Life (no death) on Mars

| August 19, 2004

When NASA foots the bill for producing a video game about colonizing Mars, there are rules.

“No explosions and no dead people,” says University of Montana computer science professor Joel Henry. “Not even harmed people.”

Last year, the University of Montana received a $51,000 grant for students to design, write, code and record audio for an educational video game about Mars for 12- to 18-year-olds. Henry believes he knows why NASA prohibited explosions: “I’m pretty sure that [decision] was politically motivated.” Despite the limitations on graphics, the team of nearly 30 computer science, English and media arts students completed Mars: The Journey Begins early this summer.

Now, Henry peers at his computer screen. “Your work in this lab is to increase your knowledge about Mars and space travel,” reads a caption. Henry performs a couple experiments in the lab, and then checks his “knowledge” meters. “My knowledge in propulsion has gone up,” he says. The video game leads students to run experiments on Earth, launch a satellite, map Mars and eventually colonize the planet.

Jeremy Mason, a computer science graduate student and team member, says the work was stressful at times, but he’s pleased with the result.

“I’m really happy with the work we did,” he says.

Now that the video game is complete, Henry wonders if it will be distributed. Originally, distribution was supposed to take place via cereal box (one copy per million boxes, like Crackerjack prizes), but Henry says NASA’s distribution plan is up in the air.

Ned Penley is NASA’s technical advisor for the project, and he says that he plans to “talk to folks at [Washington, D.C.] headquarters” next week about dissemination. He waited until now, he says, because “I wanted to make sure that this was a really good product.”

Henry, in the meantime, is ready to begin handing out CDs himself.

“I had 20-some students who worked very hard on this game,” he says. “I can’t let it sit on my desk.”

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