From ‘Angry Birds’ to multi-player video games, NASA ramps up investment in educational technology


September 2, 2012

Forty-three years after putting a man on the moon, NASA sent the “Angry Birds” video game to space. A few months later, the birds traveled to the moon and later to Mars.

NASA’s recent collaboration with gamemaker Rovio to create “Angry Birds Space,” in which players use slingshots to launch birds at pigs, is part of a series of computer game projects spearheaded by government agencies to encourage science, technology and math education.

Today, NASA has loftier goals: An upcoming $10 million massively multi-player video game would simulate life on Mars and eventually provide 100 hours of playing time on the iPad, Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox. When a beta version of “Starlite” is released later this year, it will be NASA’s biggest foray into gaming, and one that Laughlin hopes will set the stage for future collaborations with commercial game developers.

“There are more higher-end gaming projects going on at NASA than ever before,” Laughlin said. “Very few people are looking to textbooks to get students inspired anymore.”

In the past few years, NASA has released an air traffic control simulator for the iPhone, a trivia game called “Space Race Blastoff” for Facebook and “MoonBase Alpha,” a multi-player game that cost $300,000 to develop and resulted in 20 minutes of playing time.

But as the agency grapples with persistent education budget cuts, NASA is experimenting with new business models to fund upcoming projects.

The agency had originally planned to pour $5 million to $7 million into “Starlite” over three or four years. But budget cuts took their toll, Laughlin said.

“Gradually, NASA nibbled down the budget until it turned out we could only afford to fund the educational side of the game,” he said.

The agency will now invest about $1.5 million in NASA content and expertise in the “Starlite,” while Project Whitecard, a Winnipeg-based firm that has already created two games for the Canadian Space Agency, will finance the rest.

The premise of “Starlite” is quite simple, said Khal Shariff, chief executive of Project Whitecard: It’s the year 2035. You are a first-time explorer who has to leave the Earth’s orbit and travel to Mars. Once you reach the Red Planet, there are a series of challenges, such as orchestrating an emergency rescue mission to find a stranded astronaut.

“You must now craft a radio receiver, place it on two mini rover robots and travel across the surface of Mars to triangulate his position using radio signals,” Shariff said.

Along the way, there are threats to the Earth and other complications you must overcome. It was a challenge to create a nonviolent ad­ven­ture rooted in science, Shariff said.

“When you take violence out of the mix, what are you left with?” he asked, adding that Project Whitecard is also working on its third game for the Canadian Space Agency. “It’s very challenging, but our idea is to create an entertaining game where you learn something, where you don’t just come away with blood lust for phase guns.”

The efforts at NASA are part of a broader push by the Obama administration to promote games that encourage science, technology and math education. In September 2010, the administration hired a senior policy analyst to oversee initiatives related to educational games. Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts revised its guidelines for funding to include gaming projects.

Even so, Laughlin said he has no illusions that NASA-backed games will be in the same echelon of gaming as “World of Warcraft,” the online role-playing cult hit, or the popular Xbox series “Halo.”

“No one is sitting awake at night worried that NASA is going to put them out of business,” he said.

A new model

When Laughlin first started working for NASA 10 years ago, the agency’s approach to gaming was very straightforward: NASA solicited proposals for educational ventures and then picked a handful of projects to fund every year.

But once budget cuts began rippling through the agency, finding the funding for NASA’s own projects, much less outside proposals, became much more difficult.

“We had to turn that model around,” Laughlin said. “We said, ‘Okay, we want to do something specific — we want to make this kind of game, and we want you to fund it.’ ”

There are some downsides to this commercial approach, Laughlin said. Universities and other research institutions that relied on NASA grants to do their work were completely out of the running. Instead, the model shifted toward big-name developers who could finance the project from start to finish.

In the long run, though, Laughlin said it may be for the best. The new model forces developers to think in terms of continued profit and visibility.

“In the past, once the last cent of government money ran out, the projects stopped,” Laughlin said. “Now, we’re going straight to, ‘You need to know how to raise money and make money.’ ”

Shariff said Project Whitecard has high hopes for “Starlite.” The company plans to release several iterations of the game that could cost an additional $30 million to $50 million in the next three to five years.

“Mars is just the beginning,” he said. “We’ve got the whole solar system to work with.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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