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What's NASA doing making video games?
What's NASA doing making video games? Exclusive
February 13, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

February 13, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Serious, Exclusive, Design

You might not be able to tell at first blush, but NASA is really into video games -- so much so, in fact, that the organization has produced several of its own titles to teach the public about the latest in aeronautics technology and research.

In just the last few weeks, the group has released two internally-developed titles: a Facebook trivia game called Space Race Blastoff and an air traffic control simulator dubbed Sector 33, both of which represent NASA's ongoing mission to educate the world about its latest projects and areas of study.

Speaking to Gamasutra in a recent interview, NASA's head of communications and education in Aeronautics, Tony Springer, explained that with video games becoming an increasingly popular medium across the country, NASA decided that they would be a great tool to boost public outreach.

"Ever since it was formed, NASA has had an obligation, under the laws that created us, to inform the public to the greatest extent practical about what we do, and we're always looking for new ways to do that and keep up with how people want to get their information. The explosion of social media apps is just one more way we're trying to reach out across the agency, and games are part of that," Springer said.

According to manager Brian Dunbar, NASA has found that video games are particularly great at grabbing users' attention, making them a great vehicle for educational content.

"The nice thing is, you can sneak some real information into games. To take our new Facebook game [Space Race Blastoff] as an example, no one -- especially kids these days -- wants to sit down to read a bunch of trivia. But when you put it in a game, with a competitive and a social element around it, you'll find that people will be more interested," he explained.

For NASA, education comes before all else when designing a game. Rather than employing a team of dedicated game designers, NASA instead relies on small teams of aeronautics, education, and programming contractors, who can use their expertise to make the games as accurate and educational as possible.


At times, these games even spawn from existing educational projects. The new iOS app Sector 33, for instance, actually began its life as part of NASA's Smart Skies software suite, which launched in 2005, and provided simulators and other exercises to teach children about basic math and science.

The new app takes the air traffic control simulator featured in Smart Skies, but includes fewer analytical features, instead offering scores and levels to make the experience decidedly more game-like. By using the app to both entertain and educate, NASA says it hopes Sector 33 will help inspire the next generation of aeronautics experts.

"Our goal [with Sector 33] is to promote STEM literacy -- Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. And hopefully, down the road, people will be interested in going into those fields. For us, we want a future workforce -- we need people with the basic skills and abilities to someday replace us," said Springer.

Greg Condon, an aeronautics expert and the project manager of Smart Skies, added that the app could help players get a head start on a landing a career at NASA, as the game offers a good sense of what it's like to be a real air traffic controller.

"With a lot of other air traffic control games out there, they have you landing airplanes by drawing a line with your finger, but this is like real air traffic control," he said."The great thing is, it uses the math controllers really use -- they have to do it all in their head. And it's really middle school math, so we didn't have to dumb anything down."

In fact, other than communicating with other pilots or adjusting for weather conditions, Condon said the app tests all the same mental skills as its real-world equivalent.


Looking back on the origin of these new titles, Springer said that NASA's game projects are most often based on its newest research projects, hopefully teaching players about the essential concepts behind more complex scientific disciplines. The organization hopes that if any of these players grow up to join NASA, they will already have an easy time getting up to speed to do the research themselves.

"When we make a game, rather than looking at existing tools we have, we look at the areas in which we are doing research, and we try to find ways to best articulate that to suit the educational needs of the future. Hopefully, this will help people actually do that research," Springer said.

So what's next for NASA's video game projects? Even the organization itself doesn't have the answer. Dunbar explained that NASA's games are not part of any centralized initiative. Rather, individual teams only decide to develop a game if they deem it helpful in benefiting the public good.

"We're a very distributed content group in terms of what's being developed for the web, what's being developed for social media and apps," Dunbar said. "It's really more about a team taking the initiative and saying, 'We think this is interesting and we think it will be of use to people. Let's give it a try and see what happens.'"

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Joshua Sterns
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Albert T
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Still need a lot of improvement, but certainly going in the right direction. Sector 33 still looks a lot like a science app than a game.

James Sterrett
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Next up: NASA licenses Kerbal Space Program? :)

Michael O'Hair
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Two words: Moonbase Alpha. 'nuff said.

Harry Fields
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I'm Newt Gingrich and I approve this message!

Joe McGinn
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Ace but the games could be so much better ... need to hire real game designers! Not just for game quality but also they are sitting on so many great concepts. Like about a Mars rover game, where you explore the actual geography of the red planet?

Harry Fields
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Heck, they could save a lot of time and just copy the Mako portion from Mass Effect, reskin everything and voila... science gaming.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Interesting how open they are about their recruitment intentions. Before Sector 33, I imagine few kids thought, "I want to be an Air Traffic Controller!" Maybe they still don't, but now they know the job exists, and they know how to do it.

