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Games For Grand Challenges

Could games be a tool for addressing national problems? Roughly 170 million Americans play videogames – 55 percent of the population.

Could games be a tool for addressing national problems? Roughly 170 million Americans play videogames – 55 percent of the population. Games are a “push technology,” driving innovation in industry (graphical processors, artificial intellgience, human/computer interaction, and massively multiplayer environments) while also pushing newer and newer technologies into the home.

A National Academy of Sciences report found that computer simulations and games have great potential to catalyze new approaches to science education.  President Obama issued his own call to action at a speech at TechBoston in March:  “I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create… educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.”

A growing number of universities, companies, and philanthropic organizations have risen to the challenge, establishing programs not only in game studies but also in game design and development.  Robust communities such as Games for Change,  Games for Health, and Games+Learning+Society have also mobilized around the idea that games could indeed be leveraged against grand challenges that range from improving health care and wellness to teaching physics to making new discoveries in the structure of proteins.  The evidence for this approach is quickly growing, and the Federal government has emerged as a key partner in this wave of innovation.

Last month, a group of more than seventy government employees gathered at the White House Conference Center to discuss games as a tool for addressing national problems – based not on speculation but on very tangible research and development projects managed by the attendees. Twenty-three agencies were represented, including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Park Service, the Army, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The goal of this meeting was to begin a conversation that might enable us to build shared capacity for knowledge sharing, distributing expertise, identifying shared challenges and solutions, identifying cross-agency needs, and finally, setting grand challenges and finding ways to tackle them.

Constance Steinkuehler Squire is a Senior Policy Analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy