Review:  At Play in the Cosmos

At Play in the Cosmos: The Videogame via W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

I was recently given a copy of the computer game, At Play in the Cosmos.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve never really been attracted to educational games. Too often they are what is referred to in the trade as  “chocolate-covered broccoli.” That expression applies to many educational games where a small dose of fun is just sprinkled over what is a fairly dry experience without really being an integral part of the narrative, as if putting a sweet-flavored sauce on vegetables would change the fact that they’re still vegetables and you need to eat them. (Note: this author loves broccoli, the green kind.) Not so for this game!

The trick, which is not a simple task to accomplish but which the creators have excelled at, is to make the fun itself surreptitiously educational. This is a goal good classroom teachers strive to achieve, but do not always succeed in doing. In other words, in playing this game, you have fun and learn about astronomy without even realizing it, and without any learning-associated tedium.

And learn you do! In terms of knowledge of astronomy, the game’s target is that of the level of a college “poet’s” introduction to astronomy class, which can also suit a bright high school student, or more advanced users who just want to have fun. Some of the subjects embedded in the action include populating a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, the Schwarzschild Radius of a black hole, relativistic time dilation, radial velocity versus transit methods for finding exoplanets, WIMPS, and a host of other advanced astronomical concepts.

The game even teaches you to use various equations, for example, using parallax to calculate stellar distances, but it does so in a graphical context without requiring you to memorize them. So although most people probably won’t remember these equations, by using them as tools to accomplish missions in the game, you inevitably do remember which variables applyso you learn what factors are important even if you don’t remember the exact calculation. That’s useful knowledge.

Oh, and did I mention, it’s fun! The structure of the game, like any arcade game, is a series of levels which build upon skills and knowledge gained in prior levels. Your role is that of a space search/survey/rescue contractor, your various missions taking you all over the universe. In addition to the scripted missions, the game also has an exploration mode, where you can freely visit and analyze many real astrophysical objects. Since it’s an arcade game, of course you get to blow things up and save the universe from an evil plot that only becomes gradually apparent as you navigate through the levels. And yes, there are aliens. Throughout this narrative and at all times, you are accompanied by your ship’s computer, voiced by an English-accented female actor who grows on you as a trusted friend.

The game is a co-production of GEAR Learning, an educational game studio housed at the University of Wisconsin, Learning Games Network, a video design group associated with M.I.T., and W.W Norton & Company, its publisher. Authors Jeff Bary and Adam Frank, both physics and astronomy professors, ensured that the science is accurate and current. The game has won the People’s Choice award from Mashable and Games for Change (a nonprofit that promotes and evaluates games for social impact), and is available either as a standalone game (which I received) or as a learning experience for astronomy classrooms, that accompanies the publisher’s textbooks.

A Youtube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXa85n940X8 offers a good glimpse of the game. At Play in the Cosmos is available for Macintosh or Windows operating systems at Google Play:

(https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.gearlearning.norton.cosmos&hl=en_US). It’s free to download but you need to create an account at Norton for $35.00 to unlock it. It’s well worth it!

 

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