It’s hard to have a conversation with Robin in under five minutes. It’s not that she can’t keep chatter short. It’s because her inquisitive nature is always pumping you for more information. If you work and play in the interactive entertainment industry, you’ve probably seen her speak on one of dozens of video game panels. Robin’s online journal, gewgaw, documents her academic and industry explorations in game design, implementation and marketing. Having made her bed in games, I impatiently wait for her to lay in it. What’s to come is certainly going to be a learning experience for us all.
How many careers have you had? What is your current title?
I've had a few jobs here and there (waitress, shopgirl, teacher, freelance web monkey, writer, photographer). But my *career* has always been school. My PhD work is in Computer Science. I study AI and Video Games. My current title is ABD - which means I'm pretty close to waitressing full time. But you'll all have to call me Dr. Fantastic to get that milk shake, honey.
What project will you be working on next?
Right now, I’m finishing my dissertation – which is about using AI to make games adjust in real time to an individual player. After that – I hope to go into the games industry (food service is my fallback).
Your house is burning down. What one possession (aside from human/animal life) would you grab on the way out?
Well...too many comics to carry, no estate jewelry or treasure maps to speak of...I guess it would be my photo negatives (which are archived in a handy, portable binder) and a couple of rare books (which if you put them all together count as “books” right?). The rest of it can be replaced. Cheaply!
When and how did we meet?
We met after E3, 2003. I missed my plane back to Chicago, then ran into some mutual friends at the hotel who invited me to a BBQ you were throwing in Santa Monica.
We arrived a bit early. Ed and Sharon showed us around (I was so taken with them and their place) and then you came out to the patio. You were carrying ten thousand bags of groceries, smoking and talking all at once. "Holy shit we have to make 50 skewers in like half an hour!"
I remember being stunned by your energy - which was apparent not only in the rapid, animated gestures of your face and body, but in the *constant* monologue that spewed forth from your mouth. I couldn't believe that so much was happening in such a small space! You were a party-planning, skewer-making tornado - in coveralls, adidas and Gucci frames.
But within minutes we were making skewers, chatting like two old ladies, our hands covered in marinade and chicken goo. And before I knew it, the whole night had passed. The food was great, your family was wonderful, friends ditto. If Silvio hadn't gotten to you already, I might have proposed!
You're studying Artificial Intelligence and Video Games. You're almost done. How will you apply your massive education to a paying gig?
A lot depends on where I end up – each company has a different breakdown of roles, tasks and titles. So I’ve been talking to people about my skills and their organizations – and how those mesh. It's been an interesting process - something like an extended, self-guided interview!
So then, what is your dream job?
It’s an amalgam of jobs, I think. Ultimately I aim to be a solid, experienced Producer or Creative Director. Someone who helps shape and steer the design vision of a product, whether that’s talking with marketing folks or working with designers, artists and programmers.
But I have a lot to learn! So my “right now” dream job is a junior production or design role – perhaps a combination, possibly something that leverages my AI background. Finding the right role is important, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about it. But ultimately, I’m interested in people work (as opposed to programming). I’m into people. That’s why I study AI!
Let's back up a little bit. What sparked your interest in AI?
When I was 16, my parents sent me to Cambridge University for a summer program in “the arts”. While there, I saw William Blake's illustrated poems for the first time – and used a computer to alter photos I’d taken. This planted a tiny seed…the idea that I could use machines to communicate or create new things – combine efforts, as Blake had done.
Once in college (at the University of Chicago), I took "Computer Programming as a Liberal Art". The class covered…programming, architecture, poetry, philosophy...all the ways that our daily lives are rich with structure and meaning. Suddenly the seed sprouted – branches reaching to touch almost everything I was interested in!
While finishing my bachelor’s thesis (a small program/story that changed as you read it) I started to hang out in the graduate AI lab. I read some books - including Schank’s “Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding”. And I was hooked!
You mention being inspired by William Blake’s illustrated poems. Who have been your role models? Are there qualities that you admire that you don't necessarily have?
