High score: Gaming moves to the forefront in government

It was viewed not long ago as the violent realm of teenage activity, but agencies are embracing gamification as a powerful tool for education, training and outreach.

When people think about the government, computer games probably aren't the first thing that pops into their minds. Yet many agencies are leveraging gaming principles and game technology for a variety of purposes. That process is loosely called gamification, and with many successes now in hand, gaming experts think its star will only continue to rise.

But that wasn't always the case.

Daniel Laughlin is the lead researcher for NASA Learning Technologies. But back in 2003 when the government was taking its first tentative steps into the world of gaming, he was just another Ph.D. with a secret love of games, going all the way back to the pen and paper days of Dungeons and Dragons. That wasn't something he let very many people know about.

"NASA was given the opportunity to create a module to go with the America's Army game, and the agency was looking for someone who knew games," Laughlin said. "But games had a real negative connotation back then, and I was a little afraid to raise my hand. Eventually I did, but the whole time I was thinking about having to pack my stuff in a box."

Instead of getting fired, Laughlin became the agency's expert on all things gaming. Unfortunately, by the time NASA was ready to approve the America's Army module, the opportunity had passed. But the contacts NASA made led to one of the agency's most visual successes, the Moonbase Alpha computer game, created by developer Virtual Heroes, the same group that put together the Army's signature title. While the goal of America's Army was recruitment, Moonbase Alpha targeted students and tried to deepen their understanding of key STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts and improve their teamwork skills.

Even then, it was an uphill struggle to show the value of gamification. Laughlin said that in 2004 people thought games simply promoted violence. One of the first papers he wrote for the agency about games showed that violence actually decreased as a whole when people became gamers. "Today the majority of parents feel that games can have an educational benefit," he said.

Eric Hackathorn, Data Visualization and Games program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would agree that the public is finally starting to embrace games as an educational tool. Over the past decade he's worked on a variety of gaming and game-like projects, such the creation of a virtual world modeled after Rock Creek Park  outside of Washington, D.C. The Department of Energy uses the virtual park to hold public meetings and to give people an opportunity to explore and learn about energy efficient buildings.

His current project is his most ambitions, a full-blown game called ReGenesis, which involves time travel, violent storms and environmental disasters. The game is set in the year 2100, and players must time travel back to the year 2017 to prevent or eliminate the environmental damage caused by Hurricane Rita.  Players try out different strategies and then go forward in time to see how it all plays out. The game is designed to teach about climate, satellite control and environmental damage mitigation strategies.
Learning through engagement

As a learning tool, Hackathorn thinks games have no equal. "Games have a unique ability to engage people, to make them do things," he said. "They can make a child do homework, or improve someone's data entry skills."

Hackathorn said that most of the current game-like efforts in government actually fall into the more general category of gamification, which is different from games. He explained that what makes games interesting to players are the elements in them, which can be broken down and applied to everyday tasks. "We can take game elements that we know players enjoy -- like earning badges, getting names posted to leaderboards and reward schedules -- and use them to help a player reach ‘flow,’ where time just stops," he said. "And that can make learning effective, even for tasks that would otherwise be uninteresting" and thus difficult to teach.

President Barack Obama supports gamification efforts through the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  In 2011 he issued a call for more educational games as well as games that address national challenges during a speech at the TechBoston conference. “I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create...educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” the president said.

Part of that effort led to the formation of the Federal Games Working Group, which is affectionately called the Federal Games Guild by members, a name invoking World of Warcraft, where likeminded players organize themselves into guilds. Today that group has over 200 members representing 34 agencies, four White House offices and four other federal entities. The group regularly meets to discuss gaming strategy and share experiences.

NASA’s Laughlin, who has been the guild's co-chair since its formation, said the guild can help agencies save time and money developing games. He referred to NASA's initial attempt to create Mars Rover games from scratch, a situation Laughlin said was typical.

"That's one of the reasons we started the Federal Games Guild, to share experience and lessons learned between folks working with games and government," Laughlin said. The Mars Rover story is a textbook example of how game development often starts in government, he said, with people starting from scratch and in isolation. Experienced FGG members could have steered the NASA group to proven tools and saved the time and money it lost to OpenGL, Laughlin explained. "That's the sort of lesson we can easily share. There's no good reason that group after group across the government has to learn it for themselves."

Besides just sharing information between government members, the FGG often brings in developers from commercial game companies to talk about the process of making games. Hackathorn, who is also a member of the guild, says that’s extremely helpful because game companies "are light years ahead of government in that area."

Laughlin believes that the future of gaming in government is likely going to be more and bigger private partnerships with the game industry.

One such public-private partnership produced the Money Smart game. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation  partnered with  Dynamics Research Corporation to help low- and moderate-income families better manage their money. Designed to look like a board game like Life or Monopoly, Money Smart challenges players to boost their financial savvy and teaches useful skills like how to set up a bank account, pay bills on time and avoid identity theft.

"It began as a Web-only game," said Ron Smits, director of knowledge management at DRC. "We had a target of getting 10,000 people to play it. But it had over 40,000 players in the first six months." And that's not including school students who played the game as part of their educational program.

Smits says he is seeing more requests from government for game development and gamification efforts these days. "It's only recently been labeled gamification," he said. "We've built games before, but in the educational realm; the big push has come in the last three to four years."

And Money Smart may have a lot of life left as well. Smits said DRC is in talks with the FDIC to expand the game into other languages to reach more people within targeted communities. A CD-ROM version is available for people without Internet access.

Rich Taylor, senior vice president of communications and industry affairs for the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents most of the largest game companies, says it's only natural that government would want to get into gaming, because that's what society as a whole is doing. "We are at the point now where everyone is pretty much a gamer," Taylor said. "Whether it's playing Words With Friends on their phones or enjoying the spectacle that is BioShock Infinite, there is something for everyone and something for every screen."

He's seen many successful government and industry partnerships involving games, like the Zero Hour America's Medic title,  which trains first responders on what to do in the event of an earthquake or terrorist attack, all safely conducted in a virtual 3D world, just like a commercial first-person shooter game.

Taylor said that games are the best training medium for most situations for three reasons. First, they provide instant feedback, allowing players to auto-correct themselves as they go without having to wait for test results to be returned. Second, games with a high graphical quality are simply more exciting and interesting than simple textbook reading. And third, people have a natural competitiveness that games inspire. Players want to advance, get to the next level or earn a higher score. When that goes hand in hand with learning, everybody wins, he said.

And the results are impressive. Taylor pointed to a study conducted by Dr. Traci Sitzmann of the University of Colorado Denver  that showed that employees who played serious games as part of their training had an 11 percent higher factual knowledge level, a 14 percent higher skill level and a 9 percent higher retention rate compared with those who had not used training games.

Taylor also sees more gaming in government's future. "Our industry is so innovative, just look at all the new technologies that can become learning tools," he said. "Look at the Microsoft Kinect. It can record voice and motion in a way that was not conceivable a few years ago. Now we see it used in everything from hospital operating rooms to teaching music. Government, like society, is seeing that games are not the boogeyman. They have value and will become more a part of life."

For those like NASA’s Laughlin, who believed in the power of games all along but 10 years ago worried about admitting it, that new shift in attitudes is quite refreshing. Today when he walks into a room full of government employees and asks if anyone is familiar with gaming, lots of hands go up, and without the slightest reservation.

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