For games that depend on federal arts and humanities funding, the possibilities could soon dry up.
A young physician arrives in Philadelphia in 1802, just as a smallpox epidemic sweeps the city. Armed with a simple lancet and Edward Jenner's new vaccination technique, the doctor delves into the city in order to save it from ruin—if he can convince a skeptical public to accept the new procedure.
This is The Pox Hunter, a game developed by history professor Lisa Rosner at Stockton University. It boasts accurate historical environments, modern scholarship, and a theme that's all too relevant in today's era of vaccine-phobia. The prototype has good marks from the high school students that playtested it.
What it may not have, is a future. Dr. Rosner funded The Pox Hunter via a prototyping grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—an organization that, reports suggest, may soon be a victim of Congressional cost cutting.
That possibility has alarmed the artists and academics who're currently working on grant-supported projects like The Pox Hunter, and thrusts video games into a decades-old debate about the effectiveness of spending tax dollars on art and culture.
"Defunding the NEH would be like firebombing Yellowstone National Park," says Dr. Rosner in an interview with Waypoint. "It's that important to the vision and integrity of our country."
The day before Trump's inauguration, The Hill ran an article claiming that the new administration plans to take an ax to federal spending. Along with slashing funding at five government departments, the new budget would privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminate both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The move would be in keeping with long-term GOP objectives, which have targeted arts funding since the Reagan administration. Budget hawks argue that it's irresponsible to support cultural programs with tax dollars that could be spent on jobs, while social conservatives like to cast funding recipients as inappropriately partisan—like NPR—or outright offensive, such as the infamous NEA-funded artist who exhibited a photo of a crucifix immersed in urine. A background paper from the conservative Heritage Foundation once dubbed the NEA "Welfare for Cultural Elitists" and accused it of funding pornography when it gave grants to a nude LGBT photo series.
However, proponents of the NEA and NEH contend that fostering art and creativity is a worthwhile goal, especially considering the relatively small amount of money involved. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives $445 million per year, while the NEA and NEH each receive $148 million. Total that up and it comes to a meager 0.02% of the government's $3.9 trillion annual budget—or in more manageable numbers, about $10 out of a $50,000 salary. That's not bad for programs that provide educational TV for children, funds radio stations in rural areas, and have produced touchstones of American culture like the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple and Ken Burns' The Civil War.
"Federal funding for the arts and humanities has fostered an enormous amount of creativity and appreciation for American history, culture, and values," says Dr. Rosner. "It's promoted a unifying vision of America across all parts of the nation, and across party lines."
These cuts would come at a particularly bad time for games, since the NEA and NEH have only just started to recognize the medium's potential. In fact, in recent years these organizations have proved forward thinking with respect to interactive media, and awarded grants to a wide range of game-related projects.
The NEA funded a free video game concert by the American Youth Symphony, for example, while NEH grants have helped develop interactive projects dealing with the Revolutionary War, comparative religion, and the Giza Pyramids. NEH grants also gave heavy financial backing to Walden, a game—a title that uses first-person survival mechanics to explore the ideas of self-reliance and spirituality found in Henry David Thoreau's classic text.
But money isn't the only thing bestowed by NEA and NEH grants—they also lend prestige. Government funding draws attention to projects, and elevates the medium to a new level of national discussion and legitimacy.
"Receiving government funding for a game art event is a watershed moment of recognition," says Eddo Stern, a professor at the UCLA Design Media Arts Lab. "[It's] the recognition of games as a viable form of self-expression."
"Federal funding for the arts and humanities has fostered an enormous amount of creativity and appreciation for American history, culture, and values," - Dr. Lisa Rosner
Stern runs the UCLA Game Art Festival, an annual event that focuses on the intersection of games and other art forms. The NEA awarded the event $15,000 in funding this year, so the organizers can build installations, print event materials, and offer travel stipends to visiting artists. According to Stern, the grant money allows the festival to present its games as art installations rather than in sponsored commercial booths. Though this may seem cosmetic, it allows the audience to see the featured pieces as art rather than as consumer goods.
"We try to avoid relying on corporate sponsorship," says Stern, "which can sometimes work well, but can also turn the event into more of a trade show where advertising is mixed in with the game art."
While Stern feels secure about his grant at present, he said the festival would need to scale back if federal arts funding didn't come through. "We wouldn't cancel the event, but many of our aspirations would have to be minimized."
Beyond lending prestige and elevating the stature of games, other grants allow developers to explore structures and mechanics that might be too experimental to toy with in a commercial title. The Pox Hunter team, for example, put most of its $150,000 in federal funding toward designing the prototype in association with game studio Eduweb. Being free from commercial constraints allowed the team to pursue dialogue-based gameplay that focuses on the conversation between doctors and patients.
