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Interview: Project Whitecard CEO Talks NASA MMO

Interview: Project Whitecard CEO Talks NASA MMO Exclusive

September 1, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Serious games company Project Whitecard hopes to take the field of serious games beyond its traditional constraints and into outer space in a big way -- it's developing Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, an MMO based on NASA's space program.

Set in the year 2035, the game imagines future space missions to mars, the asteroid belt and into the solar system. Although a fictional narrative will drive the game's objective -- early release info describes a "threat to civilization as we know it" that requires team and technology-building -- its focus will be on demonstrating realistic and scientifically-accurate career arcs for astronauts.

It will also focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education for ages 5-24. It's built using Unreal Engine 3 and an open architecture that will be designed to support possible links with other media.

Astronaut Academy, the first part of the game, is set to start beta testing in December 2012, and the team will also release an introductory handbook of sorts. The development is taking place through a "Space Act Agreement" with NASA Learning Technologies by Project Whitecard, Wisdom Tools and the Virtual Heroes Division of Applied Research Associates.

That means there's actually a Kickstarter set up to fund the project, versus NASA or government funding -- the project aims to be profitable, and a NASA-funded game would need to be given away, the company's CEO Khal Shariff tells us.

Project Whitecard has already found some success with RoboMath, a mathematics education game for grades five through 11 that has reached some 1.25 million kids in canada.

"I'm originally a developer," says Shariff. "I thought, 'oh, I could be a developer for the rest of my life, or I could start my own company." He was inspired by the IMAX film Magnificent Desolation, a film about walking on the moon, and developed the desire to work with serious games about space. The Kickstarter is "the most public we've been" about the project so far at this early stage.

"We have a lot of people on the West coast engaged, and people thinking with us; we're not doing it in a vacuum," Shariff explains. "How much can the team do to get to the stage where we're looking at engaging some pretty powerful players? That involves a lot of careful planning."

But the goals are clear: "We would lke the project to reach 10-64 million kids in the U.S. and another 5-10 million worldwide. We would like the project to have its beginnings and its roots with the NASA goal of creating an MMO for kids, and then expand to be inclusive of people who are young at heart. What we'd like to accomplish is to create a fully fleshed-out platform that allows people to, with great accuracy, play in our solar system with all the data we have from NASA. You come away a person with a greater awareness; our mandate is to actually have people come away smarter."

That involves not just mathematics skills, but also geology and biology. There are currently eight people on Shariff's team, and Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond LLC is the corporation inclusive of other companies with a flexible amount of developers. "There are 20 people at its core but there's any number of developers that will be available," he explains.

"We are dedicated to using game technology to do things that, when somebody interacts with the game, it maybe leaves the world better or leaves somebody smarter," Shariff adds. "I have an opportunity to create new standards in education by using game technology, but also to help inspire people about space travel by working directly with NASA, to leave a legacy of technologies that are world-changing, that improve human knowledge."

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