White House office studies benefits of video games

9:26 PM, Jan 31, 2012   |    comments
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If you're training for a new job someday soon with a video game controller in your hands, thank Constance Steinkuehler.

This summer, when your kids' favorite science museum boasts a new augmented-reality environmental simulation? Same deal.

If in the next few years a video game teaches you anything - how to conserve energy, eat a balanced diet or solve quadratic equations - consider the invisible hand of one of the most unconventional White House hires in recent memory.

Steinkuehler studies video games. Since last September, she has been a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she's shaping the Obama administration's policies around games that improve health, education, civic engagement and the environment, among other areas.

On leave for 18 months from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with MacArthur Foundation funding, Steinkuehler says the job represents "an incredible opportunity to make good on the claim that games have real promise."

It comes as recent research shows that video games now reach across demographic and generational lines. The advent of cellphone and casual games such as Angry Birds and Farmville have reworked the typical gamer profile in breathtaking fashion.

Recent findings from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a game industry trade group, suggest that the typical gamer is 37 years old. Nearly two-thirds of USA households play video games and since 1999 the percentage of gamers over 50 has more than tripled, dispelling the popular image of video gamers as teen geeks locked in basement hideaways.

ESA also says 42% of gamers are women - they now represent a greater portion of the game-playing population than boys aged 17 or younger.

At the same time, researchers are finding that, for all the bad press, video games make exceptional teaching machines. The past few years have seen a flurry of titles - many of them playable for free online - that teach a huge array of skills and content.

President Obama has been critical of parents who don't set limits on children's screen time, but he is also coming around to the benefits of well-designed games. In a speech last March at TechBoston Academy, a public middle- and high school, Obama told students he wanted to create "educational software that's as compelling as the best video game." He added, "I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that's teaching you something other than just blowing something up."

Using the video game industry to push a national agenda makes perfect sense to Ben Sawyer, founder of the group Games for Health. "It's a strategic asset of the United States," he says. "Why should we let it sit where it is?"

Enter Steinkuehler. She says she's tasked with helping develop "big, save-the-world games" across subject areas and platforms. "I want them to be top-notch, super-high-quality games. I want great educational content and beautiful design."

She's also researching how well existing games work and simply figuring out which agencies already use games. Shortly after arriving in Washington, she began querying colleagues about who was using games, even experimentally. Steinkuehler expected to hear from perhaps 20 people across the federal government. Her list ran to 130 names. She convened a summit and within 48 hours had offers from "a really mobilized group" to coordinate the government's gaming portfolio.

A self-proclaimed "siege princess" who cut her academic teeth playing and studying multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and Lineage, Steinkuehler jokes that gaming has helped prepare her to lead such a broad effort across agency lines. "I was a guild leader for 3½ years online, so I've spent plenty of time sort of herding cats."

When they hear the phrase "video game," most Americans think Pac-Man or, more recently, Grand Theft Auto, a popular series that allows players to cut a wide swath of carnage if they choose. The 1999 Columbine High School shootings had a profound effect on Americans' views of video games: After the shootings, victims' families sued more than two dozen game makers, saying violent games such as Doom, a first-person shooter that the assailants played, desensitized them to gun violence. But the lawsuit was dismissed and subsequent research has cast doubt on direct links between video-game and real-life violence. More than a decade later, government and private enterprise have turned to video games repeatedly for training and education. More recently, a thriving genre of "serious games" has emerged, using video game mechanics to immerse players in history, science, civics and health, among other areas.

"Where we're not worried about the fragile mental state of our children, we know games work," says Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, author of the 2011 book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

Among the most widely acclaimed gaming experiments is Foldit, developed at the University of Washington's Center for Game Science, that challenges players to learn about the shapes of proteins and compete online to fold them into the most efficient shapes. The most elegant solutions help scientists develop cures for Alzheimer's disease, AIDS and cancer, among others. Dubbed "Tetris on steroids" by one player, the program works because computers, while excellent at many jobs, are poor at predicting how irregular shapes might look in a future state. Foldit takes advantage of humans' ' puzzle-solving skills, in the process exceeding researchers' expectations.

"It has basically shown that it is possible to create experts in a particular domain purely through game play," says Zoran Popovich, one of Foldit's creators.

In a paper published last September in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Popovic shared authorship with 11 other researchers and two Foldit players' groups - one calling itself the "Foldit Void Crushers Group." One player, a Dallas massage therapist named Scott Zaccanelli, has been playing for about three years and is ranked eighth worldwide. Known on the Foldit website as S. "Boots" McGraw, he spends a couple of hours a night, seven nights a week, on the site. "I've learned a lot from the other people," he says. "And I'm there a lot."

In one of the game's most recent challenges, players analyzed a monkey HIV protein whose structure had eluded scientists for 15 years. Zaccanelli's team of Foldit players figured it out in 10 days.

"Everybody's got their motivations for it," he says. Some do it for the cameraderie, others for the competition. Zaccanelli says he's just "happy that science is being done."

Steinkuehler, 41, says she never intended to study games. A Missouri native who triple-majored in math, English literature and religious studies as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, she arrived at graduate school in Madison to deconstruct what motivates people to learn. "When I first started studying games, people said, 'It will tank your career. You are over.' And I did it because I was really tired of studying people being forced to do stuff."

For the time being, she's shuttling back and forth between Washington and Madison, spending three days a week at the White House and the rest working from home. She and husband Kurt Squire, a well-known UW-Madison games researcher, have two small children, and Steinkuehler says it has been a sacrifice not seeing them every day.

"If I'm going to be here and not with my family, I want to go for some big fish to fry," she says. "I want game-changers. If we're going to build those games that should be built, I want them to be amazing. I want them to be like lights on a dark night."

- By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

USA Today

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