Flat Earth Simulator recently appeared on Steam with no fanfare at all. Costing $US5 ($7), it’s a beautifully presented — if extremely slight — depiction of a proposed model for a flat Earth. There’s interactive recorded narration explaining the theory, which posits that our planet is a floating disc, surrounded by a wall of Antarctic ice, and set beneath a dome of atmosphere. On this model you can adjust the sizes of the Sun and moon to see their effects, and watch as the flat disc of Planet Earth rotates through its nights and days. And it’s completely and utterly impossible to tell if it’s a joke.
Like the best conspiracy theories, Flat Earth Theory (FET) at its most serious is entirely indistinguishable from spoof. It is a rationale so entirely doolally, so completely reliant on absolute ignorance or fear, that it is quite impossible to know if any element of it is intended as solemnity or satire. “Playing” with Flat Earth Simulator (FES) is an existential journey into madness, without ever knowing if it’s yours or theirs.
First and foremost, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. Mocking people for believing in FET is cruel and unhelpful. Mocking FET itself is necessary and enjoyable. No one believes in something as outlandish, nonsensical, and so easily disproved as this out of malice. (And let’s be clear: those who know it’s bullshit and yet profit from selling it to others are absolute garbage-humans, with only malice driving them. We’re talking about believers.) Pointing and laughing may make you feel good, but it also makes you a dick.
This has never been better put than by physicists Lamar Glover and Dr. Spiros Michalakis, appearing in the wonderful Netflix documentary Behind The Curve. I want to quote them both in full, because their words move me to tears. First, Dr Michalakis says to camera:
“The problem I see is actually not from the side of the conspiracy theorists. It is actually from our side, from the side of science. Very often it’s difficult not to look down. My friend said, ‘Sometimes the only way to change somebody’s mind is to shame them.’ And I say, I don’t think that is the last resort ever. This is the same as saying, if a kid doesn’t get a particular subject, it’s not your fault as a teacher, it is their fault. I do not believe that.”
Then speaking to a room of scientists, Glover says,
“Truthers, Flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, when we leave people behind, we leave bright minds to mutate and stagnate. These folks are potential scientists gone completely wrong. Their natural inquisitiveness and rejections of norms could be beneficial to science if they were more scientifically literate. So every flat Earther shouldn’t be held with contempt, but serve as a reminder of a scientist that could have been. Someone who fell through the cracks. And we as ambassadors of science are called upon to do more.”
That the documentary intercuts these words with testimonies from Flat Earther after Flat Earther explaining how their beliefs have cost them their marriages, their friends, their children, is deeply powerful and moving. It’s worth noting that where Glover refers to “Truthers” and “anti-vaxxers,” it appears he’s not describing the foremost proponents of such dangerous and deadly lies, but rather those who are tricked and then believe. They have been let down, not us. While we can and must debunk the nonsense being espoused, we have a duty to love, protect and offer education to those espousing.
Right, that in place, let’s stare in absolute confusion at Flat Earth Simulator.
In many ways it’s genuinely pleasant. The model looks great, only lacking supporting elephants stood on the back of a vast turtle. There’s lovely lighting from the Sun and moon, each circling above the surface of the planet with their “torch beam-like” light, to, er, “demonstrate” why there’s still day and night (well, they don’t, but it SAYS they do in the narration, so shush), and levers and dials let you speed it up, slow it down, and rescale the two acceptable celestial objects.
There are seven points of interest, which you can click on to read and listen to some mind-bending blurble about why the moon landings were faked, or how The Man stops us from being allowed to explore the ice wall, or attempt to reach beyond the heights of the “Atmoplane.” And of course about the Summer Gate Theory, the one where an infinite Terran plane stretches outward beyond the known disc, and if the UN would only let us we’d be able to sail boats right through the melting ice wall near New Zealand. (South of New Zealand? – Ed.) Stephen, there is no “South”. So naive…
Don’t believe it? Well, they’ve got proof:
“Travelling to this gate is near impossible. While one can traverse along the arctic ice wall with the approval of the UN, no expedition is allowed near the supposed Summer Gate location.This gives the theory credibility and makes one question, if the Summer Gate is real and what might lie beyond its path.” [sic]
(To give the narrator credit, he rather politely corrects most of the broken sentences and freeform grammar of the text.)
