Science and Technology Innovation Program

Why We Need a Corporation for Public Gaming

Apr 25, 2006

BY DAVID REJESKI

Somewhere between the summer of 1946, when RCA put their first black-and-white television sets on the market, and 1951, when "I Love Lucy" appeared in American living rooms, television took off. The penetration of the technology was breathtaking, rising from 4.4 million families with TVs in 1950 to over 50 million just ten years later (over 85 percent of all American homes). In 1950, with only two channels available, TV viewing time by children had already reached 2.5 hours per day in some cities prompting researchers to raise questions about the effects of this new mass medium on the developing personality of the child as well as impacts on relationships within the family.

From the very beginning there were concerns about the psychological and social impacts of television and suspicions that TV was simply a technological funnel used to deliver advertising into the living rooms of millions of Americans. There was some truth to this assertion, since in the early days of TV, corporations literally owned shows, such as Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. A formulaic approach to programming gave us thirty western series by 1958 (from Gunsmoke to Have Gun -- Will Travel) as well as the half-hour windows into the idealized middle class American family of Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleavers in Leave It to Beaver. In 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission, made his now famous remark comparing TV programming to a "vast wasteland."

Though attempts were made to create alternative programming free from commercial influence, these proved difficult to sustain. A few dozen stations struggled to exist in the mid-1950s, dependent largely on millions of dollars of Ford Foundation funding for National Educational Television (NET), which provided non-commercial programming to around 200 stations nationwide.

The saccharine sweet family shows of the 50s and 60s gave way to harder biting social commentaries like All in the Family. In 1967, the same year that CBS television ended a 17-year blacklisting of folksinger Pete Seeger, President Johnson signed legislation to establish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), asserting that "we have only begun to grasp the great promise of the medium" and noting that noncommercial television was reaching only "a fraction of its potential audience – and a fraction of its potential worth." As part of the legislation, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was to launch major research on instructional television in the classroom. The $9 million investment in CPB in 1967 (about $47 million in today's dollars) has grown to over $300 million in annual funding today.

Unlike television, the meteoric rise of computer and video games over the past decade has gone largely unnoticed except by the digiteratti and cultural anthropologists cruising web zines and blogs. This may be because games are not a technology per se, but applications that slip into our lives on the backs of existing technologies, from computers, to televisions and cell phones. They are less hardware and more software.

Like many mass culture phenomena, games are understood more on the basis of prevailing myths than reality. Few people realize that the average gamer is 30 years old, that over 40 percent are female, and that the most adult gamers have been playing games for 12 years. One reason myths shape public perceptions is because few universities have seen computer games as worthy of serious academic study, robbing the discourse around games of robust data on their use characteristics, effects, and potential value. There is, of course, the annual Congressional attack on the game world and its denizens, calling for more control of violent games and, like our TV-addicted forbearers, warning of dire consequences to mind and family. Politicians have conveniently made computer games a target of derision rather than a pedagogical ally or tool for public engagement.

The best kept secret in the world of computer and video games is the rise of a movement – now in the thousands -- of gamers dedicated to applying games to serious challenges such as education, training, medical treatment, or better government. The Serious Games movement is in many ways today's equivalent of yesterday's advocates for non-commercial, educational TV, who knew that the potential of the medium was unrealized and went far beyond pure entertainment.

With small amounts of foundation money, and a lot of sweat equity and ingenuity, advocates of serious games are getting products built and used. A father with a diabetic son created GlucoBoy a handheld game that helps children better manage their blood glucose levels. A state senator from Massachusetts worked with graduate students to create MassBalance, and challenged people to balance the state's budget online. The United Nations World Food Program recently launched Food Force, a game with over 3 million players worldwide who work to save and rebuild the fictional island of Sheylan, ravished by drought and war. A number of people – or their virtual selves -- come together in an online, multiplayer game called Second Life to help design a park for Queens, New York. The interactive nature of games, their ability to present complex and dynamic information, and, increasingly, to allow thousands of people to meet in sophisticated virtual environments means games can accomplish what TV never could in terms of addressing educational and social challenges.

However, serious games, like serious TV, are likely to remain a sidebar in the history of mass media. Non-commercial television floundered, despite millions of dollars of investment by the Ford Foundation, until the government stepped in and created a viable and long-lasting alternative. With similar vision and foresight, and a relatively small amount of funding, this could happen with video and computer games.

A Corporation for Public Gaming (CPG) could be established that would operate on a model similar to its broadcasting equivalent, providing grants to develop a diversity of games for the public good. Like CPB, the goal of the CPG would be to provide high-quality games, which "inform, enlighten and enrich the public." A $15 million annual investment would be made for a three-year period with a review conducted at the end of year three followed by recommendations for continuance, modification, or termination of the program. Grants would be made available to qualified non-profits who could partner with commercial game developers, universities, museums, schools, or government entities. All grants would require a 15 percent set aside to support a rigorous evaluation of the game's impact. A portion of the overall funding would go to universities to conduct research on how to improve the content, impact, and evaluation of such games. An alternative model would be to support serious games within the existing Corporation for Public Broadcasting, by increasing the appropriation and changing the allocation formula from the 75-25 percent split between television and radio to one that reflected the additional funding for games.

Granted, it would take vision and courage to create such an entity, especially today when the concept of public broadcasting has become politicized and compromised. But without such a commitment to serious games, we may find that in twenty years we have managed to create another "vast wasteland" out of a promising new mass medium.

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