Although much has been said about recently released No Man’s Sky already, I can’t really skip it on this blog because there is simply so much to be said about it.
Let’s start with its recent release, that failed the high expectations of many and mostly caused disappointment. Developer Hello Games had promised players an infite universe to explore, with infinite amounts of different species, space-ships and planets. And that is what it gave them. Although No Man’s Sky‘s trailers gave some false impressions of what the eventual game would look like (as argued for strongly in this article), the game kept to its promise: it generates new content procedurally, so that the chances of the generated subject matter being the same in two different playthroughs are next to zero. This makes for lots of unique objects, but the objections many players raise is that when all of them still look like each other, they’re not unique at all. Grains of sand in the Sahara may be unique, but to humans it’s still just a desert.
I have been watching this game for over a year before its release, mostly hoping it would make for more than just casual space exploration. Through their emphasis on simulating natural phenomenon, games like No Man’s Sky, such as Spore and Species, sometimes give the impression that you can actually use them to learn about evolution or other aspects of biology. Sadly, this is not the case. These are universes that do not resemble our own in much, to such an extent that a simple game as Gridworld comes closer than any of the above.
Procedurally generated content
So is it just casual space exploration? Well, yes. The game can make for a lot of fun, but not for a lot of learning. That is, unless you dive into its mechanics, as 3DGameDevBlog did recently. If Hello Games kept one promise, it’s that its procedural generation of content is revolutionary. The game’s filesize is only between 2.6 and 6 GB’s, varying for pc and console, of which much of course is texture and audio. The whole of that infinite universe that’s there to explore, with planets, plants and trees, animals and civilizations is generated on the spot. So how does that work?
If you’re interested, I strongly recommend you read the article for the specifics, but what it boils down to is that No Man’s Sky uses probability models to generate its models as well as its textures. The combination of the two exponentially increases the number of possible unique objects. This is a unique strategy in all of gaming’s history. Never before has a game used procedural generation on this scale.
This got me thinking about the educational use of No Man’s Sky once again. If anything, this is a brilliant case of using math (mostly probability) to create. Whether you delve into this or another game, or use its techniques for other projects, this is approaching math from a new angle. One problem that math teachers are struggling with is demonstrating its use for students. That math is useful and often necessary for technical professions is known, but much less attention is given to its creative potential. And not only in gaming, but in art, anthropology and even marine biology.
Would you let students use math to create? If so, how? Let me know in the comments.