White House sees video games' social, economic potential

"I can tell you the rhetoric around games has changed. Something has shifted," says Constance Steinkuehler Squire, a senior advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Video games often seem like an easy target for politicians and legislators. But for Constance Steinkuehler Squire, a policy advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, video games represent real economic and social opportunities. Squire advises the Obama Administration on video game policy and coordinates the Federal government's efforts to support serious game development. At the closing keynote address Wednesday night at the Games for Health conference in Boston, she explained why the sector is so important to the U.S. "I can tell you the rhetoric around games has changed," Squire said. "Something has shifted. People have come to understand finally that video games are a powerful medium." The White House is interested in video games due to the economic strength of the industry, the 72 percent of American households who are gaming, and the closing gender disparity among gamers, Squire said. Analog engagement strategies like books, reports and events have a linear relationship between the number of people you can reach and the investment required to reach them. On the other hand, digital strategies like video games and social media require a high investment up front, but as you reach more people, the additional costs approach zero, which is of obvious financial interest to a government office. There's also a solid body of scientific evidence establishing how video games can have cognitive and behavioral effects, she explained. The Federal government also has a strong interest in the notion of being able to personalize experiences in digital technology, for instance measuring performance to adjust a game's difficulty. Digital technologies start opening the doors to A/B testing and very large-scale comparisons of different treatment types. "Technology is now poised in this place where we can talk about things like big data, learning analytics, behavior analytics, and personalization on that level of scale," Squire said. "The Federal government has been investing in games for well over a decade," she added. "If you include military simulations it goes way back before that, and yet none of that investment has been coordinated." Squire works with a Federal Game Guild, which shares serious game knowledge, resources and assets across Federal agencies. The Guild currently stands at 177 members across 33 agencies and four White House offices. Creating an ecosystem for innovation and the creation of serious games that have a real impact has been extremely difficult for Squire. Great design has to be married to an empirical argument that the game is having the effect it is meant to have. Discussions with academic institutions, indie and triple-A game developers help Squire gather ideas about seeding the serious and educational games space. Squire is also asking questions about scientific discovery, not only in terms of games as a platform for crowd-sourcing computational problems (see [email protected]), but thinking about new discoveries in computational social science and the ability to find patterns in human behavior that were previously difficult or impossible to find. We asked Squire what kind of response she's received when approaching consumer game developers. "Shockingly positive," she told Gamasutra. "My first [Game Developers Conference] was 2004, and I come at this as a cognitive scientist/education person. We've always kind of been the janitors at GDC, you know, the uncool, not-hipster. [Serious games have] always been seen as sort of a wonky, finger-wagging kind of topic. And I have to admit I was bracing myself -- I gave a talk at GDC this last year, and I heard a lot reports about how a tremendous amount of interest was starting to really emerge among game designers." "We have a thriving indie scene that we all know about, but even at triple-A studios, a lot of those top designers and the do-ers are in many ways getting tired of creating the same title again and again," Squire said. "And so there's this sort of design fatigue, this creative fatigue going on, and face it, we're all getting older and we're having kids and we're starting to wonder why many of our designs, our kids can't play. "So I had heard bubblings of this but I didn't buy it, really," she said. "When I got to GDC I was sort of bracing myself for not a positive reception. I was absolutely amazed and humbled by it. We had a room that was supposed to fit 15 people...and I walked out of that room with over two hundred and fifty business cards of people saying 'I want to participate. I have talent, what can I do?' The challenge since then has been how do you organize that?"

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