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 NASA.gov 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.'"