Year Made: 2011 (Alpha release)
Platforms: PC, Mac OS, Linux
Content Areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM)
Suggested Age Level: Middle School, High School
Play Length: Infinite
Number of Players: Single Player
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is one of the new sandbox style games that have become a leading genre in video games. Sandbox games, like KSP and Minecraft, are not games in the traditional sense. They have no end-goal, or win-state, instead the player is able to explore an environment free of requirements. In KSP players are free to explore a solar system, but the challenge and the fun is in getting there.
KSP can be played in career mode where players must develop their space program through discovery and project development. KSP can also be played in sandbox mode where all parts are freely available which is a more practical approach for the classroom. In this mode players can build their rocket from the nose cone to engine. In doing so players have to tackle the ‘pop can problem’ of rocketry. The problem is the fuel required to lift a rocket is part of the weight variable and much of the weight of a rocket is comprised of the fuel itself. In KSP, as in real rocketry, players need less fuel to propel the rocket the farther from the planet they are. Expended fuel containers also add unnecessary weight that should be shed and players can design staging rockets that detached empty fuel canisters after fuel is exhausted. During liftoff players must account for trajectory, velocity, and if traveling to another planet, planetary alignment. Along the way players encounter terms such as apotheosis, periapsis, inclination, prograde, and retrograde. After learning these words and seeing them in action players can being to grasp the real-world physics behind these terms.
The Kerbal solar system contains seven planets and nine moons all with their own distinct gravity, geography, and, orbital rotation around the star of Kerbol. To reach these planets players have to assemble a rocket and landing craft that can safely transport their Kerbalnauts to and from the systems’ celestial bodies. During their space exploration, players can run scientific experiments, take samples, or engage in Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs) to further the scientific progress of the Kerbals.
While the game’s physics and rocketry can be intimidating (and frustrating) to learn for younger students, KSP has a thriving community of players that can lessen the learning curve. A great example of community knowledge is Scott Manley. A real-world astrophysicist, Scott has a Youtube channel where he explains the physic behind the game with tutorials on almost every aspect of KSP. A combination of classroom instruction, KSP game-play, and Scott’s videos could create a powerful playspace for learning the physics of the game.
Kerbal Space Program represents a great segment of games that serve as a gateway to learning. Players who get hooked on the game begin to connect the gameplay to space exploration and astronomy through websites, forum postings or machinima. Machinima is the use of in-game graphics and gameplay to create movies. Players have created tributes to Neil Armstrong and have used KSP to visualize the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Games like KSP are the shoebox diorama for the digital generation.
Squad’s Kerbal Space Program has managed to take the complexities of physics and rocketry and situate it in an engaging and creative space. More critically, Squad has successfully taken a subject known for being abstract and has provided players an avenue for discovering physics through exploration and learning-by-doing.
Educational Rating: 5/8
(Classroom Tech Friendly, Motivation, Concrete Learning, Additional Skills, Feedback, Difficulty, Accessibility, Extension)
Overall Rating: 5/8
(Immersion, Environment, Storyline, Replayability, Entertainment, Gameplay, Originality, User Control)