Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kerbal Space Program and Games that Educate

I’m a big fan of video games that educate you about a subject while entertaining you at the same time. Dismissively named “edutainment”, the problem with some of these games is that they focus too much on the learning and too little on the entertainment. This is a trend that some new games are starting to break. Kerbal Space Program is a prime example. There’s an image from the game on the left.

Kerbal Space Program is a video game about building and launching rockets into space. You can even go to the moon and back if you have the willpower. I say willpower because just like in real life, getting to the moon is impossibly hard. One small error made when constructing your rocket and you’ll watch helplessly as it breaks apart, dooming your astronauts (named “Kerbals”).

Kerbal Space Program is an incredibly detailed game. I learned almost as much about rocketry from this game as I did from a college level astronomy course – wow! It’s one thing to listen to a lecture regarding the differences between solid and liquid fueled rockets and quite another to place the thrusters on a spaceship and see the difference yourself.

Kerbal Space Program also gives you all the tools real astronauts use to pilot a spaceship. After you’re done constructing a finished spacecraft, you can have all the joys of taking it into space and trying to fly to the moon. You have to deal with yaw, pitch and roll as if you were a real pilot. You even have a gimbal that is used to keep your spacecraft oriented in the right direction.

Kerbal Space Program is one of a variety of games which mix entertainment with real-world education in a fun way. Other examples of this include Moonbase Alpha, a game created by NASA and designed to show you what operating a moon base would be like. Or America’s Army, designed to introduce you to how it feels to be in the military – including going through boot camp. Microsoft Flight Simulator is another example of a game which mixes education with entertainment in an enjoyable fashion.

Even games that weren’t built from the start with a goal of educating gamers often do so. Resource management is prevalent across many genres of games, and studies show that resource management “bleeds through” into real life resource management – like economics or time management for example.

Games like Kerbal Space Program can teach you about the minutiae of a subject that presented any other way would be dry and boring. Constructing a rocket and realizing that extra parts cause drag, or that fuel-to-thrust ratios are critical to a successful rocket launch are things most people won’t learn about or consider. Opportunities to learn a lot of detail in a fun way simply didn’t exist before. With the invention and development of gaming technology, the ability to learn about a subject in a fun way is growing rapidly. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future the majority of learning took place in video games. If edutainment leads to a more thorough knowledge of the subject matter for students, why not?

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