CHICAGO — Picture this scenario: Lifespans are now approximately 115 years. And you have slept for 70 years on a starship with 1,999 travelers to get to a new world — a terraformed planet that will become humanity’s new home.
Welcome to the role-playing game that is ExoTerra Imagination Lab. The idea of Ada Palmer, a University of Chicago associate professor of history, ExoTerra is a way for students, faculty, alumni, gamers and sci-fi/fantasy fans around the globe to connect in pandemic times, Palmer said.
The year is 2412 and you’ve reached a new star system called Abaia, 64 1/2 light years from Earth, and you and other colony colleagues must design the new world from top to bottom — cities, laws and which animals to release into the new ecosystem. As the first wave of explorers, you and your fellow travelers must design a civilization that will welcome the 80,000 future colony members who left Earth 30 years ago and are in suspended animation.
The Earth you left behind in 2301 was still thriving, but its people were hard-pressed to fix the global flaws from humanity’s past. The ExoTerra mission’s goal is to build a better world for colonists.
“UChicago is creating this for the pandemic — to give students something that is exciting and community building,” Palmer said.
Another goal of the project: to be a space for exploring the important problems of our world and propose solutions to them in a way that’s not connected to current politics — from schools to incarceration. The project is in the tradition of “speculative resistance,” Palmer said, a kind of science fiction that focuses on other ways the world could be by using imagined places.
According to Ben Indeglia, Palmer’s lead lab assistant, 500 students and 100 volunteers signed up to be a part of the project. And over a dozen University of Chicago faculty members across various departments signed up for the lab in the fall and winter quarters, meaning their students will participate individually and in groups for grades.
There are creative writing students composing vignettes for characters in the new world, volunteers playing extra characters that the students talk to via text and online, like the head of the United Nations back on Earth, the cast of the nearest colony ship, and the artificial intelligence computer on the ship that likes to ask gamers riddles. Other students are handling the art.
Students will name the planet in the next 10 weeks and use Minecraft to build simulated versions of the capital city. In winter quarter, the ExoTerra team will land on the planet, and characters will start building the capital city. By the spring quarter, some exciting finale stages develop. Palmer said the stakes in the lab will change at different points in the 2020-21 school year, representing different stages of populating a planet.
Videos with 3D graphics will feature prominently, with information about what the planet’s composition is, and there will be moments when a new