Grants for your games: An interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities' Office of Digital Humanities offers funding to developers and scholars of interactive media. Is this funding right for you?
The National Endowment for the Humanities is one of several U.S. federal organizations offering funding for interactive media. Unlike its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEH has a specific department related to electronic media: the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH). Gamasutra recently spoke with ODH's senior program officer, Jason Rhody, to better introduce the NEH and what his office is able to do for grant-seeking game developers.

We know that the National Endowment for the Humanities is legally separate from the National Endowment for the Arts, but is there also a measurable difference in how you are funded or assign grants?

NEH and NEA were founded with the same legislation but have different mandates and different budgetary lines, although you'll note that our budgets have often been very close in terms of same dollar amounts. Conveniently, our Office of Congressional Affairs just released this blog post, "The NEH and the NEA: Who's Who?", which might give you a better sense of which agency does what kind of work. Typically, if a project involves some sort of analytical approach to a topic, involving scholarly perspectives, then it's generally eligible for NEH funding. So, while you might apply to the NEA to create a new work of art, you can apply to NEH to put on an exhibition at a museum with interpretative materials. Or, you can apply to NEH analyze structures of sound in music. Or to study narrative form in 19th century novels. If you wanted to create a game with a focus on the artistic /design side, NEA would likely be most appropriate; if you wanted to create a game for history education, for example, NEH might be the right place to get some support.

So games -- be it for education, exploring cultural heritage, et cetera -- definitely have a place among your grantees?

NEH has funded the creation of games for education/exploring cultural heritage materials for several years now. Many have been funded through our office (at fairly low monetary amounts, because most my office's program money focuses on the start-up phase).

What are some of the games your office has funded in the past?

Here's a list of some of the games/prototypes we've funded. Drama in the Delta received both a Level 1 and Level 2 Start-Up Grant to develop a prototype game to explore the role of race and performance in a WW2 Japanese internment camp that was in rural Arkansas. Noah Wardrip-Fruin just received an award to explore preserving software & development histories using Prom Week (finalist for Indiecade 2012) as the test subject. Mary Flanagan (at Dartmouth, author of Critical Play, and founder of Tiltfactor), received both a Start-Up Grant and an Implementation Grant to work on using game strategies for cataloguing archival materials [in a project called] Metadata Games. We have grantees working on a game about the smallpox vaccination, a game about the Federal Writers' project, and we just funded a Level 1 grant for a workshop led by Games for Change for a game based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, first published in 1936 with advice for African Americans traveling in the Jim Crow South. We also support training institutes, so we funded one a few years about on Humanities Gaming, and one that just wrapped up a few days ago on Humanities Heritage 3D, using gaming technology for cultural heritage preservation (with some time dedicated to the Unity engine, and studying Assassin's Creed to explore issues of representation, e.g.). That's our office. NEH also has a larger division called the Division of Public Programs, which funds a lot of museum exhibitions, radio shows, and documentaries. They've also offered support to some games, perhaps most notably Mission US, which was funded initially by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with additional support from NEH. They have also supported some museum exhibits, most notably the Asian Games exhibit that traveled several years ago (and has a terrific catalog if you can get a hold of it). Finally, NEH can -- through various programs like Fellowships -- support funding for studying games from a humanities standpoint. For example, Matt Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms, which was support by an NEH fellowship, examines games like Mystery House. My office funded last year -- along with NSF, NEA, and Microsoft Research -- a workshop run by Noah Wardrip-Fruin on MediaSystems, with an interdisciplinary focus on software as objects of cultural significance (see more here).

What does ODH look for in grant applications for games? Are there things to keep in mind concerning eligibility?

There are a few of us here with academic backgrounds in games scholarship. My PhD work was on narrative in games (paper/board and computer) and my colleague in Public Programs, Marc Ruppel, wrote a dissertation on transmedia narrative, with some emphasis on games. We're both involved in trying to connect media studies/digital humanities/games scholars with one another, and broadening the vision of how games can enable designers, educators, and scholars to share subjects like history, literature, art, or archaeology in dynamic ways. Applications to the NEH should do at least two things: first, the application should highlight the humanities content and demonstrate its presence by including humanities scholars/educators as participants and showcasing the research that informs the project. Second, the application should demonstrate the game design principles and mechanics that will guide the project. Successful projects often include samples, screenshots, and design documents to highlight these elements. One thing to keep in mind: NEH eligibility rules limit support to institutions (primarily) that are 501c3, universities, or state/local governments. But we do have rules about umbrella/sponsoring organizations that can help applicants qualify. You can learn more about the Office of Digital Humanities or how to apply for a grant on ODH's website.

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