Koalas in space! UH students' whimsical Mars simulation game tackles real problems

Koalas in space! UH students' whimsical Mars simulation game tackles real problems
(Image: University of Hawaii)
(Image: University of Hawaii)
(Image: University of Hawaii)
(Image: University of Hawaii)

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Very few humans can actually go to space. So gaming offers a unique way for earthbound humans to experience space travel -- and work through the problems it presents earthlings.

That's the idea behind a NASA challenge, in which participants design a game or virtual reality experience that allows users to build and explore a futuristic spaceport.

A team of University of Hawaii students has been named semi-finalists in the challenge, and is asking for help to come out on top.

"Our game allows you to think: how much food do I need? How much water do I need? How do I plan for natural disasters like earthquakes, solar flares or dust storms?" said team member Stephani Diep.
Those are the serious, potentially real life situations at the heart of the game. 

The main characters, however, are all whimsy. They’re koalas.

"We stumbled across a video of koalas fighting on YouTube and it's really funny," said team member Ryan Tanaka. "We were like, oh hey, why not?"

The koalas work as a community, building infrastructure, sourcing nutrients and growing a colony.
Cute and cuddly as they are, if their society fails, things get ugly.
"If more koalas are hungry, more koalas get angry, and if it goes low enough they rebel and kill each other," said student Joshua Nishiguchi.
If the cutthroat koalas aren't impressive enough, the way the game came together is even more so.

Per contest rules, the team had just 48 hours to create it. "After the first 24 hours it really came down to putting together all the ideas we had and putting it out there," said team member Aditya Kumar. "Creativity was the first 24 hours, execution was the last 24 hours."

The team said the competition in the semifinals is daunting.
"They do have a lot more experience.  A lot of them are graduate students and a lot have access to resources too," Kumar said.

The winner of the challenge gets a chance to watch a NASA space launch.

But the team said they're mostly playing for fun, and the experience.
"In the summer we can clean it up, refine it, make it perfect then release it so everyone can play," Diep said.
The competition is public, and the winner is determined by online voting. 
To vote for the Koala Space Program, click here.

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