Magazine Feature / People

Professor designs video games with social messages

Don’t expect to find the video game “Juan and the Beanstalk” at Best Buy.

Currently in development by Rafael Fajardo, players decide whether to grow coffee or opium in a multi-chapter game intended to express the social complexity of Columbia of the past 30 years.

Fajardo, assistant professor of art and art history and core faculty member for DU’s video game development major, is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement that infuses social issues into video games as a means of turning them into an art form.

In the first chapter, “The Seeds of Solitude,” a Columbian farmer cuts down poppies in an attempt to eradicate opium, but they grow back quickly and with the help of butterflies, flourish. The idea is to show how much more quickly poppy plants grow compared to coffee plants, which take five years to grow.

In the second chapter, “FIFA, Fo, Fum,” Columbian pop culture icons—coffee grower Juan Valdez and drug lord Pablo Escobar—are pitted against one another in a soccer match. Players take on the role of Valdez in the face of Escobar’s corrupting policies.

“It’s a sort of libertine idea for someone who’s not afraid to be a public intellectual through graphic design,” Fajardo says.

One of only a dozen people who design video games as social commentary, Fajardo’s innovation and willingness to tackle tough issues has gained him notoriety. He was invited to present his work at the annual La Caixa symposium in January in Barcelona, Spain.

Anne-Marie Schleiner, art professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, designs peace messages for online war video games.

“[Fajardo] adapts simple games, reminiscent of the roots of computer games in the 1980s, to make succinct statements about social issues,” Schleiner says.

Fajardo has formed a collaborative called “Sweat” that produces video games each summer. Members who work on games become shareholders. With the aid of Sweat, Fajardo plans to complete the next chapter of “Juan.”

“If I’ve engaged [players’] intellect or intelligence in some way, then that teacherly thing has happened,” Fajardo says.

Fajardo’s video games in development are freely accessible at

[Editors’ note: Fajardo is now the University’s Digital Media Studies Director.]

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