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Data / Software Development / Tech Culture

For Games about Civics, US Library of Congress Promises Prizes

$35,000 will be awarded in this contest to create video games that "improve public knowledge of civics" while featuring the library's resources.
Aug 13th, 2023 6:00am by
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It’s “the largest collection of human knowledge ever assembled,” according to the official website for America’s Library of Congress — the largest library in the world. Today its massive operation includes 3,172 permanent staffers (with a total budget authority of $838.9 million), overseeing more than 170 million items, and adding more than 10,000 new items each day.

Yet as one webpage puts it, “It is not enough to collect and preserve. To be successful, collections must be used…”

So America’s Library of Congress is now hosting a contest to create video games that “improve public knowledge of civics” while featuring the library’s resources. And it’ll award $35,000 in prizes. ($20,000 goes to the first-place winner, with $10,000 and $5,000 prizes for second and third place).

Robert Brammer, chief of the Library’s external relations, has been doing the work of organizing the challenge. “We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the Challenge,” Brammer said in an email interview, “particularly from students, educators, librarians, and video game developers!”

“Think Oregon Trail, Flappy Bird, or Candy Crush,” explain the official rules, “but with educational content that teaches lessons about civics and incorporates Library of Congress resources.”

The 1971 game Oregon Trail seems to be a particular inspiration. In announcing the contest, Brammer remembered that “People wear t-shirts with its graphics, and it’s a reminder of how fun learning can be in the right context.”

In our email interview, Brammer said that “It seems that a lot of people have good memories of playing simple, engaging educational games like The Oregon Trail, and are interested in creating a similar kind of game that makes learning about civics fun…”

“We hope this challenge inspires game developers to create fun, lightweight video games in the spirit of Oregon Trail that improve public knowledge of civics and incorporate Library of Congress resources to educate and entertain today’s students.”

Interior of Library of Congress Jefferson building - via Wikipedia

Enjoying and Learning

The event’s organizers already received lots of questions about the contest, Brammer says. “And the interesting thing is that the questions originate from a wide variety of people, ranging from people who have experience developing classic 8-bit video games to students who are involved in a coding club.”

You can almost sense the enthusiasm. (“You may submit more than one entry,” according to the official rules. “However, each entry must be unique…”) Game-makers just need to submit an entry by Nov. 27 — the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend — that’s “playable in a modern web browser.” (Along with an essay describing the entry in 500 words or less.) The only other rule is that games also need to work with screen readers and be accessible to disabled individuals (with a reference guide for people using assistive technologies). Entrants under the age of 18 need signed consent from a parent or guardian.

Brammer says five finalists will first be chosen by a panel of fair and impartial judges, “drawn from a variety of service units from across the Library of Congress.

“We were fortunate to secure judges with a variety of backgrounds, such as education, technology, librarianship, and law.”

And then the Library of Congress staff selects the three winning games…

“It’s often said on both sides of the aisle that the state of civics knowledge is in crisis,” Brammer said last December (while submitting it for funding from the Friends of the Library of Congress).

Brammer believed the contest could help address the issue. “In addition to the cash prizes, we may invite the winners of the competition to Washington, D.C., to present their work,” explain the official rules. (“Subject to our own discretion and the availability of funds, we may provide some financial assistance to help with your travel expenses.”)

And Brammer’s proposal also called for winners honored in a public ceremony, followed by the hosting of their games on the Library of Congress website, “for use by the American public.”

Inspirations

In our email interview, Brammer was already anticipating the impact that could be made by the games. “We hope that people of all ages will play these games when they are placed online, particularly students,” Brammer wrote, “and that our patrons will enjoy themselves while learning more about civics.”

The FAQ clarifies that the games aren’t meant to address complex philosophical questions, and provides some simpler example topics (like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the three branches of the U.S. government). But the Library of Congress is filled with centuries of cultural treasures that could serve as thought-provoking resources for a civics-themed video game.

Its holdings include part of Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence and a photo of the crowd at the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. An audio collection of man-on-the-street interviews from 1941 just three days after an attack on Pearl Harbor

But that’s just the beginning, and the contest’s guidelines remind participants of the depth of the library’s collections, and its many, many resources:

1853 image of the Library of Congress interior (via Wikipedia)

Challenge.gov

Interestingly, the announcement appeared at Challenge.gov, “the official hub for challenges and prize competitions across the U.S. federal government.”

The site’s goal is helping federal agencies “mature and scale the use of prize competitions in order to advance their missions…” according to its About page. It accomplishes this goal “by offering advanced infrastructure…, hosting interactive learning experiences, and developing practical toolkits” — but also by “empowering members of the Challenge and Prize Community of Practice.” (Defined elsewhere as a “thriving inter-agency community of over 800 dedicated and passionate civil servants encouraging innovation in government” that “strives to tap into the public brain trust to help government solve complex problems.”)

Other contests include NASA’s Watts on the Moon, a $4.5 million contest, seeking “innovative engineering” to power future moon missions. “Since 2010, the U.S. government has run over 1,200 prize competitions,” explains the site, “engaging public solvers ranging from students and hobbyists to small business owners and academic researchers.”

But maybe this one will be especially far-reaching. In a statement at the start of its four-year strategic plan in 2019, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden listed specific goals to “elevate digital experiences” to enhance “discoverability” and “develop content in a variety of formats and media to enhance the usability and accessibility of the Library’s collections.”

But Hayden also spoke of “expanding the Library’s reach and deepening our impact,” adding “I can’t wait to see the many thousands of sparks we ignite.

“Maybe one of them will be yours.”

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