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GDC 2014: Game Grants for Scholars, Librarians, and Artists

This week at GDC I gave a talk as part of the session “Federal Opportunities for Game Faculty and Students.” I was joined by William Bainbridge (Program Director, National Science Foundation) and Jason Rhody (Senior Program Officer, Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities). My presentation focused on my experiences as a Principle Investigator on a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The slides and my talk notes are below. I hope they’re helpful!



Obviously, I do not run a federal agency.


But I work with them regularly.

In fact, in 2012 I hosted the first-ever joint activity of the NSF, NEH, and NEA — a project also sponsored by Microsoft Studios and Microsoft Research.

In another session (Wednesday at 2pm) I’ll be making the first-ever public announcement of the results from the Media Systems project.


Here, however, I want to broaden our discussion to include two additional agencies — beyond NEH and NSF.

First, I want to give an example of a project I’m doing with the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Second, I want to talk about my experiences selecting projects for the Media Arts area of the National Endowment for the Arts.


Because the importance of games is becoming more broadly understood, solving problems around games is of interest to more federal agencies.

Eric Kaltman, Henry Lowood, Christy Caldwell and I came together to work on problems of game archiving through an NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grant. As we were working on it, we started talking about the huge problems with the entire intellectual infrastructure for game scholars. Everything from library catalogs to citation guidelines was really built for scholars working on textual objects. So we applied to the IMLS to bring together library science, computer science, and game studies to address these problems. Our project name is a mouthful:

From Descriptive Metadata to Citation:
Building a Framework for Search and Communication in Game Studies

We’ve put together a bigger team, between UC Santa Cruz and Stanford, to take on bigger problems.


Basically we want to work on the whole “pipeline” of finding, accessing, and citing digital games.

These problems are deeply connected.


First, let’s talk about “discovery.”

Library cataloging practices are based on typing in (or even writing down) the information found on a physical object…


This information would then appear on a few duplicate cards filed by the author, title, and subjects.

This is not ideal for games.


We want to find a new approach for games that will work for physical games and downloadable games and games as services — that will work for single-author indie games and massive AAA teams — that will work for librarians and archivists, for a local library patron that wants a game recommendation, for a game scholar tracing a designer’s career, and for everyone using sites like MobyGames and Wikipedia.


Or, to take another set of interconnected problems, game scholars already have trouble simply citing games. Every couple years I see a heated discussion on a game scholarship mailing list about how to map the traditional citation practices onto the massive interdisciplinary undertakings of games.

We want to come up with recommendations for game citation that work for a range of people (MLA, DiGRA, SCMS, FDG, etc) and that are compatible with how libraries and others are handling discovery.


And scholars don’t just talk about games, they talk about parts of games (like levels, quests, locations, expansion packs) they talk about states of games, they talk about community practices around games (like machinima, speed runs, mods) and more.

We want to address these issues in a way that scholars would adopt, that tools (like Zotero) could support, and that future forms of electronic scholarship could expand — imagine citations to game states that load saved games into streaming emulators.


So, if you see sets of problems like this, how do you apply for a grant to work on them?

First, assemble a team that covers the necessary knowledge areas.

Second, call up the program manager. Listen to what they have to say.


Third, as our program manager did, yours will probably ask you to articulate answers to some key questions — to them, and in your proposal: [see slide]

We’re not the first IMLS project in the area of games. For example, the influential Preserving Virtual Worlds II project was also IMLS funded. Definitely an important agency for games projects. But now I want to switch to another agency.



As you might remember, the NEA generated headlines when it added video games explicitly as a potential type of project to propose in its Media Arts area. I think this is a strong example of the kind of thing that federal agencies can do to move the national conversation forward.

I was a member of one of the first groups considering game proposals made to the NEA.

I think the Media Arts program is a great opportunity for the kind of people in this room. In fact, some of the people we recommended for funding are probably in this room right now. Unfortunately, some of the people we decided not to recommend are probably also here — and not because they aren’t good enough. So I want to talk about how to increase your chances of getting funded.


One thing you may not realize is that the NEA didn’t create a separate set of reviewers — a separate “panel” — for games. Instead, games are reviewed in panels that also consider radio, film, interactive art, and a variety of other forms. I was brought in to the panel in part because of my knowledge of games and in part because of my knowledge of other forms of media.

* So, rule number one: Write your proposal for a broad set of backgrounds in the media arts. My panel included experts on everything from documentary film to hip hop.


Another thing you may not realize is how huge the stack of material is before the committee. People write their applications, but also present supplementary documentation. The idea, in part, is to establish that applicants have a track record of artistic excellence. So, for example, someone might submit three feature-length documentaries as examples of past excellence. As you might imagine:
– There is no way that panelists can spend 4.5 hours watching movies to decide if you’re an excellent artist.
– Corollary: There is no way that panelists can spend 45 hours playing RPGs to decide if you’re an excellent artist.
– * Rule number two: Create something digestible and memorable to display your artistic excellence (like a video reel) and provide additional material for depth.


Sadly, this also applies to the project you’re applying to do. People are submitting huge amounts of material, for projects that aren’t yet realized, and asking the panelists to synthesize this into a vision of the project that they can remember. This is harder to do with more abstract representations of your projects. This is hard to remember for large numbers of projects, even if one takes extensive notes. As a result:

* Rule number three: Create an engaging, clear, memorable, and easily-digestible summary of your project (like a video trailer).


Finally, it’s very important to make it clear that your work will find an audience and have impact. You’ll be competing against TV and radio projects that already have promised spots on PBS and NPR, against festivals that already have significant profiles (and are perhaps held in major national venues), and so on. How will you compete? Who will help drive players to your game?

* Rule number four: Get letters of support that show you have ways — appropriate to your form of game — to reach your key audience.


In summary… these four points.

And also…


It’s amazing how many people who are smart and accomplished still seem to fail to read the guidelines, or read them carefully.

There’s generally a lot of good information on agency websites.


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