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Videogames Mon Dec 13 2010

Chicago's Indie Video Game Darling, Erin Robinson

This story was written by Fruzsina Eordogh.

erin_robinson.jpgThe video game industry has grown exponentially over the last decade, enough to now top the film industry by billions of dollars. Much like the film industry, an indie video game scene has emerged, complete with its own annual festival. Chicago has its own indie video game darling, Erin Robinson, whose newest game, Puzzle Bots, won at PAX 10 (the Penny Arcade Expo).

Robinson enjoys designing video games with a retro "old-timey feel because nothing ever happens suddenly; it's very safe game play." ("And the bigger the pixels the more indie your game is," she jokes.) Robinson also writes and creates artwork for video games — she recently did the artwork for Blackwell Unbound — draws comics, and even makes Portal-inspired earrings.

I first met Robinson at Columbia College's 3G Summit, a four-day event aimed at getting more women involved in the video game industry. Robinson's team of high school girls won the 3G Indie Expo Challenge with 3 Flags Escape, a scary carnival adventure/shooter game featuring "frenemies" and acid-puking bears. Robinson is confident 3 Flags Escape would be a popular game if it was ever developed.

I recently interviewed Robinson regarding her entry into video game design and getting more women involved in the industry.

First off, congratulations on winning at PAX! What was that like?

It was like a dream. The game industry is really small, and the indie game industry is really really small, but it got to the point where I was being introduced to people who worked in the mainstream industry with corporate jobs and they wanted to know who I was, and that was really exciting.

The indie video game scene now gets its own festival — which you presented at recently! Has it been weird watching indie games hit mainstream culture?

Yeah, it has been, because it's this weird little hobby of mine — and all of a sudden I was reading this article in the NYT about this Swedish indie game developer friend of mine, and all of these big name publications are taking an interest in indie games — it's completely surreal.

When did you first get interested in designing games?

I've always wanted to design games, and I have sketches from when I was a little kid of Commander Keen, and I had pictures of "this is what it looks like," and "this is what is should look like," so I've always had an interest in designing games. In my first year at university I was lamenting that fact that all the games coming out were shooters, or the reiteration of the same theme — all space marines, and those didn't appeal to me, so I thought I would make my own.

How did you make the switch from wanting to become a psychology professor to being a video game developer?

I was working in a lab and at one point the professor who I was working under called me into his office and said, "It's clear to me that there's something else you're rather be doing." And I said, "Oh, I guess you're right," and I went home and worked on my game. That's all I could talk about.

Originally when I started making games, I didn't tell any one that I was designing games — I thought it was super geeky and a lot of my friends didn't even know. Even the people I was drawing cartoons with — cartoons are fine, but video games?

Why were you ashamed to tell people that you made games?

I don't know, I just thought it would be weird to explain to people that in my free time I like sitting around drawing a bunch of pictures. I'm making a game with a ghost girl and yesterday I sat there for four hours animating her skirt swaying as she walked - it's kind of a weird pursuit. Certainly not one that I thought would be marketable in any way. But all that has all changed. When I started getting good press, it all changed. I thought to myself, "Someone went into this weird little game world I created, and liked it?"

I can understand not wanting to tell people. I am sometimes embarrassed to tell people I play and write about video games.

There is definitely that opinion that it is a waste of time to play video games, and I don't agree with that. It's just another form of entertainment — you don't see anyone getting up in arms over how movies are a distraction from real life, or a departure from reality, at least not any more, do you?

Do you plan on doing anything to combine psychology and video games?

Not that I planned it this way, but I think there is an overlap between psychology and video games. Just thinking about the types of choices you get to make in games, and why would that be enjoyable for somebody. Games mimic reality and can put you in situations where you have extreme power... part of the thing that makes games so appealing is that they're safe, right? You can do all these things you couldn't do in real life in an enclosed environment and you're never going to get hurt.

I actually plan on delving into the neuroscience behind games at this year's GDC [Game Developers Conference] in China, and I plan on tying in the process in which people learn new skills. It's not as simple as you practice until you get better -- there is this difference between someone who is a novice at something and someone who is an expert, and it is the process by which that happens that is really interesting to me. The brain pathways involved with reward and memory are what I studied ... and my college thesis was on spatial memory and how the experiences you have can be translated into memory and how memories can be made stronger.

What are your thoughts on the rise of casual and social media games like Bejeweled and Farmville?

Casual games only really came out about six years ago, and they're very popular with women, and older women. At last year's GDC, it was revealed the average player was, shockingly, a conservative, 45-year-old white woman. If you ask the women who play these games "Are you a gamer?" she'd look at you as if you are crazy. I don't think these women think of the casual games as "video games," but when you start one up [you're] thinking it will only be a 10 minute experience but then you play for two hours.

The main goal of the 3G Summit was to get more women involved with the gaming industry. Have you noticed this gender gap in your work?

There absolutely is a gender gap in the gaming industry, and there are a couple of reasons for that — and I don't want to get into it as it is well trodden ground. I was really shocked to go to these gaming events and to find almost no women there. It is changing, though — as more girls grow up loving video games, they'll want to go on and create them. So that is really encouraging and I do want to encourage other young women to think of it as a career option. I certainly didn't think about it when I was in high school, because it didn't seem like a proper job. Most women at video game companies are not in creative roles, which is unfortunate. I wish more were involved with design, because it is fun.

Many feminists decry the hypersexualization of women in video games, with many saying this is the reason women aren't as interested in video games. Do you have any issues with the way women are depicted in video games?

I don't care about the sexualization in video games. People always want to know my opinion on that, and it's an art choice — people have always been interested in depicting the ideal human form. I don't think there has to be anything malicious about it.

I've been hanging out a lot with these girls from Sugar Gamers — they have their own space downtown, a clubhouse where you can go to hang out — and I was playing this fighting game with this one girl and she said, "I don't care what she looks like, I always pick this character because she kicks ass."

I met some Sugar Gamers at the Marvel vs Capcom Fight Club event here in Chicago. I've always been wary of joining a "girl gamer" group — there are no "guy gamers." But at the same time, I understand the need to band together when the game community marginalizes female gamers.

Yeah, it's easy to be the only woman in your circle of friends who play video games. It's not so common a pastime among women, so you need to actively find them.

How do you feel about the video game industry (or lack thereof) in Chicago?

I've been trying to build up the indie game scene here in Chicago [through the Indie City Game Jam], and I've been working with DePaul University where we meet every month or so and it's an open event where you can bring what ever you are working on. We recently had a game jam where we had six different games get made in two weeks. It was really fun to be a part of that. We voted on a game theme and we decided it would be things that fly, and I always liked double jump, but what about triple jump, or fourth jump? I wanted to design something that wasn't an adventure game, something I haven't done before.

Dude Icarus, a game developed at the Indie City Game Jam, is available online. Robinson's other games can be played at her website,, and Puzzle Bots recently became available at Steam.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Uncle John / October 15, 2013 5:27 PM

Way to go Erin.
God Bless!

Uncle John

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