Or vice versa. Let's assume humanity or some equally advanced intelligent species discovers life, or even a plethora of life, out amongst the stars, and decides that they want to make contact to see how intelligent they are. But instead of sending them sensible things like mathematical proofs and other various equations, we decide we're going to have a little fun messing around with these aliens and format our intelligence test like a game or series of games. Because apparently we enjoy the sounds millions of frustrated aliens make as they get stuck playing unforgiving 90s point and click adventure games and old escape the room Flash puzzles.

But how would we convey the idea of a game or challenge to them, much less the rules? Given the broad variety of alien psychologies and physiologies potentially on display here, what would our best bets be if we want to put together a collection of games to launch to the aliens in the hopes that they'll recognize a few of them? Squid-people can't exactly play soccer or tennis, and many human games that don't involve physical activity (the kind that might be incompatible with certain body plans) rely on what might be considered uniquely human logic (see the adventure games mentioned above, as well as almost every videogame ever besides Pong).

So what kind of games could we send to these unknown aliens in the hopes that we'll have at least a few of them in common? (Off the bat, my first couple guesses were pattern-matching games, games that subtly incorporate different kinds of math, and perhaps maybe simple strategy games like go, shogi or chess that require a dynamic and flexible approach to problem solving. However, even these have issues)

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    $\begingroup$ Typically you start with basic math proofs and work your way up. So what is wrong with starting with Pong and then working up from there? $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Feb 9, 2017 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ Space Invaders would be a nice hint that we know how to deal with UFO... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 9, 2017 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ Alien vs. Predator? XCOM? Duke Nukem 4 ever? $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2017 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ Rubick’s Cube, please. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Feb 10, 2017 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ Send them Monopoly. They will see we are a terrible and mean species not to be trifled with $\endgroup$
    – Keltari
    Feb 10, 2017 at 10:15

1 Answer 1


Bear with me, please... I'm going to start on what seems like a somewhat tangential topic, then come back around to your question because I think the first informs the latter.

The first game will likely be "who can disclose the least information while we get to know each other and decide if we can trust each other." The book "The Three-Body Problem" won the Hugo in 2015 for laying out a strong argument that the first sentient species to detect another sentient species should probably launch an all out genocidal attack on the other species without ever disclosing that the attack is coming -- that tends to put a damper on other types of games. The reason for this being the correct strategy is pretty simple: resource consumption. Deeper analysis of this argument is outside the scope of this question, but I find the argument rather compelling. There are many other reasons, explored on this forum, that suggest that we won't be playing games with alien species. EXCEPT...

That particular argument and most of the similar arguments for us being in conflict cease to apply if the two species have 100% no interest in each other's worlds and resources. So a species that colonizes the upper atmosphere of gas giants and needs to stay far away from a sun to be at a comfortable temperature wouldn't be interested in Earth, and vice versa. We might have some conflicts over mining resources in the asteroid belts, but those aren't genocidal arguments.

Which brings us to games.

If two species are sufficiently dissimilar that they aren't interested in each other's homeworlds, then they may get to know each other well enough for games. But if you accept the argument that two such species must be from wildly different worlds, then we aren't looking at anything personally physical. No soccer, baseball, etc. Those would all be ruled out not just by different physiology but from the physical inability to exist in each other's physical locations.

Mechanically physical seems feasible -- think NASCAR in space. Three loops around the sun, first to graze Phobos wins. Similar events where the challenge is some sort of engineering challenge would be viable games.

The intellectual games would come with time, and presumably would be whatever humans are playing at the time. If we have sentient species, we would be building up communication for trade and general knowledge sharing, and eventually communicating tic-tac-toe and checkers and chess and Go -- but they PROBABLY already know Go.

[Tangent: Go is a game played on a grid with black/white stones. It has only 9 rules, and variants of the game have, according to unverifiable legend, arisen independently in various parts of the world in human history. This has given rise to the theory that since this grid-of-stones seems like such an intuitive game, and its strategy is surprisingly deep, that all sentient species would at some point stumble into it. Therefore, aliens already know Go. Go study the rules of Go and decide whether it is something you think could just naturally develop in any species that spends time studying geometry.]

Anyway, after we tire of Go, we could communicate with them any game we want.

Now... on that note... why would we tire of Go? Because it is a total-knowledge game. All total-knowledge games will eventually be solved by computers, and it will simply be who has the deeper read of the game tree. Tic-tac-toe is fully solved... so is checkers... others will come with more computation. Ian Banks, in his novel The Player of Games, posited that only games with some element of chance in the early stages would continue to be interesting, and it was best if that chance element would lead to a game that had never been played before. In his novel, multiple species compete in various games with different handicaps between players of different skill, but always with some random element thrown in. Think like Chess, but where the board is the topology of a randomly chosen continent. Or poker, but with a randomly chosen number of cards (no one would ever see the full deck, so you could never be sure how many cards are in any given suit when bidding). That sort of thing. I recommend reading the novel -- over the course of a few hundred pages, Banks delves deep into various kinds of games and why they work or don't work across cultures, far more than I can summarize here.

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    $\begingroup$ Your point about a preemptive strike against other sentient cultures is actually very relevant to this question, as my initial idea was that the "games as an intelligence test" premise was a subterfuge to conceal the true nature of the games, which is to root out other potential competitor species that display certain qualities such as intelligence, problem-solving, and eusocial behavior and destroy them. Death by game theory, if you will. $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2017 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forger GoMoku, and maybe Mancala too $\endgroup$
    – Kii
    Feb 10, 2017 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ See, there is a very serious problem with the ‘preemptive strike is the only logical conclusion’ argument. You have no idea who else is watching, weather or not they are bigger or stronger than you, and once you pull the trigger you have given anyone watching a valid reason to put you down. If you are walking through a dark forest all alone with a gun and see some one standing over a corpse, smoking revolver in hand are you going to hesitate to defend yourself against the psychopath that murdered some one for no discernible reason? $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2020 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ This is a fascinating video about the Dark Forest theory and why it is most likely false. (m.youtube.com/watch?v=zmCTmgavkrQ&t=902s) for me it is rather simple. The paranoia that tells you pre-emptive strike is a good idea, is the same paranoia that says pulling the trigger might send the wrong message to whoever is watching, and talking things out might be the more prudent way to go. $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2020 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention never did I say anyone watching would be a benevolent god, only that if you decide first strikes the best policy, they won’t hesitate to defend themselves when they see a very clear and loud signal that says, “Hey look! I am a xenocidal maniac and I live here! Who knows, you could be the next one!" $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2020 at 17:57

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