‘A science experiment cos-playing as a game’: What Port of Mars can teach us about successful…

‘A science experiment cos-playing as a game’: What Port of Mars can teach us about successful communities

By Lance Gharavi, associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and affiliated faculty in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Center for Human, Artificial Intelligence and Robot Teaming, and the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment

A screenshot from the digital version of the game Port of Mars, in which players are members of the first human community on the Red Planet. The game was developed by ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative.

I know how lucky I am. I’m healthy and have a job I can do from home. Still, this is hard. I want to bake ALL the bread. But if I hoard flour and yeast, others may go without. Practicing social distancing is depressing. I know it will help prevent the spread of the virus, but if lots of other people aren’t doing the same, am I just a sad, low-carb sucker?

At least I live in Phoenix, where I can go for a walk if I get too stir-crazy. What if I lived with 200 other people on Mars, where going outside requires much bulkier protective gear than a simple mask. How would I manage cooperating and sharing resources with all those people?

This isn’t as distant a problem as you may think. NASA, Space X and others are already planning for human communities on Mars and elsewhere in the next decade. Folks living in these communities will have to share their extremely limited resources; they’ll need to cooperate in all sorts of ways to support the common good in order to survive on a dangerous, alien world.

And as we’re all learning here on Earth, sharing and cooperating for the common good is hard. Before we spend billions of dollars and place lives at risk establishing settlements on other worlds, we need to equip explorers with the tools necessary to sustain healthy communities.

At ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, we’re looking into this challenge: “How can we best sustain healthy human communities in space?”

To find solutions, we’ve developed a game called Port of Mars, in which players are members of the first human community on the Red Planet. The game is simultaneously competitive and cooperative; players navigate a balance between pursuing personal goals and contributing to the good of the community. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins, but if players don’t work together, the community collapses, and everyone dies.

No one wins if everyone is dead.

Port of Mars is actually a science experiment cos-playing as a game. Researchers track and record player behavior, then analyze the data to discover what behaviors tend to produce success, and what tend to produce failure. Each game is a simulation, a kind of rehearsal for creating healthy future space communities.

Lance Gharavi (left) playing the analog version of Port of Mars. Photo courtesy of ASU Thrive magazine.

Our game presents players with what scientists call social dilemmas and collective action problems. These terms describe scenarios in which the whole community benefits if everyone makes certain choices. But those choices may be difficult or costly, discouraging some people from acting to benefit the community, especially if they don’t know what choices others are making.

For example, practicing social distancing produces benefits for everyone by reducing risks to public health. On the other hand, it can also create painful hardships for people, personally and financially.

Port of Mars began as a card game, and the early run of experiments was relatively small. We’re currently testing a digital version to greatly increase sample sizes and improve the reliability of results.

Like a lot research in space exploration, Port of Mars produces knowledge useful here on Earth. The global effort to combat COVID-19 presents a host of challenges like the ones we’re investigating. But our present challenges are neither distant nor abstract. They’re the moral choices we now face on a daily basis. They’re intimate and personal, life and death. They’re our jobs, our health, and the well-being of our nations, communities, and families.

With every game we play, the Port of Mars team is searching for ways to effectively meet such challenges, now and in the future.



‘A science experiment cos-playing as a game’: What Port of Mars can teach us about successful… was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts