How far back in time would you like to go? To the Ice Age 150,000 years ago to warm things by just a few degrees and help the hominids out? Or perhaps 65 million years, to nudge an asteroid's path so it avoids Earth and prevents a mass extinction? How about 1.4 billion years, to fine-tune the balance of the planet's atmosphere? Or 3 billion years, to alter the magma flows under the surface and reshape the continents? Or even further back, to change the atoms scattered by a supernova that eventually coalesced into our world?
I'm holding a virtual world in my hands, and I can alter it any way I please. This was Tianxia.
From 2032 to 2034, Tianxia, or "all under heaven", was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, attracting 400 million players and 2 billion viewers. For a while, it even consumed more than 6 percent of the world's total processing power. Tianxia was simultaneously hailed as a revolution in our understanding of planetary science, geology, and evolution, and condemned as a distracting, insidious pseudoscience.
Tianxia was originally a purely academic investigation, free of controversy. In 2030, an amplified team at Shanghai Tech consisting of Professor Ernest Han, three graduate students, and seven expert systems was analysing data from the Zheng He Orbital Telescope. The team wanted to understand how a set of 65 Earth-like planets had formed, and whether they might harbour any life. Their chosen strategy was simple: ‘rewind time' by a few billion years and then simulate the physical and chemical processes that the planets would have undergone. To reduce the near-infinite set of simulations required to a more manageable number, Professor Han's team enlisted amateurs on the Zooniverse network to watch and manipulate the simulations as they progressed in a way that would winnow out obviously ‘lifeless’ planets.
While the team had created one of the most sophisticated and detailed simulations ever presented to the public, few amateurs joined the project; the software was just too difficult to use. But when an enterprising fan forked the code, grafted on more explicit game mechanics and a dramatically upgraded graphics engine, and renamed the whole thing 'Tianxia', interest exploded.
To understand the importance of Tianxia, I spoke to Estelle Egan, simulation historian:
"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 astonishing detail, all the way from orbit down to rivers, trees, and animals. It was perhaps the first game to fully deliver on the extravagant promise of earlier games such as Spore and Worldcraft, a promise of complete control over a living, breathing, and highly complex world."
Unlike those previous games, players usually didn’t micromanage their creations in Tianxia. Instead, most preferred to set the initial starting conditions of their world and then sit back and watch the simulation unfold, interfering only occasionally to guide the path of an errant asteroid or prevent an ice age from killing off a favourite species. As such, Tianxia simulations were usually scored by other players based on how ‘interesting’ they found it — for example, a barren, unchanging rock was far less successful than one with a functioning and stable ecosystem.
Successive patches to Tianxia saw extra detail added to the geological and environmental systems, with perhaps the most popular being the 'agent' simulation introduced in 2033, allowing the creation of basic societies within the game. Run a Tianxia simulation long enough and your world might end up going to war with itself — or, become so advanced they could run their own primitive simulations.
Other patches included unusual and fantastical styles of planets such as ringworlds, orbitals, Dyson spheres, and tweaks to the speed of light or gravity. However, most players tended to stay closer to Earth-like planets in their games, remaining enthralled in the richness and complexity of the worlds created by themselves and their friends; thousands of people made good money selling beautiful custom Tianxia worlds by branching and remixing others. Needless to say, by this point Tianxia had strayed far from its original academic goals, and its original creator, Professor Han, refused to even acknowledge the existence of the game.
Why was 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. Humanity was beginning to grasp the depth and meaning of its mastery over nature. We'd curbed our appetite for fossil fuels, we'd started world-changing geoengineering projects that we thought would fix the oceans and atmosphere, and we gazed upon thousands of worlds across the galaxy. We felt we understood the world because we could simulate it and visualise it and model it.
"But in truth, those simulations didn't reflect reality, not at the scale they were reaching for. They only reflected our hubris. We realised that soon enough."
Yet for a brief moment before that calamity, the world relaxed. Four hundred million people recalled the words, "In the beginning...", and they created their own heaven and earth.