredom on long-distance space journeys, like the one astronauts might someday take to Mars. It's hard to imagine being bored in that scenario, but many experts think boredom is one of the key issues we need to address in order to make a mission like that succeed.

That's because, unlike on the ISS, astronauts traveling to Mars won't have constant contact with mission control or their families. They won't have virtual visits from celebrities to look forward to, and they'll be lacking the mesmerizing views of their home planet that keep current astronauts remarkably entertained. 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. Neither of which you really want to experience in a place where small mistakes or overlooked responsibilities could lead to catastrophe.

So how will we deal with boredom in space? There are several cool strategies that didn't make it into the final New York Times piece and I thought you all might be particularly interested in one proposed by Sheryl Bishop, who studies human performance in extreme environments at the University of Texas Medical Branch. She thinks games will have an important role to play in keeping astronauts sharp and alert on long missions.

Playing a game with a computer (or with the same small group of people you're trapped on a spaceship with) can remove some of the surprise and unpredictability that makes gaming a powerful boredom cure. So Bishop, an MMORPG player herself, started thinking about the benefits of playing against a changing and unfamiliar cadre of real people. But there's a technological catch. Astronauts traveling to and from Mars will have at least a 20-minute delay in all their communications — effectively squashing any attempts at real-time gaming.

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."

Right now, this is just an idea, not an actual project in development. But Bishop says that both the research community and the gaming community are fascinated by the possibilities. Someday, when you game, you could be gaming for a good cause — helping astronauts deal with the psychological rigors of space travel.

Image: Starbase 12, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ideonexus's photostream

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