But Why Rockets?

So I started playing Kerbal Space Program again, that game with robust rocketry physics where you launch rockets and try and orbit planets, land on moons, and do other space program stuff. It’s a great game, one that has me reading Wikipedia articles on orbital mechanics, taking note of delta-v calculations, and reassessing whether I should have pursued that childhood dream of being an astronaut.

It’s also a game that doesn’t really have a point. There’s no real objective in Kerbal Space Program; even the game’s Career mode (added since I started playing many many years ago) doesn’t really have an objective beyond getting funding and science to make bigger rockets and go further into space. There’s no real end goal, just the distant completion of a tech tree. So why then, launch rockets and go to space? Okay, I know JFK did a whole speech on it, but what’s the point of playing Kerbal?

The question applies to most sandbox games (see also: The Sims, Stardew Valley, actually playing in a sandbox) as well as the more recent ‘live-service’ games (I don’t know if I’ll ever beat Destiny). There’s no decided end state to the game, not in the sense of destroying a Halo or rescuing Princess Peach. In Kerbal Space Program I’m just launching rockets ad infinitum. There’s no point when the game will tell me “Congratulations! You’ve flown enough rockets! You can stop now!”

There will probably come a point when I naturally stop playing Kerbal (again), probably around the time I max out my understanding of orbital mechanics and decided that maybe I won’t be able to make it to the game’s Pluto analogue. But part of the game is challenging myself to do incrementally harder things. Putting a rocket in orbit is easy, now; can I land on the Moon? Can I build a space station? Can I make that space station bigger? The point of Kerbal isn’t just going to space, it’s also figuring out how to make progressively more complex launches and flights. It’s not gonna be easy landing on Duna (the Mars analogue), but the challenge of getting there’s what makes it interesting. Not ‘cuz it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

Dang. So JFK was right.

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