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Gaming likely to be big part of Obama's $4B computer science initiative

The future is pixelated

Last weekend President Barack Obama outlined a $4 billion plan to update the nation's core teaching values, stressing that computer science is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. And gaming, White House officials tell Polygon, will likely be a big part of that initiative.

"Certainly video games are an entry point for some young people," said Tom Kalil, deputy director of policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The reason why some kids might get interested in computer science is because they like to play them, but they also want to make them.

"So you see companies like Zynga or Microsoft using games as a way to get people interested in computer science, graphics and programming."

On Saturday, Obama announced his Computer Science for All initiative. Under the plan, $4 billion would be provided to states, and an additional $100 million directly to school districts, to help improve or create computer science learning programs in schools across the country.

Obama said that the push was needed to ensure "all our kids are equipped for the jobs of the future."

"In the new economy, computer science isn't an optional skill — it's a basic skill, right along with the three 'Rs,'" Obama said. "Nine out of 10 parents want it taught at their children's schools. Yet right now, only about a quarter of our K through 12 schools offer computer science. Twenty-two states don't even allow it to count toward a diploma.

"So I've got a plan to help make sure all our kids get an opportunity to learn computer science, especially girls and minorities. It's called Computer Science for All. And it means just what it says — giving every student in America an early start at learning the skills they'll need to get ahead in the new economy."

Deputy director Kalil said the president feels strongly about the initiative and is convinced that if the country wants to provide more economic and social opportunities to graduates, that it is important that all students have access to computer science studies.

This initiative, which is part of the budget set to go to Congress Feb. 9, is just the latest of Obama's efforts to expand science, technology, engineering and math (otherwise known as STEM) opportunities to classrooms across the country.

In 2014, Obama appointed Russel Shilling to the newly created role of executive director for STEM at the U.S. Department of Education. His role there, Shilling said, is to help oversee all STEM education efforts.

Prior to his work at the Department of Education, Shilling worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where, among other things, he focused on the use of video games and graphic novels for STEM education, assessment and psychological health.

But it was years earlier that Shilling became a strong believer in the power of gaming to help educate people.

"I've been a huge proponent of gaming for impact, ever since my work on America's Army," Shilling said. "After seeing what that game could do for engagement and what a strong tool it was."

America's Army, which was conceived in the late '90s as a recruitment tool for the Army, had a tremendous impact on recruitment and was later modified to help train U.S. soldiers.

"One of the things we did on that game, which got me into games for education, was this level for combat medics," Shilling said. "We started hearing about people who had played through the level using those skills in real life.

"It made me start wondering, 'What if we designed this as an educational tool from the beginning?'"

Since then, educational games have begun to crop up in a number of forms. Some are designed to teach, some teach almost accidentally, and others seem to spark an interest in learning more about programming and computer science.

Shilling points to examples like Kerbal Space Program, a space flight simulator that has drawn interest from the likes of NASA and SpaceX, and Minecraft, which Microsoft recently modified for use in schools as Minecraft: Education Edition.

While it's too early to tell if the slew of games already teaching about or drawing interest to computer science are having an impact, Shilling said that anecdotally he believes they are.

"The programs and teachers adopting the use of these games are really enthusiastic about the results they're getting," he said. "It's a matter of creating a hook for engagement."

Kalil says that a number of companies have already responded to the push for more focus on computer science. Cartoon Network, for instance, is incorporating coding and characters that code in its upcoming reboot of The Powerpuff Girls and in an unannounced series.

"There are also companies that have been involved in this prior to the announcement of this initiative," Kalil said. "Zynga have a collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District that runs game design academies."

There are a handful of concepts that game developers have figured out for game design that happen to also be powerful tools for learning, Kalil said.

Game designers know how to create engaging, fun and compelling experiences, he said. They also know how to design an experience that strikes the balance between being hard enough to push a person to learn, but not so hard that it discourages them. Finally, he said, games are great at stealth assessment.

"When you hit level 60 in World of Warcraft, you don't then take a paper and pencil test; getting to that point is an indication that you're good at the game," Kalil said.

Applied to education, those design tenets can be used to create adaptive learning customized to the needs of individual students.

"You're always going to need great teachers, but I think there are a number of ways video games can contribute," he said. "Not only will they help with getting more students involved, it will ensure strong interest."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.