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Video games owe a lot to President Obama's administration

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President Obama waving
Former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama was the most video game-friendly president in U.S. history, a title that he may retain for awhile.

It was under Obama’s administration that the Supreme Court of the United States declared video games free and protected speech, afforded the same rights as a Mark Twain short story and a Jackson Pollock painting. It was during Obama’s administration that the federal government was given the opportunity to investigate any real link between violence and video games, but declined to. And it was under Obama’s White House roof that game developers gathered for the first ever White House game jam and an online stream of a video game competition.

One could argue that the times, not the president, were what made this last administration so accepting of video games. After all, in many of Obama’s speeches about fitness, education and children he used video games as the boogeyman. “Put down the video games and do something with your life,” seemed to be a common refrain from his early days as president. And the national zeitgeist has evolved in the past decade to more fully embrace video games, something a president might not want to ignore.

Could it have been, then, that Obama just happened to be at the right place at the right time?

Not a chance, says Erik Martin, whose role as a video game policy advisor at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy under Obama wrapped up last week.

“I think none of that would have happened without this president, because this president is a huge geek and put science in the right place from the start of his administration,” Martin said. “He put smart people from the sciences in key position with the authority to make decisions so topics like video games had a place at the table and a chance to be used in ways that could have a significant impact.”

Martin’s job while at the White House was essentially to be the gamer expert for the president and his administration, something that started, and perhaps will end, with Obama’s tenure.

Gaming got its foot in the door of the White House thanks to Tom Kalil, the deputy director for policy at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Martin said. But it was seeing how Folding@Home, which uses the collective processing power of PlayStations and computers to research and better understand disease, that got him really excited about the potential.

That set the stage for the Kalil to bring in Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of education and game-based learning, as a policy advisor, the first in the White House to focus on leveraging video games to tackle issues like literacy, childhood obesity and STEM education. She returned to teaching and research in 2012, at which point Mark DeLoura took on the role, followed by Martin in 2015.

President Barack Obama uses a virtual reality headset in the Outer Oval Office, Aug. 24, 2016. Personal aide Ferial Govashiri sits at her desk at left.
Pete Souza/The White House

“Constance came in with a research background and did a ton of stuff around games and impact and what they could be used for,” DeLoura said. “When I came in, I brought an industry focus to broaden the reach and kept pushing on agencies, talking to agencies to get them to use video games to talk about science. Erik came on and added his own flavor of virtual reality, augmented reality and diversity.”

Between the three, they managed to bring video games into the White House and to help tackle problems with it in very real ways. That included the White House Game Jam, expanding STEM efforts and reaching out to gamers to explain Obamacare to them through a Twitch stream of competitive gaming.

While Martin and DeLoura agree that Obama’s unique view of technology was a key factor in the administrations use and acceptance of video games, it was helped along by some significant events.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that video games are protected speech.

“For me, that was like the bomb going off,” DeLoura said. “We had been working for that for 20 x years. Finally, we got the Supreme Court to say, ‘Yes, First Amendment Rights. Yes, video games.’ Mic drop. That was huge, huge, huge.

“For me that was the end of the conversation of whether video games should be afforded the same rights as other artistic creations.”

And then a year later, DeLoura found himself pulled into a national conversation of a different sort.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2014, reignited the debate around video games and violence after the president of the NRA blamed video games, in part, for the shooting.

DeLoura was just getting ready to start his role at the White House and Steinkuehler had technically already left when then Vice President Joe Biden requested a briefing on the topic. DeLoura said he and Steinkuehler worked together to brief Biden and reach out to video game industry leaders for a meeting with him.

The outcome, DeLoura said, was a cordial meeting which Biden attended with an obviously open mind.

“He was not blaming, he was interested in learning,” DeLoura said.

Biden video game industry executives meeting
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks on Jan. 11, 2013, during a meeting with video game industry executives, in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The outcome was a call for federally funded research into any link between video games and violence by the Centers for Disease Control. But the funding was never approved.

Martin’s time at the White House has been a little more sedate, though last week when he left, there was no one there to take his place.

“Part of the natural transition process means that a lot of people in those offices have left already,” he said.

That includes John Holdren, director for the Office of Science and Technology and Policy, under whose guidance the office and video games flourished. A new science advisor has not yet been appointed, something that could be a sign of its importance in the eyes of the Trump administration.

DeLoura said that the office tends to ebb and flow in size depending on who is in office and which party they are affiliated with.

Trump inauguration approach
The inauguration of Donald J. Trump at the United States Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Doug Mills/Getty Images

Martin isn’t quite as philosophical about the future.

President Obama “recognized that technology matters and could be used to change the world,” Martin said. “He was never shy about asking if we could use this stuff for good.

“We may one day have a more video game embodied president in the future, but I don’t know if it will be anytime soon that we have one that is as tech forward as was this president of the United States.”

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.