Steinkuehler says a generation of game developers is looking for meaning.
It's a Tuesday afternoon in March, and the woman the White House has tabbed to craft its national videogames policy is just a little stressed out. Her weekly flight from Madison to Washington, D.C., has been canceled, leaving only pricey last-minute alternatives flickering on her Macbook screen. And in less than an hour, she has to introduce her boss, Carl Wieman, associate director for science of President Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, to a crowded room of dignitaries at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
So it's not surprising that she begins the interview with her right hand unconsciously pressed to her forehead, sinking back onto a couch in Aldo's Café like it's a life raft. "His research deals with lasers and atoms," she says of Wieman. "I can start there, right?"
Since last September, life's been crazy like this for Constance Steinkuehler, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison's school of education. Her focus is digital media, and she began 2011 as one of the country's leading researchers in the burgeoning field of games for learning. Then came the call from the Obama administration. She took a leave of absence from the university, and now, every Tuesday, she shuttles to our nation's capital, there to serve as a senior policy advisor with OSTP. Every Thursday night, she shuttles back to Madison. (Her travel's covered by a MacArthur Foundation grant.)
Part of her gig is bureaucratic. She's charged with coordinating the federal dollars that are now being invested in what's known as "games for impact." These are targeted at increasing learning or civic engagement, or changing behavior on topics like health and resource management. She makes sure the money's spurring innovation, not duplication.
The bigger, more long-lasting piece of her job has to do with building new partnerships between the private sector and the public sector, both government and academic researchers. These collaborations are about creating and supporting games that have the potential to spur serious learning. Think of her as a grand connector, plugging in constituencies who aren't used to working together.
"I really am not a big believer that the federal government should necessarily be a games producer," says Steinkuehler, 41, who admits to having harbored some cynicism about government's ability to use policy to solve problems. That cynicism's now evaporated.
"I'm really interested in the role of the federal government in moving game companies and interests into a Blue Ocean market," she says, invoking a buzzy business concept. "A market where there's money to be made for games that have positive impact."
The timing's great. Gaming's never been more respectable - and full of ready-to-blow potential - than it is right now. Fueled by everything from the explosion of mobile, casual and social-network gaming - hello, Angry Birds - to the image of Barack Obama clutching a copy of Just Dance 3 to slip under his daughters' holiday tree, an industry that earned a whopping $74 billion last year is experiencing serious consideration.
And Steinkuehler's perfectly positioned to take advantage. The office she's working in is small by Washington standards - four divisions, maybe 90 people - but gaming's federal reach is actually far greater. Shortly after arriving in Washington last fall, Steinkuehler helped compile a working group that encompasses 156 people, 33 agencies and four White House offices. They aren't necessarily games experts, but many of the group's members understand the potential of games for learning. Now that the light has turned green, they've slammed the pedal to the floor.
"The sheer fact that OSTP put a videogame person in their office says volumes about the momentum that was behind this, far before my appointment," she says.
Steinkuehler's well aware she's battling obstacles on multiple fronts, from the perception that games are toys for teenagers to the view - shared by both consumers and game developers - that games dubbed "educational" are deadly dull. Commercial games like World of Goo, a physics-based puzzle game involving drops of black liquid, are helping to change that view.
Mostly, she's just excited by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a national difference. "Part of it is sitting around researching for 10 years, looking at the intellectual and cognitive and literacy impact of games and then being asked, 'Okay, put your money where your mouth is. Go and help do this.'"
Raised by strict Catholic parents in Jefferson City, Mo., Steinkuehler remembers when her father, who worked as a computer analyst in the days when computers used punch cards and occupied entire rooms, bought her first laptop. "It was a 50-pound brick," she recalls.
Steinkuehler's family may not fully understand what she does for a living, but their earthiness keeps her grounded. "I was complaining to my father about my schedule - he's 78 and was born a child of the Depression," she says, dropping into her daddy's drawl. "He said, 'Connie Anne, our family has gone through much harder things than flying to Washington, D.C., on an early Tuesday.' I was like, I will shut the heck up. Right now, I will suck it up and just do this."
