Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 16, 2009

Stefan asked in the open Sunday thread what we all think about NASA's plan to develop an MMO. NASA thinks that "Persistent immersive synthetic environments in the form of massive multiplayer online gaming and social virtual world, initially popularized as gaming and social settings, are now finding growing interest as education and training venues. There is increasing recognition that these synthetic environments can serve as powerful “hands-on” tools for teaching a range of complex subjects." And we were just discussing learning from video games last week. :)

While I am certainly not agains MMOs or science education, I have to wonder whether it is NASA's job to spend taxpayer's money on an MMO. I don't think they will be particularly good at it. There is a distinctive risk that a game that sets out to be educational ends up being not much fun at all, and ultimately not teaching anything, because nobody wants to play it. You have a higher chance to learn something involuntarily in a game designed to be primarily fun, for example learning about basic economics of supply and demand by playing the WoW auction house.
I don't think the kind of science that NASA is involved with should be reduced to a game. It's one thing to develop virtual technology to be used as training mechanisms, but quite another thing to make it entertainment when your core mission is to test, explore, and record.

However, I do understand that NASA must seek alternative streams of revenue. The U.S. government simply no longer feeds NASA enough money to do what it set out to do. Already, NASA has been reduced to a satellite transportation and launch industry by accepting private business contracts.

IF NASA could produce an MMO that proved even somewhat profitable, it would be more money for them to continue doing their job of furthering space exploration.

Unfortunately, I agree that NASA would not be very good at virtual world building, but maybe they could find someone who IS good at it for them...
I'd hope that NASA wouldn't be "building" the world itself, instead acting as a designer. And as for whether it's a worthwhile use of money, I suppose *someone* needs to be the first to try it, and these sort of groundbreaking activities often fall to the public sector to stimulate demand and interest, and prove that a market exists. The investment required of a private company, with no identifiable payout, would probably strangle intiial development in this area.
Cool, now you too can stifle innovation and crush independent companies while weilding the hammer of government enforced monopoly!
It's more interesting than it sounds. One of NASA's biggest weaknesses at the moment is, simply, PR... the days of the moon race are long in the past, and the space shuttle and ISS are something of quiet but enormous boondoggles. Add on to this the fact a depressingly large amount of American voters don't really get or care for the space program, and they've been slowly running into funding issues; even on the government dime, it's a "harmless" thing to cut science funding, even if the programs being cut may well have turned out to be the next Hubble Telescope or Mars Rover.

In this way, it could potentially turn out to something like America's Army; given away for free or at low cost, with a "realistic" take to get people interested in what's going on without completely bogging them down with the fine minutae. As advertising goes, AA showed there's pretty much no better bang for your buck than spending twenty million or so on a game, especially if you're aiming it towards teenagers.

Of course, how well it works in practice will depend on what's in the game and how well it's done, but it's not as strange an idea as it sounds.
You did notice that the FAQ for this is dated January 2008, right?
Here's something on the subject from last summer:
Doesn't look like this idea survived its infancy...
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