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February 28th, 2006


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01:14 am - Sport!   In!   Space!
Very interesting to see a casting call for a sport to be played in zero-gravity. NASA have long been training potential astronauts in what it's like to float in 0-G by (among other techniques) taking them up in a plane, popularly known as the Vomit Comet, which flies for long climbs and long dives in a parabolic flight pattern. People on board experience low and zero gravity during the crests of the parabola and up-to-nearly-twice-normal gravity during the troughs. The dives are limited to around 30 seconds or so at a time, so you only get short periods of low and zero gravity. If you fill those thirty-second periods with athletes playing some game, then you have a zero-gravity game - yer real live sport in space. It's fact, not futurism, though it's pricy. (The Zero-Gravity Corporation charge US$3,750 plus tax for one flight with many cycles, but they probably need a dozen or more of you at $4k a time to make it happen.)

As they're not releasing the rules in advance, it poses a game design challenge of what a zero-gravity sport might really be like. The criterion that the plane's flight only gives 30 seconds or so of 0-G at a time is an interesting sporting constraint, though I wonder whether they're missing a trick by not likewise making use of the zero-to-one G and more-than-one G conditions that are also engendered at different angles in the rotation. The casting call implies a seven-a-side game, even though the working drawings suggest three players going down the plane facing three players coming up it. Perhaps the two teams have specialist defensive and offensive units of three players each, but that seems unnecessarily labour-intensive to me.

My gut feeling is that they may be more restricted by the essential shape and size of an aeroplane cockpit than they suspect. The best-case assumption under current technology is that the game could take place in a Boeing 727, which is what Wikipedia reckon the Zero-Gravity Corporation use, which might possibly give a playing field 80-90 feet long, 11 feet wide and possibly 8-9 feet tall. (Probably less tall than that - see the pictures.) Trying to have a ball game in there is like the metaphorical knife fight in a phone booth. There's also Newton's First Law coming into play; there's going to be a lot of floating around unless there are useful things to push off. (Probably the other players and the walls, but potentially what else?) Quidditch would be a particularly bad choice, the fact that it's not inherently that good a game notwithstanding.

When you say zero-gravity, you think of people floating around, probably fairly slowly in order to maintain some degree of control. That's the preconception we need to play with in order to blow people's minds - we need people moving around quickly, we need people being just a bit out of control, we need people doing things they couldn't do in 2-D and mastering their flight. Perhaps little jet-packs might be a real option if we're relying them only for thrust rather than height? Perhaps there could be something lower-power but conceptually similar, like moderate-power aerosols?

Accordingly, I'd be tempted to suggested that Red Dwarf had it right with their throwaway reference to Zero Gravity Kick Boxing; I reckon there's no room for a ball game on an aircraft. Other popular sporting elementary concepts include combat sports, accuracy (targeting) sports and essential raw athletic contests. Space animal sports wouldn't fly (no pun intended) in this day and age - no space bull-riding. Artistic impression entertainment competitions: inevitable, but not with my name on them, and I can't see how they could be more fun than skysurfing already is. Mind sports wouldn't gain much from being played in space, though I'm sure there's an interesting 3-D game of Icehouse to be played somehow.

My first suggestion is a combat sport. It's a push of war (by analogy to tug of war) in zero-gravity. We would glove and pad everyone up, then have a full-contact sport where the aim is not to incapacitate your opponent but to push your opponent back. If you and your opponent both end up behind the opponent's goal line, you win and they lose. If a thirty-second chunk of low-gravity time expires and you're both between the goal lines, you just carry on from where you were in the next one; it's far more natural than boxing's artificial round structure. I suggest giving people one good push off the wall of their choice just before gravity hits zero, hoping to come off with greater momentum in the ensuing mid-air collision, then push your opponent back through whatever further contact you can orchestrate after that.

The clever bit is that we tie players to each other with loose-ish bungee cord which adds more forces to the system. This would bring players back together if they're floating too far apart from each other; pulling the other player towards you then also becomes possible. We would also draw a neutral point half-way down the cable and monitor it to determine whether the players really are moving one way or the other and whether the goal line has definitively been crossed or not.

I also wonder whether one-on-one is exciting enough, or whether we would have (say) two-player teams, each player attached to the three others. (I'm thinking more of a square-with-diagonal-lines-drawn arrangement here, not least because we can put the progress marker at the centre of the cross, rather than the pure but potentially slightly indeterminate tetrahedron.) It would be harder to commentate on but increase the chance of something really cool-looking happening; people flying off skew to each other isn't much fun - every missed opportunity for the action to take place wastes lots of money. Two-on-ones would be part of the game, though by necessity would happen only temporarily.

