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Robin Hunicke's idealistic, silly, wonderful view of video games

Whether you're talking about her work on The Sims franchise or on Journey, Robin Hunicke's efforts have been on making games relate to life, and the way we live.

Kris Graft, Contributor

February 24, 2014

8 Min Read

When I called Robin Hunicke to chat about game development and design, the conversation turned to life in general: She talked about living in the here and now, about friends, work, career. Near the end of our conversation, Hunicke admits she can easily envision herself as the "crazy old lady" with too much color in her hair and clothes -- maybe when she's 70, she'll be a photographer. Maybe a mechanic. Who knows? I suppose the path of the conversation isn't totally unexpected. Whether you're talking about her work at EA Maxis on The Sims franchise or when she was producer at thatgamecompany on the emotive online game Journey, her efforts have been focused on the way video games relate to life and the way we live. "Being human" and being fun is part of the game making process at her young studio, the aptly-named Funomena (where renowned artist and game director Keita Takahashi tends to do stuff like drawing faces all over…everything). The studio is working on a "mostly-unannounced" game that was inspired by Takahashi's two-year-old son -- a game that appears to draw from the experience of living life.

Video games: By people, for people

Perhaps it's the focus on technological advancement and metrics that's made it easy for game developers to lose sight of how video games are a product of human ingenuity, creativity and imagination. It's also easy for game developers to forget that the people who play games are, in fact, humans. "I think it's tempting, when you get a bunch of data that is representative of the landscape of your players, to try to control [player behavior]," says Hunicke. She recently gave a talk at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where she reminded attendees that their customers are more than just eyeballs and downloads and installs and revenue. Game development sometimes leans away from the human factor, not because game developers are money-grubbing sociopaths, but because it's just a natural reaction when trying to understand a very complicated subject -- humans. Data is more digestible than an eyeroll or a shrug or a nearly-imperceptible grin on a player's face. Data gives people something tangible that one can react to or act upon.

"I think we're a little bit drunk on information"

"You're tempted to start abstracting away from the person-ness of your players [if you focus too much on data]," says Hunicke. "It's just easier to process a lot of data and it helps you form theories about behavior that are more elegant, in a way. The scientist in all game designers is enamored with data. And it's easy to forget that data is really an abstraction of feelings and thoughts and behaviors that come from inside a very complex, messy person. I think we're a little bit drunk on information." Hunicke isn't denouncing the use of data -- not at all -- but rather advocating for the idea that developers should ask questions about the data they collect, and what it really means in terms of player behavior. While Hunicke talks about amorphous concepts like feelings, empathy and emotion, she still approaches these ambiguous concepts analytically, and tries to dig deeper into players' experiences. One can pick up on her inherently analytical nature just by talking with her about her own experiences with video games. Fifteen years after the game came out, Hunicke remembers how Parappa the Rapper on the original PlayStation was the first game she threw a party for. Something about the game moved her to call friends over to her dorm, bring beers, and play Masaya Matsuura's game straight through, as a group. She seeks out the reasons behind these life-centered impulses, using her internal divining rod to figure out why a game moved her, applying these understandings to her own efforts. "Who is our player?; Why do they care about this experience?; Why would a kid say to their parent, 'Hey, come and play this with me'?; Why would a girl turn to her boyfriend and say, 'Oh my gosh, we have to play this game together!'?" she asks. These are the questions that Hunicke is asking as she and her team try to figure out how video games impact peoples' lives. They're difficult questions that almost always lead to other, more difficult questions. Possible answers are vetted and proven out through the rigorous playtesting and player analysis that she practices. The whole process is sort of a retro-engineering of emotional output in order to arrive at the game mechanics that can spark these emotions and inclinations.

Designing for empathy

Talking about designing for emotional impact also means understanding (or at least asking questions about) empathy. For Hunicke, she says designing for empathy may start here: "If you wanted to make a game that increased empathy on the planet, you'd ask yourself, 'Why do people not pay attention to one another? Why don't we care about one another?'"

"If you wanted to make a game that increased empathy on the planet, you'd ask yourself, 'Why do people not pay attention to one another? Why don't we care about one another?'"

This is an interesting angle. The obvious question, if you're creating something intended to bring people together, is to find out why people connect, and how. But asking why people disconnect from one another, in a world more connected than ever, can yield more interesting results. It's a question that Jenova Chen, designer at thatgamecompany and Hunicke's former coworker, spent a lot of time pondering, she says. "What is it that distracts us from one another?" she asks. You don't have to look that far to see that we spend a lot of time looking at our phones, we spend a lot of time worrying about the Likes on our Facebook feeds and who retweeted our Tweets. There are a lot of what we call "2D friends," says Hunicke. And often even when we're surrounded by "3D people," we instead opt to "connect" with the 2D people. (Just look at how many people are glued to their smartphones next time you go out to a supposed social venue, like a bar.) "That's the trial of our times -- getting away from the immediate feedback of the 2D world that is inside of a device," says Hunicke. Our culture is one that prides itself on the immediacy of everything, from hamburgers to information. That expectation and hunger for feedback right now causes challenges for game designers who want to encourage players to slow down, think, and feel emotions that are deeper -- or at least different -- than quick adrenaline shots. "We've talked about this recently, and in my career in general this has come up a lot on the games I've worked on -- the 'gamey-ness' of a game versus the 'feedback' of a game," says Hunicke. "[We talk about] 'juicy' feedback -- the feeling the world is responding you to a beautiful way. … That's more immersive." She categorizes atmostpheric games like Ed Key and David Kanaga's Proteus and Current Circus' Muse as games that give "juicy" feedback. "I really love that kind of a concept, where you feel like what you do matters, without having to earn points or hearts or that kind of stuff."

Games, meet life

"Juicy" or not, Hunicke and Funomena aspire to make games that mean something to people -- to make games that inspire not just fans of games, but people who fall outside that idea of a "gamer." She wants to make games that become a "phenomenon." That, she says, is the dream. "I want games to be an event -- I want them to be a social, fun experience if they can be," says Hunicke. "Or, I want them to be a moving, emotional experience -- like one of those really intense art films that you take your secret crush to, hoping that it turns into a really awesome date.

"I want them to be a part of your life, in a way that helps you reach new places in your life."

"That's what I wants games to be for people. I don’t want them to be just this pasttime on the train or a way to immerse yourself so you forget about your life. I want them to be a part of your life, in a way that helps you reach new places in your life." "Maybe that sounds idealistic and silly." Our conversation is ever so lightly peppered with remarks like that, after she speaks honestly about what she thinks games can be. "Idealistic," "silly," cheesy" -- adjectives dropped here and there, as if Hunicke wanted to make sure she kept herself in check, to avoid sounding too hopeful, too grandiose when talking to a reporter. I tell her nothing she's saying is cheesy at all (I'm pretty sure she already knows that). Actually, if thinking of games in the context of life is "idealistic and silly," maybe we need more idealistic and silly game developers like Robin Hunicke.

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