Video game developers can be the new astronauts, a beacon that inspires schoolchildren to love learning science and math, the head advocate for the gaming industry in the U.S., told Kotaku today, as he described President Obama's breakthrough education announcement.
"LittleBigPlanet" being mentioned in the same sentence as "Barack Obama" — and of video games being included in the President's push for new ways to inspire kids to learn science, technology, engineering and math — sat well with Entertainment Software Association chief Michael Gallagher today.
"This is a very, very good day for the gaming industry," he told Kotaku. "This is a significant leap into maturity and toward acceptance."
Earlier in the day, Gallagher literally sat one row behind former astronaut Sally Ride and right near the former chairman of Intel and the current head of Sesame Street at a Washington, D.C. press conference where Obama announced plans for "Educate To Innovate," a series of mostly privately-funded initiatives to improve kids' knowledge of and enthusiasm for math and science.
The new programs could be the gaming industry's reach for the stars, to build on an astronomical analogy Gallagher said he used with White House officials as the new programs were taking shape. "Much as the space program inspired a generation of children to go into engineering," he said. "Today's learners are inspired by video games." Those who make games, in other words, have the capacity to influence America's youth toward scientific and technological greatness.
The gaming aspect of the Obama program involves two contests, both geared toward making games that will help children learn science, technology, engineering or math, so-called STEM topics. One contest involves the design of LittleBigPlanet levels. The other challenges developers to make browser games for children of different ages. Both embody what Gallagher says are the two defining characteristics of the gaming industry: Innovation and Competition.
But today was unusual. The video game industry doesn't often get a call from the White House, as the ESA did three months ago, to launch the programs announced today. Rare is the Administration that refers to games at all in a positive way.
Perhaps equally rare is an Administration that even understands games. Gallagher, who worked in the George W. Bush White House said that the "communication gap was a lot smaller" dealing with Obama officials. Some of the current President's speech writers, after all, recently stopped by an ESA reception to play The Beatles Rock Band, he said.
The ESA has also worked to promote the reputation of games and has enjoyed the findings of groups such as the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which announced earlier this year that it saw games playing a key role in the future of education.
All of this may have helped produce a climate that led the White House to think positively about games.
"There is a preponderance of belief that we're a force for good and quality, as opposed to being stigmatized," Gallagher said.
So it wasn't a complete shock to the ESA that, three months ago, the White House contacted the group to invite the gaming industry to get involved in the President's education initiative.
From that request emerged the STEM National Video Game Competition, the browser game challenge, which will involve not just the ESA and the Information Technology Industry Council (an advocacy group for tech companies), but also Microsoft and Games4Change, a group dedicated to supporting games that serve a social good.
Anyone will be able to make games for the contest, vying for a portion of the total prize of $300,000. Even more alluring may be Gallagher's belief that the winning entries, which will be announced in June at E3, could become part of school curricula as soon as next school year. "We could be reaching and saving today's learners," he said, not waiting for a future generation and giving up already on today's kids.
"The objective is learning, not teaching," Gallagher said of the games he hopes people will make. He explained that a popular belief among educators is that teaching — the dispensing of information — is over-emphasized in school programs and that more attention needs to be paid toward learning — what goes on in a child's mind. It's learning where games have such strong potential, Gallagher argued, because the medium already has proven it has the ability to captivate a child's imagination and tap his or her curiosity.
The other program announced today involves Sony providing 1,000 PlayStation 3s and copies of LittleBigPlanet as part of an effort backed by the MacArthur Foundation to encourage learning through digital means.
Despite what Gallagher referred to as commendable efforts by Sony and Microsoft to get involved, they are just two gaming-related companies, the only two that were part of today's news. Gallagher says that is merely a function of how quickly the new programs came together and is confident that other gaming companies will get involved in similar efforts.
"We should be proud of this moment because it shows a maturity of our industry," Gallagher told Kotaku today. "It shows an acceptance of our industry as vital to our country's ability to meeting significant challenges." If video games can help America get better at science, technology, engineering and math, Gallagher would consider that a job well done.