An article in Campus Technology discusses how NASA is approaching the idea of introducing a gaming element into education. Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft are hugely popular, especially with college students and high school students. Simulation-type games that allow you to live a "virtual" life (e.g. The Sims) or control the growth and development of civilization (e.g. Civilization) are also enormously popular.
NASA apparently wants to build science-focused games that will increase interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
"NASA will continue to pursue innovative strategies to encourage students to improve their interest and performance in STEM and related careers," said Joyce Winterton, NASA assistant administrator for education, in a statement released Monday. "The use of online educational games can capture student interest in NASA’s missions and science."
As an avid gamer myself, I tend to believe that games can teach students in a wide variety of disciplines. Games have always been used to supplement educational activities. If it is fun for students, they tend to have much more interest in it (at least based from my own experience as a student).
The enormous increase in computing power over the last decade or so has led to increasingly realistic and sophisticated games. Players from all over the world can interact with each other, fostering cooperation as well as competition. If there is some inherent structure in the virtual world the gamers inhabit such that they have a shared set of goals they need to achieve, even if the game is open-ended, then they will work together (or, if in a competitive mode, against each other) to achieve that goal.
In NASA’s case, they have an obvious goal of trying to more effectively explore space. Numerous challenges are involved in space exploration. Some challenges have been overcome by NASA (e.g. landing on the moon), while others still require significant research to answer (e.g. landing a man on Mars).
I would argue that for this project to succeed, the real challenge for NASA is to create a game that is a) fun to play, b) scientifically accurate, and c) engaging enough that students learn complex material without realizing what they are learning until they have to apply it to the challenges within the game.