As an undergrad at the University of Missouri, Steinkuehler triple-majored in English lit, math and religious studies, the latter to gain a better understanding of her childhood (and because Missouri didn't offer women's studies programs in the 1990s). Each discipline tied into her interests in narrative spaces, mathematical systems and order - three key elements that also happen to be a big part of modern videogames.
She hit the UW's educational sciences department as a graduate student in the mid-1990s. She also hit a wall of frustration. Her colleagues spent all their time researching online, problem-based learning, but there was a lack of social interaction to the modules they studied. She was taken under the wing of then-UW education professor James Gee, who happened to be having his own epiphany about the power of games and learning. "He told me, you need to look at MMOs," she recalls.
A low-res, massively multiplayer online game called Lineage was the only one she could successfully load on her Macbook. It was more than enough. Playing in that online world blasted Steinkuehler's world like a level-10 meteor strike spell. "I didn't show up to campus for a week," she says of a game she describes as "14-year-olds hanging out with adults in a way that was not at all weird."
"It played on every interest I had - social-interaction and intellectual. I still have dreams of complete immersion in Lineage. I can't believe that space was that compelling."
Compelling enough that she spent the next decade researching the ways learning and literacy were occurring in these online spaces. Her research proved that kids who play on the ubiquitous and mega-popular digital battlefields of World of Warcraft aren't just level-grinding - they're improving their literacy and problem-solving skills, too. That is one of the things that caught Washington's eye when they were casting around for a videogames policy guru.
In 2000, Steinkuehler met her future husband, Kurt Squire, fellow UW professor and the founder of UW's influential Games + Learning + Society group. They first spoke on a bus ride to a conference in Ann Arbor - a conversation he jokingly claims she only vaguely recalls. Steinkuehler is "driven and intense but also fun-loving," he says.
"Because she's straddled these multiple universes and systems of learning, she understands that online communities have their own society, set of values and way of being in the world," Squire says.
Their relationship grew stronger as the two of them gamed together in the MMO universes of Lineage, Lineage 2 and Star Wars: Galaxies. There's obviously less time for online couple sessions now; these days, gaming in the Squire-Steinkuehlers' Westmorland-neighborhood home revolves around the couple's two tow-headed sons, Walt, 4, and Warner, 2. Turns out Walt's partial to Lego Batman and is already displaying some mad mobile-gaming skillz.
"My kid has routinely kicked my ass in World of Goo on the iPad," Steinkuehler says. "I'm like, you're 4 - stop it."
From the couch in Madison, Steinkuehler imagines scenarios in which the federal government offers money for a developer to create a game that, for instance, improves people's use of energy resources in the home. Another option could involve prizes for developers willing to create "games for impact" in return for incubation, or help with business strategy. The (literally) million-dollar question is whether industry talent, a group that's been traditionally suspicious of government and academia, would consider going for it.
Last month's annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco seemed to indicate the answer could be "yes." After delivering a packed-room presentation on the work she's doing in Washington, Steinkuehler was mobbed by more than 50 designers and developers eager to jump on board. She also handed out an entire box of business cards and collected nearly a full box back.
Steinkuehler points to a couple of trends that may be helping to fuel the fire. The first is that a growing chunk of today's design talent are experiencing middle age, parenthood and a desire to create something a little more, well, meaningful. "They're kind of tired of building the next version of Madden or the next version of the game they've built three, four, five times over," she says. "They have fabulous jobs, but they're like, I would really like to build a game my kid can play."
Meanwhile, triple-A companies like Valve are now talking about developing an educational version of Portal, the popular PC and console puzzle game that makes the principles of physics and gravity both entertaining and a riveting life-or-death exercise. Or offering their game's level editor to other developers, just to see what comes out of it. Cutting-edge game companies like Steam, which is powering the digital download revolution on multiple platforms, are awash in data analytics - numbers that could help solve critical questions about whether a "game for impact" really is having an impact.
This presidential election year, Steinkuehler's not worried about the future of the field she's helping to nurture, no matter the outcome at the polls, in part because the federal government's investments in games predates Obama. Nor does she worry that it'll stop - or even slow down - when her White House appointment ends at the end of 2012.
"If I do my job well, I should be a catalyst for a lot of other stuff to come," she says. "Hold me to a high bar."