Sunday, May 04, 2008

NASA: Need Another Sensible Answer

At Water Cooler Games, Ian Bogost reported on the federal space agency's decision to cut funding for game developers working on formulating plans for a a proposed massively multiplayer online game that would seek to achieve the following lofty goals:

Persistent immersive synthetic environments in the form of massive multiplayer online gaming and social virtual world, initially popularized as gaming and social settings, are now finding growing interest as education and training venues. There is increasing recognition that these synthetic environments can serve as powerful “hands-on” tools for teaching a range of complex subjects. Virtual worlds with scientifically accurate simulations could permit learners to tinker with chemical reactions in living cells, practice operating and repairing expensive equipment, and experience microgravity, making it easier to grasp complex concepts and transfer this understanding quickly to practical problems. MMOs help players develop and exercise a skill set closely matching the thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly in demand by employers. These skills include strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, team-building and cooperation, and adaptation to rapid change.

Instead of conventional work-for-hire, however, NASA administrators decided to rely on a combination of volunteer programming efforts and unprecedented entrepreneurial risk-taking to make the MMO happen. Perhaps, in the wake of the failure of the Arden educational MMO project, serious games seem more of a gamble to would-be funders, but more than frugality or pragmatism seems to be at work.

There is some rhetorically interesting damage control in "NASA Asking For Free MMO? Hardly" that asserts that the cut-off would actually benefit cash-poor developers by freeing them from onerous government restrictions and the red tape normally associated with a federal contract. However, as Bogost notes, this leaves game developers with taking all the risk for "plans for a never-before attempted commercial educational MMO."

It's easy to descry government stupidity when it comes to creating state-supported digital experiences, and -- as someone who has now literally written a book on the subject -- it is certainly even simpler to find other examples of similarly poorly thought out initiatives involving serious games, but the challenge might be to explain why NASA thought that this arrangement might be a plausible solution from the standpoint of anything other than voodoo economics. Bogost tends to be a sophisticated reader of the Realpolitik involved in government media-creation, but he sounded too jaded to hold forth on the specifics. So, as a frequent NASA-watcher, I can offer the three factors to which I think it boils down.

1) NASA is a profoundly hierarchical organization

There are exceptions, of course. I shot this photograph today of a vending machine for disposable goods, such as protective glasses and gloves, which a NASA employee in the Spacecraft Fabrication division at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had rigged up to get rid of the expensive inventory manager who would otherwise be necessary.

But the disastrous PowerPoint and e-mail communication linked to two space shuttle crashes continues to show how reluctant the agency is to adopt a distributed network model that might be better suited for game development or web development environments. Based on the case studies I've explored in military-funded videogames, I think it is fair to say that often game developers come from a profoundly different culture than the political appointees and career civil servants who staff government organizations.

Sometimes these groups don't even share the same vocabulary. When I described one NASA-funded videogame as a "god game" to one of the official leads on the project, she responded with such irritation at my impolitic and potentially blasphemous assertion that it was clear that she was unfamiliar with the common set of generic expectations that have become associated with Will Wright-style or Civilization-style games.

2) NASA takes volunteerism for granted, because of a long history of Pro-Am partnerships.

At the annual JPL open house, signs of the participatory cultures associated with amateur astronomy, rocketry, and robotics were in evidence everywhere, a set of cultural practices that John Seely Brown has described as a model for twenty-first-century education. This culture seems to revolve around a reputation economy that rewards association and valorizes exploration and naming rights rather than traditional labor/capital relations.

In other words, when NASA thinks of the "public," what they see is a particular contingent of people in the communities that surround NASA installations or that pursue space-related tourism of launch sites and museums. Unfortunately for NASA, if you look at Nick Yee's list of six factors that motivate MMO players, you won't see any of the character traits of those who gravitate to NASA company towns. (You can see one of my offspring controlling a taxpayer-funded protoype below.)

3) NASA sees itself as a successful brand in a government less concerned with information design and more concerned with iconic marketing.

In the book, I argue that there are four big trends in government rhetoric in the electronic age: 1) social marketing, 2) public diplomacy, 3) risk communication, and 4) institutional branding. The NASA brand, epitomized by the famed "meatball logo," has a kind of macho cachet. At today's event, I saw it everywhere: stickers, patches, t-shirts, backpacks, hats, etc.

Nonetheless, even America's Army knew that it would have to pay game developers to promote its brand, especially in a war-weary country in which the camo-wearing civilian soldiers of fortune may be in retreat in the culture wars. By arguing that MMO subscribers would be happy to pay for a NASA-themed game, government stake-holders are ignoring the fact that many are attracted to America's Army because it is a free alternative to pay-for-play MMO combat games and that game play is about hunting bargains not hunting humans.

Fortunately, sectors of some NASA branches still care about information design rather than branding. See these signs spotted at JPL for some entertaining examples of the visual culture of the workplace.

Of course, if it were up to me I might suggest some pretty unlikely MMO titles to be approved by NASA. What about Jilted!, the game for diaper-wearing female astronauts in which the object is to kidnap the girlfriend of your ex-lover in a parking lot? How about Dream On, a game for political appointees about denying global warming? Or Hide the Black Astronaut, a game about the cover-up of the 1967 death of pioneering African-American Robert H. Lawrence while training for a secret mission in the space race with the Soviets?

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Anonymous Daniel Laughlin said...

Liz, thanks for taking the time to post about the NASA MMO RFP. I'm sorry I did not find out about it sooner to be able to comment in a much more timely fashion. I found your analysis interesting and suprisingly enjoyable reading (given the subject and my predictably differing take on it:).

9:13 AM  

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