Dr. Frank Lee, who heads Drexel’s Game Design Program, dreams big. Really, really big. Earlier this year, he built the most gigantic version of PONG ever using the lights on the 29-story The Cira Centre.
Lee has even bigger dreams for Philly—he wants to transform the city into a hub for gaming companies. And he’s starting by encouraging his own students to become the best in the biz—Drexel’s program has been ranked as one of the top ten game design programs in the US and Canada.
We talked to him about games, art and Tetris hallucinations.
What got you interested in game design?
I’ve been a gamer for basically my entire life. I started with a very early Atari 2600. I played Space Invaders, Pong and a bunch other games. And I’ve kept on playing since then.
But my background is not as a game designer—my training is actually in psychology. I have a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie Mellon.
When I cam e to Drexel I actually started looking at game engines as a tool to study cognition, which merges my research background with gaming. But somewhere along the line, I became more interested in just games. So I guess I sort of fell into it.
What’s your favorite part of game design?
There hasn’t been a time in my waking memory that I haven’t loved games. I grew up playing games. Games have always been a part of my life, but within the last ten years or so, they’ve also become my work as well. I’m doing exactly what I love.
Games are fundamental to human beings. People have been playing games throughout human history. When I talk about games, I’m not just talking about video games, I’m talking about games in general. It’s just a part of our DNA t o play.
You’re very involved in the push to attract more game designers to Philly—why is that important to you?
The game industry is a $70 billion business globally. And in addition it’s a growing industry. During 2005-2009—the height of the recession that we faced—even during that period the game industry grew. It’s going to be the dominant entertainment industry for this coming century.
If we are able to attract and build the game industry in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, it’s only going to grow.
Back in 2008 or 2009, I became involved in a group called Videogame Growth Initiative Philadelphia, which is a group of local videogame executives, entrepreneurs, and academics like myself to encourage the growth of the game industry in Philadelphia.
One to try to create a bottom up process. Instead of trying to get a large compny to come to Philadelphia, to encourage students to star small independent game companies.
I’ve also been involved in trying to pass a bill in Pennsylvania to give tax breaks to game companies.
So what inspired the giant game of Pong you designed?
In 2008, when I was driving on I-76, it was when the sun was setting. The lights of the Sears center were flashing. As I was looking at those lights flickering, in my minds eye, I saw Tetris shapes forming and dropping. That led me on a path to try to create a game using those lights.
I had the exact same experience a long time ago. Back when I was in college, after a 20 hour game of Tetris, I was driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge. On one of the buildings—the sun was setting and hitting the windows–and I saw Tetris shapes falling. I think I was hallucinating at the time just because I had been playing Tetris for 20 hours.
Was it hard to actually make that dream into a reality?
The technical stuff was actually done at a breakneck pace—in two months. The hard part was trying to convince Brandywine Realty Trust to basically let me hack their building.
What other projects are you working on?
There are a number of projects I’m working on with my students—we’re targeting the International Game Festival.
But my creative interest is something like the Pong game, where I’m using city and cityscape to create large interactive video games. The Pong project was as much of an art project as it was a game project. What I wanted to create was this shared experience among the people who were playing the game and those who were watching and the rest of the city.
I actually saw videos that people posted filmed from I-76, some from the Schuylkill River. That to me was as interesting as the fact that this was the world’s biggest Pong game.