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Let the Avatars Rejoice – White House Acknowledges Gaming

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Though few noticed it, September of 2011 marked the dawn of a new age in respectability for computer games. That is when University of Wisconsin gaming researcher Constance Steinkuehler was appointed as a senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There’s some irony in the fact that it took until 2012 for our government to recognize the potential of gaming, not only as a major U.S. industry, but also as an important vehicle for learning. Play and games have been an important part of learning since before people left the trees, but we most often consider them to be nothing more than recreation for children.


(Images from WhiteHouse.gov and constances.org)

This White House appointment means that games and play are finally achieving their proper place as a national priority and one of the most effective mediums for learning (NewMedia.org). Learning happens naturally through play and the interactions surrounding it. Why do we force children to sit silently in straight rows and learn decontextualized (and largely useless) facts when games and simulations now provide realistic analogs for the real world uses of that knowledge (Lunce, 2006)?  The creation of this position and the focus on gaming that goes with it will have a substantial impact on the future of education.

A National Focus
Steinkuehler is shooting for games to address grand challenges that bridge subject areas and gaming platforms (Steinkuehler Nov. 23, 2011). These games will be used to improve learning in many areas of national need such as STEM education, health, education, civic engagement, the environment and other areas where individuals can gain expertise and empowerment through play and the learning that accompanies play.

Steinkuehler has already assembled a group of government insiders from organizations as diverse as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Park Service, the Army, and the National Endowment for the Arts, who use games and have committed to assembling a gaming portfolio of the best games that government agencies currently use. In October of 2011 Steinkuehler convened a meeting of representatives from 23 government agencies to discuss how games can be used to meet national challenges.

The Future of Gaming
Gaming has been creeping into the education sector and national consciousness since the 1980s introduction of Pac Man and Oregon Trail. There certainly have been setbacks such as the negative publicity surrounding the alleged role of video games in the Columbine shootings (New York Times, July, 2007) and some notable successes such as World Without Oil and the notoriety it has brought developer Jane McGonigal, and Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn school, but overall the educational impact of games has been the domain of a few researchers and forward-thinking educators. Games, outside of education, however, have flourished at unprecedented levels. Changing paradigms of game development brought about by mobile computing and the rise of social gaming have made games the number one entertainment option for a majority of Americans (The Guardian, Sept., 2009). Research from the Entertainment Software Association reveals that nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households play video games, and that  women now constitute 42 percent of all gamers (USA Today, Feb. 2, 2012).

This new government focus on legitimizing games for education has the potential to do for educational gaming what Pac Man, Doom, Halo, and World of Warcraft have done for entertainment games – make them the dominant player in their field. Education itself is ripe for a change to break out of the industrial model that has dominated since the 1850s, and the interactive, customizable, individualistic nature of games and gaming can be the vehicle for that change.

If Steinkuehler gets her way, though, this could mean much more than educational games getting their due. She is pushing for a rethinking of what games as a whole are. Games do not need to be an "either/or" proposition in terms of their engagement/entertainment value and their ability to help people learn. This has been a fundamental distinction between the two areas since the inception of the video game industry – fun games don’t teach you anything and educational games are boring (Marquis, 2009).

Steinkuehler and McGonigal aim to break down that distinction by creating games that are fun, engaging, and help people learn while focusing on solving real world problems. Here is McGonigal explaining how games can change the world in a recent TED talk:

One of the best parts about the White House initiative to examine games for learning is that it doesn’t seem to be focused on one demographic or one slice of the education sector. This is a wide open effort to consider all of the potential uses of gaming in our society and the benefits that they can yield for informal learning, K-12, higher education, adult education, and corporate training. Games represent both a substantial portion of our economy – one that an initiative such as this could help grow significantly – and a largely untapped resource for educating our populous. It seems like we are finally going to "get in the game" of maximizing the potential of games. Let’s hope that 100 years from now we are celebrating that day when a gaming researcher from Wisconsin went to the White House to change the world.