The Blog

Does Obama Play Video Games?

Games let players interact with a story, rather than passively consume it. This keeps them engaged.
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Reposted from the Pop!Tech blog.

My daughter Tatiana, 8, is about the same age as Barack Obama's Sasha and Malia. As a family we reveled in the familiar bits of family life we read about as we rooted for his campaign: playing Uno en famille, piano and gymnastics, experiments in pancakes on weekends.

But I often wondered: why no video games? Were they off-limits? Seen as too corrupting?

Obama has assembled a blockbuster leadership team, managed the finest presidential election campaign in history and showed himself a visionary in his use of the internet.

We all want him to be equipped with the best tools in the toolbox as he tackles the world's toughest problems -- and to prepare the next generation to do the same.

So where are the video games? They can be a big help.

First, let's be clear. Video games are as varied as film, if not more so, and violent games represent a small fraction of what's out there. Games have been demonized in part because they are simply a young medium growing up. Note Voltaire: "The multitude of books is making us ignorant."

And games do a lot more than entertain us. In fact games have extraordinary potential for learning and civic engagement across age, economic and other differences. A recent Pew Report showed that 97% of all teenagers are playing games, and that there is a noteworthy correlation between players' civic activities in digital games and their civic engagement in the real world. And last week, a MacArthur Foundation-funded study suggested that online participation equips kids with the media literacy they'll need to be successful adults.

For me, the most interesting area is the new genre of video games about real world issues -- games about the environment, global hunger, poverty, disease. These are games that help kids become more thoughtful, responsible and committed citizens. And these games may be the best tool we have to reach and engage them in the issues they will carry into their future.

Why? Games let players interact with a story, rather than passively consume it. This keeps them engaged. Unlike more linear media, players have "agency" -- which means they can affect the outcome of their experience. This encourages personal identification with the characters and, again, a deeper immersion in the content. A well-designed game is an exact balance of challenge and reward, creating a fine-tuned learning environment. And games let people become mentors -- across all age groups. Where else do kids have the chance to be the experts?

There's more. Games also allow players to take on roles and viewpoints otherwise unavailable to them, and to view an issue from the other side's perspective -- a key to understanding, and solving, any conflict. And games immerse players in complex systems, compelling them to solve diverse inter-related problems, recognizing and analyzing patterns -- and the whole -- in new ways.

Think about climate change: reading a book on the environment versus manipulating the myriad variables affecting the earth's surface. What happens to the world's sea levels if we raise the temperature 10 degrees? What happens if we all turn off our lights an extra hour every day? How do we "win" or solve this particular game?

Some educators believe that games may even be starting to foster and encourage a new way of thinking: systems-thinking, which may help kids be better prepared for 21st century challenges. There are already companies hiring top-level gamers for their ability to solve complex problems -- and they are not game companies!

These new video games -- some call them "games for change" -- are worth a look.
Peacemaker, a game about the Middle East conflict, is being played by more than 100,000 young Palestinians and Israelis. And Food Force -- a game from the UN's World Food Program -- lets players take on humanitarian missions to fight global poverty.

It's an idea building momentum. Take Our Courts, an interactive simulation of government for middle-schoolers being created in collaboration with the Honorable Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and noted game scholar James Paul Gee, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Justice O'Connor became concerned when she discovered that American students could more readily identify an American Idol judge than a Supreme Court justice and concluded that interactive media would be the best way to reach and engage them. And she's not known for flip conclusions.

Sound boring? Think again. Food Force has been downloaded more than 4 million times. Darfur Is Dying, more than 3 million plays, generating 50,000 "real-world actions" including letters to congress. AYITI: the Cost of Life, a game about poverty in Haiti created with inner city youth in NYC, is being played by more than 2 million young people around the world.

This list goes on.

As I join our country in celebrating this new president, marveling that we have just ushered in one of the most intelligent and inspiring leaders of our time -- in an historic election -- I want to pitch in where I can:

To let Barack Obama and his family know about the exceptional power of video games to make the world a better place.

I suspect he and his able team must know about these games already. But just in case, Tatiana would be happy to show them around.