When I think of "DARPA," and "video games," my mind leaps to Metal Gear Solid. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), run by the U.S. Department of Defense, has shown up for many years in our games as a shadowy source of implausible technology and machinations.
In recent years, however, DARPA has been turning the tables. Rather than simply appearing as a plot point in video games, they're using video games and crowdsourcing to create solutions and solve problems that cannot be taken care of entirely within the agency. Foldit, a protein matching game funded in part by DARPA, used the power of people at play to create a "human computer" that could outperform supercomputers when it came to the puzzle of assembling proteins. More recently, DARPA released a submarine-tracking game aimed at collecting and integrating crowdsourced data and tactics into real world submarine chases.
Crowdsourcing is a big deal now, in the early months of 2012. According to a report in Nextgov, on the heels of these and other successful projects, DARPA hopes to keep developing serious games, with real-world military and scientific applications, that the whole world can help them play. The government is catching on to what many of us have already known: 72% of US households play video games in some way, creating a massive potential resource for researchers to tap into.
The proof-of-concept provided by FoldIt and by a recent project, in which a team calling itself "All Your Shreds Are Belong To Us" won a competition to design a program that could re-assemble shredded documents, now has DARPA and other agencies strongly focused on ways they can use outside crowdsourcing for creative problem-solving. The report explains:
The shredder challenge is one of dozens of experiments in crowdsourcing that federal agencies are performing to tap the expertise of people they wouldn't otherwise reach. Military boardrooms and government laboratories aren't always the most conducive spaces for flashes of insight and creative thought. Nor do they attract Silicon Valley types. But by mining the crowd for answers agencies can't find on their own—with games that reward ingenuity and play—they are accessing a wealth of ingenuity beyond the civil servants, military personnel and contractors who comprise the federal workforce. Freed from the constraints of reality, gamers are able to conjure ideas that an expert in a cubicle might never think of. If these games and puzzles feed bright ideas to government leaders, they could upend the perceptions many people hold about computer games, from black holes that suck resources from society to tools with real-world impact.
The major issues are threefold. First, the challenges of keeping classified information under wraps if it's being tossed to the mob to work through. Second, convincing budget-builders that the funding for games is worthwhile. And third, the challenges of Department of Defense bureaucracy meshing with the culture of video game development. The report specifies:
To have the best game designers, the government funding process has to be more transparent. Developers and bureaucrats have to learn to speak the same language. Vaporware, the term used when software fails to live up to its hype and is never delivered, remains a concern for agencies wading into emerging game technologies. If it wants to embrace a crowdsourced future, the government will have to learn to seek out help and be challenged.
Games have made a tremendous difference in our culture and industry in a relatively short span of time. Now, it seems, the agency that once invented the internet is learning to harness the power of the millions on it, by making play time work for them.