When Your Textbook Is a Video Game

When Your Textbook Is a Video Game

Uruguayan video game creator Gonzalo Frasca on January 31, 2014 in Montevideo

SourceMiguel Rojo/Getty

Why you should care

Because the classrooms of the future won’t look anything like today’s.

If video games had the equivalent of a Jedi High Council, Gonzalo Frasca would be Yoda: the doer, the thinker and leader too. A programmer with experience in industry and scholarship alike, 43-year-old Frasca has flowed through the burgeoning industry with the fluidity of the Force.

Frasca, a former video game designer for, yes, Lucas Films, but also Disney and Pixar, is one of the pioneers in ludology, a new academic field born just 15 years ago and dedicated to the study of games, including video games. The recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Knight Foundation, Frasca is a global team member at We Want to Know, a Norwegian educational game company with revenue in the low millions (and climbing) that’s gunning to be the first company to create an entire game-based curriculum for schools. In 2017, the company will test that curriculum on first- and second-graders in Norway. Frasca will help the company reach markets in Uruguay, says CEO Jean-Baptiste Huynh.

With Facebook purchasing Oculus Rift and the New York Times rolling out virtual reality to the classroom (where gadget-driven competition is suddenly taking off), it’s obviously a good time to be a game geek. Game-based-learning revenue, which includes Frasca’s field, will grow nearly 22 percent annually through 2019 to reach nearly $5 billion, according to learning-market research group Ambient Insight. And so far, the learning-game sector accounts for only about a 2 percent share of the video game sector — with a huge way to go.

He released a game called September 12: Players target terrorists, killing innocent civilians and sprouting even more enemies, an exercise in futility that eventually transforms entire villages into radicals.

On the outside, with his mélange of grungy fashion, stylish glasses and well-trimmed gray hair and beard, the Uruguayan is an overgrown teenager. Inside, of course, he’s a geek and has indiscriminately brought games across disciplinary boundaries. As a programmer, he built games that touched on politics and news. “For me, it’s all the same.” Or, rather, playing is everything: not just fun but the best way for learning effectively and quickly. “That’s why pros like pilots and surgeons use video games, although they call it ‘simulation.’ ” When he talks about education, it gets more sci-fi: Machines, he says will “do the job of transferring knowledge.” Teachers will be “more like sport coaches.”

Born into a family of artists and teachers, Frasca grew up in Montevideo and played the classics on Coleco and Atari systems in a wealthier neighbor’s house. He eventually studied communication and after college worked in a video game production company. In 1997, he moved to Atlanta, where his then wife was studying; while working at a video game production company, he submitted scholarly articles to global congresses about video games and digital culture in his spare time. Back then, few people researched the genre and his ideas were groundbreaking. In 1999, his article “Ludology Meets Narratology”which helped coin the former term — set off a global scholarly debate and launched his career.

He received a scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he graduated with a masters in information design and technology and worked in the Spanish service of CNN and for the Cartoon Network. He returned to Uruguay upon graduation and set up his own studio, Powerful Robots Games, and wrote for different clients. Soon he began combining his interests in news and games, and in 2003, he released a game called September 12, in which players target terrorists in Afghanistan, killing innocent civilians and sprouting even more enemies, an exercise in futility that eventually transforms entire villages into radicals. It was a dangerous move, and he didn’t escape without criticisms of insensitivity.

Just a year later, though, he became even more political, joining a team that developed the first political video game for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. He would go on to do the same for other candidates in other countries, again laying the groundwork for a new kind of video game. All the while, he was delving deeper into scholarship — even nabbing a Ph.D. in gaming in Denmark. And then, somewhat burned out, he went home to volunteer as a teacher to 12-year-olds.

Frasca’s work is admirable, but because the field he’s helped ignite is still nascent, much work remains to be done. There’s not a ton of high-quality stuff yet, says Eric Klopfer, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Education Arcade program. “I worry that good will be lost in sea of bad.”

And, of course, Frasca will still face down criticism about whether sticking yet another screen in front of children’s eyes is a good thing. For his part, Klopfer believes video games are “like medicine. It’s not good or bad. Just depends how you use them,” he says. Already in the U.S., a Joan Ganz Cooney Center survey among teachers in 2013 showed three-quarters of them use digital games between kindergarten and eighth grade, although only slightly more than half do it at least once a week. And overwhelmingly, teachers using them say students’ math learning improves (only around 40 percent say the same about science).

But perhaps it takes someone with a colorful educational history himself to figure out how to worm these games into the classroom — an autodidact, perhaps, who’s unafraid to invent a whole new field.

Gonzalo’s force, though, comes from his inner circle. “There is no better motivation to work every morning than knowing that when my [newborn] girl goes to school she will learn with a system of games that respects her learning and that is fun at the same time.”

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