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Rafael Fajardo and Humane Games

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On the slushiest day of the year, Rafael Fajardo, a young game artist and media professor walks in our Toronto office with a bright green webkins frog. What proceeded was an informal discussion about serious games.

The University of Denver (DU), where Fajardo teaches, has staked a claim in doing “good” for humanity. The digital media studies department prepares graduates “with significant experience in three areas of investigation and aptitude: design, technical, and critical. Trained to establish and foster dialogue across these areas, DMS graduates are prepared to address the entangled, technology-fueled challenges shaping contemporary experience.”

Humane Games
Rafael’s personal interests lie in a concept he calls “Humane Games;” games that are educational through play and through their making. “Socially conscience games”, which serve to articulate and address a variety of perspectives on various social, political and cultural issues. He is also underway working on Humane Games as a concept that has medical and health value. These are games that have physiological advantages, aiding therapeutic practice and patient pain aversion. Humane games are games that are good for people. It is here where the design of games is considered as a component in forming a discipline around the development of games. Game development is described on the DU School of Engineering & Computer Science Game Development Programs website as:

“the academic field focused on the creation of electronic games. The field includes interactive graphics/animation programming, fundamental computer science, game design, studio art, electronic art, narrative storytelling, and critical game studies. The field is concerned with both entertainment and serious games.”

This marks a shift in games as they move from a weaponized nature rooted in a heritage of military simulation and wargaming, to a more holistic and diverse social and cultural expression. An evolution “from sword to plowshare”; from tactical to practical; from kill to chill. In our conversation it was discussed how game developers, by in large, create games for people such as themselves; they are “audience-creators” generally male, young and Anglo. Thus, the industry having been flooded with a spectrum of competitive, action and strategy driven games has come to a level of saturation, and is showing signs of waning in popularity. Rafael in his P4 initiative looks to enable the diversification of voices creating games, and tools to assist in making them mark entry points to relieve saturation and restore integrity to the medium.

Design is all about relationships. Games deal with contexts, decisions and outcomes; they are in effect a medium of fluid and dynamic relationships. Rafael asks in his work, “What are the relationships we wish to curate when designing games?” Could they be a form of editorial media for social and cultural critique and art? To find out he takes the complexity of serious issues and simmers them to an interactive “reduction” that one can engage and embody. Digital Games are a relatively young media, and the concept of games as social critic, action, or as a literary object is even more new. Games like Pax Warrior and Darfur is Dying are cause driven artifacts, suitable and viral pickets in an age of internet ubiquity. Games are also a medium of attention, which is all he asks us to pay.

“Can Games Handle Heavy Content?”
In finding the answer(s) to this question, which has defined his research and practice, he sets out to hear stories and enables people to express these stories in forms they never thought they could. The first project is Crosser*, a story about “Carlos Moreno, a clean cut hardworking man looking for a good future.” The game was born south of the US/Mexico border, from IBM “abandonware”, consisting of rejected computers and material, whatever his team could get there hands on. Of interest is the building of this game; where the waste of the “developed world” is transformed by the “underdeveloped world” at a critical junction, the border that separates and binds these two worlds. The team was a juxtaposition of Denver academics and underrepresented youth living near the Mexico-USA border. In Crosser, Rafael has included the process and context of creation as a critical object.

The objective is to cross the US/Mexico border in the face of a blitzkrieg of obstacles. The glitchy lag timed play milieu of a pastiche techno-creation process itself becomes a social, political and cultural comment. Positioning the crosser, an (il)legal alien as the protagonist or hero also adds to the work’s commentary, reversing the zeitgeist belief of crossers being criminal. Rafael, later communicated his discomfort in the one sidedness of the work, and set out to balance the scale.

La Migra was an addition to, and an alternate component of, Crosser. They are in fact two levels, or dimensions of the same game. LaMigra created a dialogical tension between the works, being a game composed of the perspective of the border police. The purpose of the works is to highlight the relationship and realizations that occur at the intersection of, in the tension between the two games, in the dual nature of the content and its emphasis. Further the graphical treatment, the GUI is sampled from arguably the best games of all time, Frogger and Space Invaders. The appropriation of this form of representation highlights that even lo-fi graphics can communicate heavy issues, as well as, emphasizing through contrast the light nature of purely entertainment driven industrially produced games.

