Congress Launches Caucus for Competitiveness in Entertainment Technology

by Michael H. Levine, PhD
February 24, 2011

A funny thing happened at a Capitol Hill Caucus Event in  D.C.  last month–a moment of bipartisan agreement!  The sighting of this rare bird seems well worth noting–everyone who has been following the debate over painful budget cuts has been wondering if and when consensus might ever break out.

So I was delightfully surprised to be a part of a discussion of one issue that could, perhaps, be an important bridge across the political chasm: the role of digital technology–especially video games– to our nation’s economic and educational well-being.

February 16th marked the launch of the new Congressional Caucus for Competitiveness in Entertainment Technology (E-Tech Caucus) which is  co-chaired by Representatives Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida).  The co-chairs headlined the launch event, which drew a crowd of about 100 industry, policy and research leaders who are intrigued by the educational, commercial and civic value of games to make a positive difference in children’s lives. They spoke eloquently about the economic value of the videogames industry to new innovation clusters in nearly 40 states, and cited research from leading scientific groups such as the Federation of American Scientists and to our own work here at the Cooney Center. By the way, the bipartisan comity between the co-chairs has been stoked by off- the-Congressional-floor game play: Brady is the coach of the congressional women’s softball team on which Wasserman-Schultz stars!

I was asked to keynote the launch, and I am including my comments here:

Nearly 50 years ago—in the midst of President Kennedy’s urgent call for a national response to Sputnik, FCC Chairman Newton Minow shocked the nation’s broadcast community. He complained eloquently and forcefully that television—which was fast becoming the ubiquitous medium of the day—had become a “vast wasteland.” And he was right—there was no developmentally appropriate children’s programming available for national distribution.

A documentary producer, Joan Ganz Cooney, heard the speech as a clarion call. Forming the first private-public partnership in the modern television era, she and colleagues at Children’s Television Workshop fashioned an antidote to that wasteland with a little show called Sesame Street. Initially supported by a grant from Carnegie and Ford Foundation and the U.S. Office of Education, Sesame Street found a grateful audience of families and preschool kids, especially those who were behind their peers in the United States. Now seen in over 140 countries and by 100 million young children around the world, Sesame is still actively innovating on all of the platforms that children visit in a digital age. Mrs. Cooney’s entrepreneurial response and her invention of the field of educational media, quite simply, changed the world.

Today we hear worries about the new digital overload—a new vast wasteland for kids. Too much multi-tasking, cyber-bullying, an obese generation of “couch potato” children, school boredom and drop outs, and our educational race to the bottom all dot the media landscape. Many think that media are to blame! But recognizing that legitimate concerns do exist, are we focusing too much on the challenges and too little on the potential? Is it possible that digital media such as video games, virtual worlds, simulations and mobile apps can be a great ally in the national response to our new Sputnik moment? The new Caucus’ leadership can play a big part in starting a different conversation.

Last year, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, our center issued a major report on the potential value of digital media, with a special focus on video games. The study took a look at major new research on the potential of games to engage, educate and promote healthy development as well as some of the concerns that scientists are monitoring closely. Here are a few of the trends and findings we documented:

    • Videogames are increasingly the play choice of younger and younger children. The average age of first video game play has moved down from age 8 in 2005 to close to 6 in 2010.

 

  • Well-designed videogames that embed research and educational curriculum, when played for controlled periods of time, are associated with increases in spatial skills, systems thinking and collaborations skills. All of these have been defined by top employers as key 21st century employment skills.

 

 

  • Research from the Mayo Clinic on a popular video game called Dance Dance Revolution—which has been adopted by the state of West Virginia for phys ed classes—shows that regular use of the game makes children more fit and more likely to continue to exercise.

 

 

  • Research from the U.S. Department of Education as part of its “Ready-to-Learn” Program shows that mobile apps and games that are designed to teach emergent literacy skills to struggling readers can give a powerful lift to their vocabularies and decoding skills—both essential prerequisites to long-term success in school.

 

 

  • New models of games-based learning are emerging across the country, stimulated by educational entrepreneurs, philanthropy and the private sector. In New York, former chancellor Joel Klein pioneered a new school, Quest2Learn, that incorporates game design skills and STEM knowledge as a new approach to learning. The MacArthur Foundation recently announced that the model will spread to Chicago and other cities. Pearson and other corporate partners are involved in scaling this model up.

 

 

  • The military continues to use games-based simulations to prepare a new generation of combat ready and peacekeeping young men and women that are making our country and others more secure.

 

The new House Caucus is perfectly positioned to place a spotlight on innovation in the creative media industry, and to suggest incentives for new economic development that will help build social impact investment within the sector. By doing so, we can reframe the national conversation and engage a new generation of parents, teachers, pediatricians and youth professionals. Because ultimately, they will be the real game changers. Let’s give them some new tools to win the future!