What Can We Learn From Video Games?

The White House is making what some would call an unconventional investment. It's studying the benefits of video games on those who play them. White House senior policy analyst Constance Steinkuehler is at the head of that research and she discusses the initiative with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, the movie "Think Like a Man" claims to cut through the games women and men play in the name of love, but the movie's also stirring up some controversy. We'll sift through it with film critic Wesley Morris in a minute, and we will celebrate Wesley's just-announced Pulitzer Prize. That's later.

But first, let's talk about another kind of game, videogames. When you think about videogames, you can be honest. What comes to mind is probably not the most edifying stuff: kids glued to their TVs shooting zombies and blowing up buildings. Right?

But there could be a different use of videogames, and the call to really explore those different uses is coming from President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want you guys to be stuck on a videogame that's teaching you something, other than just blowing something up.

MARTIN: That was the president addressing Tech Boston Academy in March last year. He called for educational software that is, quote, "as compelling as the best videogame," unquote. In the fall, he hired Constance Steinkuehler to study the benefits of videogames, including ways they might be able to help us eat better or perhaps solve science problems.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called upon Constance Steinkuehler. She is a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CONSTANCE STEINKUEHLER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, yours is the kind of job - and I'm sure you've heard this - that people have one of two reactions about. One is: That is so cool. And the other is: Are you kidding me? So tell us a little bit more about exactly what you're hoping to accomplish in this position.

STEINKUEHLER: Sure. So, I mean, the research on videogames has been building over the past decade, especially in fields of education and straight science, thinking about: What are the impacts of this medium on young people and on adults? The first research really focused on its violent themes, for example, because, obviously, that's been sort of part of the American imagination of games as sort of leading to videogames violence, with issues like Columbine.

And yet it turns out that many of those relationships just haven't borne out in the research, and new fields have emerged around looking at how games function as a means for turning screen time into activity time, thinking about: How can you use them to get up off the couch and get fit? How can you use them for improving problem-solving or scientific reasoning? And, in fact, believe it or not, as far as: How could you use them to think about crowdsourcing scientific discovery itself?

MARTIN: You know, you have a very interesting background for this. You have three BAs in math, English and religious studies. Do I have that right?

STEINKUEHLER: Yes, ma'am. Yeah.

MARTIN: And your advanced training is in education and psychology. So...

STEINKUEHLER: Yeah. In fact, when I was an undergrad, I swore the two majors I would never go into would be education and psychology. And here I am now, and that's what I did my graduate work in. My formal PhD is in literacy studies, which sounds strange, and yet if you think about literacy as, you know, sort of making sense of various media, in fact, videogames fall within the purview of that.

Now, I didn't go to grad school to study videogames. I came to it quite late, and I have to admit, you know, I spent a good, I guess, two decades not being a gamer. I really enjoyed the arcade days, but that was about it. But, at the time when I went to grad school, I was really interested in online communities and how can you think about getting people together to work online in ways that would be intellectually enriching? How can you do stuff like social knowledge construction? How can people get together and solve problems?

So when I came to grad school, I was looking at things like: How can we automatically assess chat in a chat room to see, what is its intellectual tenor? And, you know, we did that for a while. I, you know, spent a couple years working on Department of Defense grants and NSF grants, and we would build systems and then study those systems and what people did in them.

But, truthfully, I got really tired of it, because even if we could show statistical significantly improvements in what people learned, no one wanted to be there. And then that was the first time I downloaded a videogame. And the first game I downloaded was a game called "Lineage," by NCsoft. And at that point, after spending about a week watching people do tasks far beyond the level of sophistication that we would have asked them to do in our spaces and realizing that they were not only there voluntarily, they were paying to be there, I realized there's something here that we have to understand. So I dropped everything I was doing and switched gears and have studied games ever since.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about videogames with Constance Steinkuehler. She's a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She's a researcher in this area, and we're talking about whether videogames can be used for - how would you describe that? For a beneficial effect, let's say, or...

STEINKUEHLER: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: A couple of questions, though, and I'm sure that you've thought about this. I think that there are those who would question: Why is this a governmental responsibility?

STEINKUEHLER: Well, I mean, the role of federal dollars in this space - well, let me back up and say, you know, our federal investments in games have been going on since long before the Obama administration. You know, many of those games started off especially in the military space, around military training and simulations. So part of my job is to coordinate those investments that have already been in play and thinking about: How do we make sure that we are putting our dollars where they matter most?

Now, I think about that in two ways. Number one: How do we invest in spaces that are really far advanced in terms of innovation? So, if you think about: How can we, today, create the next Internet? Number two: spaces in which the social benefits are so high, yet the return on investment for an individual company is too low for them to move into that space. That would be a secondary in which federal dollars matter.

You know, certain pharmaceuticals may fall under that category of the social benefit is incredibly high, that it's a worthwhile investment and it just simply can't be done by the market alone.

Now, for the game space, the market is a place where most of the action is at.

MARTIN: Well, sure. In fact, I can understand that. I mean, taking it from a different direction, I mean, you can see, on the one hand, people might say, well, that's just not - I don't need my tax dollars being used for that.

STEINKUEHLER: Sure.

MARTIN: On the flip side of that, I think one argument that some people would have is: The government has been an incredible incubator for so many powerful ideas, but what has been the benefit for the social good, as a consequence? Or that individuals have privatized these ideas for their private benefit, where's the give-back to the taxpayers if some of these ideas bear fruit?

STEINKUEHLER: Part of it will be diversifying the media landscape for our youth and for our adults. Right? So simply bringing about new markets that are actually more focused on pro-social behaviors, intellectual behaviors and fitness, for example, are certainly benefits to the public.

MARTIN: You have a game to make people listen to NPR?

STEINKUEHLER: Oh, yes. Wouldn't that be great? Though I'm not sure you need it. But, you know, I mean, in the philanthropy space, it's interesting that, you know, right now, you know, philanthropy has been in the business of, you know, thinking about games as a way to reach youth. And, believe it or not, games are a very go-to strategy for things like, you know, playing a game about a particular social issue and, at the end, there's a donate button that asks people, you know, OK, so now, actually get involved.

I saw a game the other day that's - it's not out yet, so I won't name or anything, but the game play, the results of leveling up in the game actually plant trees in the world. What an amazing thing, when you think about all of that time spent playing and discovering and exploring a topic actually having outputs that are real in the world and doing benefit for other people.

MARTIN: OK. So, tell the truth: "Sims" or "Angry Birds"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEINKUEHLER: You know, I've got a two and a four-year-old, so these days, my only game play tends to be casual games on my phone.

MARTIN: Do you play any games on your phone?

STEINKUEHLER: Oh, definitely. The game I'm playing right now is a game called "Journey," and that's out by a young, very small company called That Game Company. And, you know, if you haven't played games in a while, I think you will be amazed and delighted by the diversity of titles that are out there. And in this case, it's a game about moving through this beautiful sort of windswept sand landscape, and, you know, you play anonymously with other people. And you sing out this musical tone to signal that you're wanting to help other people on their quest. It's really an amazing title. And that, right now, is just part of this diverse landscape of where games are going.

MARTIN: Do you have any games to put babies to sleep?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEINKUEHLER: Oh, that would be lovely, and if I did, I would not have been up at 4:00 a.m. with my two-year-old.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to let you get back to - hopefully, maybe you can catch a minute. Constance Steinkuehler is a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. We caught up with her in Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Constance Steinkuehler, thanks so much for joining us.

STEINKUEHLER: Thanks for having me.

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