Artistic Beginnings

Robin Hunicke was always an artistic soul, gaining an interest in drawing, writing, and photography from her parents’ creative pursuits. “I spent a lot of time making things with my parents,” she recalled. “My dad was an engineer by day and worked as a carpenter on weekends, and my mom was an educator, quilter, and weaver, so I got good with using my hands. I thought crafting was really great.” Although she spent plenty of time outside in the woods at her home in upstate New York, that changed when her family made the move to Central Florida during her High School years. “I wasn’t outside much because it was hot,” she explained. “Instead, I spent my free time hanging out with less than savory characters and cut class.”

Her parents grew concerned over this behavior and sent her to a summer program at Cambridge University, where Robin learned how to utilize computer software to edit photos, as well as studied art and poetry. “While I was there, I saw the original versions of William Blake’s works,” she said. “They had copies in the library, and I thought they were beautiful. He invented his own printing presses to make his own books, which were very pagan and alive with ideas that weren’t accepted at the time. I thought it was so exciting do it all yourself. I thought, ‘If he could do it, I could to it.’”

Thus began Robin’s thinking of the blend of art, poetry, and technology, which led to her interest in computer science and Artificial Intelligence as she went into college. “I thought about computers as the next printing press,” she explained. “I really love the idea of building a computer that can tell a story, that changes as you play a game.”  Robin went on to work in robotics during graduate school, but grew frustrated with their slowness and bulkiness. “They broke a lot of the time,” she recalled. “They weren’t portable, they were big. I was having trouble with a behavioral module, and my friend suggested that I work with the bots in Half Life, so I downloaded a mod called Case Closed and began changing the behavior of the monsters, to see if I could make the game more interesting for people who hadn't mastered it.”

Gaining Ground in Gaming

Robin realized that she didn’t know as much about game design as she’d have liked, and started looking into the gaming community to find answers. “I ended up meeting a few people from Looking Glass in Boston,” she recalled. “I ended up hanging out with people in that scene, working to make myself more educated in what games were about, specifically in experimental games.” Robin went on to be part of the very first Indie Game Jam, an event where individuals gather together for the purpose of making games within a specific time-frame--usually in the span of a 24-hour to 72-hour period. “We got together in Oakland, and that was the very first Game Jam on the planet Earth,” she explained. “I was the first female game jammer.”

Events snowballed after Robin’s involvement in the project, and she soon found herself speaking to game designer Will Wright at an Artificial Intelligence conference. “One thing led to another,” she said. “I went to GEC all the time, and I met Will Wright at an A.I. conference. I asked him all these design questions about the SIMS, and he said, ‘You really sound like a game designer. You should consider it!’” She reached out to Wright after graduating from her Master’s program, and got recruited to work on the SIMS as an objects designer. “ I got to make fun things,” she recollected fondly. “I didn’t have to worry about budgets. It was the best first job ever!”

Deep Thinking

Since Robin’s start in game design, she’s worked as the executive producer on Journey, as well as founded her own game studio, where she created her award-winning game Luna. Her games differ from their counterparts in that they focus on more experimental methods of gameplay, as well as empathy between people and understanding the ways in which people think and behave. Robin explained that her focus on emotional intelligence and social cues stems from her own sensitivity. “I think it’s because I’m a sensitive person, both to the environment and other people,” she stated. “As a child, I mirrored people's emotions. If someone was upset, I would become upset. Being responsive to my environment made me curious: What is it about us that makes us have internal narratives and stories about ourselves? Where does shame and blame come from?”

Robin’s curiosity about how people think and view the world around them led her to research mental illness and emotion. “I moved through a lot of literature about feelings and emotional systems in the brain and why they evolved, and how they can be manipulated by people,” she said. “I’m interested in people who live on the spectrum with extreme feelings, with different abilities of expression, different frequencies. All the stories we write are not about normal people. They’re about people who are screwed up, because those are the people we find interesting. The way we categorize mental illness is fascinating from a humanist perspective. We’ve created judgements whether they’re good or bad. A mental illness is really just a different way of experiencing the world and processing that experience.”

A Captivating Creative Process

Robin’s creative process ties in a mixture of her talents, from her ability as an artist to her work as a writer. However, she first begins with an ample amount of research. “I’m really slow,” she admitted. “I read a lot about the subject matter I’m interested in. For Luna, I spent a year folding paper reading about personal transformation, and letting go of things that bothered you. I spent about a year and a half immersing myself in the data of those environments. I read a lot of fairy tales, the Grimm’s and more from other cultures. I thought about our origin stories.”

Once Robin is finished with her research phase, she begins to flesh out her world with concept art and detailed notes. “I do concept art and writing in my notebooks, which turns into mechanics and sketches,” she explained. “I talk to the rest of the team about where I want the emotional content to be, the mechanics, art, themes, and music. I give them a kind of package. My art director starts drawing right away, and we meet up a couple times to discuss the emotional highlight of the experience, technical constraints, and how I want it to work on the prototypes. It gives me a lot of time to talk to other people.”

From Designing Games to Developing Curriculum

In addition to her work in gaming, Robin also teaches at UC Santa Cruz, where she developed a Bachelor’s program in Art, Games & Playable Media, and directs a Master’s program in Digital Art and New Media. “When I came back to San Francisco after Journey, and we started Funomena, I talked about what we wanted to contribute, what we wanted to give back,” she recalled. “I wanted to volunteer, and I wanted to teach.” She developed a curriculum around her first class, called Fundamentals of Play, and now her undergrad program is the fastest-growing on campus. “I love teaching, because I learn every year,” she expressed. “I get to interact with people who are making games and studying feminism, the environment, managing finances, and trying to solve hard problems. It’s the best of both worlds, because I’m a practicing artist who teaches. That’s brings it full circle.”

Robin is also invested in bringing women and minority groups into the gaming space, volunteering with movements such as Amplifying New Voices and Girls Make Games. “I came from a computer science background, where I was the only girl,” she explained. “While it didn't bother me at first, eventually I realized that it really needed to change.” On her first excursions to industry conferences and events in the early 2000's, Robin was appalled at the amount of booth babes in the venues, and at how women were being represented in games. “I started engaging people on that topic, asking, ‘Why do your advertisers have all these booth babes?’” she recalled. “Everyone deserves to feel welcome.”

Making a Difference

Robin decided to make a concrete difference in her studio, Funomena, by taking an inclusive stance in hiring staff. “I wanted to push the boundaries of who I hire, as diversely and inclusively as possible,” she said. “I want to build environments where people feel safe.” Robin likewise encourages women to broaden their presence in the gaming sphere by speaking out against harassment and putting their best foot forward. “I'd like to encourage women to be brave. Be yourself, go out there and do your best. Let people know if they make you uncomfortable. Speak out, be honest, and demand the right to feel safe.”

Between her background as an artist, writer, computer scientist, A.I. researcher, and game developer, Robin has brought her talents to a realm that she believes is ready for women’s presence. “We need more women to step up and take risks,” she stated. “To try to do what they feel is creatively important within the scene. Now is our time.” We couldn’t agree more. Go out there and get ‘em, ladies!