President Trump’s proposal to slash funding for federal arts endowments may have consequences for video games. The types of federally-funded education and social change-related games projects that have received grants in the past may need to scale down or search for other funding channels.
Nothing is being cut just yet, but the President’s proposed 2018 budget first reported in major outlets yesterday calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and The National Endowment for the Humanities, an unprecedented move in their 50-year history. The endowments run off $300 million annually, a pittance compared to the total $1.1 trillion federal budget.
The NEH has invested $1.8 million in games. By my count, since 1998, the NEA has funded at least 34 grants that mention video games, encompassing over a hundred thousand dollars allocated to schools incubating game design projects. Public colleges that may not have designated funding for game design students apply for these federal grants. For example, over the last three years, The Virginia Commonwealth University, which does not have a dedicated “game design” major, received about $45,000 in funding from the NEA for their Learning from Digital Game Design program and Currentlab Game Design Institute, a professional development workshop.
The University of Southern California, which offers one of the top games programs in the world, received in 2015 over $65,000 in grants to fund two education video games, one on video artist Bill Viola and, the other, about Henry David Thoreau (the NEH is its primary funder). Regarding the grants, Interactive Media & Games director Tracy Fullerton told USC News last year that “Making games is my way of understanding the answers to questions that I have about the world. And that is one of the primary impulses of an artist, to use a medium to explore the central questions that intrigue them and that they think are of interest to themselves and others. It is so exciting that the NEA is supporting this kind of artistic inquiring in the realm of games as art.”
Federal funding also supports game developers who focus on games about social change or education. In an e-mail, NEH spokeswoman Theola DeBose noted that they’ve invested in Mission US, an interactive history game that has reached more than a million students nationally, among other education-centric games and projects.
In total, the nonprofit Games for Change has received over $400,000 in federal funding through eight NEA grants. With that money, Games for Change runs game design competitions, workshops and a festival. Slashing the NEA’s funding would weaken G4C’s resources: “The loss of federal funding affects our overall operating and programming budget significantly,” Games for Change president Susanna Pollack told me. “We will have to re-evaluate the scale of the G4C Festival and the reach that we can have with our educational programs.”
The cuts to arts in the Trump budget would actually be small relative to changes proposed elsewhere. The proposed budget calls for billions in cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health, among others, while requesting more for Defense and Homeland Security. It’s worth noting—presidential budgets are proposals that outline priorities; Congress actually comes up with the budget.
The NEH and NEA’s operations will continue as normal until a new budget passes. In an e-mail, an NEA spokesperson told Kotaku that their 2017 operations will be unchanged. They’ll also accept 2018 grant applications. “The President’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” she said. “The agency continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”
[Update—4:00 PM]: The piece has been updated to reflect that the NEH is Walden, A Game’s primary funder.