This sci-fi blockchain game could help create a metaverse that no one owns

This sci-fi blockchain game could help create a metaverse that no one owns

Start exploring in Dark Forest and you’ll quickly realize how little you know.

The universe is vast and many of its secrets are hidden in darkness. If you accept the mission, your task is to explore the unknown, not be destroyed by other players lurking in darkness, and to build an empire on the planets that you discover.

Although the video game appears to be similar to other online strategy games it is actually quite different.

This is because it doesn’t rely on popular online strategy games such as Eve Online or World of Warcraft. Dark Forest is entirely based on a blockchain. This means that no one can control how it plays out.

Its early success is not just a fun way to make games that work in a completely different way. It also proves that blockchains can be used to do far more than just move digital money around, as some blockchain boosters have claimed since the invention of the technology.

In fact, many of the game’s most passionate fans believe that the game’s uniqueness is something even deeper–something that hints towards the future of our digital realms. This includes the possibility that a metaverse isn’t owned or controlled by Meta or any other big tech company, but instead runs in a distributed way between its users.

How it was built

Dark Forest began as an idea in the mind of the pseudonymous Gubsheep (maintaining pseudonymity is not uncommon among figures in the crypto world), who describes it as a “massively multiplayer strategy game that takes place in an infinite, procedurally generated universe.”

The game is partly inspired by the science fiction novel The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu. Gubsheep claims that he was so fascinated by the book that he read it in one sitting in a cafe. Gubsheep found the theme of the dilemma that our civilization would face if there was another civilization in the universe to be particularly compelling. Gubsheep says that we wouldn’t be able to know if it was a threat to our survival, but one view is that it would be best to assume so in order for us all not make contact.

Gubsheep read The Dark Forest a few days after attending a conference on zero-knowledge proofs, an emerging class in cryptographic tools. This advanced cryptography allows you to prove that a statement really is true without having to reveal any other information. Imagine being able to prove your citizenship without having to reveal any other information from your passport.

As he walked back from the bookstore, new ideas were sparked by The Dark Forest and began to combine with others that were inspired by what he had just read.

The idea behind zero-knowledge proofs dates back to the 1980s, but some of the first practical applications have appeared recently in blockchain systems. Zcash, a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency, uses a class zero-knowledge-proofs called zk SNARKs (the same type Dark Forest uses) to hide transaction data so users can deal anonymously almost like they were using digital cash.

Gubsheep started to imagine a “cryptographic Dark Forest” where opposing players would be “tipptoeing” through a universe full of potentially hostile counterparts. Zero-knowledge proofs kept them from view. He stayed up late sketching the idea until he got home. He convinced two of his friends to help him build it. Eventually, Dark Forest’s creators realized that a blockchain was necessary to make it work. Gubsheep says they wanted to build the game in such a way that everyone could verify that the mathematical protocol used to create the game was being followed correctly. Although it would have been technically possible for the game to be written in a traditional server, all of its history, including zero-knowledge proofs, is it really possible to create a blockchain

They knew it was a “piein-the-sky” idea. Blockchains can be slow and costly to use. This is a problem for a game that has many interconnected systems and many player moves. Despite the initial hype surrounding a wide range non-finance uses of blockchains, it is now believed that blockchains are only suitable for finance-related applications.

Proof of concepts

Gubsheep and his friends achieved what they set out to do: make a cool, sci-fi-inspired game using cutting-edge cryptography. However, what they created has opened up new possibilities that they didn’t anticipate.

Dark Forest is the most complex blockchain game and the first to feature what game theorists refer to as “incomplete information”. The universe, including potentially hostile players, is hidden when a new player arrives in Dark Forest. Only players can explore these hidden areas. Players send a confirmation to the blockchain every time they move, but without revealing their coordinates in space and time.

Since February 2020, more than 10,000 people have played. Some, such as Nalin Bhardwaj (software developer), have been inspired to stay and continue working on the Dark Forest universe. Dark Forest is seen by them as the first step towards rich digital realities, some might call them metaverses. These digital realities are run by decentralized networks and not company servers.

Dark Forest is not the most complex blockhain game. He says that the game’s creators created technical infrastructure that expands the possibilities of using blockchains to interact online.

To Bhardwaj and other true believers, Dark Forest is proof of several new concepts at once. It first demonstrates how advanced cryptography can help add new features to online communities. Computer scientists and developers inspired by Dark Forest are already looking into new games and applications that use zero-knowledge proofs.

Gubsheep and others have even launched an R&D organization, called 0xPARC (a reference to PARC, the storied R&D company that Xerox launched 40 years ago), to support this work. Bhardwaj was recently an intern at 0xPARC.

The scope of 0xPARC does not limit to gaming. Digital identification is one example of an application that the group is interested. Remember the passport example. You could prove anything about yourself with zero-knowledge proofs. It is possible to prove that you are older than you actually are, or that you have more money than you think you have without disclosing the exact amount. Gubsheep says that it is possible to use zero-knowledge cryptography in order to prove that you have run a machine learning algorithm on sensitive data sets while keeping the data confidential.

A new vision for the metaverse

Zero knowledge is not the only focus of 0xPARC. Dark Forest’s use of cryptography is truly innovative. However, the most profound thinkers seem to agree that its “autonomous” world, which is an online environment that no one can control and cannot be taken down, is a compelling proof of concept.

Dark Forest has existed so far in temporary instances called rounds. These last between one to two weeks. Justin Glibert, a computer scientist and cofounder of 0xPARC, said that Dark Forest exists entirely in blockchain smart contract–computer programs that are stored and executed by the blockchain. This means that it could be deployed in a way that no one would be able to stop it. He says, “You could think it like a Minecraft server, but it can’t been taken down.”

Once a smart contract has been deployed, it acts a lot like a robot that lives digitally and can run forever. Unless the creator creates a mechanism to stop the program from running, it will continue to run as long as there is a network. Glibert claims that the virtual world would look more like a digital planet than a game in this instance.

What happens to a digital planet? He says that the rules of the digital world–its “digital Physics”–allow for whatever he wants. Dark Forest players have used its “digital physics” to create in-game marketplaces, tools that automate games functions, and even bots that play the game. It is also available for anyone to modify, copy, and build upon.

Glibert and his team at 0xPARC are focused on creating systems that allow game developers to create autonomous worlds, but also make it easier for people to interact with those worlds and create new ones.

Gubsheep believes this is the natural evolution of the internet. He says that the digital world is becoming the home to more of our most meaningful interactions. He predicts that people won’t accept a version “the metaverse” that is controlled by companies or other centralized entities.

What they want instead is “a credibly neutre substrate for people to express themselves fairly unconstrainedly and to self-organize, self-govern” he says. “That’s a much more powerful vision of the metaverse to me, and one that I hope 0xPARC’s experiments can contribute to.”

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