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.