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"At Play at the Cosmos," an exploration-based learning game about astronomy, is still in its Beta testing phase, and is slated for a wider release at the beginning of the impending school year.

The Games Education and Research group launched in January as the university’s new center for making games for education. It released a beta version of “At Play in the Cosmos” soon after, a game in which players are space contractors who research and explore the universe, using the principles of astronomy to guide them.

On Tuesday, the New York City-based group Games for Change nominated “At Play in the Cosmos” as the “best learning game” of the year. The game is also in the running for the “People’s Choice Award” for title of year.

Games for Change is a high-profile national organization that promotes games with educational or social relevance. Mike Beall, the head of GEAR, said it's another indicator that “At Play in the Cosmos” is starting to turn heads, even though the alpha version has yet to come out.

“It’s just starting to get traction,” he said.

The game comes packaged with W.W. Norton astronomy textbooks as a tool for learning the key mechanics of the course. In the game, players pilot their ship, collect data on astronomical objects like stars and supernovae, and look for resources to fuel their vessel, all while avoiding attacks from other hostile cosmonauts.

“We’re taking the real tools that astronomers use, virtualize them, and then use them in the core gameplay,” said Beall. “There’s a lot of incredibly complex information that has to be right.”

The game will see a wider release at the beginning of the next school year. In the meantime, said Beall, there's still some polishing to do.

GEAR launched as the spiritual successor to Games+Learning+Society, a group that was instrumental in establishing the UW-Madison as a hub of research about learning games. That group shut down last year.

The Games for Change award winners will be announced on July 31. Other games in the running for best learning game include an adventure game about the Iranian revolution, and a children's math game.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.