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What a Government Game App Should (and Shouldn't) Look Like

NASA

This story is part of Nextgov’s Building Better Apps project.

Building an educational game for a smartphone or tablet is a pretty tall order for federal agencies, Nextgov’s app experts said.

The game has to be fun enough that it doesn’t wilt when compared with apps from private sector leaders such as Zynga. But you can’t ramp up the fun by compromising the app’s educational value or you’ll be short-changing young learners and failing to fulfill the agency’s mission.

One app that crosses both these high bars is Solve the Outbreak, an iPad game developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our reviewers gave the app 4.5 points out of 5, making it one of the highest scoring apps in the history of this series.

The app presents players with real-world disease outbreaks and teaches them about epidemiology and data analysis as they make decisions about how to respond. Along the way, players earn points until they reach the rank “disease detective.”

Our reviewers thought the app was educational enough to be used in a classroom and fun enough to hold high school students’ interest.

“This is the type of learning I love for kids to have,” said Ted Chan, founder of Practicequiz.com and chief technology officer of Cook123.com. “It teaches that a lot of the math, biology, science and statistics concepts they are learning have meaningful applications.”

The reviewers’ only criticism of the app was that it’s only available on the iPad. “It seems like it wouldn't be hard to create an iPhone version and multiply the potential audience significantly,” iSpeech Chief Operating Officer Yaron Oren said.

Another app from NASA, however, didn’t manage to be fun or educational, our reviewers said. They gave NASA’s Comet Quest just 2.17 points out of 5.

The game claims to give players the experience of piloting the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. But most of the app’s educational content was tucked away in a “Learn More” section rather than integrated into the game itself, they said. So users could theoretically play the game and never learn a thing.

The game itself had good graphics and was free of bugs, the reviewers noted, but repetitive and not very fun to play.

“There isn’t much to hold one’s interest after you’ve played one or two rounds,” said Andrew Borut, co-founder of Eco Hatchery.

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