"Our dialogue system is extremely innovative," says Dr. Rosner. "Instead of providing static choices, NPC responses vary depending on a number of variables, including how far the virus has spread, social characteristics of the NPC, and the player's unique set of choices in previous interactions."
The result is a disease simulator that's centered on individual patients and their perception of the epidemic—an entirely different perspective than other epidemic simulators like Plague, Inc. She credits the NEH not only with funding an unusual game, but providing a support structure that facilitated collaborations with partners like the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
The award was absolutely crucial to building the prototype, Rosner says, and the team hopes for another round of NEH funding to fully develop the game. But that may not happen if the Trump administration slashes arts funding.
"We would have to change our plans and reassess our options," she says.
But Dr. Rosner points out that these grants do more than subsidize innovation—they also increase access to the arts and humanities.
"So many private resources for arts and culture exist only in big cities… on the East and West Coast," says Rosner. "The NEH makes it possible for smaller cultural organizations to create projects that engage targeted audiences across the country."
One NEA-funded project, Writers in the Schools Digital (WITS Digital), focuses directly on improving access to educational resources. The initiative leverages game design software to teach writing, and snagged a $100,000 NEA Creative Connects grant to expand its operations this year.
"WITS Digital teaches students to tell their stories through the creation of video games in partnership with teacher-owned, instructional design firm, Histrionix Learning Company," says Robin Reagler, Executive Director of the nonprofit Writers in the Schools.
According to Reagler, WITS Digital has already had success in the organization's home base of Houston, where it hosts STEM-aligned game-writing workshops shown to improve writing and reach out to struggling students. With the NEA grant, WITS plans to expand the initiative to 33-member programs and provide training materials for teachers who want to replicate the workshops. "Our hope is that we can bring this program to as many schools and communities as possible."
But the conversation about NEA cuts has left WITS staff concerned about how grant freezes might affect this expansion. "Funders like this allow us to do innovative work and provide access to underserved low-income kids who might not otherwise have this kind of high-quality program," she says. "As we look toward the next year, we will be doing everything we can to continue providing this unique opportunity to students."
However, given both the amounts of money involved and the controversy over budgeting tax dollars for arts, it seems appropriate to ask whether these programs have any economic benefit beyond their long-term educational goals. Yet champions of arts funding point out that these grants frequently create jobs, and provide freelancers, artists, and college students—people who often live paycheck-to-paycheck—with secondary income.
"Funders like this allow us to do innovative work and provide access to underserved low-income kids who might not otherwise have this kind of high-quality program," - Robin Reagler
"We're a small company with just a couple of full-time employees," says David T. Schaller, who helped develop The Pox Hunter at Eduweb. He added that while the prototyping grant allowed the company to bring freelancers onto the project, the company could hire a full-time Unity developer if the game received a follow-up production grant. On the academic side, Dr. Rosner points out that the game also created several jobs for undergraduate students who worked on the prototype as researchers and game designers.
Viewed from this angle, The Pox Hunter could be considered a solid investment—one that creates a thoroughly American cultural product that educates students while injecting capital directly into the economy. Arts jobs are, after all, still jobs.
This demonstrates the old truth of arts funding: Cutting art programs may be popular as an abstract proposal, but it gets less attractive once the public realizes exactly what programs are at stake. Despite three decades of effort, Republicans have never succeeded—largely because the image of politicians beheading, devouring, or laying off Big Bird makes for a really good political cartoon.
In addition, lawmakers who champion defunding arts and culture often find themselves the target of petitions and call-in campaigns. And given that so much of this arts funding now benefits games, it's possible that parts of the game industry might stand up to efforts to eliminate the NEA and NEH.
However, when Waypoint asked the Entertainment Software Association—the game industry's most prominent lobby group—whether it would oppose cuts to the NEA and NEH, representatives responded with caution.
"The ESA does not comment on hypotheticals," said Dan Hewitt, Vice President of Media Relations. "We have a long history of working with elected officials to promote video games and protect gamers and the medium. We look forward to working with President Trump and Congress to showcase how our industry can protect and grow jobs, help improve education, and contribute to the economic health of the nation."
That discretion is understandable, given that the Republican budget plans remain behind closed doors. But the ESA's wait-and-see approach may not have to wait very long. On Tuesday, the Trump administration—without warning—froze all grants at the Environmental Protection Agency. If the administration sent a similar order to the NEA and NEH, it's conceivable that 2017 grant recipients may not receive the funding the government promised.
According to Dr. Rosner, that would be a tragedy.
"I think it's penny wise and pound foolish," she says. "It would be a tremendous loss if Congress cut arts and humanities funding. It would mean that the narrative of America—of who we are and what we believe—would be poorer for it."
Ethical Disclosure: The author of this article agreed to serve as an unpaid advisor to an educational database project that applied for NEH funding in 2016. The project did not receive funding and is not currently active.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Executive Director of the nonprofit Writers in the Schools. This has been corrected.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp