Robin Hunicke: “Facebook is a game”

This is right at the edge of RPS’ mandate, but there’s stuff here which impacts on the PC sphere, and I suspect if Games AI academic turned MySims Lead Designer Robin Hunicke isn’t on your radar yet, she probably should be. It’s also fun to compare and contrast what videogame creatives are like, when watched in conjunction with Paul Barnett’s clip from earlier. Also: since MDA-games theory turned up recently in the Braid’s comment thread, she touches lightly on that before wandering deeper into what interests her. And what interests her, I suspect, will interest you.


  1. ryan in exile says:

    oh gewgaw on rps? this truly is heaven

  2. undead dolphin hacker says:

    i don’t generally listen to industry or designer talks. is this level of nintendo asskissing normal?

    anyway, skip to 15:00 if you want to get right to the facebook thesis.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    Undead Dolphin Hacker: Good name, randomly.

    Basically, yeah, it’s fairly common.


  4. Jack Monahan says:

    It only sounds like ass-kissing to gamers hamstrung by concepts of console/brand loyalty. She mentions a couple of DS titles with interesting summaries, while the “warrior in a war-torn land” is 95% of what “gamers” play–the Wii is a runaway success because they made a conscious choice to go after the people not normally catered to by the existing market of games. Your mom, for instance.

    What she’s saying is right. From a gamer perspective it sounds like she’s trumpeting the Wii and DS, but from creative design perspectives (which is what industry conferences like this are about), it’d be ridiculous for her to be talking about anyone else. Plus, she’s worked on a Wii title, and I’m pretty sure we want people to talk about what they know.
    While myself or many other designers in the industry might still be wholly given over to games that fall under “warrior in a war-torn land”, and will continue to do so forever, Nintendo got out there and decided to make their own markets out of the larger populace. Which is why Wiis are still a little hard to find in places, yet you could build small huts out of the PS3s left in stock.

    Anyhow, pretty great talk. She’s very well spoken and has a wonderfully commanding and professional stage presence. Her MDA structure is an excellent structure for formal approach to game design.

  5. KING says:

    Did anyone else not learn anything after watching that? I would also argue that her A is really the D and the D is a part of the M, or possibly a new letter, like Z or something.

  6. Harold says:

    Loved it, despite the fact that the slide flow was real bad in this video.

  7. leafdot says:

    @KING – I think the idea was that M was the structure in which D happened (via player) and A was the resultant experience for the player. Which seems pretty reasonable.

    What I took away from the facebook part was, maybe that’s why I’m not on facebook. (Though I am on flikr, so maybe not.) The gaming parts of socializing have always bothered me.

    Also made me wonder, has anybody ever made a game based on losing? Not just the whole Dwarf Fortress “losing is fun” idea, but a game where losing was not just the norm but the only ultimate aesthetic accomplishment? There are books, movies like this. But I’m not aware of a game that does.

  8. Robin says:

    Well, I’ve got no idea what that was supposed to be about. Surely online communities having game-like characteristics isn’t news to anyone at this point?

    Presumably the designers of Animal Crossing would be able to explain it better.

  9. Muzman says:

    Yeah, what was the context for this talk and who’s generally in the audience? It sounded like she wasn’t talking to game designers but software and interface designers in general, trying to show them how game design concepts have wider applications. Well, some of the time. (I guess I could look it up)

  10. Krupo says:

    Sounds kind of preachy. *geek preachy. Sort of interesting but it goes on and on and on. And then, “that’s it”. Um, weak ending.

    Edit: oh wow, first time I played with the edit function. Very cool.

  11. Dinger says:

    Indeed, it’s an interesting contrast to Barnett’s piece. Barnett makes some exaggerated claims to provoke (“video game people make the analogy to movies only because they want to be cool”, akin to saying “if cooking were an art, I’d have fried these courgettes in motor oil.”), and ends up with some standard points:
    A. wild idea developers need a strong producer to keep them under control, and a team of heavy detail developers to implement the good ideas. (as it has always been)
    B. There seems to be a lot of money in the multiplayer world (but has the market been growing?)
    C. The pace of technological change makes games hard, especially when Carmack heads out to the desert.
    D. Vegas Casinos tend to copy each others’ ideas, good and bad. (In the comparison between casinos and games, he left out the conscious exploitation of human addiction?)

