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Federal funding for game museum 'wasteful'?

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) singled out just over $100,000 in funding for a video game museum as part of his list of wasteful government spending.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) singled out just over $100,000 in funding for a video game museum as part of his list of wasteful government spending.Sen. Coburn

While politicians routinely cite video games as a contributing cause for everything from childhood obesity and lower test scores to youth violence, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently labeled a video game museum as something else — a waste of taxpayer funds.

At No. 9 on Sen. Coburn's "Wastebook 2011" list of 100 federal programs he sees as frivolous is over $113,000 in funding for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG), an outgrowth of the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.

The collection, started just last year, already contains over 35,000 items, including games as well as magazines, papers and artifacts outlining the history of the young but powerful medium. The Center has received donations of personal notes and mementos from important game makers such as SimCity creator Will Wright and Ralph Baer, creator of the first home game console, as well as companies like Microsoft.

Aside from offering exhibits for the public and researchers, ICHEG also makes efforts to preserve its unique items — including aging computer equipment and decaying magnetic storage — for future generations, an effort the cited federal grant is meant to aid.

Coburn doesn't lay out specifically why federal spending on such work is wasteful, aside from noting that the museum also receives funds from $13 in admission charged to for adults. The underlying assumption seems to be the video games are unimportant trifles that the government has no interest in helping preserve for history.

But video games are increasingly becoming an important part of our pop culture heritage, at least as much as Arthur Fonzarelli's jacket or Dorothy's ruby slippers, both of which enjoy prominent places at the federally funded Smithsonian Museum for American History. The Smithsonian itself, in fact, will be noting gaming's cultural impact next year with a Museum of American Art exhibit highlighting the medium's most striking visuals.

Another branch of the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court, also noted the cultural legitimacy of video games in a 7-2 decision earlier this year, granting the medium the full protection of the First Amendment of the Constitution. As the Court wrote in that decision:

Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player's interaction with the virtual world).

And as ICHEG argues in a recent press release:

Games charm, captivate and amaze us, from the awe-inspiring wonder of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" to the whimsical fun of "Angry Birds" to the subtlety of "The Sims." Video games are influencing society just as much as novels did 200 years ago or movies did 100 years ago.

It's not as if the government is singling out video games for unique support, either. The Institute of Museum and Library Services which authorized ICHEG's grant provides roughly $32 million annually to help some of the country's 17,500 museums with needed support. It should be noted that the Institute's entire budget amounts to a cost of roughly 10 cents a year for every American citizen, while the ICHEG funding specifically demands less than a tenth of a penny.

While there are legitimate arguments to be made about spending priorities in this country, singling out a relatively small grant intended to preserve our gaming history as a key part of our national heritage seems a bit misguided.

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Kyle Orland has written hundreds of thousands of words about gaming since he started a Mario fan site at the age of 14. You can follow him on Twitter or at his personal website, KyleOrland.com.