Would that work? I have a gut feeling there would be inherent uphill/downhill advantage parity issues, but these could be resolved through frequent changing of ends, maintaining the concept of distance won in previous attacks - if you've driven them a metre back, you should start with a metre advantage even if you're both heading the other way around. Are there any other obvious bugs and can they be fixed?

Unrelatedly, I don't think much of the Space Champions' business model of episodic PPV - though given how many porn sites maintain long-term subscriptions among their members, there must be something to it. It does desperately smack of "we can't get a TV deal for this", though. Time to tap the funds for kooky sport entertainment projects that are Red Bull and the Golden Palace Casino - everybody else is probably too sensible to touch it. (Perhaps one of the space tourism companies might want to get into the parabolic flights industry as a lower-priced alternative and run this as a loss leader for publicity?)

Lastly, any nominations for potential athletes and/or hosts for such an enterprise? I suggest that the athlete / model / contemporary philosopher Melanie Chisholm doesn't have much on her plate at the moment; surely it would be hard to beat the irresistible title Sporty Spice's Sport In Space...
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Comments:


From:quidditchmaster
Date:February 28th, 2006 02:03 am (UTC)
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Quidditch would be a particularly bad choice, the fact that it's not inherently that good a game notwithstanding.

HEY!
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 28th, 2006 10:28 pm (UTC)
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I'll stand by my original statement. Quidditch has been designed for flavour and as a framework from which to hang plot devices, rather than as something desirable, playable or at all practical. Granted, it's almost certainly far from the worst of fictional games or fictional sports, but it's not the best; that said, I have a strong suspicion that all the games listed don't stand up by way of straightforward game design to some extent.

Issues include, off the top of my head:
1) The lack of coherence between the Quaffle game and the Snitch game.
2) The presence of the Bludger game, which primarily serves to convey a sense of danger. There are passing mentions of using the Bludgers as distraction from Snitch grabs, but almost tangentially.
3) Scoring, though we have taken the 150 point issue into our own hands somewhat as a partial bugfix.
4) Unlimited game duration and apparently inconsistent application of motifs of play.

The open challenge to me (and to us all!) is to design something better and yet still thematic!
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From:applez
Date:February 28th, 2006 03:53 am (UTC)
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Clearly this question has already been answered by Orson Scott Card...

'Capture the Flag' in freeze-suits, models of celestial bodies, and ray guns. Let loose the juvenile dogs of war! ;-)
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 28th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)
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I have remedied that particular gap in my cultural education. :-)
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From:bateleur
Date:February 28th, 2006 08:44 am (UTC)
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I think you're dismissing ball games a bit too fast here. The trick to sorting out zero-G games is, I suspect, terrain. As you note, an empty field gives rise to lots of dull floating. But what if there were poles and ropes at certain points on the field. Then there could be a lot of strategy in how team members moved around and planned their plays.

What bothers me about the whole thing is that I feel the main point of zero-G is to go 3D and having one of the game's dimensions effectively absent (8-9 feet is not adequate, really) removes much of the motivation.
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 28th, 2006 10:34 pm (UTC)
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You argue yourself out of the general case rather effectively with the second paragraph. :-)

For a less restricted environment ball games are certainly possible and I'm sure there are funky ball game things to be done, but not on an aeroplane. I'm not too thrilled in principle about games that depend on particular geographical quirks (to a greater extent than cultural anomalies than baseball and golf, which at least have largely consistent rulesets, albeit ones that adapt to their surroundings to some extent). Generic poles and ropes which set up reproducible fields of play, where the obstacles could even be defined mathematically, aren't so bad, but neither Eton Fives nor Slamball have many different courts in existence.
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From:undyingking
Date:February 28th, 2006 09:05 am (UTC)
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The rulebook of boardgame The Awful Green Things from Outer Space includes mention that the ship's crew play zero-G pool in a special cubical room with pockets at the corners, and has a picture of same taking place -- they use baseball bats rather than cues, and to be honest it looks decidedly dangerous.
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 28th, 2006 10:42 pm (UTC)
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That's quite cute, but raises issues of how (if ever!) the balls come to rest; one might expect to find them squashed up against the walls unless they have a similar coefficient of restitution to a billiard table, and shots off the walls are always tricky and kind of dull however many dimensions you're playing in. (OK, a bit more fun in 4-D, I suppose, but they don't half take time to get there!)
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From:undyingking
Date:March 1st, 2006 09:34 am (UTC)
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Mm, my guess was that the scoring system must involve points for cannoning other players, etc... I suspect it was more a tension reliever for the crew than anything else! Maybe the balls were made of something which had a timed 'become extremely high-friction' with each shot, to increase the chances of coming to "rest" somewhere other than the walls. But now we enter the realms of idle speculation...
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From:oldbloke
Date:March 1st, 2006 09:19 am (UTC)
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it'd add a new dimension (see what I did there?) to the old girls-wrestling-in-custard schtick

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