Games like Surviving Mars are preparing future generations of astronauts for life on the red planet.

A pristine white rocket stirs up the dusty terracotta surface of Mars, coming in for a smooth landing. A hatch opens, and two rovers make their way across the rugged orange-red terrain. There are no humans -- at least, not yet. But this is one small step -- or a short wheel roll -- to a new world that could be our future home.

I'm playing Surviving Mars, a 2018 survival strategy game from Tropico developers Haemimont Games and Paradox Interactive. The goal? Build the infrastructure to sustain human life on the red planet.

"Humanity is in a weird situation right now -- my smartphone has more computing power than NASA had when they sent people to the moon, but we're using that to exchange pictures of cats and argue on Twitter," said Bisser Dyankov, producer of Surviving Mars.

Video games and virtual reality simulations are bringing the average person closer than ever to experiencing life on Mars. For many, these pop culture tours make the actual missions to colonize the planet proposed both by NASA and private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX feel more achievable.

These games, along with other pop culture representations of Mars, have vastly increased interest in human missions to Mars, said James Burk, IT director of the space advocacy nonprofit the Mars Society. In particular, the 2015 movie adaptation of the novel The Martian was a major turning point in piquing public curiosity in colonizing the planet. And now, SpaceX's plan to send an unmanned mission to Mars as soon as 2022 "is throwing gasoline on it all," he added.

"It's getting easier all the time to tell the story of sending people to Mars because now we have all these tools," Burk said. "People are more accepting of that reality now."


Martian in the details

Just hours after Surviving Mars was announced in May 2017, people took to the internet to argue (as they do) about how much of the game was factual and how much was science fiction. They went so far as to exchange formulas determining whether wind turbines would really be a plausible way to generate electricity on Mars, as they are in the game, Dyankov said.

"We know that whatever we do, there will always be smarter people who are willing to go way deeper and test our ideas," Dyankov said. "You know you're touching something and motivating people to go do the math and ask questions and look for the answers."

Surviving Mars gameplay is incredibly detailed: Set up a mission by choosing a sponsor, who will influence how you spend your money. Choose your rocket, your colonists and your commander by their profession and the benefits they can offer. (For example, choosing the inventor will get you faster drones, the politician will increase your funding, and the rocket scientist will give you an extra rocket at the start.)

It's a game, but we wanted to make it plausible fiction and ground it in existing science."
Bisser Dyankov

Several more decisions go into launching your first rocket full of drones to build infrastructure, including what to bring and where to land, while balancing your funding and resources. Allocate resources for construction, including water, oxygen and power. Select a research area such as physics, robotics and biotech, each of which could offer a different benefit down the line.

Bottom line? It's a lot. The developers relied heavily on NASA resources, including topological maps and research concepts.

"It's a game, but we wanted to make it plausible fiction and ground it in existing science," Dyankov said. The team consulted with a NASA worker on the core elements of the game during early builds, but chose to forgo some elements of realism for the sake of fun gameplay, he added.

Focus on the future