What it Feels Like to explore a digital solar system

Blake Johnson // As Told To Jake Ilkka

Traveling in space. It is a dream of mine that I’ve held dear for my entire life. Staring into the stars at night and wondering what is up there has always interested me. While I see no way for me to live this dream of mine in the real world, I can still live out this dream digitally. I can play a video game that allows me to explore a solar system and see what there is beyond Earth. I can see this all in a game called “Elite: Dangerous.”

My love for a simulation like “Elite: Dangerous” started when I was seven and was looking at the digital Xbox store. I was scrolling past the various titles on the store and I saw one that caught my eye; it was a space game. A space game in which you could travel a universe in your own spaceship and explore to your heart’s content. The video game immediately intrigued me and I asked my dad to buy it for me. He said no.

For a while, that was it. I forgot about the game. During that time, I picked up coding and spent hours learning about the intricacies of code and starting some small projects. I learned how to use Node and JavaScript and worked on making simple Discord bots and app interfaces.

One day three years ago, I saw a software on Steam that reminded me of the old Xbox 360 game and fell right back in love with the idea of playing in a space setting. One thing had changed over the time since I last saw the game, I could buy the software without having to ask my dad. So I did.

After the downloading finished, I went into the software thinking it would not take long for me to learn how to play. The tutorial did not last that long, so how bad could it be? Very.

Almost immediately, I tried to land at a trading port. Once I was close to landing, the game told me I was not authorized to land my spacecraft on the planet because I did not tell the trading port that I was landing. Then, I got attacked and received a game over screen. Early moments like that in “Elite: Dangerous” showed me that this software had more details to it than I could see on the surface level of the Steam launcher.

People who did not know the scope of the game and the sheer amount of details that one needs to know while playing would have quit right there. I decided to keep playing, as I knew there was more to explore in the world.

As I continued to play the game, I saw my character become the trader of space—trading with anyone and scavenging the smaller planets. Being a scavenger allowed me to explore the world with ease, meet other characters or online players, and still interact with the massive space battles. I was able to upgrade my ship and actually leave an impact on those space battles over time. After seeing a couple more battles, I decided to explore the universe of the game.

Flying around in the game is a great destresser for me. I can just sit back in my room, relax in my chair and observe the intricacies of space. The game was designed in a way to capture space in the most realistic ways possible. I love it.

The game slowly became my life, where I would load into the software immediately after I got all of my homework done. I would read the Reddit page for the game and see how other people would play the game. The game was always running on my computer while I anticipated the first moment I got home so I could play the game. After a while, I could not wait to spend my entire summer playing the game.

This was all when the game was at its cultural peak in popularity. While I never met anyone else in school that would play “Elite: Dangerous,” there were always people online in games or on the Reddit page willing and able to play online with others. The game was still fun for me to play, but I slowly started to lose some of the initial spark to play as I had before.

As I started to transition out of my obsession for the game, so did others. During the times I was able to play, I would rarely find other players. Even when I would find one, they would either not want to explore with me or not want to talk with a microphone with me. Once I was slowly isolated by other players, I felt like I had a small experience of traveling in space. Isolation.

Once I had a true experience of space, I started to commit myself to studying for school. The time in the past I would save for playing the game slowly transitioned into being with my family or trying out 3D modeling. I still played the game, but now I committed my time to other activities.

I look to the future, not knowing what is there, just like before when I would stare into the stars at night. Although I currently fear the idea of sitting at a desk on a computer all day in my working life, I still have the connection to “Elite: Dangerous.” If I can find a way to explore space as I did with “Elite: Dangerous,” I know I can find a way to achieve my dreams in the future.