Port of Mars: ASU's Social Science Experiment Plans for an Interplanetary Future

Titus Lunter
Port of Mars game art
You are one of five members of a Martian community on Mars. This is the first space-faring mission of such audacity, and you are all there permanently. The only humans before you were builders and engineers who constructed the habitat that your colony exists in. Each in your group of five has their own mission to carry out, but in such foreign and unpredictable conditions, the stability of the community rests evenly on everyone’s shoulders.

This is the starting position that players assume when they participate in a game called Port of Mars — one of the pilot projects launched, in 2016, by the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University. The mission of the Interplanetary Initiative, per its website, is to “create a positive and practical path to space and build a framework for the organization of an extraterrestrial society.” This massive, transdisciplinary endeavor looks out into space’s potential for supporting mere earthlings.

Port of Mars is a card game and social experiment that delves into the social ramifications of colonizing Mars. Through the game, players (potential Mars inhabitants) discover how they might respond to social conflict and moral challenges. Players are selected by the Port of Mars team as volunteers, and are led through each round by a moderator. By studying numerous outcomes of the game as played by ASU volunteers, researchers hope to learn more about how small groups of humans may behave while crammed together in a tiny, stress-heavy habitat.

Michael Yichao, (who works for Riot Games, maker of popular computer games, notably, League of Legends,) designed the game. The ASU team that came up with the idea aspires to one day have an accessible version to purchase, but some amount of redesigning — adjusting the role of live moderator, for instance — would be required. ASU undergraduate students volunteered to participate in the experiment which, in its first run, was held with 19 separate groups under the rigorous scrutiny of the Port of Mars staff.

The information gleaned from the game may be particularly pertinent to NASA and private space companies including SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, ASU researchers hope.

click to enlarge A ruminative Lance Gharavi, head of Port of Mars - INTERPLANETARY INITIATIVE
A ruminative Lance Gharavi, head of Port of Mars
Interplanetary Initiative
Lance Gharavi of ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre, the head of the experiment, said the "initial spark" in creating the idea for the game "was asking what sorts of legal, political, and ethical precepts will guide future, human space exploration? How do we sustain healthy human communities in space?”

In the last decade, Gharavi’s work has existed at the intersection of art and science. Even the game’s title comes from the opening monologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V — “Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars.”

The staff at Interplanetary Initiative understands that technological advancement is only half the battle when considering the whole scope of colonizing another planet. Knowing how to overcome social dilemmas may be one of the biggest hurdles for a Mars mission.

“It’s a very transdisciplinary project. This is the kind of project that ASU does well. Crossing disciplinary boundaries, this game couldn’t have been done in a single department,” Gharavi said.

Port of Mars is competitive and cooperative in gameplay. It examines how personal ambition and the betterment of the colony might clash on Mars. Every round is a simulation in which the player makes decisions that will inevitably affect the whole of his or her Mars colony. The consequences of an ethical misstep could propel the group of extraterrestrial inhabitants toward a life-threatening spiral.

As Gharavi tersely put it, “If the community collapses, everybody dies. And if everybody dies, nobody wins.”

The five roles represented in the Mars community are that of a politician, entrepreneur, researcher, curator, and pioneer. “Competing priorities of science, government, and industry is one of the biggest themes,” Gharavi explained. “Culture is represented by the curator; arts and culture develop everywhere humans go. Finally, the pioneer, exploring for the sake of discovery.”

“One of the advantages of living on Earth,” he said, “is that, to a degree, we have a pressure release where if society gets bad in one place, people who have the means can escape those situations. But, if you’re on Mars, you can’t do that.”

click to enlarge Port of Mars game character (researcher) - TITUS LUNTER
Port of Mars game character (researcher)
Titus Lunter
This underlying dilemma in Port of Mars is known as “The Tragedy of the Commons,” made famous in a 1968 article (of the same title) by ecologist, Garrett Hardin. Commons are any unregulated, shared resource in society that requires a cooperative effort to maintain. Fisheries, forests, and even the global climate all qualify as commons. In Port of Mars, the commons dilemma is built into the game as the constant strain between the players’ personal ambitions and the “upkeep” of the habitat.

In the game, each player is given an “upkeep” number that starts at 100. Upkeep affects renewable resources like food, as well as infrastructure like radiation shielding, etc. Each player needs to commit time to upkeep or else their number of 100 begins to wane. This is where decision-making begins to play a dire role for the community. In set time-blocks, the players decide how to balance their own goals and the upkeep of the community.

In each round, every player also turns over one “event card.” These represent the capriciousness of living on a foreign planet. An event card can be something positive (unexpected shipment from Earth), negative (dust storm, crop failure), or neutral, leaving things as they are.

If upkeep numbers fall below certain thresholds, players must pull more event cards, thus increasing chances of complexity at a time that might not be ideal. Points are awarded to each player as they successfully accomplish their own goals while maintaining the community’s upkeep. Assuming the community doesn’t collapse, the player with the most points at the end wins.

For years after Hardin's essay, the inevitable outcome from any commons dilemma was perceived to be negative without either governmental regulation or privatizing the resource in question. Some researchers, however, sought a more selfless and communal outcome not reliant on top-down regulation. 

The late Elinor Ostrom, a political economist and Nobel laureate, challenged Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” article with her 1990 book, Governing the Commons. She also founded the Center for the Study of Institutional Analysis, now the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment (CBIE), at ASU. Her work on commons was monumental, and as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences (2009), she was entered into ASU’s hall of fame. She died in 2012 at the age of 78.

Ostrom’s successors, Marco Janssen and Marty Anderies, who now lead the CBIE, played major roles in developing Port of Mars. With the commons dilemma being the crux of this experiment, Gharavi added, “ASU has two of the world’s premier researchers in commons, and a lot of their research is game-based. They designed the experiment at the heart of Port of Mars.”

Other research being done in the social science of space exploration is scant.

click to enlarge Port of Mars event card - LIZ LEO
Port of Mars event card
Liz Leo
Port of Mars is ahead of the curve, which lands its creators (for now) between the interests of major funding agencies like NASA, though they have applied for grants, one of which is pending with the National Science Foundation.

Gharavi continued, “Fungible research can be applied to plenty of terrestrial problems as well, like mass migration, cyber security, and even climate change. These are all pressing problems on Earth that involve political action, high risk, collective action, and shared resources. Climate change damages everyone. Some are trying to mitigate that; some take and take.

"How can people best manage dilemmas of shared resources and collective action, in the context of high risk and high uncertainty?" he continued. "This is an apt description of what things will be like in future human space communities, but it is also an apt description of things we face here on Earth.”

Preliminary findings from the first completed study are rolling in, and Gharavi and the Port of Mars team will be submitting for publication this fall. A digital version is also in the works, which could potentially increase the sample size of this experiment and thus yield a more vast set of results. The findings may prove critical for future denizens of a foreign planet.