GamesBeat

The president’s ‘gaming guy’ tells us that educational games fascinate Obama

Above: VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi and White House Senior Advisor for Digital Media Mark DeLoura

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — You may find it hard to believe that the leader of the free world has much time for video games.

But the senior adviser for digital media at the White House, Mark DeLoura, says Barack Obama has taken a personal interest in games and gaming culture.

“I wouldn’t have this job if he wasn’t interested,” said DeLoura on stage at the GamesBeat 2013 conference.

DeLoura is a veteran gamer who has held senior leadership positions at Google, Sony, Nintendo, and others. He’s been working at the White House for seven months, which he describes as a far more formal environment than Silicon Valley.

“Some people do play games in the White House,” DeLoura told our GamesBeat lead reporter Dean Takahashi. “I’m trying to find those people and collect them, Pokémon-style.”

According to DeLoura, it hasn’t been easy task to recruit austere government officials for a gaming session. But DeLoura is dead-set on getting a group together to play Civilization once a week. “I point out that they are playing Candy Crush,” he said.

Educational gaming

Joking aside, the president is deeply concerned with improving education in our country. Games are an essential part of the conversation and strategy.

“I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” Obama said at a press conference in in 2011, a few years before the Department of Education launched a grant for the country’s most talented educational gamers. DeLoura helped write the blog post announcing the initiative.

“He [Obama] wants to see Sasha and Malia playing a game that teaches them something,” DeLoura told me. In a 1-on-1 interview after his GamesBeat talk, he told me that the president’s daughters love to dance and play games that help them stay active — like Just Dance.

In recent months, DeLoura and his team have been researching how game dynamics can be applied to education. Can a game help kids learn new languages, make friends, or pickup technical skills?

DeLoura doesn’t believe that the tech industry has done nearly enough to support educational gaming, with a few exceptions. A few Silicon Valley investment firms focus on educational games, and Bill and Melinda Gates have been making large investments through their foundation.

One of DeLoura’s passion projects is to make it easier for parents and teachers to find great games and apps for kids at any age. He hopes that parents won’t dismiss all games, as a result of a few bad apples. “This is a real problem we need to tackle,” he said.

DeLoura’s favorite educational games?

1. DragonBox, a multiplatform math game.

“It’s awesome. After 90 minutes of play, 93 percent of kids could solve algebraic equations in Washington State.”

2. Reach for the Sun from Filament Games, a plant life-cycle sim.

“This game is new but it teaches kids biology. They can start with a seed and grow leave, roots, and petals.”

3. Minecraft, the indie building game sensation.

“Everyone plays this game. Now there’s a Minecraft teacher who teaches computing concepts. Google launched qCraft, which teaches quantum physics.”

Games that teach kids to code

DeLoura and the Obama administration are currently developing new programs to bolster coding education in schools. Games can certainly play a role — particularly those that teach young people to code.

Schools can adopt these games to support their coding curriculum. DeLoura points to a program in the U.K. called “computing,” which teaches digital skills to kids as young as 5.

In the U.S., he’s encouraged by the recent success of a nonprofit called Code.org, which is working with influencers in the entertainment industry, such as Will.i.am, to make programming seem cool to kids. DeLoura is help the organization promote “Hour of Code,” a campaign to introduce 10 million kids to computer science.

Censorship and violence in video games

Another key priority for DeLoura is to develop a consistent rating system for mobile games. It’s not always clear whether mobile games and apps are safe for kids, even if they are marketed to this demographic. This already exists for console games with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which covers games for Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo platforms.

DeLoura is concerned about violent games, but doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the belief that they promote aggressive behavior. He’s poured over the data, which is not yet definitive. “I think there is a slight inclination to a slight amount of aggression,” he explained. “The research is still ongoing.”

He added, “But if the public thinks it’s a problem, that’s a problem for the games industry.”

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