Start exploring Dark Forest and you will quickly realize how much knowledge you still have to learn. The universe is vast and is largely shrouded in darkness. Your mission, if you accept it, is to explore unknown worlds, avoid being killed by opposing players who may be lurking in the shadows, and build an empire on the planets you discover and take control of.
While this video game looks like other online strategy games in appearance, when you look under the hood, it’s a whole other story. In fact, it’s not based on the servers of popular online strategy games like Eve Online and World of Warcraft. Instead, Dark Forest runs entirely on blockchain technology, so no one has control over how the game plays out.
A metaverse not owned by Meta or any technology company
Its rapid success doesn’t just reflect a fun way of making games that work completely differently. It also helps demonstrate that blockchains can be used for much more interesting and complex purposes than just transferring digital money. This is what some blockchain proponents have been saying since the technology first appeared.
Indeed, diehard fans of the game think that what makes it so interesting is something even deeper, something that hints at the future of our shared digital realms. And that includes the possibility of a metaverse that isn’t owned by Meta or any other tech company but operates in a decentralized way, i.e. through its users.
How was it built? Dark Forest was born from the idea of an internet user known as Gubsheep (using a nickname not uncommon among crypto players) who describes it as “a massively multiplayer strategy game set in an infinite, serially generated universe”.
The game is partly inspired by the science fiction novel “The Dark Forest” by Chinese writer Liu Cixin. Gusheep says he was so fascinated by the book that he read it directly while he was sitting in a bookstore. One of the themes he found particularly fascinating was the dilemma our society would face if it discovered another civilization in the universe.
Gubsheep read “The Dark Forest” just days after attending a conference devoted to a new class of cryptographic tools called “zero-knowledge proofs.” Thanks to this strong encryption, you can prove that a statement is true without revealing anything else about it. Imagine, for example, being able to prove your citizenship without revealing any of the other information in your passport.
As he walked back to his apartment after stopping by the bookstore, new ideas began to emerge in Gubsheep’s mind inspired by his reading of “The Dark Forest” combined with others.
Zero-knowledge trials to hide opponents
The idea of zero-knowledge proofs dates back to the 1980s, but its first practical applications in blockchain systems have recently emerged. The most prominent example is Zcash, a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency that uses a class of zero-knowledge evidence called zk-SNARKs – the same type used by Dark Forest – to hide transaction data so users can conduct transactions in anonymously, just like using a digital form of cash.
Gubsheep began envisioning a “cryptographic dark forest” where opposing players would be like “toe-to-toe” civilizations in a universe full of potentially hostile counterparts – lurking in the shadows thanks to the revelation of zero-knowledge evidence. Once he got home, he stayed up all night sketching the outlines of his idea of him. Shortly thereafter, he convinced two friends to help him apparate it.
Eventually, the creators of Dark Forest decided that they needed to use the blockchain to make the game work. They wanted to build the game so that everyone could verify that “the mathematical protocol behind the game is being followed correctly,” says Gubsheep. He admits that it would have been technically possible to write the game on a traditional server such that all of its history was searchable, including all zero-knowledge evidence, “but at this point you’re already starting to build a blockchain.”
They were aware that their idea was “unrealistic”. Blockchains are slow and expensive, which is far from an ideal infrastructure for a game that needs to track many interconnected systems and a large number of player movements. Despite all the hype around the possibilities for non-financial uses of blockchains, currently, in the eyes of the general public, this technology only makes sense for simple finance-related applications.
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“I don’t think there is a more complex blockchain application” than Dark Forest
Gubsheep and his friends have achieved their goal: to create a fantastic game, inspired by a work of science fiction and using the most advanced cryptography. What they built, however, hinted at new possibilities that they themselves hadn’t anticipated at all.
Dark Forest is the most complex blockchain game to date and is the first of its kind to feature what game theorists call “incomplete information.” When a new player first arrives in the Dark Forest, most of the universe, including potentially hostile opponents, is hidden. Hidden areas only become visible if the player explores them. Every time players move, they send proof to the blockchain that the move is legal, without revealing their coordinates to the rest of the universe.
Since February 2020, more than 10,000 people have played it. Some of them, like software developer Nalin Bhardwaj, were so inspired by the technical basis of the game that they decided to stay and work on the Dark Forest universe and create new games inspired by Dark Forest. They see Dark Forest as the first step towards rich digital realities – what some might call a metaverse – run by decentralized networks rather than corporate servers.
Dark Forest isn’t just the most complex blockchain game, says Nalin Bhardwaj: “I don’t think there is a more complex blockchain application.” By designing it to run on the blockchain, the game’s creators also produced a technical infrastructure that expands the spectrum of how we might use blockchains to interact online, he insists.
For Nalin Bhardwaj and other true stalwarts, Dark Forest is the materialization of several new concepts at once. First, it demonstrates how strong cryptography can be used to add new functionality to digital worlds. Inspired by the Dark Forest, developers and computer scientists are already exploring new games and applications that take advantage of zero-knowledge trials.
To support this work, Gubsheep and others even created an R&D company called 0xPARC in reference to PARC, a historic R&D company launched by Xerox 40 years ago. Nalin Bhardwaj recently completed an internship at 0xPARC.
The field of action of 0xPARC is not limited to video games. For example, one application the group is interested in is digital identification. Remember the example of the passport. Zero-knowledge evidence could prove all sorts of things about you without revealing anything else. You could certify that you are over a certain age without disclosing your true age or that you have a certain amount in your bank account without disclosing the exact amount. It would also be possible to use zero-knowledge cryptography to demonstrate that it ran a machine learning algorithm on a set of sensitive data while keeping that data confidential, Gubsheep explains.
A new vision of the metaverse?
Zero-knowledge disclosure isn’t the only goal of 0xPARC. Dark Forest’s leading thinkers seem to agree that while the use of encryption is truly innovative, the most compelling proof of concept is its ‘self-contained’ game mode, i.e. a digital environment that nobody controls and cannot be erased.
Until now, Dark Forest existed for temporary instances, called rounds, that last anywhere from one to two weeks. But since it exists entirely in blockchain smart contracts (computer programs that the blockchain stores and executes), the Dark Forest world could be distributed in such a way that no one would have the ability to stop it, says Justin.Glibert, computer scientist and co- founder of 0xPARC. “You could compare it to a Minecraft server but it can’t be taken down,” he continues.
Once a smart contract is implemented, it behaves much like a robot that lives in digital space and can run forever. Unless the creator installs a mechanism that can be activated to terminate the program, it will continue to run as long as the network exists. In this case, according to Justin Glibert, the virtual world would look more like a “digital planet” than a video game.
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What happens on a digital planet? Everything the world rules – its “digital physics” – allows, Justin Glibert replies. Dark Forest players have used its digital physics to create in-game marketplaces, tools that automate game functions, and even robots that can play the game. What’s more, anyone can copy, modify, and expand it for free.
Justin Glibert’s team at 0xPARC is focused on building systems that not only make it easier for game developers to create self-contained worlds, but also for the inhabitants of those worlds to interact and create.
According to Gubsheep, this is the natural development of the Internet. “The digital world is hosting an increasing number of our most meaningful interactions,” she says. But he’s betting that people will be less inclined to accept a version of the “metaverse” governed by a corporation or any other centralized entity.
What they will want instead is “a neutral and credible substrate that allows people to express themselves relatively freely and to organize themselves, to govern themselves”, he continues. And to conclude: “For me it is a much more powerful vision of the metaverse and I hope that the experiences of 0xPARC can contribute to it”.
Article by Mike Orcutt, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.
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