Users of the Foldit platform designed these protein shapes in a game designed to help scientists better understand COVID-19.

Jun 01 2020

Government Uses Esports Methods to Expand Its Mission

Game-based approaches to research, education and engagement tap a new audience.

Online games are more than just fun and games; they represent a booming industry that caters to a global audience. Reports cite 2 billion to 2.5 billion players worldwide, with the gaming industry projected to be worth $300 billion by 2025. 

Since gaming is a broadly distributed and popular digital technology, government institutions have a growing desire to meet its audiences where they play. For example, the U.S. Army has developed its own competitive esports team as a means of reaching out and recruiting young gamers.

Beyond the military, federal entities are leveraging games in other ways in order to meet agency mission goals. The approach and framing may differ from institution to institution, but the essence is the same: These games are not for entertainment purposes but for education, promoting innovation in research and making policy discourse come to life. 

Researchers Crowdsource Medical Information Through Games

The U.S. government has been using funding opportunities as one way to foster innovation in game-based approaches, providing money for agencies or organizations to create games that help them solve problems. The Federal Games Guild, an informal community of practice in gaming use across federal entities, lists funding opportunities for interested researchers or organizations.

Foldit is just one example of a game supported by federal agencies — in its case, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. It’s also an example of games supporting mission goals that include research and education. 

The Foldit platform encourages players to solve protein “puzzles” as a means of crowdsourcing health research. By distributing problem sets and encouraging competition through gaming mechanics, Foldit speeds up research and supports research directives for innovation in the fields of health and computing.

Foldit and the community that surrounds the platform have also successfully identified HIV-related proteins and developed novel proteins. Now, the Foldit community is mobilizing to combat COVID-19, working with researchers to help identify ways to treat and stop the virus that causes the disease at the molecular level.

Another response mobilized around COVID-19 showcases the power of games as a learning tool. The Department of Education’s Institute of Education Services developed a resource guide of 88 educational technologies, which includes a number of games available for free online until the end of 2020. 

These resources were aggregated through the efforts of the agency’s ED Games Expo, an annual event that displays learning tools and games funded across the federal government. 

Government Arts Agencies Use Gaming for Education

But games are not just a product of technology; they are an art, infused with compelling narratives and rich graphical design. Recognizing this, the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities also support game-based approaches, such as in the case of Walden, a game.

Based on Henry David Thoreau’s experiences at Walden Pond and developed by Tracy Fullerton, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, the game immerses you in the experience of the book. 

The player experiences the book through narrative as well as through the overarching theme of Thoreau’s classic work. The game steers the player toward stillness and contemplation, a contrast to the rapid-fire pacing of other popular titles. 

One of the powerful aspects about games is that they are fun. By making the experience fun and engaging, games can be used to lower the barrier of entry and make a topic accessible that someone might otherwise be hesitant to explore.

One area of specific interest in government is making abstract policy discourse come to life. The Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative is just one of the ways in which we leverage games to amplify vital conversations related to policy discourse. Most members of the public are not going to read a 25-page policy paper — but they might play a 15-minute game. 

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Read more about how the U.S. Army uses esports as a recruiting tool.

Citizens Can Use Digital Games to Understand Policy

Our digital game, The Fiscal Ship, developed in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, tackles a particularly dense topic: the federal budget and the national debt. Strictly nonpartisan and based on Congressional Budget Office projections, the game aims to illustrate that the goal of fiscal sustainability is obtainable. 

The game will not make players trained economists, but the goal is to make citizens feel more empowered to continue learning about the federal budget by encouraging them to take this first step.

Another game, designed by the Smithsonian Science Education Center, supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Pick Your Plate! A Global Guide to Nutrition, allows students to explore what nutrition means around the world, challenging them to come up with a day’s worth of balanced meals that meet nutritional guidelines. 

It is harder than it looks, but one thing users are finding about this game experience is that the students who play the game learn about different global cultures as well as nutrition. 

Games can be a powerful tool for education, outreach and research, and there is a growing community of practice within the federal space that is employing games. As a means of communicating policy, they make complicated concepts more accessible through encouraging audiences to play and develop their own agency over the material. 

Innovation in this space is opening the door to attract new audiences and create new ways to make existing outreach more engaging. 


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