Women and Video Games: Robin Hunicke

by Jennifer Culp

Robin Hunicke has worked for Electronic Arts and thatgamecompany to design and produce a number of video games, including MySims, Boom Blox, and Journey, and she’s currently working on a new project for Tiny Speck. She’s also working to finish a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, and, along with two colleagues, in 2008 created the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to better analyze game design.

Standard first question: Why video games? What drew you to want to work in the industry — particularly in designing and producing capacities — in the first place?

Like most things in my life, it was a bit of a happy accident! Having a “career” wasn’t really a driver for me as a young person; I preferred to learn, explore and make things. So I spent most of my 20s in school and traveling around the world. It was only through my interest in Artificial Intelligence that I met people from the Games Industry — most notably Will Wright, who encouraged and inspired me to turn my interest in intelligent systems towards games.

What really drew me in, however, was the creative problem solving and collaboration required to make games. My titles have ranged from Designer to Executive Producer, but my day-to-day experience is always the same: working with creative people to bring something exciting and new to life. That’s what I live for.

As a player experiencing the finished product, it can be easy to say, “that worked” (or yell, “that SUCKED”) without having a real understanding about why certain aspects of gameplay end up being more or less successful. Can you give us some insight into the creative end of the process? What’s your philosophy of game design?

Any piece of art (including games) will naturally reflect the perspectives of those involved in its creation. Games are often built over several years, by teams that include artists, game designers, sound designers, programmers and producers. So it really matters how the creative conversation on a game project is managed.

If the team can communicate openly and honestly about the strengths and weaknesses of the game, and everyone is focused on making the game great (as opposed to their individual power, desires or perspectives) then they can rise above obstacles and build something more than the sum of its parts. However, if they feel ignored, are afraid to speak their minds, or lack a sense of authority over what they contribute, the game suffers. When I play a broken game, I feel sad, not angry. What I see is communication failures, ego issues and time pressures that could not be overcome by the team members involved.

Conversely, when I look back over the games I’ve loved, each has a strong, coherent, and consistent creative “soul,” which is threaded throughout the experience. This is true whether the game was made by 2 people, 20 or upwards of 200 … whether it’s a shooter, a real-time strategy game, a Sim or a creative toy. When I play a team’s game and it just feels right, I know that’s the result of successful creative collaboration. That is one of the hardest things to accomplish in life — which is why I love and respect those games so much!

What exactly is the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework?

MDA is a framework of vocabulary and models you can use to frame conversations about game design. In brief: Mechanics are the rules of a game — how you play it. Dynamics are the behaviors that emerge as you play it. Aesthetics are the feelings that result.

Let’s consider poker. The Mechanics of poker outline how cards are dealt, valued, and played, and also specify how and when bets can be placed. As you play, the Dynamic of bluffing emerges. The primary mechanic responsible for this is what we call hidden information: your cards are secret until the showdown. Because the “truth” is hidden, people begin to “play” with the truth … holding on to cards that are low, and betting high — in the hopes of intimidating others to fold. The most prominent Aesthetics of poker are competition, challenge and even feelings of schadenfreude and betrayal!

I have had the pleasure of teaching the MDA framework in workshops throughout the world for over 10 years now. And every time I teach the workshop, I learn something new. By using MDA as a lens, you can often see how games work, why they “feel good” to play for certain people, and drive away others. You can also use that information to shape your own designs.

What about producing? For a person who really enjoys playing games, I am pretty ignorant about how my gaming soup is made. (Hope there’s nothing disgusting in there!) Understanding that it’s probably wildly different from project to project, could you give an overview of what you do as a producer?

I think that a designer or producer’s #1 job is to think about the player experience. When listening to a feature proposal (or creating one), it’s important to ask “What would the player feel?” and, “Is that what we want?”

MDA is helpful here. It’s easy to get lost in mechanics. Making up game systems is a bit like playing with Lego. There are so many ways to combine rules and numbers that you can forget about the Dynamics and Aesthetics of the experience. But if your beautiful design creates feelings of frustration or intimidation in players, then what’s the use? No one will play your game. A good creative leader asks, “Does this make the player feel X” where X is a desirable outcome like: smart, creative, masterful. And, when the answer is no, it’s that leader’s job to help the team get back to the right feeling, through conversation, experimentation, and iteration.