Anyway, because you seem the sort of person to nitpick, no you’re wrong: they DO have an answer to how those outer, and indeed infinite rings of the world are lit. There are more suns, dummy. Bol, for instance.
It is absolutely mind-boggling. So much so that it is — as is the case with any website or YouTube video created by genuine Flat Earthers — impossible to distinguish from something mocking Flat Earthers. When it explains, with no context, no suggestion that this might be problematic for all existing life, that the Sun is 4,828 km above the surface of the Earth with a diameter of 51 km, well, all bets are off. I mean? The theory begins with a demonstrably spherical thing being insisted as flat, so why not also have our source of gravity with a core temperature of 27 million degrees Fahrenheit be closer than the distance between New York and London?
Of course I’m sure there are responses to all of this. Presumably the government is lying to us about the temperature of the Sun in order to, um, charge more for solar panels? I’ve really got nothing. But then I struggle almost as much as Flat Earthers to come up with the profit-led reasons for their lying about the planet being round, too.
(Intriguingly, the Sun and the moon are spheres according to FES, and that’s just glossed over. There is, it seems, no direct objection to balls being able to float in space. Just not our one.)
Flat Earth Simulator begins with an entertainingly silly opening spiel about how They have silenced information about the shape of the planet for far too long, and now “citizen scientists” are finally speaking out against this oppression. And you may be tempted to leap to an “a-HA!” at this point, pointing at the game and crying out that it was the theocratic Church that attempted to silence those who argued against a flat Earth in the Middle Ages! That poor Copernicus and Galileo were burned alive for their heretical belief in spheres! But stop, none of that’s true.
Aristotle first observed the spherical nature of the Earth over 2,000 years ago, and the Catholic Church accepted that and has ever since. Copernicus could have gotten into trouble with his publication about the orbiting of the planets around the Sun, but he died before any of it kicked off. Galileo lived to a very fine 77, though spent his last few years under house arrest for his crimes of heresy as a proponent of heliocentrism, eventually published in his Pope-commissioned book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. But of course that too was about arguing that the Earth was not the centre of our solar system, and that it moved — nothing to do with its spherical shape which was known and accepted by all involved.
This leads to what I find most fascinating about FET itself: it’s entirely comprised of a set of explanations to problems that never previously existed. It is begging the question at an Olympic level. If the world is a sphere, as it demonstrably is, then none of the litany of tail-eating justifications and science-mangling rationalisations ever need to have been deludedly observed. When all the genuinely extant evidence matches observable reality, all their “evidence” must by necessity be gibberish. Which is how you end up with a insurmountable wall of ice running around the outside of a disc-like planet, that because [insert conspiracy theory here] has never been observed by anyone, or any machine. Sure, that all makes much more sense than, say, what we see in photographs.
Of course, it’s not actually sensible, nor even possible, to attempt to directly reason with FET. I might say, “We can readily observe the curvature of the Earth with our naked eyes,” and in doing so absolutely, unequivocally be correct, and “win” the discussion. However the Flat-Earthers reply, “But you can’t, because of solar wind” or some similarly nonsensical declaration. You might as well be holding an orange, and say, “Oranges exist and I am holding one,” only to be told, “No they don’t, because of parallelograms and the CIA.” It’s not a logic with which you can engage. It’s a poorly structured delusion that can be, at best, observed. They’ve taken Occam’s Razor and used it to slice off their own heads. The solution is not to try to pick holes in the theory, but to instead calmly, and warmly, offer an alternative.
So is this product from them, or about them? It almost doesn’t matter, since it proffers no ideology that isn’t widely believed outside of itself. But I still wanted to know.
And then I started writing this, and left it running in the background.
