If there was the fun, cool uncle of government agencies, NASA would have to be it. Not only does he have an amazing job (landing robots on Mars), but Uncle Nasa also gives us cool gifts. Not like stupid Uncle Department of Agriculture, who's always trying to pawn off corn husk dolls and garden trowels. Uncle Nasa gives video games.
And this batch of games Uncle Nasa has is pretty impressive, and, even better, free. The games include the first official NASA game for a console, the very clearly named Mars Rover Landing. The game uses Kinect to read your body motion to control the game (I say that like there's any other way Kinect games work. Maybe it measures your sweat salinity?). The game is divided into the three stages of Curiosity's landing: entry into the Martian atmosphere. aeroshell ejection/chute deployment, and, best of all, the Skycrane landing.
I tried the first two stages at JPL this weekend when I covered the landing. Maybe it was the overall excitement of the event talking, but it was pretty fun. The atmospheric entry part was the most novel and satisfying, the actions of moving to keep the saucer-shaped aeroshell in the entry corridor feeling quite natural. Well, as natural as using your body to control a flying saucer can be. It's fun, and for free, absolutely worth a download.
For your PC or Mac, NASA has several interesting offerings at their Explore Mars! site. The games there are all browser-based and 3D, leveraging the Unity plug-in. They tend to be less action-oriented and more exploratory. The Free Drive one is especially interesting because it's really close to the actual driving simulator and training systems used at JPL. The rover in the Free Drive is Scarecrow, the mobility test rover (named so because like the Ozian counterpart, it lacked a brain).
The terrain in the game is actual data from Mars orbiters, with no vertical exaggeration or anything. It's about as good a representation of the Curiosity landing site as you can get. It's a game, but not ten years ago this would have been an incredible scientific tool. Seriously, if you had a time machine you could probably make Carl Sagan crap his corduroy pants if you showed him this.
There's lots of good stuff here, and the quality of it all is very high. This doesn't feel like some municipal-thrown together attempt to fool a kid into learning. The UI is slick and well-thought out, the 3D is smooth and detailed. These look great. You'll be surprised how much time you can waste in, say, the Learn About The Rover game, moving it around and seeing the camera views update, making the arm move around, all that.
So go ahead and waste some time. Tell your boss NASA said it's okay.