The next most important task is building a positive environment for precisely that creative problem solving. What does that mean, really? Propose ideas, and be willing to hear conflicting perspectives … so that people know it’s safe to disagree with you. Seek opportunities to improve the play experience, and champion others to help solve the game’s problems … so that everyone gets a chance to contribute and grow. Stay a little late to test a new feature, and follow up with feedback for its engineer or designer … so they know you want them to succeed. The more you can build a sense of ownership and pride in the people you work with, the better your game will be.

Can we talk about “having tits” for a second? I watched your Indie Rant from the 2010 Game Developers Conference [in which Robin was asked to participate in spite of her not-so-indie career history due to her possession of lady parts]. In it, you do a kick-ass job of explaining to (mostly) dude designers why they should make an effort to get more women on their teams. On the other side of the coin, do you have any advice for women who want to work in game design but feel unwelcome or scared? How do you get past the “threat response” you described and jump in?

First of all thank you — that “rant” was actually the first time I dove into the research on Signaling Threat and difference in the workplace, and I learned so much putting it together. There’s concrete, scientific research that proves diversity’s importance in creative problem solving — something everyone in a design field should know, regardless of gender. And my advice to aspiring game designers is similarly applicable whether you’re a girl or not: play and then make games.

We are all born with the capacity to make up games — and do, when we are children. Before we’re taught that there is a difference between girls and boys, smart and pretty, creative and competent — we play. So if you want to get a start in games, find some people in your school or town to play board and card games with. Analyze how they work. Get back in touch with your playful, curious nature.

Richard Garfield, who designed Magic the Gathering, one told me he keeps the player scores from individual board games written down on the inside cover. If you do this, over time, you see the patterns in player spread, and if you play with the same folks, who wins. It’s that kind of passion for the way games work that makes a game designer stand out from the crowd of wanna-be’s.

And, if you get there, you’re armed with a genuine curiosity and confidence in how games behave and feel. So it’s no big deal to pick up some blank paper, cards and dice, and make up your own rules. It’s an experiment — a chance to figure out something new. Who knows — maybe you’ll design a card game that makes players feel uniquely creative, and it will be as successful as Magic!

When I interview people I always ask what they are playing, why they enjoy games and where they want to be in 5 years’ time. Know these things about yourself, and when you’re finished learning and exploring the world, attend GDC as a volunteer, meet other like-minded people, and start applying to work on the games you love. Or better yet, grab a couple of friends, figure out how to get funding, and build your own. Nothing can stop you if you don’t fear a little failure.

According to a little bird email tipster, you are an experienced reader of Tarot! And I am now going to blatantly rip off said tipster-bird’s excellent suggested question and ask “how someone who has advanced degrees in logic-based science is drawn to the spirituality and mysticism of Tarot.” Do tell!

Wow that’s a great question! My interest in computational logic, computers as thinking-machines, and the “mind” are all rooted in a deep need to understand why I feel and perceive as I do.

I know it will sound crazy after reading this long interview, but I’m actually an incredibly sensitive and shy person. I talk a lot, but I am often using my words to power through intense feelings that come in waves, as I see, hear and process other people and my environment. I’m a bit of a raw nerve, and have always wanted to better understand why humans sense and think in the ways that they do.

Tarot is interesting to me, as is any practice of divination, because it focuses your mind on perceptions that are already there — but somehow elude you. The icons on the cards, the themes of their images, even their names are masterful at calling out to the subconscious mind. They bring forth and then frame previously unclarified feelings and thoughts for the reader… and a message emerges. That message was already there. You felt and worried and hoped about those same things when the cards were still in the box. But now, you can see them laid out before you.

That is, if you want to. A huge part of any self-reflective practice is being open to the idea as well as its results. If you are a hardcore anti-religious rationalist and you try to meditate, you’ll probably just get a sore bum. 😀

Lastly, for posterity: who is your number one video game character crush? (I refuse to believe anyone who claims not to have at least one.)

Easy! My number one is and will always be the tiny Prince from Katamari Damacy. So optimistic, and so determined to put the world back into order, despite the challenges of being small and having a relatively self-centered and forbidding parent. That’s the definition of a hero, in my book.

Thank you for your time — I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you!

Jennifer Culp hopes the future of AI outside of gaming is more like Rosie and less like the Reapers, or worse, Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man.