Studying Computer Games Is No Waste

“Most people have to work for a living; others get to play video games.” That is what United States Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) said about research at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science.

The Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds is truly interdisciplinary, as befits a research area having broad social impact, with faculty not just from the fields of informatics and computer science but also humanities, law, education, art and anthropology. So it would be fair to say they do a whole lot more than just play video games there.

But last December, Coburn published “Wastebook 2010: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending of 2010” through his taxpayer-funded senatorial office.  In it, he ranked as No. 6 (out of 100 government-funded projects) work by UCI Professor Bonnie Nardi, Senior Research Scientist Walt Scacchi and 21 other researchers, for which they received a three-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2008.

The first thing you should think when someone tells you that a federal education, art or science grant is “waste” is that that person has no idea what they are talking about. Each of those institutions depends on an extensive peer-review process to choose the best from among a vast number of grant proposals. There are proposals calling for far more money than is available in the budget, and the process is extremely competitive.  To receive even a modest NSF grant is a mark of distinction, to be granted millions of dollars is an unmistakable sign of scientific merit.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Senator Coburn is not trying to change the grant-making decision process, apart from using political intimidation to apply some “chilling effect” over topics he dislikes. What he wants is for Congress to slash the budget of the NSF, National Endowment for the Arts, Department of Education, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and every other non-military institution of the American government. The figure he cites in the introduction of his “wastebook” is the 40 percent reduction made in 1946. Those federal grants provide a major portion of UCI’s budget, particularly since research is such a big part of our mission here. One reason research is important to life at UCI is that 53 percent of those federal grants comes off the top to pay for “overhead” like our buildings and subsidized tuition.

Some have suggested that Senator Coburn, born in 1948, just does not “get it” when it comes to understanding how important computer games and virtual worlds are to the modern economy and the future of business innovation. That maybe he and his people are unaware that gross sales by the video game industry surpassed that of the movie industry in 2008.  Perhaps they are unaware that Irvine is the home of more than 40 companies in the computer game business. The largest of those companies is Blizzard Entertainment, creator of “World of Warcraft,” which has 1,400 of its 6,000-strong global work force located here. Or that video game sales, unlike those in many other entertainment industries, have historically grown even during recessions.

Busy senator that he is, we would certainly be understanding if he did not know that UCI takes computer games so seriously that we just started offering a major in computer game science last fall.  Of course he is not be the only person who has trouble grasping the nature of this culturally transformative new technology.  The computer games major took 10 years of concerted effort to bring to fruition and encountered, and no doubt will continue to encounter, difficulties with perception by, and preconceived notions from, people who are not knowledgeable about the field.  This is a process that so clearly echoes the establishment of film studies and film schools in the 20th century that one could get the impression that the statements have been copied and pasted with some of the names switched around.

The tough question here is what to do when you witness this kind of ignorant or deceptive attack, especially when it comes from a powerful person or group. I do not think trying to run around and correct all the falsehoods and omissions is worthwhile. Few people have the patience or inclination to listen, and besides, that would mean always being on the defensive. One thing that will help is to be alert and be prepared to think critically when presented with political messages. Every undergraduate here must satisfy the university writing requirement, which means you have learned something about rhetorical analysis Ń or you will. Use those skills! Even on texts where you do not know what to think. Perhaps especially on texts where you agree without having to think.

One last bit of advice. Think about what you do here at UCI and why it is important to you, your family and our community. Be prepared to share what that is with anyone who will listen and do so when the opportunity arises. If you do not think that your being here is worthwhile, then that is the real waste.

Jim White is a fourth-year information and computer science major.  He can be reached at