This academic year, undergraduate students will have the chance to travel to a galaxy far, far away—from the comfort of their own rooms. All they need is a computer, an Internet connection, and a taste for problem solving. Associate Professor of Early Modern European History and science fiction author Ada Palmer has designed an online collaborative research role-playing game in which students will play the crew of a space colony ship traveling from Earth to a new planet that has recently been adapted for human habitation. Students will use skills and knowledge from their University of Chicago courses to design all aspects of life on the new planet, including the blueprint for its capital city, its energy system, its commemorative landscape, and its economic policies. The game will run through autumn, winter, and spring quarters and will be open to all students as an extracurricular activity, regardless of class year, major, or location. Some courses will also offer ExoTerra as an integrated course component.
Organizers hope that ExoTerra will be more than an extracurricular activity or course assignment. One of the major goals of the project is to form a tightknit virtual community to help combat the isolation of life in a pandemic. Students will work in small committees focused on different aspects of planetary planning. Although science fiction is sometimes dismissed as “escapist,” Palmer argues that, in fact, imagining the dilemmas of other societies can open new horizons for how we think of our own. Science fiction, ExoTerrra included, can be a space to preview ethical challenges before they arrive and imagine creative solutions.