Of course, other professions could benefit from simultaneously heightening public awareness and training said public, too. I hesitate to suggest companies "should" target our youth with career-related propaganda, but it'd save training time/money, give developers jobs, and entertain. We should just be careful tapping into that potential.

As for educational games, they certainly do need dedicated developers (not just designers). People are smarter than given credit; they'll see through a game, label it "educational" (i.e., not fun), and move on. And if the real jobs become more game-like as a result--to meet expectations, to become more intuitive, etc.--then the real jobs will be that much more fun. Win-win's all around.

Jeremy Reaban
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Oh yes, this is so much better than going back to the Moon or Mars...

If NASA wants to get kids interested in space and the sciences, they need to do interesting things.

When I went to college at an engineering school in the '80s, pretty much every other new student in the place has a copy of that book, The Space Shuttle Operators Manual (forget the actual title).

Trying to pander to children by making video games isn't going to do much...they need to inspire them by doing amazing things.

Bart Stewart
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I'm on board for funding both human and robotic science through NASA, and that includes educational outreach. (To get a sense of our current appropriation priorities, NASA's annual budget would fund the Department of Health and Human Services for about eight days.)

But "sneaking" knowledge into a game, because "no one" enjoys "trivia" (i.e., the scientific/historical stuff that *is* NASA)? Wow. Condescend and underestimate people much? "You know kids today -- ADHD, all of them, so we've got to sneak all this boring crap past them."

On top of this, to then turn to "educators" instead of experienced and competent game designers.... It's not impossible that a good game might somehow emerge from this weird mix of condescension and inexperience. But it's hard to see how stealth learning and ignorance of popular gameplay mechanics maximizes the odds that money taken from taxpayers will result in good (and therefore effective) games.

Again: I support NASA making games. I just want them to be *good* games. From the description given here, it's hard to see how that happens.

Note: I went to an engineering college in the '80s. And I still have my copy of _The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual_.

Dustin Chertoff
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Actually, you DO need to sneak the boring educational stuff past them. It's very hard to get students in K-8 to sit still long enough to learn. You get 15 minutes of attention before they are off daydreaming or sleeping or just doing something else. You need to keep their attention, and games are an excellent mechanism to do so.

Trivia *IS* boring. Rote memorization of facts is the worst part of education, as it does nothing to 1) motivate the student to go beyond what is presented and 2) support the student's ability to apply those facts in any useful context. Sure, there will be some students that can, but they are few and far between. Most students, especially the gifted students that would make up the NASA staff of the future, will have zoned out due to boredom.

Second, game designers are NOT educators. There is a lot of overlap between how players are trained to proceed through a level and how students learn new concepts (see scaffolding), but a game designer does not know how to apply those mechanics in an educational environment where there a lot of other factors beyond entertainment.

Anyway, the teams of people developing this stuff have both game designers, engineers, and educators on them. Not all popular gameplay mechanics work when the goal is education, not entertainment. For example, take the popular FPS mechanics. Fast-paced, twitch gameplay is not conducive to learning math or science, where deep analytic skills need to be developed. A pure game designer would say "kids like FPS, let's make a FPS" and create a very nice, educationally useless game.

The goals of educational games are not the same as entertainment games, and any team making one (or person that wants to comment on them) needs to know the difference.

Sebastian Alvarado
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@Bart Stewart

I'm on the same page. Thing is, edutainment has failed time and time again and there is no gold standard to aspire to (yet...). In fact if you look at the market/audience for these games it's parents picking the games their kids play. Basically your players aren't "spending the dollars"/"making the choices" and this second degree play isn't worth an investment from serious game developers to put out a quality product.


I believe this may also be an attempt to get ready for some Obama dollars...

If you find me developers willing to design a good game with a learning focus I'll personally donate my time to create the right content and concept for an educational game that would actually be fun.

Dustin Chertoff
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Most of the educational games on the market are utter crap. They are drill and practice simple math, or memory matching games. They are nothing like their entertainment brethren. The field is growing though, although it is still very much in university research labs, and some small companies that have grown out of them (see Filament Games [formed out of U Wisconsin], MIT Gambit Lab, E-Line Media [formed out of NYU], stuff by James Lester at NC State). There is a push to make educational games more entertainment like, but funding opportunities are still very, very tight - most of the work in the field comes through NSF grants to universities, or through DoD funding for military serious games (which while similar, are still unique compared to educational games for K-12).

Anyway, I'm happy to talk more about this with anyone interested, since I do science game design/development work.

Sean Kiley
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I'm sure if NASA outsourced these projects to private companies, the games would have been way better and done at a fraction of the cost.

Miroslav Martinovic
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Oh c'mon, this is silly, just make them fund and advertise Kerbal Space Program

@Christoph C - I would be sure about that, check out aforementioned Kerbal Space Program:

This is what a space-educational game worthy of being funded by NASA should look like, not silly facebook minigames...