For Mark DeLoura, returning to Seattle after two years working for the White House was a blast from the past.
“There’s the Pacific Science Center,” he recalls thinking, “I met my first computer there!”
No longer a child, he still has a sparkling, boyish grin as he talks about coming back to the city where he was raised.
DeLoura spent decades living far from Seattle, following a career that took him from Nintendo, to Sony, to Ubisoft, and eventually to the White House. He organized the first White House Game Jam and launched projects like President Obama’s Computer Science for All Initiative, and he has helped shape some of the most iconic game systems in the world.
Now he’s bringing his experience and passion for games and education back to his hometown as a member of the City of Seattle’s Community Technology Advisory Board, where he is working to advance tech equity and computer science education in the city and around the state.
Next week, DeLoura will be in San Francisco to receive the Ambassador Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards at the annual Game Developers Conference, one of the most important events in the games industry. Check out the GDC’s Twitch page to see the awards ceremony live at 6:30 p.m. on Wed., March 1.
The GDC said they chose DeLoura for the award because he has dedicated “his life to the education and the productive use of technology within academia, the media and video games.”
GeekWire sat down with DeLoura to learn about his time in the gaming industry and the White House, along with his new work in Seattle.
DeLoura says that games aren’t just a past time; they can be an incredibly valuable educational tool as well.
“You have some understanding of a city you’ve never been to,” he said of the kinds of experiences video games can provide. “You can understand a bit of a foreign language you didn’t know. You have access to scientific knowledge you didn’t know existed in the world. Your world’s been opened up in a way you wouldn’t expect.”
But DeLoura’s interest in games didn’t actually start with games at all. It began at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab, one of the first virtual reality labs in the U.S.
After graduating from the University of Washington and getting a master’s degree in computer science from the Universty of North Carolina, DeLoura decided to channel his fascination with VR in a new direction.
He joined Nintendo of America in 1995, only a few months before the first prototypes of the Nintendo64 arrived for engineers to work on. His job was to help some of the best game developers in the world build Nintendo’s first 3D games.
“They were totally the experts on how to make a 2D game fun, but trying to bridge that gap and say ‘here’s how you do that in 3D’ is what I was doing,” DeLoura said. “The question they were asking was … ‘how do I make this world feel so engaging that it feels like I’m there?'”
While at Nintendo, DeLoura also helped launch the GameBoy Advance and GameCube and released his own guide for developers: Game Programming Gems, which is now in its eighth edition.
DeLoura eventually left Nintendo and made his way to Sony, where he helped found a developer relations group. He stayed there through the launch of the PlayStation 2, the PlayStation Portable, and the PlayStation 3.
He then spent several years working at Ubisoft, Google, and others in the same field of video games and interactive digital media.
One day in 2012, he got a call from the White House. They wanted him to become the Senior Advisor for Digital Media in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
DeLoura said yes, and after eight months of security checks, he was on his way to Washington, D.C. And he said what he found was a unique confluence of the world of technology and the world of government.
“The office of Science and Technology Policy is super interesting, because it has this core of people whose expertise is government and how it works, and then they bring in all these people who have absolutely no expertise in government,” DeLoura said. “They’re scientists with a capital S and technologists with a capital T and they come in and try to do something great.”
For DeLoura, that thing was exploring how video games can be used as educational tools. He asked himself, “how do I take what’s cool about video games and use it to help people learn?”
DeLoura had a hunch that video games would be useful in education but his gut-feeling wasn’t enough to shape policy.
“Can I find research that proves that or encourages people to do research so that I know that that’s actually true and not just a feeling?” he said to himself. “I’m opinionated, but research is better than opinions any day of the week.”
He also organized events and projects designed to bring the government in conversation with game industry professionals and encourage games and computer science in the classroom.
But possibly the crowning jewel of DeLoura’s time in the government was the first (and only) White House Education Game Jam, a weekend-long hackathon that challenged developers to make educational games that fit federal curriculum guidelines.
“We had a little over 100 developers, about 12 to 15 teachers, some kids, a dog, some government people,” DeLoura said. “It was a jam, everyone was hanging out.”
Watch one team’s wrap-up on the game jam below.
DeLoura even managed to get “presidential cupcakes” on the menu, the most highly-prized event snacks in the White House.
DeLoura said one of the challenges to using games in the classroom is that it’s often obvious they’re designed to be educational.
“Modern kids are more tech savvy, they know when games are an educational game,” he said. “So how do you make a game game that also teaches you something, that you could teach in the classroom?”
DeLoura was hoping professional developers would have some answers — and they did. The game jam resulted in 23 prototypes, and while just one of those has made it into a commercial product — a game explaining the electoral college system — DeLoura said the event was still a roaring success because it started to change how both the industry and the government think about games.
Check out one of the prototype demos below, for an evolution game called Endemos.
DeLoura said that, during his time in D.C., he received one question over and over: Why is this important? Why are tax dollars going towards video games?
“My response is that games are a tool. Articles are a tool. Videos are a tool. Podcasts are a tool. All sorts of different media are useful in different circumstances, and games are a really modern form of media and we haven’t really figured out how to use it yet. And so investing money into figuring out how to do that could prove valuable,” he said.
Now DeLoura is turning that impulse to his hometown, advising the City of Seattle on tech equity and computer science issues. He is pushing for more and better computer science education in Washington state and has already started working on the nuts and bolts of putting a standard computer science curriculum in place for K-12 schools.
DeLoura said one of the biggest things he took away from his time at the White House was the appeal of putting his skills to use for his country.
“I didn’t get it when I got there,” he said. “I come from private industry. I want to find ways to accelerate what it is to be a game, make games more valuable, popular, interesting, dynamic. And it took me a little while until I understood that mindset. Being of service was not something I understood when I got there, and by the time I left I was like, ‘why would I do anything else?’”