    Underneath it all, he seems to be fixed on finding the One Great Path to riches. Still, I give him credit. The rule when making a presentation like that is that, if you don’t enlighten, at the very least entertain. And that’s the business he’s in.

    Hunicke, on the other hand, comes across as almost too sincere – ‘preachy’ it might be, but there’s real emotion there. Her ideas are somewhat inchoate, and seem partly influenced by drinking the Will Wright Electronic Toy Kool-Aid. But she makes a great case for Facebook: for the vast majority of humans, no reward doled out by a computer is going to match that given by another person. When you get people together, they immediately start the task of socializing, and it is a task they inherently enjoy (why? didnĀ“t someone once say that man is a social animal?). So you put them in an environment where they socialize around an activity, and the rewards they give each other propel it.

    One problem here: Malinowski’s model of the Kula Ring was wrong. The shells don’t just move harmoniously from male to male around the circuit of the islands; they are a sign of prestige, and the socially important males are capable of detaining a larger number of prettier shells for longer times than the less important ones. So whenever you create a social space, you create (secondarily) a hierarchy. That hierarchy has to be managed, or it will kill your game (by the way, nice SteamRankings, RPS guys).

    Oh yeah, and MDMA, or whatever it is: here it is again, and people are fighting over what the terms mean. The last time, a distinguished RPS commentator noted that MDA helps focus on the mechanics side, the implementation aspects. Here, Hunicke’s using the same theory to argue for experientially focused design. At the same time, she praises the Wii platform for the new game experiences it brings about, and I ask: this platform of which you speak, is it a mechanic? Or is it, like the environmental factors, a dynamic with which the mechanics you design interact?

    She mentions in passing that you can apply the same analysis to a steak dinner (back to the motor oil, I suppose):

    Okay, so I plan a dinner party. MDA would be:
    M: the specific courses (let’s say Gin Martinis with Norcia boar sausage, Artichoke-Gorgonzola Ravioli with a fresh tomato-and-basil sauce and a bottle of Chianti Classico, grilled porterhouse with truffle oil, potatoes, courgettes and Sagrantino, a green salad, the cheese plate with a Brunello, and some sort of peach torte with a Vin Santo.
    D: the interaction of the guests with the meal, the discussions that take place, at one point the cook saying something silly about motor oil.
    A: the overall experience of the dinner.

    Now wait, you say, ‘M includes the table settings too, and the decor of the room.’
    Does it? Or is it a condition of dinner design? If I only had decent silverware for six people, I wouldn’t invite 14 for such a meal – better to order a stack a pizzas.
    For that matter, where does the choice of guests fit in? Is it an unexpected dynamic if one of the invitees has had a miserable day at work, and brings it to the table? Wouldn’t it behoove the host to react to such ‘dynamics’ and smooth things out?
    In any case, wouldn’t this meal best be enjoyed in an Umbrian villa? Where’s the villa, man?

    In other words, impinging upon all three factors/layers of analysis, there’s the big E: the environment, be it the development environment (tools available, “acceptable mechanics” – aka Barnett’s vodka drink), the “static dynamics” (oooh, what an awful term, the platform, the external factors in the play, the “schoolyard” and other extraludic social structures), and the target demographic (expectations, biases, social norms, level of testosterone poisoning).

    Now excuse me, but I’m hungry all of a sudden.

  12. Kieron Gillen says:

    Good work, Dinger, by the way.


  13. Muzman says:

    In that analogy, using her definitions, I’d think A was the quality of the ingredients, their preparation and presentation and the quality of the service.
    The overall experience of the dinner would be the resultant combination of M, D & A (assessing which is of course a kind of aesthetics too, but you know what I mean). But good read none the less.

  14. KING says:

    There’s nothing more psuedo-science than Software Engineer.

    Actually, scarp that. I forgot about homeopathy and astrology.

  15. Darius K. says:

    For reference, here’s the “official” MDA site run by Marc LeBlanc, who as far as I know originally came up with the concept.