How far back do you want to go? 150,000 years ago, to lighten an ice age by just a few degrees and help the hominids out? 65 million years ago, nudging an asteroid’s path so doesn’t hit Earth and cause a mass extinction? 1.4 billion years ago, tweaking the composition of the planet’s atmosphere? 3 billion years ago, altering the magma flows under the surface? Or even further back, changing the supernova that seeded the atoms that would later coalesce into a world?
Tianxia, or “all under heaven” in English, was the most popular form of entertainment from 2032 to 2034, capturing over 400 million, 2 billion viewers, and consuming over 6% of total processing in the world. It was hailed as a revolution in our understanding of planetary science, geology, and evolution, and condemned as a distraction at best, and insidious pseudoscience at worst – yet it all began as a thoroughly academic pursuit.
In 2030, an amplified team at Shanghai Tech consisting of Prof. Ernest Han, three graduate students, and seven expert systems were analysing data from the Zheng He ExoScope. They had homed in on a set of 65 Earth-like planets and were interested in understanding how they formed and whether they might harbour any life by ‘rewinding time’ a few billion years and then simulating various physical processes.
In order to restrict the set of simulations required and reduce processing requirements, Prof. Han’s team enlisted amateurs on the Zooniverse network to tweak the starting conditions at various points in the history of the selected exoplanets. While it was one of the most sophisticated and detailed simulations ever presented to the public, it was a somewhat dry experience until an enterprising user forked the code to graft on more explicit game mechanics and a massively upgraded graphics engine, renaming it ‘Tianxia’.
Simulation historian Estelle Egan explains the importance of Tianxia:
“It may seem like a crude toy to us today, but in the 30s Tianxia offered players the chance to create their own miniature worlds that could be rendered and examined in unprecedented levels of detail, all the way from orbit down to rivers, trees, and animals. It was perhaps the first game to deliver on the promise held out by earlier games such as Sim World, Spore, and Worldcraft, of complete control over a living, breathing, and highly complex world.”
Unlike those previous games, most players tended not to micromanage their creations, preferring instead to set the initial starting conditions of their world and then sit back and watch the simulation unfold, interfering only to guide the path of an errant asteroid or prevent an ice age from killing off a favoured species. As such, games of Tianxia were usually scored based on their level of ‘interestingness’ as judged by other players – a barren, unchanging rock was far less successful than one with a functioning and stable ecosystem.
Successive patches to Tianxia saw extra detail being added to the geological and environmental systems, with perhaps the most popular being the ‘agent’ simulation introduced in 2033, allowing for the creation of basic societies within the game. Run the game long enough, and your world might end up going to war with itself, or perhaps launching into the stars.
Other patches included unusual and fantastical styles of planets such as ringworlds, orbitals, Dyson spheres, as well as tweaked physics. However, most players tended to stay closer to home in their games, remaining enthralled in the richness and complexity of the worlds created by themselves and their friends; for a while, thousands of people made very good livings by consulting on how to best tweak Tianxia worlds, or by branching and remixing existing worlds to improve them.
Why Tianxia so popular and so engrossing, and how did it manage to stand out from the seemingly endless array of live-action role playing games that had dominated entertainment for the previous few years? Egan provides some insight
“Tianxia was the right game for the right time. It became popular during a comparatively calm period in which rich people around the world had a feeling of mastery over nature. They’d curbed their apetites for fossil fuels, they were beginning geoengineering projects to ‘fix’ the oceans and atmosphere, and they could gaze upon thousands of worlds across the galaxy. Most importantly, they felt they understood the world because they could simulate it and visualise it and model it.”
“And it’s true that their understanding went farther than previous generations – but not far enough. It was the unexpected that eventually led to the demise of Tianxia: after all, the Cascade came in 2035.”
But for a brief moment before that calamity, the world relaxed, and a billion people recalled and enacted the words, “In the beginning…”