As 2009 closes, we can look at the state of sci-fi gaming.  You might wonder why a science site cares, and the answer is that science fiction is one of the best gateways to science careers.  For one generation of astronomers, pretty much, either you'd watched Star [Trek/Wars] or you got to peek through a telescope at the real thing.  Or both.

If you're new to gaming, pop over to the Guardian, they set the framework for 2009 gaming as a whole.  Moving to specifics, if you look at where science fiction MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) stand in a 2009 wrap-up, you find there are 3 big ones: Eve Online, Star Trek, and Star Wars.   Hmmm.
Eve Online
Eve Online screenshot

Over at Massively, Joe Blancato discusses why there are so few science fiction MMOs.  For sci-fi MMOs, it's pretty much Eve Online and, err, whatever Blizzard is hiring for this month.  Okay, there are smaller sci-fi online games lurking under the radar, but it's notable that the most thorough list out at lists a cancelled game (Stargate) at slot #1.

Joe's reasons for fantasy dominating over sci-fi come down to: a) fantasy has a broader world, while sci-fi stories are each specific niches  and b) sci-fi games tend to be too complex.  A year ago, blogger TAGN set up a similar schema on why there is more fantasy than sci fi in games in general.  He suggests fantasy a) has a longer history and b) doesn't get disproved like older sci-fi does.

My take?  It boils down to science fiction's tendency to explore complex social interactions and economic power, while fantasy.lets you enter traditional story forms.  Sci fi, at its best, extrapolates a future, while even good fantasy reinforces our existing beliefs about good and evil.  So which would you want to game in-- a place you have to think, or something designed to mesh with epic storytelling in a seamless fashion?

Oh, and in fantasy you get to kill people and steal their stuff.  That's very cathartic.

But by losing sci-fi, we lose a powerful entrance to the world of science.

Good science fiction sets an initial premise (that may not match reality), but then runs with it in a consistent manner.  It's the world of 'what if'.  Not 'what if dragons exist, so you'd have wizards, and warriors with swords who can beat everything, et cetera'.  But simple things.  "What if we had a faster than light drive-- how would space travel continue?"  "What if we made true AI?" "What if they invented glass that slowed light so much it took hours for images to pass through?"

Now, I mentioned Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which have their own MMOs.  But both of those universes are space opera, a sort of future fantasy world.  They are brilliantly constructed, but do require you suspend belief on just about every issue.  So do they count as sci-fi, able to inspire people into science, or are they just fantasy in space?

Turns out, it doesn't matter.  As long as something cool with technology and muddled science is out there inspiring people to build towards a cooler future, I'm for it.  So I think we need good sci-fi universes, not to enforce scientific thinking and realism, but just because way-out science fantasy is inspiring.

Alex, the Daytime Astronomer

Tues and Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday
Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries