Post Script

Mov­ing ed­u­ca­tional games back into main­stream or­bit


NASA’s in­volve­ment with Ker­bal Space Pro­gram be­gan in­nocu­ously enough, with a sin­gle tweet invit­ing the game’s de­vel­op­ers and fans to check out the space agency’s plan to re­di­rect a small as­ter­oid into lu­nar or­bit within the next decade. A year af­ter that tweet, in April 2014, KSP re­ceived the As­ter­oid Re­di­rect Mis­sion: a NASAen­dorsed mini-ex­pan­sion that chal­lenged play­ers to repli­cate the goals of the real mis­sion within the game, us­ing parts and prin­ci­ples di­rectly sourced from NASA. This in­cluded parts like the Launch Es­cape Sys­tem, a mi­cro-booster de­signed to save crews from mal­func­tion­ing rock­ets by forcibly eject­ing the com­mand pod and its para­chutes away from the body of the craft at an an­gle.

NASA’s in­volve­ment al­lowed se­ri­ous­minded play­ers to meet the chal­lenges im­posed by real space­flight. This in­cluded treat­ing their hap­less Ker­bal pi­lots as pre­cious re­sources to be pro­tected, not grin­ning green ex­pend­ables to be stranded in or­bit if it came to it (of course, this re­mained an op­tion). In re­turn, NASA re­ceived a surge of at­ten­tion for one of its most am­bi­tious mis­sions, and ex­po­sure to a vast young au­di­ence through the game’s suc­cess on Steam.

This seems like an in­ver­sion of the nat­u­ral or­der. Af­ter all, the promi­nence of the space travel fan­tasy in games traces back to the real space race. It was the ad­vent of hu­man space flight, and NASA’s ac­com­plish­ments in the ’60s, that placed this no­tion at the cen­tre of the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. With­out NASA, there’s no Elite. Mass Ef­fect’s lead is named af­ter Alan Shep­ard, the first man NASA sent into space. It seems strange that the agency should turn to the me­dia it in­spired to drum up sup­port for fu­ture en­deav­ours.

Yet that’s the world we live in. NASA faces a press­ing po­lit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal need to cre­ate in­ter­est in space travel, par­tic­u­larly among the young. In­flu­enc­ing policy and in­spir­ing a groundswell of pub­lic sup­port to shore up against fund­ing cuts is one as­pect of this. An­other, ar­guably far more im­por­tant, as­pect is the need to cre­ate a new gen­er­a­tion of as­tro­physi­cists. It’s here that KSP pro­vides a unique op­por­tu­nity – not just to tell play­ers about NASA’s work, but to teach them the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples that make it pos­si­ble.

No other medium could of­fer this, and it demon­strates what a spe­cial propo­si­tion KSP is as both a game and a tool. Its mix of easy charm, cre­ative free­dom and sci­en­tific rigour makes it able to hu­man­ise the work of hu­man space flight, and bring it within as­pi­ra­tional reach of young peo­ple who might not have con­sid­ered as­tro­physics oth­er­wise.

There are caveats, of course. KSP’s physics model is full of sub­tle in­ac­cu­ra­cies, and there are lim­its to its pow­ers as a sim­u­la­tion. Real rocket sci­en­tists do not need to ac­count for the ‘kraken’ and ‘Cthulhu’ bugs, since quirks within KSP can cause rock­ets to dis­as­sem­ble them­selves un­der ex­treme conditions. Nor does the as­sem­bly sys­tem ac­count for the process of in­ven­tion. This is a game about bolt­ing to­gether parts, not com­ing up with the con­cept of a gim­balled rocket en­gine.

Yet it’s close enough – and far closer than any other pre­sen­ta­tion of space­flight in pop­u­lar me­dia. In or­der to place a rocket in or­bit around Kerbin, play­ers are re­quired to learn the process by which this re­ally hap­pens, the sorts of things that can go wrong, and, cru­cially, that it is pos­si­ble to suc­ceed.

The game is a bridge – not just be­tween play­ers and NASA, but be­tween learn­ing and gam­ing. For a gen­er­a­tion who grew up sur­rounded by the thin and unin­spir­ing ed­u­ca­tional games of the ’80s and ’90s, this is some­thing of a dep­re­cated con­cept. The po­ten­tial for games to in­spire real so­cial and sci­en­tific change by adopt­ing an ed­u­ca­tional role is a no­tion worth res­cu­ing from the ‘edu­tain­ment’ la­bel, and the im­age of dis­ap­pointed chil­dren faced with a grin­ning Mavis Bea­con on De­cem­ber 25.

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