[Game Critique #02] Mission: ISS VR

Qianou Ma
7 min readFeb 15, 2021
05–418/818 CMU Design Educational Games Critique Blog Assignment Post #02: Mission: ISS VR

Game Metadata:

Credits of all photos used in this article: http://missioniss.magnopus.com/press-kit.html

Learning Objectives:

This VR game is built on a really high fidelity model of the International Space Station (ISS) in collaboration with NASA. It offers immersive experiences in the zero-gravity universe and incorporates historical accounts of ISS and stories of real astronauts in videos & photos, so it can include various learning objectives in fields such as astronomy, physics, earth and space science, engineering, health, and history.

For example, using this VR game, students will be able to learn …

Conceptual knowledge:

  • What is ISS? (A cooperative project with more than 16 nations actively participating)
  • What’s the mission of ISS? (A primary mission is to conduct experimental research on the feasibility of living in space that can also benefit life on Earth)
  • How is ISS structured and designed in response to challenges in the space?
  • How’s living in space different from living on Earth?
  • How engineers design technologies to make living in space possible?
  • What laws of physics on Earth change in space and how?
  • Why and how astronauts do physical exercises in space?
  • How do astronauts sleep in ISS?
  • What are some dangers and challenges that astronauts may encounter in ISS and how they deal with them?

Procedural skills:

  • Move and navigate in a simulated microgravity environment.

Dispositional skills:

  • Appreciate ISS as one of the greatest feats of human engineering.
  • Respect and recognize ISS as a project extensively rely on effective collaboration and communication.

These learning objectives were adopted from different lesson plans about ISS (an amazing resource is the ISS National Laboratory). Additionally, these objectives are aligned with various STEM standards like the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Game Elements:

Mechanics: similar to Anne Frank House VR, this game doesn’t contain any competition, the only player explores the spaceship in the first-person view, with the controllers representing hands in the game. A female voice provides instructions (TRAINING mode) on how to navigate and explore the video & photos of the real ISS (with texts description along) linked to items on the simulated spaceship, and a male voice provides guidance on further explore the ISS as a narrated task (MISSIONS mode).

Dynamics (gameplay): the player can use the controller to navigate around the space in various ways: the lefthand thruster allows players to float in the direction they’re looking at, the right-hand thruster allows players to shift views by 30˚, and both hands’ button allows players to grasp the hanging bar or other objects so that players can pull or push to move themselves or other unattached objects and explore the effects of forces of different directions and strength (the speed at which players push & pull).

Using the same button but when players’ hands are not touching anything, players would be able to point around the space with a laser beam and a target circle, and the objects that have any related video or photo info will be highlighted in bright orange, and the target circle will start loading for 3s if the player keeps pointing at it, after which the related info window will pop up. However, the info window’s location is rather fixed while players are allowed to trigger it from random directions, so many times I can hear the audio along with the video (which somehow wasn’t recorded in my POV gameplay video) but couldn’t see where’s the window, and the audio is played for both ears so it doesn’t provide any spatial cues like a 360˚ audio which enable players to find the source of the sound.

The zero-gravity physics of this game is quite realistic (according to real astronauts’ accounts), but the space constraints of the physical movements still have some flaws, as I can bounce to the wall and be in a perspective feeling like half of my body is in the wall.

“Users feel a sense of weightlessness that can only be felt in VR, similar to what astronauts feel… a fact that Mission: ISS’s astronaut advisors confirmed. (In fact, more than one said it was like making a return trip!)”

Player experiences: the visual details to model ISS in this game is incredibly realistic (real astronauts confirmed) so it provides a really immersive experience; seeing the faithful model of ISS and seeing Earth from space is very exciting and awe-inspiring. The sensation, fantasy, discovery, narrative, and submission (aesthetics elements of MDA) are also well represented.

However, the space sickness in the zero-gravity environment simulated by this VR game significantly impair one’s experiences and the potential of learning. I tried to play this game several times, but each time I couldn’t persist for more than 10 minutes, so the website says this game provides opportunities for “spacewalk” and “dock a space capsule”, but I never get to that phase, partly because of VR sickness and partly because of the vague guidance in the MISSIONS mode.