In Dan Olson’s brilliant YouTube documentary, In Search Of A Flat Earth, he goes to some lengths to demonstrate that FET is a religious belief. Not just in the sense that it requires evidence-contradicting faith to believe in, but in the literal sense too. It’s inextricably interwoven with Young Earth creationism, the extremist Christian belief that the planet is somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. Heck, if you’re going to reject the existence of, say, a fossil, then why not have the Sun be almost in touching distance, and visibly round things be flat? As such, scratch at the surface of FET and you’ll inevitably find some fairly eccentric religion not far beneath.
When I came back to my PC, the pretty flat Earth model had been obscured by a number of pop-ups, strange, scratchy black-and-white graphics with lithograph-like drawings, odd numbers, and… Bible quotes.
“Job 38:5 Who marked off its dimensions?
Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”
Job 38 is a rather beautiful poem in which God is putting poor old Job in his place, reminding him of his humanity with a series of lyrical descriptions of His power. It at no point attempts to be a geography lesson, and presumably the stretch here is that a “measuring line” could not be used to measure a globe? Weak.
“Prov 3:13-15 Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she… is more precious than rubies…”
Proverbs 3 has some more bearing on a possible agenda here. It appeals to the reader to trust God, not their “own insight,” and as such can be wielded by the malevolent to demand anyone else believe what they have decided God thinks. Of course it has nothing to do with the shape of the planet, nor even hints at it. But then, well, accompanying it is the number 3301, and some insect wings. Which, I’m pretty reluctant to tell you, brings everything back to 4chan.
In 2012 someone going by “3301” posted to 4chan, beginning an ARG-like set of puzzles involving ludicrously complex cyphers hidden in images linking to books that revealed codes that led to phone numbers, which eventually led back to ‘3301’ and two other primes. This in turn developed into a years-long series of puzzles, known as Cicada 3301, which still to this day hasn’t been completed. 2014’s book of runic symbols has swathes untranslated, and oh god no please this can’t be part of it? No. Noooooooooo.
Well, no. I really don’t think so. Cicada’s puzzles may have been ultimately directionless, but they were astonishingly intricate and ambitious. Codes hid codes hid codes, and it wasn’t about just writing “3301” next to stuff. Plus, the broken English and poor writing of this game’s text suggests a lack of slickness and professionalism that wouldn’t line up either. So assuming it’s nothing to do with the seemingly abandoned Cicada puzzles, is this reference a suggestion that this is all a spoof?
Then a final card I saw read,
“1 Peter 2:25 For you were straying like sheep, but have
now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
01100101 01101110 01100001
01110001 00110011 0110001”
This isn’t exactly MI5-level cryptographical challenges. That binary translates to “enaq3a”, and Googling that will all too quickly get you to a bloody Rickroll. Because it’s 2008 again? Because this whole thing is a bad joke?
If it is, it makes the lovely detail in the model, the seemingly naive effort that’s gone into so much of it, utterly mysterious. Part of me is infuriated, part of me is delighted. I still, after all this, have no idea if this is straight or silly. I cannot tell if it’s in part sincere, then also light-hearted? The two completely contradictory elements don’t join anywhere in the middle. The very worst solution, that this is someone’s sad attempt to perpetuate the Cicada 3301 story, is undermined by the lacklustre delivery of its “hidden” elements. The best, that this is a genuine attempt at Flat Earth evangelism, seems undone by a fucking Rickroll easter egg. I’m flummoxed.
Naturally there’s no link to a developer’s site on the game’s Steam page, the developer/publisher name “The Truthtellers” doesn’t show up anywhere else associated with the product, and my attempt to contact them via Steam Discussions has been ignored.
I’d far prefer if it hadn’t played any hand at all, honestly. Those cards, weak references to an almost forgotten ARG, entry-level binary Rickrolling, poorly picked Bible verses (I mean, who doesn’t opt for one of Genesis 1’s “firmament” lines?) — they just weaken it if it’s a joke, or just muddle it if it’s sincere. I would far rather believe this was a heart-felt creation, because its aesthetic loveliness, emboldened by a very relaxing ambient score, makes its abject nonsense kind of cute, if not exactly harmless.
As it is, I’d strongly advise against spending any money on it. There’s perhaps 15 minutes of actual content in there, and it’s all gibberish.