Can NASA Compete With Grand Theft Auto?

Two Seattle developers are hoping to help it try.

Though it's surprising they didn't get into the market after Galaga, NASA has announced plans to develop a video game centered on its mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. The agency is accepting proposals through May from companies wishing to design a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game that will resonate with the next generation of potential astrophysicists. At least two of Seattle's more than 70 game developers, Nightlight Studios and Leviathan Games, are collaborating on a proposal in hopes of being selected for the project. The winner(s) will get a Willy Wonka–esque opportunity to work alongside the minds at NASA to create a game in which thousands of players will be able to interact simultaneously while exploring NASA's missions in space and on Earth. Nightlight Studios is already working with NASA and the Air Force on a game entitled Project Hurricane Hunters, due next fall and geared toward elementary-school students. The new NASA MMO, however, aims to develop a multiplayer online game that will promote what the agency calls STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and math) among high-school and college students—hopefully steering them toward NASA-related career paths. "You have to have a natural passion [for education] at the core to work with someone like NASA," says Nightlight President Javier Garavito. NASA isn't the first to jump on the government video-game bandwagon; FEMA offers a bevy of youth-friendly games on its Web site. The U.S. Army also beat NASA to the punch with its video game, America's Army, a big-budget endeavor in which a player's avatar receives official military training. Upon its release in 2002, America's Army was criticized in the media and throughout academia as propaganda, though the creators themselves explicitly mentioned it would serve as a recruiting tool. But given the current political climate, a game serving NASA's agenda will probably get a better reception than an Army or, say, IRS game entitled Tax Man 2: Ron Paul Must Fall.

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