The configuration of the spaceship is confusing and the instructions for the assigned task in MISSIONS mode is unclear, as there’re highlighted arrows on the floor, but the specific items that we’re supposed to be looking for aren’t highlighted, and the task assigned isn’t repeated or hinted so I just tried to point at every single thing while frustration and nausea built up and I had to eventually give up. Additionally, the narrated tasks can conflict with the video play, as I can hear both the voice of narration and the voice of real astronauts in the video, which is a really confusing experience. I’d rather have a more scaffolded mission or a carefully guided tour like Anne Frank House VR.

Learning Principles:

There’re some learning science principles that this game successfully incorporated, and some others that this game may or may not attempted but unfortunately failed:

Succeed:

Feedback: Provide feedback during learning > no feedback provided

Application: Practice applying new knowledge > no application

In the TRAINING mode, the feedback was provided when the player learn to grasp items and move with the controller, and a practice task was provided that the player need to move a package to the storage.

Multimedia: Graphics + verbal descriptions > verbal descriptions alone

Modality principle: Verbal descriptions presented in audio > in written form

Spatial contiguity: Present description next to image element described > separated

Eliminating redundancy: Avoid presenting identical streams of printed and spoken words.

The media presentation of this game is excellent, graphics, audio, and texts are presented following these principles. E.g., the textual description is placed just below the video in the info window, and the info isn’t redundant.

Interest: Instruction relevant to student interests > not relevant

It’s very interesting to learn about the functionality of different objects on ISS, fun facts about how astronauts sleep, and anecdotes of dangerous events like when the watering system in the helmet broke and nearly suffocated the astronaut. Since the player has the agency to point at any item they want to load in the info window, the instruction will only be provided if they’re interested to see the relevant story.

Failed:

Pre-training: Practice key prior skills before lesson > jump in

Temporal contiguity: Present audio & image element at the same time > separated

Although instructions on how to navigate the space are provided, so the pre-training isn’t enough. For example, I forgot I never remember how to pull up the map

Scaffolding: Sequence instruction toward higher goals > no sequencing

Signaling: Provide cues about processing material to reduce processing of extraneous material

Immediate Feedback timing: Immediate feedback on errors > delayed feedback

The MISSIONS mode clearly tries to scaffold some tasks to help players navigate and better explore ISS; however, it’s not implemented effectively, in that it offers too much freedom to explore extraneous materials during the guided exploration, which sometimes even conflict with the guided task. Also, the feedback isn’t timely or provides enough information, as a player may end up wandering around the spaceship and don’t know what to do.

Overall Critique:

This game has great potential to succeed both as a game and as a learning experience, but it’s not achieving its full potential currently. For the simulated zero-gravity gameplay, the designed use of the controller is not as intuitive as echoVR (e.g., the button to point or grasp is the same in Mission: ISS, rather than having the button near the index finger and the button near the grip serve the functionalities of pointing and grasping accordingly), and the movement experiences isn’t as smooth as well (e.g., the 30˚ perspective change is an abrupt cut in Mission: ISS rather than a smooth transition in echoVR).

Earth science and geography can be studied during a spacewalk

Tons of STEM educational opportunities exist in this simulation of ISS. Take some examples from the ISS National Laboratory, there can be a physics experiment to examine Newton’s law of motion in zero-gravity, biology inspection of how microgravity affects plant growth, geography activities to identify landmarks and infer whether on Earth during spacewalk… If any of these can be integrated as a little module where students will have the guided discovery and specific instructions, the game will be much more playable and educational!

A multiplayer perspective like in echoVR could also be fun, as players would be able to see others’ movement and observe zero-gravity physics more closely. It’ll feel like taking a school tour on the spaceship, so there can be instructional activities designed around dispositional objectives like teamwork, communication, team care, and etc.

echoVR: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/rift/1369078409873402/

References:

Lesson plans:

Kenneth R Koedinger, Julie L Booth, and David Klahr. 2013. Instructional Complexity and the Science to Constrain It. Science 342, 6161: 935–937.

Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno. 2003. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38, 1: 43–52.

--

--

Qianou Ma

I go by Christina too, and I’m a Ph.D. student at CMU HCII. Find my Chinese blogs at WeChat 一千只海鸥