This Canadian Museum Has Got Game

Aerospace exhibits for the iPad generation.

A screen capture from the forthcoming game "Space Frontier: Dawn of Mars."

I’m in control of humanity’s first colony on Mars, and so far things are going quite well. My population is steadily increasing, I’m mining silica to boost my resources, and my astronauts even have enough time left over to do science on top of maintaining the base.

Then I pass the tablet—running the computer game—over to someone else and a fire breaks out. I must have missed something important during my brief management tenure. I don’t know where to click, but thankfully Britt Braaten, an exhibition interpreter at the museum I’m visiting, knows just what to do. She redeploys the astronauts, contains the damage and within moments, the colonists are serenely continuing their mining activities.

SEED Interactive’s “Space Frontier: Dawn of Mars” (which will release on Google Play and Apple’s App Store sometime this fall) reminds me very much of “The Sims” games from the early 2000s, where you could create animated households that evolved over time. But this project, done in partnership with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, goes off-planet instead, as a way to entertain and educate people about real Mars exploration.

Like with The Sims, I find the gameplay addictive. It only takes a few moments to figure out how to recruit astronauts to do the tasks that will make my base grow. (When I asked how it could grow so quickly given that it takes months for people to reach Mars, I was told that gamemakers decided to ignore that reality in favor of keeping the game moving.)

Science, admittedly, is a little light. You’re presented with some general facts on greenhouses and mining resources, but in my brief time playing I didn’t see much else. The museum assures me that the science content will be beefed up in future versions due to a just-starting collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency. Both the CSA and the museum agreed that “when we discuss where we will go next, it’s obvious that it was Mars,” according to Renée Racicot, the museum’s manager of digital projects. The CSA’s research on Mars will feature prominently in the game.The museum is creating digital projects like this one out of recognition that some of its fans live across the country—or even overseas—and can’t easily make the trek to Ottawa to visit actual exhibits. The CASM is mentioned only in the game’s credits, but as with another game about World War I aviation released last year—called “Ace Academy: Black Flight”—items from the museum’s collection figure prominently in the action.

Ace Academy: Black Flight Announcement Trailer

Before trying my hand at this one, I joke with museum officials that I’m far from coordinated, and sure enough, only four missions into Black Flight I crash and burn. But I liked the game’s emphasis on history. Part of a trilogy of games, Black Flight tracks the story of an unnamed WWI aviator in Canada who heads overseas and, while happy to represent his country, is torn about the effect his actions has on others. “We tried to eliminate the narrative about good and bad,” said Erin Gregory, an assistant curator at the museum.

As the aviator progresses in his skills, he moves from aircraft such as the JN-4 Canuck—the Canadian version of the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”—to the world-famous Sopwith Camel, which first flew on the Western Front in 1917. The airplanes are digital renderings of real artifacts in the museum’s collection; the next game in the series, called “Bloody April,” will add even more types.

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