Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

OSTP Studying Benefits of Video Games

February 3rd, 2012 / in big science, policy, research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)USA TODAY is out this week with an interesting article featuring the work of MacArthur Foundation Fellow Constance Steinkuehler, an Assistant Professor in the Educational Communications & Technology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — who’s on assignment for 18 months as a Senior Policy Analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to study video games that improve health, education, civic engagement and the environment, among other areas.

According to the USA TODAY piece:

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…


Constance Steinkuehler, University of Wisconsin-MadisonOn leave for 18 months from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin 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…


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 is 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…


[Recently], 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.


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 could 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 Popovic, 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.”

Check out the full article here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

OSTP Studying Benefits of Video Games

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