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GDC 2014: U.S. National Investment in the Future of Games?

At the just-concluded 2014 Game Developers Conference I organized and spoke in a session titled, “U.S. National Investment in the Future of Games?” I was joined by William S. Bainbridge (Program Director for the National Science Foundation), Elaine Raybourn (Principal Member of the Technical Staff in Cognitive Systems at Sandia National Laboratories, on assignment from to the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense), and Jason Rhody (Senior Program Officer for the Office of Digital Humanities in the National Endowment for the Humanities). I’m posting here my slides and notes from the session introduction and my talk, the latter of which focused on three recommendation areas from the Media Systems final report that would benefit from joint effort by federal agencies and the game development community.

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At a national level, government agencies are understanding the importance of games. Games are increasingly visible as a major cultural and economic force, an important area of technical research, and as a tool for addressing national challenges (from meeting the need for deep interactive training to crowdsourcing otherwise-intractable problems).

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Federal agencies are also changing how the public views games, not just through providing support to innovative projects, but also through nationally-visible actions such as the NEA’s formal acceptance of games as fundable artworks and the Smithsonian’s major games exhibition.

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Large strides have been made, but more could be done — and strategic actions and investments could make a real difference in how games evolve, from the cultural level through the technical level. We believe that dialogue with the GDC community is a smart way to gather ideas and feedback to shape future federal-level actions around games.

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Our session will have four speakers:
- Jason Rhody, Senior Program Officer for the Office of Digital Humanities in the National Endowment for the Humanities
- Elaine Raybourn a Principal Member of the Technical Staff in Cognitive Systems at Sandia National Laboratories, on assignment from to the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense
- William S. Bainbridge, Program Director for the National Science Foundation… who is coming to us via Second Life, which we will see from the point of view of the avatar of Josh McCoy, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz
- Then back to me, offering some of the recommendations from the Media Systems project

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We’ve heard about what federal agencies have done — and it’s a wide and impressive array of activities.

Now I want to turn to the question of what *should* be done.

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Today we are publishing the report of the Media Systems project.

This started with a meeting at UC Santa Cruz and then was followed by more than a year of analysis and discussion.

It was sponsored by an unprecedented group: the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

You can find the full report online, published today.

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I want to talk about three recommendation areas from the report where federal agencies can make a difference — and a much bigger difference if game developers think it’s a good idea.

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One theme in the report is that the people who really understand media are systematically separated from the people who do deep technology research. This is true in terms of the federal agencies. For example: the NEA and NSF do not have any joint programs.

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This is also true in the game industry, sometimes even within the same company.

Though there are some interesting exceptions — I have been part of some.

But either there are very few exceptions or most of them are kept under wraps — right now I’m under NDA for most I have done.

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This led us to two recommendations for things government agencies can do:
- Collect the best examples of collaborations between game developers and technology researchers that led to real advances, and share best practices for communication, intellectual property, financial models, etc.
- Start programs that can support teams that have people with deep specialties in the different disciplines that go into game innovation.

Of course, it’s hard to design these programs without knowing what works in the first place. So both of these recommendations really depend on the willingness of people in this room (and in this community more generally) to share the specifics of past success stories.

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Another recommendation is that we need to develop better collections and archives, as Jason also mentioned.

What if young filmmakers couldn’t learn from the history of film?

We’re in danger of this happening for games!

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This is a place where agencies like the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, NEH, and others can make a difference.

Again, this is only possible with support from the GDC community. Here are things you can do to make a difference:
- AAA developers, please commit to donating a copy of your future closing kits to archives. The archivists can promise to keep the archives “dark” (no access granted) for a specified period of time.
- Indie developers, let’s figure out a way to create a pipeline for archiving your source files — ideally one that integrates well with your current development practices.
- Steam, Origin, Playstation, Xbox, iTunes, and Google Play — lets figure out ways to get your downloadable games into library collections.
- Everyone, let’s figure out ways to keep DRM from making games unnecessarily unplayable in the future.

If you can do these things, federal agencies like the IMLS can step up to support project partners. But right now the best agencies can support is exploratory projects, seeing if it might be possible to get industry support. Let’s put that question to rest.

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Finally, the report recommends the creation of national centers of excellence — places that can be clearinghouses of knowledge, and organizational hubs, pointing the way to taking this work to the next level.

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This needs to involve the game industry, from small indies to big platform holders. We have national centers of excellence in other technology areas, and industry involvement is key.

We need people who are asking the most challenging questions about what games can be — and we need people who can invest in joint work and get innovations out to an audience of millions.

Personally, I hope that government agencies step forward to provide part of what is needed to make such centers possible — and I hope that members of the GDC community will be willing to step forward to provide another essential piece.

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And with that, we welcome your questions and comments here for the remaining time we have. If you might be willing to commit to one of the things mentioned in my slides, please say so now or send me an email.

Once this session is over, we hope you will join us in the wrap-up room: South Hall, Esplanade Level, Room 307.

Finally, I believe everyone on the panel has their email address on the web and is happy to be in touch.

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About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is an Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.

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  • […] Recently I gave the following talk as part of the 2014 Game Developers Conference panel:  U.S. National Investment in the Future of Games?  The panel was arranged by Noah Wardrip-Fruin (associate professor of computer science and co-director of the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz), and other participants included William S. Bainbridge (Program Director for the National Science Foundation) and Elaine Raybourn (Principal Member of the Technical Staff in Cognitive Systems at Sandia National Laboratories, on assignment from to the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense).  You can read Noah’s framing remarks here. […]