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GDC 2004 Interview: Gonzalo Frasca Discusses Academia and Political Gaming

Formerly a web-based game creator for Cartoon Network, and latterly a videogame researcher at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University in Copenhagen, and one of the people behind Howard Dean's official campaign game, Gonzalo Frasca is a rare creature - a gaming academic who also knows something about creating games. Simon Carless talks to him about whether academics analyzing gaming will ever be able to teach the game community a thing or two.
Gonzalo Frasca

Formerly a web-based game creator for Cartoon Network, and latterly a videogame researcher at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University in Copenhagen, and one of the people behind Howard Dean's official campaign game, Gonzalo Frasca (http://www.ludology.org) is a rare creature - a gaming academic who also knows something about creating games. We talked to him about whether academics analyzing gaming will ever be able to teach the game community a thing or two.

Q: What did you think of the Serious Games Summit?

A: It was definitely a meeting with a lot of intriguing people gathered together because they were interested in games not just being entertainment, but something else as well. But for some reason, most of the summit ended up being about education, and left out politics, propaganda and even advertising - those are topics that tend to scare people away. It's fascinating to analyze what people are trying to do, and there wasn't enough of that discussion. The summit isn't yet a community - if you're dealing with games and politics, things get messy, but they have to.

Q: Where did the idea to do a game for the Howard Dean campaign (http://www.deanforamericagame.com/) , and what's the point of 'Political Gaming'?

A: Myself and Ian Bogost were both interested in those aspects of gaming, and we mentioned the idea to [Dean's campaign], and they really got back to us and thought that was what they were missing as part of their strategy. So the two parties were sort of looking for each other. It was funny, because while we were developing the game there was an article posted at Slate saying that the only thing missing in the campaign was a videogame - and we were making it. It was an interesting experience, even though, of course, Dean went down. But people were expecting a game making political statements, and what the game people wanted was a game that focused on actual supporters, in order to show them how the mechanics of a political campaign worked. It was also targeted to young people - they wanted to get people excited about it. The game was developed in 2 weeks - even by web-game standards, that's nothing. We had to be very careful - we knew people would argue the game could have been made for any candidate, but I think the message of the game itself was almost a meta-message - you can use games as a political statement, just as in the past we've used songs or other media. But it's not really new - Monopoly was created in 1904 and used as a way to showcase the problems of land tax. So it's not the first time games have been used for these kind of issues.

Q: What do you think it's important for games to be doing right now?

A: For me, I'm interested in politics, but as a researcher and as someone who makes games for a living, I'm interested in understanding how you can convey ideas with a game, because that's really going to move the medium forward. If we can use the same theoretical techniques in games, then games will reach the next level.

Q: How do game developers and academics interact with each other?

A: Right now the games industry and the academics are in two different worlds. They're getting closer, slowly, but it's going to take a long, long time. I can't consider the two things to be separate. There's a lot of things involved, and a lot of people arriving from different perspective, so it's very rich. But you also have to have a direction - my agenda is to take theory and turn it into practice to make better games. Other academics are most interested in research by itself, and that's OK too.

Q: Do you think it'll get to the stage where game developers are listening to practical advice from academics and researchers?

A: It'll take a very long time - three or four decades. The industry so far has been using academics in order to have a respected voice in saying that games do not necessarily lead to violence, or shouldn't be banned. Back in the '90s, nobody paid any attention to academics, because they didn't play games. They'd played Myst perhaps three times, most of them. Now there's a younger generation who play games. But should academics also know how to make games? You can't get that type of knowledge from a textbook or even a six-month games project.

Q: What can formally-educated game developers bring to the table in terms of perspective?

A: The more critical awareness we get from developers who've come out of universities, the more they'll be able to look at projects in a different way and contribute to certain trends, not just focusing on science fiction and fantasy worlds, and moving on to look more closely at people issues. As soon as you put real people and issues in games, things get messy. In the movie industry, there was a similar reaction - 'Should we make a game about the Holocaust?' Even when Spielberg was making Schindler's List, he couldn't film in a real concentration camp because people were concerned a movie would trivialize the issues. And even more so with games, there's still a lot of bias against games. But it will change eventually.

Q: What do you think education should teach videogame students in terms of technical knowledge versus game-related theory?

A: Technical knowledge is important, but also universities can contribute to get a more critical awareness of what a game is, how it related to other cultural artefacts. You have to look it at it from many different angles and perspectives. Educational training is fine, but critical thinking is also very important. A game is an extremely complex work - there's a lot of money involved sometimes, but it's not just the money. It's easy to say that the industry isn't taking enough risks, but it's not as simple as that.

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