Talking About Video Games, History, And Teens At America's Summit On National Parks

Thirteen hours at America's Summit on National Parks raised questions about video games as an enticement to lure youth into the parks, in-park history lessons, and how the economy affects affection for the national parks.

Those and other issues filled Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in the heart of Washington, D.C., where talk of how best to leverage support for the national parks movement as the National Park Service draws near its centennial in 2016 dominated the talk.

Perhaps the most provocative, if not the most controversial, address of the day was made by Erik Huey, senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the brand-name videogame makers. During a panel discussion on Trends, Priorities, and Values: Gaining Broad Support, Mr. Huey opened his talk by prefacing it with a question -- "Isn't the video game industry the enemy?" -- before pointing out that many of the latest games get participants up off the couch to bowl, play tennis, and dance.

The fact of the matter is, he told the more than 325 participants who showed up for the conference, is "you can play your videogames outdoors and you can play videogames that make you move."

Mr. Huey, saying the parks movement had a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the gaming industry, pointed out that videogaming was a $25.1 billion industry in 2010.

"We're big, we're pervasive, and we're on the move," he said.

But while the gaming official talked of creating videogames with national park "overlays" that would take the games into the parks, Sally Jewell, the CEO of the outdoor gear retailer REI, made it clear where she saw the gaming industry's role with getting youth outdoors and into the national parks when she rose to moderate a panel on the economic benefits of national parks and their programs.

"We don't want to thrive by selling outdoor videogames," she said, adding that while videogaming might be a $25.1 billion industry, the outdoor industry generates $230 billion in sales a year, "almost ten times the video game industry."

"Yet we are not perceived as an important economic engine," Ms. Jewell lamented.

While that was one of the high points of the day, it was not the only one.

* Interior Secretary Ken Salazar served as a cheerleader of sorts during his short keynote address, pointing out that economic studies have ranked outdoor recreation No. 2 behind only health care in terms of job creation. "The reason we are so relevant," the secretary said, "is because we are a job-creation agency."

* During the lunch break, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was told by Geoff Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, that when the economy wallows, support for national parks goes up.

* Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said that during its first 100 years, the agency "protected parks and waited for people to come. In the second century, we need to take parks to the people." He added a moment later that, "this country needs the national parks and programs they provide probably more than they ever have in history."

* Gary Machlis, the science advisor to Director Jarvis, told the audience that "let a park degrade from neglect or over-exhuberant development, and we're all diminished."

During one of the afternoon's breakout sessions, James Percoco, an award-winning history teacher at West Springfield (Virginia) High School, stressed the importance of placing students into the environment to help them learn. In his case, he takes students to Gettysburg National Military Park and has them research one of the soldiers and then present that history to their classmates in the field.

"Historic sites offer students an opportunity to wrestle with actual history, vs. the history of our imaginations," Mr. Percoco said. "Sites challenge us, and they should challenge us."

There were discussions of BioBlitzes sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, of residence camps that allow students to spend more than a few days inside a park getting to understand the landscape, and "Teacher-Ranger-Teacher" programs that provide teachers with the skills to enhance their lesson plans against a national park backdrop.

New models for the "next generation" of national parks also were discussed, as was the economic value of parks and connecting urban communities with parklands.

Rather than trying to rush through these stories piecemeal, we're going to take some extra time to gather additional material for them. Watch for them on the Traveler in the days and weeks ahead.

Comments

I was encouraged to hear Sally Jewell's push back of the gaming idea. The need to take the Parks to the people whether they be in the Parks or away rang true to me. The parks in their naturalness is where the good is so bringing all the distractions that disconnect us from our humanity in the urban world to these places of real discovery seems very bad to me, indeed. Work on the opportunities for kids and anyone, really, to connect to what's ultimately "real" is the best mission statement I can think of.

A few years ago I would have said oh that won't work etc etc. However, I've been playing Farmville for a few years now and it inspired me to grow a square foot vegetable garden last year and I am going to continue with my vegetable garden this year. I am getting ready to plant some lettuce Feb 1 and onions in the middle of Feb. Had I not been influenced by Farmville to garden, I would have bet a million dollars that a video game wouldn't inspire people to go to parks and other natural places. Now, I am not so sure. Off to buy some manure for my garden :D

I don't know about video games, but with various other technological tools I consider them to be additional methods for cultural resource, natural resource, and interpretive NPS staffs to present and enhance visitor experience.

Kurt - I envy you the experience of this event.

No technology can replace the one on one communication between people motivated to connect on a human level. In many cases interp/tech people are leaving the most important quality behing. It's not just about information but information related on a personal level that is where the true benefit to us are. Not just the next pop thing to grab attention. The Parks and the people are more than that and deserve better.

Actually, I'd love it if game designers were encouraged to use national parks settings more. If you play Red Dead Redemption, you can recognize a number of features from national parks throughout the Southwest. I'd like to see more of that, but in a less fictionalized form.

I may never get to visit, say, Wrangel-St. Elias. But if there was a sandbox game set there, it would be the next best thing!

I worry that this debate is mostly going on between people who don't own a PS3 or an Xbox. Non-gamers can be very condescending towards gamers.

As an attendee at the Summit, I can say that people found the presentation on gaming both disturbing and intriguing. When asked by the gaming industry man who in the room had a gaming machine at home and used it, a majority of hands among the hundreds there went up. So this is not a crowd hostile to gaming.
At the same time all of us want to preserve and promote a far deeper experience of the natural or historical world than you can get from screen-time. If people can get out of their normal city state of mind and connect to the natural world in a personal and emotional way, they have a real and profound experience. Being alone with the forest or the desert or with a very old structure can change a person. Nature changes a person who takes enough time to meet it. This is what the Summit was really about.
Yet how you get people who don't have a tradition of individualism or who are so used to intense stimulation from electronics or intense social contact in cities is a real question. While we do need to make parks relevant to new sectors of the population, we need to guard against diluting or polluting the parks with commericialism, with electronica or with urban hype for the sake of making them relevant to people who haven't yet been touched by the profound beauty of place.
The parks stand on their own. They are just there. And if they exist with fewer people over time, that may be okay, providing they are protected. I want people of other cultures and races and backgrounds to love the parks. But they need to meet the parks and the NPS at least half way. The NPS does an excellent job and we all need to humble ourselves entering a park just as we do a church. If we approach it that way and we don't cheapen the experience in order to appeal to people who haven't yet discovered the sacred in nature, we can stay on course.

Tom, you have hit on my theme for the years I've been in the parks. What's interesting is it's not always received well by even those given responsibilities for the parks. Not saying the majority are that way but it just happens in any large (or small) body of administrators and field personel dealing with all the challenges of the job. In leading groups into the backcountry I noticed when it was just myself and the group I tended to bond more and have better trips when it was just me. When there were two guides not quite so much as the guides tended to be more connected with each other not surprisingly. I believe that happens on the bigger scale as with the very large NPS itself. Probably not anything that can be changed to a great deal but it is something that can be acknowledged where at some point more people in the field can actually appreciate and connect with the individual public with great unexpected rewards. Yes I appreciated your post, Tom. It was good to see my thoughts expressed so much better and effectively as what I may have offered in the past.