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Mission to Mars: UM Creates Game About Reaching, Colonizing the Red Planet
Have you ever wanted to be an astronaut -- floating through space on a mission to the moon, piloting robotic devices on far-flung planets, setting foot on alien soil? Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live on another planet in our solar system?
Some day very soon, you'll be able to plan your very own mission to Mars through a computer game designed by UM students.
"We're working with NASA to produce a game in which players gain enough knowledge to eventually colonize Mars," says UM computer science Professor Joel Henry, who leads the team of 21 undergraduate and graduate students working on the project.
Players start the game, titled "Mars: The Journey Begins," by conducting experiments on Earth to "develop" the basic technologies needed for space travel, such as solid rocket engines to launch a spacecraft or batteries to power devices and systems in space. As they succeed in developing the basic technologies, more experiments become available. Players soon move on to orbital experiments where they can learn about gravity, propulsion, engineering and more.
Eventually, they gain enough knowledge and develop the technology to land on Mars, where they will conduct further experiments to figure out how to colonize the planet. Mars-based experiments cover topics such as biology, hydroponics, engineering, subterranean habitat research and more.
"The exciting part of the game is that it includes so much actual audio and video from NASA," Henry says. "We have video of wind tunnel and rocket launcher experiments. We even have images from the rovers that recently landed on Mars."
In fact, all of the experiments players perform in the game are derivatives of experiments NASA researchers performed to get into space. "Our game actually starts with experiments that NASA performed 18 to 20 years ago and goes into conjecture about what experiments they'll do in the future," Henry says.
The student team -- 17 computer science students and four media arts and English majors -- has been working on the game since June 2003.
The process began when part of the team -- the application experts -- started to research the subject and divide the information into manageable pieces.
"NASA's Web site contains everything you could ever want to know about what they do," says Jeremy Mason, a first-year computer science graduate student and member of the application group. "It is our job to provide the content of the game."
The requirements group developed the game format, settling on a simulation-type game. Next, the user interface group took the content and requirements and figured out a way to make, literally, rocket science easily accessible to the game's target audience -- children and teens ages 10-18.
"I played a lot of different computer games to find out what works and what doesn't," says Sean McMullin, a second-year computer science graduate student and member of the user-interface group. "I didn't look specifically at games that were designed for children or our target audience because I think a really good game should be designed to be playable by a person of any age. We haven't dumbed it down at all -- anybody could play it, have fun and learn a lot."
Since the game will be used in classrooms nationwide, the group used an early prototype of it to get feedback from the target audience -- students and teachers. "We had some kids in local schools play the game and got some good feedback," Mason says. "They helped us to see where things could be designed better. We also worked with teachers to find out what they were looking for in this type of game."
The programmers combined the content, requirements and specifics from the user interface group when they wrote the game software. The help group turned complex, scientific explanations into easy-to-understand descriptions, in addition to writing help descriptions for various parts of the game. Finally, the testing and tools group made sure the game matches up to the goals they set at the beginning of the process and managed the technology necessary to write the game.
Mason and McMullin both say the experience of creating a game has been invaluable, both personally and professionally. "I've learned the importance of being proactive," says Mason. "It's not enough to sit back and wait for someone else to do things -- you have to make things happen."
"Also, to work with a group this size,
communication is paramount," McMullin
"It's going to be great to be able to say, 'I took this class, and here's the product we created,' instead of 'I took a class and wrote a paper,'" McMullin says.
"NASA is very interested in education," says Ned Penley, a NASA expert on loan to UM's Northern Rockies Consortium for Space Privatization, the organization funding the Mars computer game project. "We love working with students for projects like this because, regardless of how the project turns out, the students who created it get an incredible education."
According to recent feedback from school-age students who have tried a more current version of the game, everyone involved is learning a thing or two.
"The game was fun and pretty educational," says Halie Dunne, a Frenchtown Elementary sixth-grader. "I think the kids in my class liked it, too. The best part was seeing how your experiments turn out. Most of mine went pretty well. For the ones that didn't, I had to figure out how to make them work by changing parts of the experiment."
The Journey Begins" should be completed
by this June, and although NASA has not
decided how it will be distributed, the
game will definitely be free.
-- By Holly Fox