Hunicke speaks at HCI seminar lecture

Robin Hunicke, co-founder of the independent game studio Funomena, spoke at a Human-Computer Interaction seminar last week. (credit: Jonathan Leung/Photo Editor) Robin Hunicke, co-founder of the independent game studio Funomena, spoke at a Human-Computer Interaction seminar last week. (credit: Jonathan Leung/Photo Editor)

Games are becoming more immersive than ever due to the many new technologies used to enhance play and the systems they can be played on. But as Robin Hunicke, co-founder of the independent game studio Funomena said in a Human-Computer Interaction Seminar Series lecture last Wednesday, “It is not the technology that makes games new or interesting right now. To me, what’s compelling about games as a medium right now is that they are exploring deeper subjects via interactivity and empowering people.” To Hunicke, games have expanded into a new platform on which to convey messages and experiences, and will become even more influential as games become more and more interesting.

As a young girl, Hunicke was attracted to games and activities that allowed her to flex her creative muscle. As a result, she loved the arts, writing, and music. This passion for creativity pushed her to do an interdisciplinary study at the University of Chicago, where she “ended up majoring in women’s studies, computer science, fine arts, film, oral narrative, and computer programming.” Although she hadn’t planned on studying computer science, she realized that she could combine many interesting fields and represent them in programs and applications.

After she completed her undergraduate degree, Hunicke went to graduate school at Northwestern University, where she became interested in artificial intelligence (AI) and heard of an interesting theory that making the AI in a game better would also improve users’ experiences with the game. As a result, she decided to research whether or not this was true. However, she found that just improving this mechanism did not make the user experience better, leading her to develop the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) framework, a formal approach to game design and game research that allows all parties to better understand what makes a game better. The MDA framework can describe how emotional aesthetics or feelings can be conveyed to the player of a game. Most importantly, Hunicke realized that she could apply this knowledge to commercial games.

Hunicke first began working at Electronic Arts — an American developer, marketer, publisher, and distributor of video games — on The Sims. She first went through a learning phase where she tried to understand the communication aspect of her job. She realized that there were many creative ideas that were all put out, but needed to be blended into something that would convey a feeling. As she started to run her own team, she asked herself, “What is it about making games that makes it so hard?” She found that there were many aspects to running the team that she had previously neglected, but said that it was an interesting experience. She also found that game development teams turned out to be extremely top heavy, where huge franchise games started sucking money from the more casual smaller games.

This realization led her to want to create “elegant, expressive, emotional games that we haven’t made yet,” or a “triple E,” as she calls it.

Hunicke wanted a game that not only would be easy to create, but also would make the user experience more expressive. She wanted the user to experience new feelings and allow them to respond to the experience. She began to map the many games that had been made to figure out what types of games could be found at the extremes — “the extreme triple E game.” As she began work on her new game Journey, she and her team tried to implement these goals.

In the end, the game won many awards, but she still felt that it was not a perfect triple E game. She asked herself if it was maybe the background of the people who worked on the game, or possbily just the working environment. Although they had not achieved that ideal game, she realized what she could do in order to create a good game. Hunicke found that prototyping and removing elements repeatedly would help in creating a polished game — using this process would allow others to create a triple E game that would connect with the player.

Now, Hunicke is trying to make a “feeling-first company” that prioritizes feelings in games above other things. She wanted to work on a big idea while taking into account human-centered design. As she said, “The games that I love were made by people who wanted to communicate with me about their feelings.” This notion is why she has co-founded Funomena, a company that holds these ideals at heart.