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GCN : May 2013
When people think about the government, computer games probably aren't the first thing that comes to mind. Yet many agencies are leveraging game technology and gaming prin- ciples for purposes ranging from training to public outreach. That process is loosely called gamification, and with many successes now in hand, gaming experts think its star will only continue to rise. But that wasn't always the case. Daniel Laughlin is the lead researcher for NASA Learning Technologies. But back in 2003 when the government was tak- ing its first tentative steps into the world of gaming, he was just another Ph.D. with a secret love of games, going all the way back to the pen and paper days of Dungeons and Dragons. That wasn't something he let very many people know about. "NASA was given the oppor- tunity to create a module to go with the America's Army game, and the agency was looking for someone who knew games," Laughlin said. "But games had a real negative connotation back then, and I was a little afraid to raise my hand. Eventually I did, but the whole time I was think- ing about having to pack my stuff in a box." Instead of getting fired, Laughlin became the agency's expert on all things gaming. Un- fortunately, by the time NASA was ready to approve the Amer- ica's Army module, the opportu- nity had passed. But the contacts NASA made led to one of the agency's most visual successes, the Moonbase Alpha computer game, which targeted students and tried to deepen their under- standing of key STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts and im- prove their teamwork skills. Even then, it was an uphill struggle to show the value of gamification. Laughlin said that in 2004 people thought games simply promoted violence. One of the first papers he wrote for the agency about games showed that violence actually decreased as a whole when people became gamers. "Today the majority of parents feel that games can have an educational benefit," he said. Eric Hackathorn, Data Visu- alization and Games program manager for the National Oce- anic and Atmospheric Adminis- tration, would agree. Over the past decade he's worked on a variety of gaming and game-like projects, includ- ing the creation of a virtual world modeled after Rock Creek Park outside of Washington, D.C. , which the Department of Energy uses to hold public meet- ings and to give people an op- portunity to explore and learn about energy efficient buildings. His current project is his most ambitions, a game called ReGen- esis which involves time travel, violent storms and environmen- tal disasters and is designed to teach about climate, satellite control and environmental dam- age mitigation strategies. AUTOMATIC LEARNING As a learning tool, Hackathorn thinks games have no equal. "Games have a unique ability to engage people, to make them do things," he said. "They can make a child do homework, or improve someone's data entry skills." Hackathorn said that most of the current game-like efforts in government actually fall into the more general category of gami- fication, which is different from games. He explained that what makes games interesting to play- ers are the elements in them, which can be broken down and applied to everyday tasks. "We can take game elements Viewed until recently as just a violent form of digital entertainment, agencies are now embracing game technology as a powerful tool for education, training and outreach. HIGH SCORE: GAMING TECH MOVES INTO GOVERNMENT BY JOHN BREEDEN II 18 GCN MAY 2013 • GCN.COM