A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear a paper delivered by the philosopher Thom van Dooren (co-authored with the human geographer and social theorist Matthew Kearnes) on the various cultural, political, and scientific entanglements—and ethical quandaries—associated with off-earth mining. The central thrust of their paper seemed to be stressing the various senses in which we are already entangled in a relationship with space—even if we, as a species, were never to leave the Earth’s atmosphere again. Whether it is through light being mined from the sun, physical phenomena moving between the Earth and the surrounding solar system, or from the very way that the possibility of leaving the Earth permeates our cultural imagination, for both van Dooren and Kearnes we are already entangled with and implicated by the fact that there is no absolute barrier or division between the Earth and space.
Van Dooren and Kearnes argued that while the contemporary imagining of space posits an infinite emptiness, it is one that is simultaneously replete with riches that could immensely improve life on Earth or provide us with a means of escape if the Earth becomes too unstable for human life. This notion of space as empty, or as a void, is a product of the various forms of technological mediation that allow us access to it. Especially with the case of visual media like photography, the images we produce of space greatly influence our broader sense of what it is, and further, what can or should be done with and within it. It’s this notion of space as both utterly empty and excessively rich that brought my attention immediately to No Man’s Sky and its odd entanglement with the ethics of our interactions with the alien, extra-terrestrial, and inorganic.
For many, No Man’s Sky is an example of a move towards a more progressive game, one that puts aside violence, domination, and conflict, in order to offer an experience that is more open-ended and potentially contemplative. However, while No Man’s Sky is certainly less conflict-oriented than your traditional space-based shooter or RPG, the basic framework for the game is hardly radical. As Julian Feeld wrote here on Outermode, “No Man’s Sky plays on our desires for wealth accumulation, status, and violent domination.”
I’ve personally spent many hours navigating the vastness of No Man’s Sky and found myself truly compelled by the openness of the universe it presents. In some ways, No Man’s Sky reminds me of the kind of play I’d create for myself having completed a game when I was a child. Once I had nothing left to pursue in a game like GoldenEye 007 the levels could be replayed by inserting my own narratives and missions into the fixed game-environments. Similarly, No Man’s Sky presents a template for the player to use their imagination for the co-generating of stories, missions, and longer quests. In so doing, No Man’s Sky presents a universe that is more or less there for the player, rich enough to be engaging, but empty enough to be filled with almost any narrative or player-conception.
The framework of mining, destroying sentinels, and selling goods on an interstellar market is meant to open the player up to a potentially more creative, open-ended, and meditative experience. But that response to the game downplays the question of the role of mining and space exploration—something quite telling in an era where mining and conventional resource accumulation threaten to intensify immense ecological instability. No Man’s Sky seems to offer us the closest approximation of that cultural idea of space as both infinitely empty and utterly rich, as the game’s generative capacities open up a seemingly infinite array of mining scenarios.
But it’s worth raising the possibility that there is something deeply conservative, and perhaps almost frontier-like, in the way that No Man’s Sky offers the player a chance to inhabit a world that is truly there “for you.” No Man’s Sky presents a world of infinite emptiness—the game is virtually a blank canvas for the player’s projections—and finite riches, and then offers you the chance to exploit it—in the process becoming a fantasy with a distinctly colonial tone. One could even wonder whether or not the more overt violence and imperial conflict of contemporary sci-fi games like Destiny, the Mass Effect series, or the Borderlands games is in fact more progressive, at least insofar as it presents a universe that is resistant and often openly hostile to the player; a universe where one isn’t simply free to project their fantasies, but has to pay attention to the political, cultural, and technological entanglements that one finds oneself in.
Seen like that, we can link No Man’s Sky to the distinction that the Marxist philosopher Ernst Beck drew between “abstract” and “concrete” utopia. For Beck, utopian visions—for instance, a future where humanity can move freely between the stars—must include conflict if they are to have any concrete status and connection to the lived world. A future where we can explore the stars with little limitation does not, on Beck’s terms, offer anything other than abstract whimsy. However, a utopian artwork that attempts to combine the struggles inherent in any future—though one that doesn’t let go of the possibility of a better existence—is of great importance for Beck.
No Man’s Sky’s capacity to show us an existence where our entanglement with space is not taken for granted—where our existence within any one planetary horizon is always acknowledged with respect to a greater horizon of space—and where one can move with immense freedom between planets and systems, gives the game an immensely utopian character. However, at times the openness of the game suggest that it might be one of Beck’s abstract utopia: an artistic vision of a future existence that is devoid of the conflicts that would give it a more concrete connection to our world.
But then perhaps that backdrop of space mining does anchor the game within all-too-familiar present struggles—by creating internal conflict even as it minimizes the external kind. The notion of an escape from Earth, or of a possible future of space exploration, has enormous purchase in contemporary culture. For that reason, rather than being simply a traditional game mechanic for luring in players to a slightly unconventional game, the mining aspect of No Man’s Sky is perhaps more radical than it first seems. In offering us the chance not only to visit alien worlds but to immediately exploit them for their resources, the game is a reminder that any future space-utopia that we might be dreaming of now will come at a cost—and a cost that is not easy to tally or evaluate.