Play and Learn Argumentation and Programming on Mars

In our first Gamification Goes to Space article, we told you about NASA’s gamified portal Be A Martian, dedicated to popularizing scientific space exploration and the potential of the human-robotic partnership. We now take a look at two other projects that use Mars as an immersive context for gamified learning in two very different skill areas – argumentation and programming.  


Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy

Developed by GlassLab, in partnership with NASA and the National Writing Project, Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy is an educational, tablet-based “game of argumentation” targeted at middle-school students.

The year is 2054 and the first colony on Mars is faced with a host of important decisions that will determine its future survival and development. Zodiac Flynn is an Earthling who must learn to use “argubots”. These are special robots that engage in “argument duels” armed with different types of arguments (appealing to authority, referring to consequences, or based on observations).

The issues range from the kind of protein to cultivate and the most suitable pet species, to the best form of entertainment and ice-cream flavor, and debaters are also invited to consider the ethical implications of their decisions (e.g. “Is breeding animals for human needs ethical?”).

In the role of Argubot Academy students, players have to collect data and evidence, make informed decisions, and select the most relevant points for use in the robot duels. The strongest argument wins.

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The innovative interdisciplinary approach to teaching argumentation skills is proving effective and has received excellent reviews from gamification experts and educators alike (see for ex. Jordan Shapiro’s Forbes article, GlassLab And NASA Teach Reason And Argumentation Using Video Games).

A field study on the game’s learning impact conducted in the Fall of 2014 found that:

“Students who play Mars Generation One for three hours with two hours of instruction can make as much as one year of learning gains.”

Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy on the Apple App Store


The Mars Game

This web-based math and programming serious game was released in April 2014. It was developed by researchers from the Pentagon’s Office of Training and Readiness Strategy’s Advanced Distributed Learning laboratory (ADL lab) and Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training.

The player takes the role of an autonomous Mars rover, sent to prepare a habitat for a team of human explorers. The rover crash lands in a damaged state, and it is necessary to successfully pass a number of mathematical and programming challenges in order to recover the parts scattered in the surrounding environment, repair the rover, and reestablish contact with the astronauts.

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Engaged in immersive, story-driven game play, students solve mathematical problems and actually learn to write small computer programs.

Says Lockheed Martin software engineer and Mars Game Principal Investigator Mark Torpey, “Our research hypothesis is that learning games that are designed at a fundamental level to be fun – to be games, and not dressed up homework – will be more effective as learning tools than more conventional approaches.”


Indeed, initial 2015 field studies with 9th and 10th grade students bear out the above-cited ‘research hypothesis’. The study groups demonstrated tangible improvements in both learning outcomes and engagement levels (find out more about the testing of the prototype in this article: Students Crash-land on Mars ).


Gamifiers can hardly hope for a better review than this student’s reaction, which captures the essence of the game-based learning process and the ultimate goal of all gamification efforts:

“At first you struggle, it is confusing, so you play around and get closer and closer to your goal and it makes you want to try again and again, and then you get it and you are happy.”


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