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App review by Jenny Bristol, Common Sense Education | Updated January 2015
Extrasolar

Extrasolar

Immersive exoplanet exploration game makes sleuths out of rover drivers

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Editorial review by Common Sense Education
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Grades
7–12 This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
Subjects & Skills
Science, Social Studies, Critical Thinking

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Pros: It is free, long-lasting fun, students are in control of some of the action, and the mystery is intriguing.

Cons: The long time in between "turns" might challenge some students' attention spans.

Bottom Line: An absorbing alternate reality game that uses an authentic context to build valuable skills and offers ample opportunity for extension activities in science or ELA classrooms.

Teachers can use the game to simulate exploring the surface of another planet. It's great for homework, or for partner or small-group activities in class over a period of time. It will likely generate interest in topics such as Mars or moon exploration. If you play the game as a class, it will generate discussion about gathering information, devising strategies, and solving mysteries. You can also speculate about what is happening and why, choose what steps to take next, and use all of this inspiration for writing assignments.

There are also several secondary websites to explore that give more information about the game, including one for the fictional XRI company, and Exoleaks, kept by the conspiracy theorist. 

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Editor's Note: Extrasolar is no longer playable. There is an archive of the game on the website.

Extrasolar is an alternate reality game (ARG), a type of game that blurs boundaries between what is real and fake. The premise of Extrasolar is that a company, XRI, is looking for rover drivers to help explore the surface of an exoplanet. 

When players initially try to sign up for the rover-driving program, they're told that they've not been accepted, but then someone investigating a conspiracy at XRI intervenes and sneaks the player in. After some training, students send commands to the rover to move around the surface and take photos, tagging anything interesting for further study. They periodically get messages from the people at XRI and the conspirator, both of whom give information and assign tasks. A dashboard organizes all of the information, including messages, tasks, a rover location map, a discovery gallery, planet status, and players' profiles. Also, whenever there is new information to look at, players are sent an email reminder to check the site. Players read messages, watch videos, and listen to audio files to help them decide what the rover should do next. Note that the free version of the game restricts players to one photo from the planet every four hours. Paying money can reduce that time and give players additional functionality, but it's not necessary.

It's a highly engaging experience: Players feel like they're participating in an actual project with real people giving feedback. It's great fun and will keep students interested for some time -- although that time is extended by the gaps between communications. In terms of learning, students follow directions, use deduction, practice decision-making, and exercise critical thinking while exploring an unknown world. What will happen? What is the company hiding? How can I investigate? Students also must be patient since, even with the paid version, they'll need to wait for the images to come back from the rover. If the game is played together with two or more people, it can also generate discussion about how to choose the next steps and what mysteries are hidden on the planet. Some actual science is discussed, such as plant biology, but it isn't the focus of gameplay. A few more authentic, content-focused missions could make Extrasolar a can't-miss for teachers, but it's still great as is.

Overall Rating

Engagement Would it motivate students and hold their interest? Is it visually appealing? Would it inspire teachers to try something new or change their instruction?

After they're oriented, students will be captivated by the anticipation and excitement of being in control of a rover on an exoplanet.

Pedagogy Does the tool help teachers promote a more student-centered experience? Will students gain conceptual understanding or think critically? Does it deepen teachers’ pedagogical thinking?

By giving students what feels like a real-life job in space exploration, the game allows them to get fully immersed in a self-paced learning experience that focuses on critical thinking and decision-making.

Support Can students and teachers get assistance when they need it? Is it created with people of different abilities and backgrounds in mind? Is learning reinforced and extended beyond the digital experience?

The beginning orientation is sufficient to understand how to play the game, and any necessary additional information is given during gameplay.


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