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11/28/2011
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Feds Turn To Video Games To Solve Problems

From NASA to National Park Service, agencies research how they can work together to create games to meet social, health, economic, and other challenges.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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No longer just for kids or enthusiasts, video games are being eyed by the White House as tools for solving some of the nation's social, economic, environmental, health, and other challenges.

More than 70 federal employees from 23 agencies held a confab at the White House in October to discuss projects they are working on to use games to address some of the nation's top problems, according to a White House blog post by Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior policy analyst with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

NASA, the Department of Energy, the Army, the National Park Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Endowment for the Arts were among the organizations who met to identify challenges that could derive solutions from game development, as well as how to figure out how to work across agencies to come up with game-oriented solutions to problems, she said.

The U.S. military's work to use computer gaming-like virtual environments for training soldiers already has been well publicized, but the feds want to branch out from efforts like this to see how games can be extended to other uses.

[ The Defense Department is turning to gaming and crowdsourcing help verify that weapons software will work as intended. See DOD Looks To Make A Game Of Software Testing. ]

Calling games a "push technology" that drives innovation in several industries--including graphical processors, artificial intelligence, human/computer interaction, and multiplayer environments--Squire pointed to research that shows 55% of the population, or about 170 million Americans, play video games, giving agencies an audience for their efforts.

Moreover, a National Academy of Sciences report found that computer simulations and games have "great potential to catalyze new approaches to science education," she said.

One federal research agency is doing work of its own to support the development of what it's calling "serious games."

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) recently awarded Raytheon a $10.5 million multiyear contract to help it develop games that can train people to make better decisions by teaching them "to recognize and mitigate the effects of their own biases when analyzing information used to make decisions," according to the company.

Raytheon will employ a variety of intelligence-analysis and other experts, ranging from game designers to cognitive psychologists, to work on the project.

The Army, too, wants to expand its use of games for training to find ways to adapt and integrate tutoring systems into the actual games themselves to make them viable for training purposes.

Other organizations in both the public and private sector--such as universities and companies--also are getting in on the action, according to Squire. She notes that various online communities--such as Games for Change, Games for Health, and Games+Learning+Society--have sprung up to devise ways for games to improve healthcare, make new discoveries, and work as teaching tools.

Our annual Federal Government IT Priorities Survey shows how agencies are managing the many mandates competing for their limited resources. Also in the new issue of InformationWeek Government: NASA veterans launch cloud startups, and U.S. Marshals Service completes tech revamp. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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