Kerbal Space Program raises metaphysical questions of purpose

Kerbal Space Program is one part Lego and one part Flight Simulator, except you get to build and launch your craft up and out of the atmosphere. If you can figure it out, it’s also possible to slingshot around a close-to-scale virtual solar system, if fuel has been correctly calculated. It is quite literally rocket science. And how hard could that possibly be?

Over the nearly 50 hours I’ve played Kerbal throughout the past several weeks, I’ve been able to: Build and launch a solar-powered satellite in a static 150,000 metre orbit; build and launch a large solar-powered docking station for interplanetary rocket travel in a static 100,000 metre orbit; build and launch a manned interplanetary rocket, and fail continuously at any attempt at docking or making interplanetary trips. I can’t wait to keep playing. I’m serious.

Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 7.54.27 PM
Hour 53 of playing Kerbal and the orbital construction of the ‘Falconer Array’ is compromised when it’s discovered the ‘screenshot’ key is the same as ‘throttle up.’

There are no real objectives to Kerbal except “choosing to go to the Mun because it is hard.” Luckily, the only activity for Kerbals to do on their home planet is to build and fly rocket ships into space. To build your ultimate space-exploration vehicle there are parts modelled after the last three generations of Mars rovers: Pathfinder, Opportunity and Curiosity in addition to multiple forms and parts of the Shuttle, Landers, Modules and Satellites to choose from. Recreate historical space missions from Sputnik to Apollo to International Space Station. Or a gigantic nuclear-reactor-powered death robot.

A broader question of Kerbal is of what there is to explore or map or work toward beyond a generally dead solar system. Since Kerbals themselves do not eat, or breath, or die, except by physical impact, where is the human stake in the projects they carry out? Indeed, the beauty of this sandbox-style game is its infinite physical possibilities. But once we learn the Hohmann Transfer, the maneuvers and the calculations, why should we bother continuing? This, in addition to the stylistic choice of cartoon-y and cutesie characters is obviously intentional by the creators to instil a low barrier-to-entry game about rocket science, but in some respect the human-stake and danger of exploration is somewhat lost in its execution. It’s not enough to send a Kerbal to the equivalent of Mars – but what about send her, and keep her healthy and sustained in a colony?

More importantly, faced with the endless emptiness of space we might consider asking, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It is quite possible the vastness and possibility of Kerbal drives its audience to the more metaphysical questions of purpose. What we might learn from playing it is the value of a skill in practice – and that far too much time might be spent playing videogames than participating in constructing and accomplishing amazing feats of humanity in reality.

Like many recent indie games, the creators have released a partially-finished product. This means both quality and price will scale upward as the game nears completion. However, even at its early stages Kerbal is a massively interesting and educational game. If you like simulators, it’s a must try. If you like space, you must try it.  At just shy of $30 on Steam for Mac, Windows and Linux, Kerbal is worth every penny if you’ve ever purchased an astronomy textbook, or spent more than 4-hours reading the history of manned human space flight. Start learning how to calculate Delta-V because you’ll need to. A lot.

Further Reading:

Kerbal About :

History of Human Space Flight :

Types of Mars Rovers :

Assembly of the International Space Station :

Leibniz on Substance :

Aristotle on Techne :


Aaron Russin likes art, history, philosophy, economics, small business and co-operatives – but he has a reluctant love of videogames. On twitter, @aaronrussin.