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This is a post I wrote for round 1 of The Aperiodical's Big Internet Math-Off 2018, where Mathsteroids lost to MENACE.
A map projection is a way of representing the surface of a sphere, such as the Earth, on a flat surface. There is no way to represent all the features of a sphere on a flat surface, so if you want a map that shows a certain feature of the world, then you map will have to lose some other feature of the world in return.
To show you what different map projections do to a sphere, I have created a version of the game Asteroids on a sphere. I call it Mathsteroids. You can play it here, or follow the links below to play on specific projections.
The most commonly used map projection is the Mercator projection, invented by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The Mercator projection preserves angles: if two straight lines meet at an angle \(\theta\) on a sphere, then they will also meet at an angle \(\theta\) on the map. Keeping the angles the same, however, will cause the straight lines to no longer appear straight on the map, and the size of the same object in two different place to be very different.
The angle preserving property means that lines on a constant bearing (eg 030° from North) will appear straight on the map. These constant bearing lines are not actually straight lines on the sphere, but when your ship is already being buffeted about by the wind, the waves, and the whims of drunken sailors, a reasonably straight line is the best you can expect.
The picture below shows what three ships travelling in straight lines on the sphere look like on a Mercator projection.
To fully experience the Mercator projection, you can play Mathsteroids in Mercator projection mode here. Try flying North to see your spaceship become huge and distorted.
The Gall–Peters projection (named after James Gall and Arno Peters) is an area-preserving projection: objects on the map will have the same area as objects on the sphere, although the shape of the object on the projection can be very different to its shape on the sphere.
The picture below shows what three spaceships travelling in straight lines on a sphere look like on the Gall–Peters projection.
You can play Mathsteroids in Gall–Peters projection mode here. I find this one much harder to play than the Mercator projection, as the direction you're travelling changes in a strange way as you move.
An azimuthal projection makes a map on which the directions from the centre point to other points on the map are the same as the directions on the sphere. A map like this could be useful if, for example, you're a radio operator and need to quickly see which direction you should point your aerial to communicate with other points on the map.
The azimuthal projection I've used in Mathsteroids also preserves distances: the distance from the centre to the another points on the map is proportional to the actual distance on the sphere. This projection is used as the emblem of the UN.
The picture below shows three straight lines on this projection. You can play Mathsteroids in azimuthal mode here.
A retroazimuthal projection makes a map on which the directions to the centre point from other points on the map are the same as the directions on the sphere. If you're thinking that this is the same as the azimuthal projection, then you're too used to doing geometry on flat surfaces: on a sphere, the sum of the angles in a triangle depends on the size of the triangle, so the directions from A to B and from B to A aren't as closely related as you would expect.
The Craig retroazimuthal projection was invented by James Ireland Craig in 1909. He used Mecca as his centre point to make a map that shows muslims across the world which direction they should face to pray.
The picture below shows what three spaceships travelling in a straight lines on a sphere looks like on this projection.
You can play Mathsteroids in Craig retroazimuthal mode here to explore the projection yourself. This is perhaps the hardest of all to play, as (a) two different parts of the sphere overlap on the map, and (b) the map is actually infinitely tall, so quite a bit of it is off the edge of the visible game area.
The final projection I'd like to show you is the stereographic projection.
Imagine that a sphere is sitting on a 2D plane. Take a point on the sphere. Imagine a straight line through this point and the point at the top of the sphere. The point where this line meets the 2D plane is stereographic projection of the point on the sphere.
This projection (backwards) can be used to represent the every complex number as a point on a sphere: this is called the Riemann sphere.
To make Mathseteroids playable after this projection, I split the sphere into 2 hemisphere and projected each seperately to give two circles. You can play Mathsteroids in stereographic projection mode here. Three spaceships travelling in straight lines on this projection are shown below.
... and if you still don't like map projections, you can still enjoy playing Mathsteroids on an old fashioned torus. Or on a Klein bottle or the real projective plane. Don't forget to take a short break from playing to
head over to The Aperiodical and vote (voting now closed).
Video game surfaces
Building MENACEs for other games
Comments in green were written by me. Comments in blue were not written by me.
In many early arcade games, the size of the playable area was limited by the size of the screen. To make this area seem larger, or to make gameplay more interesting, many games used wraparound; allowing the player to leave one side of the screen and return on another. In Pac-Man, for example, the player could leave the left of the screen along the arrow shown and return on the right, or vice versa.
Pac-Man's apparent teleportation from one side of the screen to the other may seem like magic, but it is more easily explained by the shape of Pac-Man's world being a cylinder.
Rather than jumping or teleporting from one side to the other, Pac-Man simply travels round the cylinder.
Bubble Bobble was first released in 1986 and features two dragons, Bub and Bob, who are tasked with rescuing their girlfriends by trapping 100 levels worth of monsters inside bubbles. In these levels, the dragons and monsters may leave the bottom of the screen to return at the top. Just like in Pac-Man, Bub and Bob live on the surface of a cylinder, but this time it's horizontal not vertical.
A very large number of arcade games use left-right or top-bottom wrapping and have the same cylindrical shape as Pac-Man or Bubble Bobble. In Asteroids, both left-right and top-bottom wrapping are used.
The ships and asteroids in Asteroids live on the surface of a torus, or doughnut: a cylinder around to make its two ends meet up.
There is, however, a problem with the torus show here. In Asteroids, the ship will take amount of time to get from the left of the screen to the right however high or low on the screen it is. But the ship can get around the inside of the torus shown faster than it can around the outside, as the inside is shorter. This is because the screen of play is completely flat, while the inside and outside halves of the torus are curved.
It is impossible to make a flat torus in three-dimensional space, but it is possible to make one in four-dimensional space. Therefore, while Asteroids seems to be a simple two-dimensional game, it is actually taking place on a four-dimensional surface.
Wrapping doesn't only appear in arcade games. Many games in the excellent Final Fantasy series use wrapping on the world maps, as shown here on the Final Fantasy VIII map.
Just like in Asteroids, this wrapping means that Squall & co. carry out their adventure on the surface of a four-dimensional flat torus. The game designers, however, seem to not have realised this, as shown in this screenshot including a spherical (!) map.
Due to the curvature of a sphere, lines that start off parallel eventually meet. This makes it impossible to map nicely between a flat surface to a sphere (this is why so many different map projections exist), and heavily complicates the task of making a game with a truly spherical map. So I'll let the Final Fantasy VIII game designers off. Especially since the rest of the game is such incredible fun.
It is sad, however, that there are no games (at leat that I know of) that make use of the great variety of different wrapping rules available. By only slightly adjusting the wrapping rules used in the games in this post, it is possible to make games on a variety of other surfaces, such a Klein bottles or Möbius strips as shown below.
If you know of any games make use of these surfaces, let me know in the comments below!
Harriss and other spirals
MENACE in fiction
Comments in green were written by me. Comments in blue were not written by me.