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Elon Musk, gaming supernerd

File: Elon Musk (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
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Elon Musk has grand visions of colonizing Mars and building a corporate empire to stand the test of time. So perhaps it’s no surprise he counts Mass Effect and Civilization among his favorite video game franchises.

In a Q&A on reddit Monday, Musk included the sci-fi shooter and the strategy classic in a long list of games he kicks back with when he’s not tweaking Tesla’s fuel efficiency or trying to land a rocket on a platform in the middle of the ocean.

“Hard to pick a favorite,” he said. “I tend to like [first-person shooters] with a story, like Bioshock, Fallout or Mass Effect, but was also a big fan of Civ and Warcraft.”

Hardcore gamers might chuckle and point out that Mass Effect is technically a third-person shooter, where the camera sits behind the playable character’s shoulder. But Musk’s answer also speaks to the way video games reflect or even influence our worldview and decision-making.

Here’s an example. To progress in Civilization, players must research a number of technologies that unlock new units, abilities and infrastructure upgrades. These technologies are arranged in a “tree”: You can’t research Literature before mastering the art of Writing, and you can’t build the Great Library until you discover Literature.

Musk appears to have internalized that model when it comes to real scientific discovery.

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree,” he said. “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

The billionaire investor’s penchant for Civilization and Warcraft pays off in other ways. Strategy games require players to carefully husband their resources and anticipate their opponents’ behavior, which helps illustrate the way Musk has tried to undercut his rivals in the auto and aerospace industries. Knowing that it would weaken Tesla to work with car dealers, for example, Musk has pressed for permission to sell directly to consumers, which would circumvent the dealers entirely.

Musk’s fondness for futuristic dystopian settings — Bioshock and Fallout are based on dark, post-apocalyptic scenarios — says a lot, too, about his business ambitions. Fear of fossil fuel-driven climate change could lead one to want to invest in electric cars. Fear for the entire future of the Earth could help make colonizing Mars seem like an urgent priority.

Musk also alluded to some of his other fears during the Q&A. Among them, the possibility that someday artificial intelligence will eclipse the human brain in what experts call The Singularity.

“The timeframe is not immediate, but we should be concerned,” said Musk. “There needs to be a lot more work on AI safety.”

The South African tech mogul also gave some love to Kerbal Space Program, a space flight simulator. The connection there should be obvious.

Musk’s affection for gaming is no secret: In 2012, he was reported to have played video games for an hour and a half during an interview for a profile in Forbes magazine.

In fact, he taught the author how to play BioShock:

The leather couch and coffee table inscribed with the periodic table serve as a de facto workstation, a retreat for the e-mails he shoots out past midnight and his research on such things as the Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator, the “best heat shield known to man.” But rather than trudge to the office when the rest of the world is awake, the 40-year-old billionaire founder of electric carmaker Tesla and SpaceX, the first private company to put a vehicle into orbit, is teaching me how to play BioShock, an Ayn Rand–esque first-person shooter epic.

In fact, his interest in gaming and the stars appear to have gone hand in hand. Before reaching his teens, the first piece of software he sold was a video game set in space called “Blastar,” according to Mother Jones.