Thursday, November 19, 2009

NASA is Using Kids to Explore Mars

NASA wants to use our children to help colonize chart Mars.  And they’re going to do it with – wait for it – videogamesDoes this look like a game to you?

The new Be A Martian website invites kids to join in on the rollicking good time that is tedious space cartography.  I’m not sure what being a Martian has to do with exploring Mars.  Common sense dictates that a Martian would probably already know a lot about the place.  What with them being from there and all.  I suppose they’re using a looser definition of the term that encompasses People Who Want to Spend Virtual Time on Mars.  Whatever it takes to get the kids a-clickin’, I suppose.

And a-clickin’ kids will be.  The “game” consists of two activities: matching non-descript Mars photos with a larger non-descript background and identifying craters in a slightly-more-descript Mars photo.  It’s a lot of mouse clicks for a whole lot of not fun.  There are two killjoys affecting this process: the tedium of the task (it can only serve to get kids less interested in space travel) and the alienation effect of not knowing what you’ve accomplished.  I had a hell of a time matching up those stupid photos and when I told the game I was done, it gave me some meaningless points without any Right/Wrong feedback.  What if I’m doing it incorrectly?  If I’m working for NASA, shouldn’t I be fired by now? 

To be honest, I had more fun just signing up for the website.  It’s chock full of goofy, charming language and nonsensical options.  You’re basically choosing a Character Class when you fill in the following “In our community culture, fellow Martians can count on me to be a(n)…”  Your options include: All-around Good-natured Citizen, Intrepid Explorer, Knowledge Creator, and Pioneering Innovator among others.  I like that last one because it’s so redundant.  You’re then asked to choose a robot avatar for Martian exploration.  Each is modeled after an Earth animal (you’re picking a character portrait, essentially).  I chose a camel because it made the least sense.  To help kids understand why we use robots, the site included the following adorable explanation:

“Robots are extensions of ourselves, venturing where we cannot (yet!) go. Robots in turn rely on us to interpret the discoveries they send back on our behalf. It's a partnership.”

I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I enjoyed signing up for this game more than the game itself.  Maybe if I was six, my Wish I’d Been An Astronaut father could pull the wool over my eyes.  And besides, this whole project suggests we’re only a few steps away from using kids to fight our space wars.