The arrival of a prominent figure in the gaming industry is poised to influence the way UC Santa Cruz students perceive the intersection of game design and art. As of spring 2015, Robin Hunicke will begin teaching at UCSC as an associate professor of art and game design.
Hunicke’s motivation behind joining the faculty on campus is to teach the idea that gaming is an art form in itself.
“Games are one of the most expressive art forms available to work in today,” Hunicke said.
She is the executive producer of the PlayStation3 game “Journey” — the first game soundtrack to ever receive a Grammy nomination in the Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media category.
“Journey” is representative of Hunicke’s advocacy for gaming as a visual and expressive art form and she hopes to bring this idea to UCSC.
“The games [Hunicke] creates are extremely moving and they connect with you in a really emotional way,” said second-year digital arts and new media (DANM) student Alexandra Riggs. “She’s a role model for me, being a very prominent woman in the games industry and now in the faculty.”
Following her visit with the art department last year, Hunicke and the several faculty members began discussing how the art and gaming departments on campus could collaborate to create games and playable media, a new curriculum for undergraduate students. The curriculum is still waiting to be approved.
Jennifer Parker, associate professor and chair of the art department, is working in collaboration with Hunicke, the art faculty and the computational media department to create the interdisciplinary program.
“She will be giving a voice to games as an art form, which has been missing,” Parker said. “We’ve been offering game-related classes in the art department, but we haven’t had someone who is so embedded in the field as Robin. She’s going to bring current knowledge of the industry.”
Parker hopes this program will allow both game designers and art students to collaborate on each other’s projects.
Stacey Mason was a teaching assistant for Hunicke’s class when she taught on campus last spring. She is currently a first year Ph.D. student in the expressive intelligence studio in the computer science department. The program explores the intersections of artificial intelligence, art and design.
Mason is interested in how literature is changing technology and how computers can tell interactive stories.
“Games are such an expressive medium in a way that I don’t think a lot of others are,” Mason said. “Games provide this level of interactivity and you have a player feel exactly what you want them to feel by enacting something.”
Second-year DANM student Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai said Hunicke is a great addition to the faculty as well, because she adds to the diverse faculty within the interdisciplinary program.
“There should absolutely be more women and more diversity,” Kiai said. “I would like to see more people of color, transgender people and more people of different backgrounds.”
Kiai finds that games tend to be more focused on themes like winning, competition and mastery of skills, but Kiai enjoys looking at what might be considered ugly and uncomfortable.
“I don’t like to limit myself to what the mainstream commercial game industry considers to be a game,” Kiai said. “I’m interested in more personal stories about everyday mundane things and I’m interested in failure and learning to survive with adversity.”
Riggs agrees that encouraging greater diversity in the gaming industry is essential. Recently, a viral movement coined #GamerGate gave many Internet users a chance to voice their concerns surrounding ethics in video game journalism. The movement, however, quickly turned into an anti-feminist crusade where various forms of social media served as a platform to air sexist sentiments against women in the video game industry.
In response to the controversy surrounding #GamerGate, Riggs said the battle within the industry can be combated by featuring more diverse backgrounds and personalities.
“We all have a space not only in this industry but in this sphere of making,” Riggs said. “The idea is to be critical and to be skeptical of games that are demeaning or racist. To do this we need to continue to foster the mindset of making development [for] young women, young people of color and young non-binary genders.”
For Hunicke, the interdisciplinary program will add diversity to the technology industry. One of her main goals while teaching on campus is to create a safe and open environment for students to learn about what game designing means. She said “design is universal” and it should be open to everybody.
“If you look at technology in general and the representation of women in technology, we’re excited to be creating new digital citizens who can participate,” Hunicke said.
Hunicke is now working with Riggs as one of her thesis advisers. Riggs said having Hunicke as part of the campus faculty will be really powerful for future designers on campus, because she challenges what gaming really means in terms of it being an expressive art form.
“If we don’t have a games program that teaches people how to think critically about games, then we don’t encourage people to go outside of what the industry’s standards are,” Riggs said. “It’s about the way we educate people. One of the ways our program is growing is teaching people to create games that are different and teaching people how to be critical about games.”