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NASA published Moonbase Alpha as a recruiting tool to get young people interested in a career in space. The computer game allows players to repair damage to a virtual moon base. ((NASA))

NASA may have decided it's not returning to the moon anytime soon, but those of us on the Earth's surface can visit anytime we want, thanks to Moonbase Alpha, a new video game published in July by the U.S. space agency.

In the game — free to download and play on a PC — a meteorite strikes a settlement on the Moon, and players have to repair and replace oxygen-producing equipment before time runs out. Up to six players can play at the same time, and success in the mission requires communication and co-operation with the other "astronauts" playing the game.

Daniel Laughlin is with NASA's Learning Technologies division at the Goddard Flight Center in Maryland. In an interview, he said that the action game is a "proof of concept" to establish that a video game can be created using NASA data.

'We can literally crowdsource challenges NASA is trying to solve with thousands and thousands of players, and really tap their collective intelligence to try and come up with answers.'—NASA's Daniel Laughlin

"The lunar architecture, all the buildings and structures and equipment in the game is from NASA's Advanced Concepts models when they were talking about doing lunar missions," Laughlin said.

Still to come is a more ambitious video game project, called Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. It's a massively multiplayer online game  (MMO) planned for release in 2011.

Laughlin is the project manager for the two games and says he believes that the video-games medium is perfect for meeting the mandate of Learning Technologies, which, according to the division's website, was set up to produce "learning tools that engage and inspire today's tech-savvy students."

"The main goal," said Laughlin of the two games, "is to get more kids to go into science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] fields.

"We're not getting enough students going into those technical fields, we're not graduating enough students from those technical fields, and we really need to beef up the numbers of graduates in technical fields to do the work that we need in those areas. That's especially true for NASA."

So NASA is using video games to recruit future astronauts.

America's Army wants you

This isn't the first time video games have been used to recruit. One high-profile — and some say resounding successful — example is America's Army, a free game first published by the U.S. Army in 2002.

Frank Blackwell is the director of the Army Game Studio, which led the development of the first-person shooter. He calls America's Army an "outreach tool" and says it wasn't designed specifically for recruitment. On the phone from his office in Alabama, Blackwell explained that the intent was "to provide correct information about what it is to be a soldier, opportunities within the army and army values."

The idea, he said, is to communicate that information using media and technology that people are using regularly to gather information. Twenty years ago, it was television. Today, it is the internet and video games.

While the army can't establish a direct correlation between registration and the game, Blackwell said they have determined that between 30 and 40 per cent of people who had played America's Army were "more likely to consider a career in the army," and 30 per cent of West Point cadets had played the game.

Army Game Studio develops other video games for the army, including applications to train soldiers how to operate weapon systems, and how to conduct chemical and biological reconnaissance to identify contaminants on the battlefield. They have even created game-based ethics training courses.

Games, Blackwell explained, are an "active way of learning" that require participants to make decisions. "Based on the decisions I make, there are different consequences presented to me," he said. "It's so much more engaging."

Realistic simulations

Blackwell's studio is also involved in developing games for other branches of the U.S. government, including leading the effort on Moonbase Alpha. North Carolina's Virtual Heroes, which helped create America's Army, also assisted on Moonbase Alpha.

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NASA will follow up on Moonbase Alpha with a more elaborate multiplayer game, Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. ((NASA))

Virtual Heroes and Indiana's Wisdom Tools are two-thirds of the development team working on Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Winnipeg developer Project Whitecard  is leading the effort.

As with Moonbase Alpha, all the information being used to create Astronaut's environments and equipment, and to design the missions, is all real data straight from NASA.

"We'll base the surface of Mars on the Mars Orbiter," said Laughlin.

Project Whitecard has experience creating games based on NASA data. Khal Shariff, chief executive, described a game the company developed for the Canadian Space Agency. In RoboMath, a game set in a 3D rendering of the International Space Station, players tackle problems specific to the tasks performed by Canadian astronaut Julie Payette during the STS-127 shuttle mission. Solving the problems requires Grade 5 and Grade 11 mathematics concepts.

Last fall, Shariff said the Canadian Space Agency distributed about 45,000 copies of Project Whitecard's RoboMath to schools across the country. He estimates more than one million Canadian students have played the game.

Tangible returns

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond will, according to Shariff, "deliver interesting concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but it's also targeted at the public." That's because the game, for which Shariff says the budget will run between $5 million and $10 million, is being created to be retailed to everyday gamers.

"The idea," said Shariff, "is for it to be sustainable."

America's Army was distributed for free, but making these kinds of games commercially viable is a way for governments and agencies like NASA to take advantage of the video-game medium without having to pay the rising development costs hitting the industry.

NASA's benefit from Astronaut goes beyond recruitment, too. The agency will be able to use players to help solve problems. Said Laughlin: "We can literally crowdsource challenges NASA is trying to solve with thousands and thousands of players, and really tap their collective intelligence to try and come up with answers."

But for Astronaut to be successful commercially, or as a recruitment tool, it has to succeed as a game. Laughlin explained that he solicited feedback from the public as to how NASA should "use games and virtual worlds" and expected a few responses from academics and game developers. What he got was more than 800 pages of input from the public.

"Overwhelmingly," he said, "the biggest message was, 'Make it fun.'"

It didn't matter who submitted the suggestion, said Laughlin, they all said that a game has to be fun or it's useless as a learning tool.

Shariff agrees. "Everybody realizes that in order to be a successful recruitment tool, you'd better be exciting," he said, adding that the media-recruitment model has already been proved successful. "Star Trek was a fantastic recruitment tool for scientists."

The science fiction television show — both the original series from the '60s and The Next Generation edition that ran in the late 1980s and early 1990s — motivated generations of scientists, Shariff said, because the stories being told were compelling and, to a certain degree, believable.

People have to see the media as being possible blueprints for their own lives, said Sharrif. "Is this narrative something I want my life to be?"

And so Astronaut could have players — thousands and thousands of them around the world — pursuing heroic careers in space, in the year 2035, 25 years from now. The timeline is significant, said Shariff. "If you're a 14-year-old you should be hitting your career high as an astronaut at that time. Or as a scientist."

"I don't expect a seventh-grader to say, 'I want to be a rocket scientist,'" said NASA's Laughlin, "but I do expect them to say, 'I can see myself doing this, so I better make sure I study calculus before I finish high school so I don't close the door on those choices.'"