The science of video games, magnified

Posted in Crosswalk, Summer 2013

Professor Frank Lee has pioneered gaming research at Drexel from pixels on a computer screen to scaling Philadelphia’s Cira Centre building.

Frank Lee can see games anywhere. It first happened as an undergrad while he was driving on the Bay Bridge. The sun was setting, and he was mesmerized by how the light played off the building. He imagined a video game there. At the time, he didn’t give it much thought but then the same vision came again while gazing at the Cira Centre in Philadelphia—and this time he wouldn’t let it go.

But it’s the journey between those two buildings that truly tells his story.

At the University of California, Berkeley, he majored in cognitive science. Then to Carnegie Mellon University to get all the way to his PhD in cognitive psychology, focusing on how people learn in a complex environment. But as he did these things, he was living a double life.

As an obsessed gamer.

At Berkeley, in the basement lab. Multi-player to the nth degree at Carnegie Mellon. Like a man who couldn’t shake his past—his being one of Atari, Space Invaders, of victory.

After two years of teaching at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he joined Drexel as an assistant professor focusing on cognitive research but, as soon as he got here, he could no longer hide his “secret” life—Lee wanted to get gaming into the academic side.

“I offered, I believe the first game class at Drexel. [I] got a grant for educational gaming, and I was on a search committee to bring in faculty. Paul Diefenbach was brought in and that’s been a huge part of this,” Lee says.

In 2008, Lee and Diefenbach formed the Drexel Game Design Program as co-founders and co-directors.

Two years later, the very first ranking of game design programs in undergrad had Drexel already third in North America.

But the top finishes were just getting started. Putting together a four-person team for the Microsoft Imagine Cup, an international game development competition, his goal was to improve upon what he saw previously as a judge for the event. “It’s supposed to be about creating something both educational and that has the fun a game should have,” he says. “What I saw either had one or the other.”

The U.S. finals saw the team take first place. Then it was time to take on the globe. The World Finals brought together 250,000 students representing nearly 200 countries. So many incredible institutions of education. So little time since Drexel opened its gaming program. Final placing?


Maybe the success Lee has been a part of can be explained somewhat by his attitude toward gaming research itself.

“You have to see it as the fusion of art and science,” he says. “Eighty percent of games released commercially won’t make their money back.”

In other words, if gaming research were as simple as doing an experiment with a control, it would have been the field’s norm long before Donkey Kong. So while “n=” may not mean as much here, polishing does. Take that Imagine Cup-winning entry Math Dash. Spending three months polishing, play-testing and advising—from improving movement to making absolutely sure the game was keeping in alignment with what a core curriculum would be—they adjusted with intuition. For Lee, maybe the biggest acknowledgement was when two students walked away from trying the game and said, “That was surprisingly fun.” It may not be the same as finding percent error, but it definitely felt like the right track to Lee and his team.

And they’re extending this create-and-polish style as far as they can. From presently working on a game for autistic children to help them learn facial recognition to even hoping to gain ground on one for ADHD, Lee clearly sees this as so much more than fun and games.

“It shouldn’t be surprising how much games can mean to human beings,” he says. “Board games go back thousands of years to Egypt…Think about how far back chess goes.”

You would think his team taking on the world would be Lee’s greatest feat to date, but it might actually be his involvement in a rather basic game. Remember Lee’s building vision? Now as an associate professor in the digital media program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, he persisted with Brandywine Realty Trust, owner of the Cira Centre, to allow him to create a Pong game that could be played on a side of the building.

At first, he was dismissed. But Lee went about winning like he had with so many video games. When you initially lose what do you do? Press the reset button. So he did—countless times. Emails and phone calls over four years. Finally, it was a party with President John Fry that would get him to the final level to hearing yes. Fry happened to be friends with the owner of Brandywine, Jerry Sweeney, which led to Lee getting a meeting with him. Ultimately, Sweeney gave him the thumbs up, and it was on like Pong.

The 29-story building utilized more than 500 LED lights to create the spectacle of the world’s largest video game. “Watching it happen was almost like watching a child being born,” he says. “I’ve been trying to do it for so long—and there it finally was!”
But there’s one more incredible finish he has in mind. Lee’s goal for the Game Design Program is the same goal he has for the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas: to become a major player in the world of gaming.

“It’s different now,” he says. “Before, you’d need so many people to create something and then you needed someone like Electronic Arts to say you could do it. Now, with mobile games, you can create it just with a few friends and you don’t need anyone to stop you from making a business happen. This is a great time for creative people—we just need to keep at it.”

And for a man who scaled the Cira Centre—so to speak—persistence is one game he’s not likely to quit.