The Intentional Play movement is aimed at inspiring developers to create games that have a bigger purpose than fun. It’s for developers who want to create learning, understanding, and a meaningful purpose behind their work. Among the believers is Robin Hunicke, the CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based indie game studio Funomena.
She has been making games for more than 12 years and is director of the Art, Games & Playable Media BA at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Hunicke will be speaking at the Intentional Play Summit in Mountain View, Calif., at the Computer History Museum on Friday. Hunicke’s company is making experimental games such as Luna (a virtual reality title for the Oculus Rift), Woorld (an augmented reality game based on Google’s Tango technology), and Wattam, a zany game for the consoles.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Above: Luna’s lush environment in VR. Image Credit: Funomena/Oculus
GamesBeat: What are you up to lately?
Robin Hunicke:[laughs] Not much. I went to the White House. I was there South by South Lawn. I just came back for Oculus Connect.
GamesBeat: At Intentional Play you have a talk, right?
Hunicke:I’m on a panel about the future of intentional play and design for intentional play with Katherine Isbister and Jamin Warren.
GamesBeat: What does that mean, intentional play?
Hunicke:The idea is that when you design games, you can design them with the experience in mind. That means you design them with a unique feeling in mind, like we did with Journey or like we’re doing with Luna. Or you can design them with a learning outcome in mind, for example. The Intentional Play Summit is looking at how we can be using games, as well as advanced technologies like VR and AR, to explore ways in which games offer educational experiences, offer experiences where people can have empathy for others, and create better and deeper understandings of different subjects and other people’s true lived experience.
GamesBeat: Does that seem a lot different to you than the older phrase, “serious games”?
Hunicke:I think the idea with intentional play is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a game. Play is a broader concept. It involves thinking about playful approaches to difficult problems. So long as you can get people to engage with the subject and have a conversation with it–maybe there isn’t a score or a way to win or lose. Maybe you’re just playing with a topic or issue. That spurs conversation and creativity and solutions, hopefully.
GamesBeat: What are some more specific examples? What about Journey, would you say, is intentional play?
Hunicke:Journey started off with the idea that we wanted to create a unique connection between strangers online. A lot of games at the time, online games, involved getting together and accomplishing a task with a lot of other people, but they weren’t really about being with those people in the space so much. We wanted to build a game that didn’t just have chat or voice communication. We wanted to build a game where you would spend time with each other in a way that was meaningful. At the end of the game, when you played through with someone else, you felt like you’d developed a relationship with them that was more special. That was an intentional part of the design.
At UC Santa Cruz, where I’m teaching now — Arts, Games, and Playable Media is the B.A. I’m working with – we focus on the idea that if you start with a feeling in mind, the aesthetic outcome of the game, you can work backward through the mechanics, which are the rules that create that feeling. A lot of games are designed at the beginning, with those rules, and eventually they produce a feeling in the player that’s hopefully a good one. But if you want to be intentional about design and give people a specific experience, you have to start with that end in mind. You have to start with that final goal and make all your decisions about what you include and how you build the game from that outcome.
GamesBeat: Do you have a general theme for the games you’d like to create with this method?
Hunicke:Personally, I enjoy making games that involve creativity and self-expression. I’m interested in autobiographical narrative and the ways we tell our stories. Retelling your story over and over can be a healing process.
Luna, for example, which we’re showing here, is different from other games in that you can’t go back in time and undo your mistake. You can’t get revenge. The little bird in the game gets blown off course by making a mistake and has to learn to tell its story to other characters and rebuild its world one level at a time, until it gets home. I feel like that’s a strong metaphor for the ways we learn from mistakes and grow.
A lot of what we’ve been looking at for Luna is social and emotional learning, looking at adverse childhood experiences and trauma, how people recover from grief. Just thinking about, okay, if we make a game that – at a very abstract level – encourages you to open up and experience your thoughts and your feelings, even when they’re uncomfortable, so that you can process them and let them go, that would be a benefit to humanity. At least in some small way it would make a positive difference.
I like to work on games like that. Journey, for the same reasons, I was very drawn to work on the game with Jenova when he first recruited me. The idea of building a unique connection between people online, to me, would reduce barriers and create empathy. It would create situations where people were playing with someone who, if they knew their age or race or gender or where they were from, maybe they wouldn’t play together. But when all that information is removed, it turns out you have a friend in a 45-year-old woman in Asia who just bought a PlayStation. Who knows?