Ender’s Game Science? US Dept of Defense Funds Testing with Kids

The motivation behind the Center for Game Science (CGS) has come into question because of its involvement with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

CGS, located in Sieg Hall on the campus of the University of Washington, was founded with $15 million originally, $12 million of that coming from DARPA, an agency of the US Department of Defense which has the primary responsibility of developing new technology to be used by the military.

The other $3 million came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So why is DARPA funding video games that teach children STEM skills?  Is CGS free to use the funding as they see fit, or are they directed?

“Oh, there is direction,” CGS’s creative director Seth Cooper told Jagger Gravning for Motherboard. “It kind of depends on the specific game, or that kind of thing. There are particular goals and objectives.” These goals and objectives, he adds, come directly from DARPA or the Gates Foundation.

The games have an underlying purpose of using the children as test subjects in an effort to improve “adaptive learning” training technology used by the military. Once perfected, the technology could be adapted to other fields more directly related to the military.

According to a newsletter on the DARPA website, titled “ENGAGE: New Methods of Large Population Analytics for Education and Training,” the games would be used by children through the Department of Defense Education Activity, creating an unending pool of test subjects.

While DARPA also takes credit for the CGS Algebra Challenges, the actual website for these challenges does not mention DARPA, the military testing, or the Department of Defense.

An interview with Daniel Ragsdale, current program manager of ENGAGE, delved into the real reasons behind DARPA’s interest in the gaming company.

“This is the real important part,” he stressed, “so it’s not just games for the sake of games or educational games, but specifically games that will adapt over time to specific individuals or groups of folks.” The target being not only classroom settings, but also for individual use for STEM, Ragsdale said, adding that for STEM targets, “basically we were looking at [grades] K through 3, K through 4, that demographic.  The real inspiration for the program was not STEM,” he said.  “We wanted to develop new methods that are game-based to accelerate learning and have something that adapts.”

CGS on the other hand, is merely obtaining funding from wherever it can get it.  According to CGS Center Director Zoran Popovic, The National Science Foundation (NSF) has donated about $3 million over the past four years.

Bill Gates, a supporter of educational games that teach STEM skills while children play, recently endorsed Popovic in the 2012 Annual Letter for creating:

“Games that automatically adapt to each student’s unique needs, based on their interactions with the computer. Many of these new tools and services have the added benefit of providing amazing visibility into how each individual student is progressing and generating lots of useful data that teachers can use to improve their own effectiveness.”

The most well-known game, Foldit, turns each player into a “citizen researcher,” asking for help in solving puzzles such as finding a cause for the AIDS virus in rhesus monkeys that scientists had been unable to solve for 15 years.  It took Foldit players only 10 days to find the answer.

DARPA is mentioned on the CGS website as one of its supporters, but only by its acronym and rather anonymously bunched in with several other acronyms.

The Center for Game Science is supported by the UW Department of Computer Science and Engineering, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UW GRAIL, UW Baker Lab, DARPA, ONR, NSF, HHMI, Microsoft, and Adobe.

The new UW supporters are tied to the University of Washington; ONR is another US military institution – the Office of Naval Research; and HHMI is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.