Originally published on Game Politics.
Every year, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma publishes a list of government programs which he feels wastes tax payer money and government resources called the Wastebook. While he tops the list of wasted tax payer money with a jab at Congress itself, it is when you get into the rest of the document that you find some rather interesting spending programs. In his opening statement to the report, Coburn writes:
Confronted with self-imposed budget cuts necessary to trim years of trillion dollar shortfalls, Washington protested that it could not live within its means. It attempted to take hostage the symbols of America to exact ransom from taxpayers. Public tours of the White House were canceled and Medicare payments for seniors’ health care were cut.
While the President and his cabinet issued dire warnings about the cataclysmic impacts of sequestration, taxpayers were not alerted to all the waste being spared from the budget axe.
Many of these are your typical government waste, such as bridges to nowhere, duplicated programs and agencies, or unused buildings which cost money to maintain. Yet, he highlights many other programs that many taxpayers may not be aware of even in a general sense. Some of these include funding for video games.
As in previous Wastebook reports, video games make a showing. However in the Wastebook 2013, he highlights only one three “games” and a few other game related programs.
First up is a $150,000 grant to make a Zombie Math game for elementary students. Senator Coburn had this to say:
NSF (National Science Foundation) awarded the game designer $150,000 to craft the zombie experience. Even with enough money to buy thousands of textbooks, the grant designer will not be building a full game. Instead, three “mini-games” will be designed and tested with just 80 middle school students. Ironically, the same amount of funding could have paid the annual salaries of almost 5 teachers in North Carolina.
Zombies are certainly not new to video games and have been used to teach math as well. Uncle Sam must have been so stunned by the mongrels that he didn’t realize other zombie-themed math games and apps already exist, such as “Man Vs. Zombies” and “Maths of the Dead.” In addition, a simple search for other math games and apps available for iPhones or Android turned up thousands of results. Free learning apps are widely available.
Next we have a civil war themed online multiplayer game.
A professor at hope College has received almost $300,000 from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) for his multi-player computer game that finally brings Civil War reenactors onlin. [sic] The game is “Valley Sim” and it allows students to “take on the identity of one of 25 real-life citizens of two communities that were on opposite sides of the Civil War.”
The NEH grant will be used to expand the basic framework of the game into a too that can be applied to other areas of the humanities. Perhaps we’ll see Battlefield or Call of Duty replacing WWII lectures? Or maybe the money can prop up something less wasteful in the realm of higher education.
Finally, Coburn lambastes the NSF over its use of $4.4 million to create alternative reality games (ARG) that don’t perform to their stated goals.
The goal of the NSF’s games are to attract teenage girls and underrepresented groups to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers, as well as educate these students in the deep-time sciences, astrobiology, astrophysics, interplanetary space travel, and Earth sciences. However, an analysis of an earlier ARG theorized that girls stopped participating in the ARG due to its science-fiction genre storyline.
The few critical analyses of ARGs have revealed several reasons that these games do not actually engage students nor contribute to learning methods. Known among ARG insiders as the inverted pyramid modal, the majority of engagement in ARGs is done by a very small minority of “obsessed” players. Most players in the ARGs are not motivated to participate and instead casually observe the work of obsessed players. In addition, assessing whether a student is actually learning from an ARG is virtually impossible to determine.
While these are the specific games funded by the government that Coburn has chosen to highlight, there are probably many more games being funded which Coburn would feel shouldn’t be a priority for taxpayer money. Yet, this isn’t the extent of the waste he highlights. He has listed other programs that are marginally related to games.
For instance, there is a Man of Steel cross promotion with the Army National Guard which included commercials in front of the movie, signs and video monitors at theaters and even video games. This promotional campaign cost tax payers $10 million which, as Coburn says, could have been spent on the soldiers themselves.
On the Superhero front, Coburn highlights a combined effort from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts to finance the creation of a documentary, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.” This documentary has cost taxpayers over $825,000 over the last three years and duplicates the efforts of several privately funded comic book documentaries.
Back to the military, the National Guard has spent $29 million sponsoring NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the last year. This sponsorship has resulted in precisely zero new recruits.
These handful of programs are a mere drop in the bucket for government spending, but costs do add up. Coburn lists 100 areas of waste in his report which total nearly $30 billion in spending. He implores those who read the report to ask themselves a few questions: Can we afford this at this time? Could this money have been better spent or not spent at all? Is this a national priority or is this something benefiting a special interest? Does this fit the role of the federal government as outlined in the U.S. Constitution?
You can read the rest of the programs in the full report, Wastebook 2013 (pdf)