It is intended and anticipated, that through varied game authoring tools and a diverse chorus of creation, the spectrum of stories being told and potentially the nature of conversations about the past present and future that occur within games and play media will expand.

Initial thoughts: 

Relational Representation
I attended a Digital Holography and 3d Visualization pilot course this year. It was a joint collaboration between the Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Toronto. There were two professors, one from the optics engineering department and one from Holography department. They taught the principles of light, as well as the possibilities and affordances of holography as a medium of expression. The students were already split into Artists and Scientists. And this distinction was strengthened through the assignment of alternate deliverables, different materials and expectations. The course was supposed to be a ground in which to synthesize these camps, to learn from each other. However we spoke different languages, had different intents, and different ideas about what was salient.

If you’re an engineer or computer science student at the DU you may find yourself in a life drawing class in the art department, similar to the situation above. In his talk, Rafael emphasized the variety of skills it takes to create games. “You have to be good at creating visual experiences, creating experiential experiences as well as coding.” Rarely do you find polymaths that are fluent in all of these skills, for each one of the above fans out into a series of sub skills and capabilities that take years to develop, and their all taught separately. Not always in the same school.

Game Development as a discipline calls for the convergence of many academic fields, however may serve to do much more than “establish and foster dialogue across these areas” for the purpose of developing games. Areas such Art, Design, Literary Arts, Critical theory, Engineering and Computer Science are all part of the knowledge mosaic that makes for a good game. After experiencing first hand the dilemma of disciplinary difference, I wonder if games have potential to synthesize these alternative thinking models in a space that absorbs, samples and synthesizes jargon, tables, graphs, that describe dynamics and relationships. Games as a medium could serve as an arena to develop and evolve a new system of symbolic representation that can build bridges between alternative systems of disciplinary and cultural symbolic representation. Can games present Opportunities for semantic conflict resolution?

Will there be Regional and individual game representational dialects? And will future games allow for the plasticity to change in relation to peoples representational needs while retaining the deep structures of meaning intended by the game developers?

Action Games?
During the question period at the end of Fajardo evening presentation a fellow from the audience asked, “Where is the action, the real world resolution, in the end it’s just a game?” This question highlights only the infancy of games as critique, not their inability to contribute meaningfully to political or social change. This is an area Rafael expresses he had intended his games to eventually address. But for now its one step at a time, it’s about small victories.

This question did however point toward a perceived limit of games that may be obsolesced in years to come. As technologies become increasingly “human literate” tracking and recording the meaning of position, movement, and various transactions of people in depth I wonder if there is an intrinsic promise in haptic interfaces and locative media. Games have inhabited all forms of media dead or alive. One of the first things we do with new media is play with it, or kill with it, but technology by its very nature is neutral. It is shaped by our desires, our needs and our wants.

Locative technologies could easily record our trajectories through places and our actions in them, in a sense they and others, such as situational awareness and haptics may become a form of contextual and behavioral stenography. They will be a fertile ground in which to deploy location/behavior based passive or explicit multiplayer citizen games. Our data could be easily correlated with goal sets, point systems and envisioned victory conditions. These future games could also be grounds in which to dynamically negotiate rules goals and conditions, social responsibility and accountability and may quantify more readily that which was formerly unrecordable and qualitative. “You can be dead serious in your aims but playful in getting there“

Game Borne Products?
Game borne products are not about merchandising to support game narratives but emergent products born from human interaction and experiences in game. They begin as data, intangible in game behavior or custom which has the potential to be expressed as matter. Games, like 3d CAD and simulation software in the past could be appropriated to negotiate and author future products and services culturally before we chose to appoint energy and resources to their material production. Could we develop Experience and play driven micro production on a mass scale?

Engineering creations are certified mathematically through simulation and modeling, surgeons and pilots are certified through in game hours and examination. Can game-born products and services creations be validated experientially, and be translated into future real world products. Could in game prototyping, social evaluation or “massively authored value creation” be a staple component of near future manufacturing processes? As these interactive media technologies, desktop and just-in-time manufacturing practices mature, the speed at which we may move from concept to percept, or conversation to product shortens.

Fajardo’s next project is critical toys, think webkins meets Jane Jacobs meets Paulo Fiere. But each toy he has created thus far hail from his in-game dialogues, they sample from and are instantiations of the representational models he and his teams negotiated in the making of them.

There is no print button in games.

Yet.

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Written by rthomas

March 12, 2008 at 3:31 am

Posted in Education, Games, Media

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