SCIENCE OR FICTION?: BioWare returns with the sequel of its successful Mass Effect video game, in which some characters can harness a force somewhat like universe-expanding dark energy. Image: © BIOWARE
Could a person harness the power of dark energy—the mysterious and pervasive force suspected of speeding the universe's expansion—to block bullets, hurl adversaries around like rag dolls, and create small gravitational vortices out of thin air using nothing more than thoughts? The short answer: no. That is, unless that person exists in the intricate cyber universe created by the makers of the video games Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, the latter of which drops on January 26.
In the Mass Effect games, humans (excuse me, that is certain humans known as "biotics") have the ability to channel dark energy if they can survive in utero exposure to a substance known as "element zero," which causes them to develop nodules throughout their nervous systems that enhance the body's natural electrical impulses. If a biotic's natural abilities are cultivated properly, he (or she) is able to generate and control dark energy to move objects, generate protective barriers or restrain enemies. Got all that?
There's much, much more to know about the Mass Effect games (enough to populate several wikis, blogs and online communities), but what of its fascination with a relatively new scientific concept as purely theoretical as dark energy?
Incorporating the concept of dark energy into a video game is "not completely implausible," says astrophysicist Tamara Davis, a research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia and an associate of the Dark Cosmology Center in Denmark. "To the best of our knowledge, dark energy is everywhere. We do think it would change slightly in the presence of matter, but we don't know how."
Still, it's unlikely that dark energy as portrayed in the game has anything to do with "real" dark energy, says California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. "I like to think of what's being used in the game as some force out there that resembles dark energy," he says. "There's a small amount of dark energy in every cubic centimeter of the universe, but it's not powerful enough to do the things described in the game."
It was very important for BioWare to incorporate science into the Mass Effect trilogy (a third game is in development) and do so in a way "that didn't offend people who know about science," says Casey Hudson, project director for Mass Effect 2.
What makes dark energy a promising component of a fantasy video game is that although scientists are learning more about it, "there's still so much more that we don't know," Hudson says. Taking this thought a step further, he asks, "What if we could understand how dark energy worked and manipulate it the way we've manipulated electromagnetism to create electronic devices like cell phones and computers?" Hudson likens the way that Mass Effect biotics summon dark energy to the way electric eels can sense and manipulate electricity in their environment.
Hudson didn't formally consult any scientists during the making of the game, but he says that he and his staff soaked up the available research on dark energy. Neither Davis nor Carroll has played Mass Effect, but they're intrigued by the concept.
"I sort of like the idea of having people who could sense [dark energy] and manipulate it," Davis says. In fact, "one of the reasons we're studying it is to find some way to manipulate it." One of the roles of video games and science fiction is to stretch what we know by using our imagination, she adds.
"It's a fun idea," Carroll says, adding that introducing gamers to even the concept of dark energy is a step in the right direction. "Someone might hear that term as part of a game and then hear it again in a more scientific context, and that might help them ultimately gain a better understanding of what it is. There's a tremendous untapped potential in games for incorporating cool science."