Our relationship to the vastness of Cosmos is both of awe and anxiety. We are held in check - with our backs pressed against our very own piece of space-rock - whenever we attempt to comprehend the scale of the universe with our primate minds. Vast fields of void and nothing separate us, who are here, from whatever it is that lies out there. We take little peeks here and there, with robots and telescopes, and slowly we prepare and improve ourselves in order to tackle the massive undertaking that will be interstellar space-exploration.
And yet, this instinct for going above and beyond can be satiated in many ways. Our evolutionary stage does not allow us to physically navigate outer space - at least just yet. In fact, only a tiny, tiny fraction of our species ever ventured beyond Earth's atmosphere.
Yet, in a way, we are today able to "see the World in a grain of sand" and "to hold infinity in the palm of our hand", like William Blake said. The promethean instinct that has propelled us from the first chipped stone to the nanochip and to Space Exploration has given us a different way to explore space. This "space" - the world that fits into a grain of sand - is the Virtual World; particularly, that of Video Games.
Different games explore different universes, in different ways. Open world games are notable in the sense that they provide scenarios meant to incite a relation to virtual space that is alike the one we have with real space. Open world games allow to choose whatever path and course of action, within the boundaries of its simulations. These simulations are not - by far - as omnipresent and all-engulfing as the real universe. It's not that open of a world, yet. Nevertheless, games like Elite: Dangerous, Grand Theft Auto 5 or Minecraft all have a thing in common. They produce a simulation that is so large, in comparison to the littleness of our own experience and perceptual abilities , that they effectively bring out the explorer in many of us.
For example, a Minecraft player that calls himself Kurt J. Mac is on the process of undertaking a journey to the so-called Far Lands of the Minecraft world. These are some places that are so far from the original spawning place, where every player starts every new game, that the "infinite" world of Minecraft eventually comes to an end. Kurt is therefore effectively taking a virtual odyssey towards the end of the world, and he is documenting the process on YouTube with great success, having garnered a following of 300.000 (!) subscribers on his channel Far Lands or Bust.
The existence of these mythical, uncharted was first mentioned in a blog post written by Minecraft's Creator Markus Persson, aka Notch, where he discussed the limits of his game supposedly "infinite" universe. From thereon, just like to the legendary tales of Prester John, that in the centuries that preceded the Discoveries fueled the fantasies of the then navigators-to-be, Minecraft players had wondered about the existence and potential travelling to such faraway places. Kurt J. Mac is still doing it, having begun his virtual odyssey in 2011, all while documenting his travels and taking notes of some of the most memorable moments and publishing them online - as you can see here. He encounters wondrous canyons and valleys that activate the imagination in a way that, though simulated, plays into the same exploratory itch that we were blessed with as a species.
400 BILLION WORLDS IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND
In Elite: Dangerous, the universe is simulated - though obviously not in its entirety - by making use of an algorithm which is fed real data. Thus, the game produces a model of interstellar space that, despite not being accurate, drives our imagination as if it were, given just how big it is.
This is a game where players are invited to participate in bounty hunting, piracy and trade. But they are free to ignore this invitation. At the helm of one of a plethora of spaceships, which they can trade and modify based on the amount of currency accumulated in the game, gamers can navigate vast reaches of interstellar space. They can travel and become the cartographers of these new topologies of constellations and nebulae. Of course, travel is aided by fictitious technologies like hyperspace jump, which allows them to quickly cover distances light-years apart. But even so, to venture into the void is not something that all gamers choose to do.
Players gather in online forums to trade tips, tales (and screenshots) of planets far away, of black holes, nebulae, galaxies and artifacts from the other side of our galactic neighbourhood. But there are other games, like No Man's Sky, whose presentation video you can find here, and which take virtual interstellar exploration to another level. Being a procedurally generated game, its size is so immense that it reportedly would take a player 5 billion years to visit every planet in the game; even if it were to stay there only 5 seconds. That's A LOT of planets. Games like these have one characteristic which makes them interesting. The "Bigness" (to quote a concept from a tangent area of knowledge) of these virtual spaces is enough to produce a type of gaming that has the characteristics of real world exploration.
HETEROTOPIA AS ENTERTAINMENT
Heterotopia is a concept first brought forth by french poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault, to describe a place (topos) of otherness (hetero). In his influential text, "Des Espaces Autres", Foucault defines heterotopias as places that have "the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect". What this means is that heterotopias are a sort of counter-sites, "kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality". The mirror is the metaphor the author uses to explain what is this concept, because it is at once a physical object but also the enabler of a virtual space. It is simultaneously absolutely real and absolutely unreal, "since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there".
Foucault gives us some examples and categorizes them according to certain topics and characteristics. Examples range from the prison and the madhouse (other-spaces for the deviant), cemeteries (other-spaces for eternal life), museums (other-spaces where time is compressed and accumulated), stages (where, by virtue of suspension of disbelief, several livelihoods are encapsulated and overlapped both in time and space), but also churches, libraries, gardens, military barracks, saunas, and so on.
Now, it is fairly obvious that the way in which games create heterotopic spaces in themselves, and in particular open world games, has to do with them so actively attempting to create experienceable illusions. Here, one navigates virtual universes - in a way akin to movies, religious celebrations, mirrors, museums, libraries and so on. The gaming interface can be defined as a place where the real and the unreal converge; the screen becomes a black mirror where we immerse ourselves and dive further and further towards a dynamic reflection that is outside of "space". Spatial exploration within virtual space is a notable phenomenon, whereby we effectively turn our brains inside out and experience éspaces-autres as if we were compensating for an insufficiency of everyday places to please our promethean urges in a satisfactory manner.
The seemingly archetypal and universal appeal that humans seem to find in these processes of immersion in other realities can be seen manifest in the contemporary progress and hype made in the field of Virtual Reality technologies. Virtual reality headsets are very special objects. They are the effective bridge between worlds; heterotopias by excellence. They function like wormholes connecting different categories of space - involuntarily becoming like the sanctified fetishes that cultures all over the world revered as being the gateways to the supernatural.
The level of immersion expected to be developed in the next years by the use of VR and other technologies of immersion and augmentation of its family makes us wonder: will ALL spaces eventually become OTHER spaces? What kind of skeuomorphic weirdness will arise out of this, even within what we call "real" reality? To what extent are we not already living in a world into which heterotopic content has leaked profusely? What will become of the sacred distinction we make between "real" and "illusory" experiences, spaces and people? Will mythography become governing, even more than it already is?
Surely, the Ontological impact of these new technologies of media and experience on Humans as a species will be great. Nature changes along with us; just how that happens is anybody's guess. But at the same time, we should be excited, because the same evolutionary process that made us concoct meaning out of invisible sounds called words and to make missions to other, real worlds, is now showing us - slowly but surely - that the impact of technology on our nature will be greater in the near future than it has ever been before. Forward, or better, towards other and next natures - even if they don't actually exist.