Starchitect: Building Worlds and Learning Astronomy on Facebook and Beyond

Friday, 19 December 2014: 11:20 AM
James B Harold, Space Science Institute Boulder, Boulder, CO, United States and Dean C Hines, Space Telescope Science Institute, Parkville, MD, United States
Our team at the National Center for Interactive Learning at the Space Science Institute has developed Starchitect, an end-to-end stellar and planetary evolution game available both on Facebook and externally. Supported by NSF and NASA, the game uses the "sporadic play" model of games such as Farmville, where players might only take actions a few times a day, but continue playing for months. This framework is an excellent fit for teaching about the evolution of stars and planets. Players select regions of the galaxy to build their systems, and watch as they evolve in scaled real time (a million years to the minute). Massive stars will supernova within minutes, while lower mass stars like our sun will live for weeks, possibly evolving life before passing through a red giant stage and ending their lives as white dwarfs.

Starchitect provides a wide variety of opportunities for communicating astronomy concepts, targeting known misconceptions, and encouraging players to dig deeper through external sites. The game directly addresses stellar lifecycles, habitable zones, and the roles of giant worlds in creating habitable solar systems as part of its core design. Meanwhile minigames can focus on additional concepts. For instance, the game’s solar system visualization engine allows players to "fake" planetary scales to create more attractive images of their systems (which can then be posted to their Facebook wall), but this ability must be unlocked through completion of a minigame that looks at the relative scales of planets, moons, and solar system distances. Starchitect also incorporates current science through links to external content, science "Factlets", all-sky maps generated by missions, and more. Finally, the game is heavily instrumented to allow us to analyze the resulting gameplay in conjunction with Facebook’s demographic data.

This presentation will focus on the release, evaluation, and ongoing refinement of the game as well as its overall goals, which include reaching a broad audience with basic astronomy concepts as well as current science results; exploring the potential of social, “sporadic play” games in education; and determining if platforms such as Facebook allow us to reach significantly different demographics than are generally targeted by educational games.