My heroes tend to be “artists” or “designers” - people like Lee Bontecou or Chris Ware, Aphex Twin or Jeb Bishop, Keita Takahashi (designer of Katamari Damacy) or Will Wright. Their work has transformed my sight, hearing, and playing. I admire their ability to communicate through design – which I aspire to do as well.
Can you describe to me a perfect moment?
Being with people you care for, and absorbing/viewing/interacting with any great art. Especially the arts of conversation, cooking and cocktail crafting!
Describe your workstation.
On my office desk I have an LCD monitor with Japanese toys on top ("Monster Teens" by Charles Burns), a webcam, keyboard and mouse. There's a Flip Flap bobbing in the window, a Catwoman Barbie menacing the other toys, a sculpture I made from over 100 BNC connectors. Tons of colorful pens in a mug that says "Mr. Fix It" (a drill forms the handle), and a lead ingot which says “ALPHA” on the top. I am the Alpha Male of my desk!
Weird Science or Blade Runner?
Blade Runner all the way! Robots that are sexy and emotional (we’ll forget for now that they’re homicidal) are the best!
Since we're on the topic of films, AI's been the main focus for a few recent movies such as I-Robot and AI. When you watch these productions what do you think? I mean, is the rhyme and reason right? Or is it all just Hollywood hooloomooloo?
I really liked AI. Many films explore the link between technology and death – usually demonizing what’s new and unfamiliar (Matteo Bittanti wrote a great thesis on movies about video games). But films like AI and Blade Runner contemplate death (loss, really) in conjunction with love and life. They push us to analyze the hopes and fears that fuel our technological practice – which I think is essential to our survival.
Having played and studied so many video games, if you could create one from scratch and technology or money wasn't an issue, what would it be?
I would like to work on a series of short games – vignettes that can be played from multiple perspectives, and collected into a whole to tell a story. That's not a new idea - and I think a lot of people have considered it - but the funding for that kind of game is hard to come by.
Episodic games don’t really fit the current distribution or marketing setup. It’s a risky proposition – and the first few will probably lose money. But we have to explore new models of gameplay in order to expand the market and increase their expressive potential!
So if I had a large sum of money (in the 20's or 30's of millions say), I'd do five episodes and see what happened. Rather – I’d give the money to Warren Spector (who has been promoting this idea for a long time) and ask to be a junior producer on the project!
You're an avid photographer. Is there an emotional connect when you go out and shoot things? Because your photos; many of them are little stories.
Oh definitely! When shooting, I think about everything from light and reflections, to the subject’s personality, or social systems shaping the situation itself. I think about design/composition...and my emotions. Focused photography (and later, arranging photos for display) exhausts me!
So I have a hard time going to social events and bringing my camera - because it’s tiring, and it makes me feel like two people. One wants to participate and be present - the other wants to observe, feel, think. My whole life is shaped by that duality, actually.
You're either living the moment or capturing it!
Yes - trying to make sense of that moment on many levels. "I Heart Huckabees" is about that…learning to understand and participate in your "reality" at the same time. As the Buddha said – it ain’t easy!
But don't you lose some of the moment when you're focused on analyzing it?
I do think you lose something when you focus – on anything. You have to do both – experience and analyze…weave both parts together. AI crystallizes this struggle between being meta (seeing things as patterns, algorithms) and staying grounded in your reality. We must recognize how one shapes the other!
What is the last song that you shamelessly repeated more often than you'd like to admit?
I have been listening to the Arcade Fire, the Junior Boys, Broken Social Scene and Bjork’s Medulla…probably for two weeks straight.
So they're all on heavy rotation?
Yeah. I have them on my tiny flash-memory mp3 player (plugged into my ears right now) on repeat.
Of course you'd tire too quickly of one song on repeat. You have to repeat like 30 songs!
I have favorite tracks, but I like listening to them as records. Each has a real…message and technique. So I'll be bopping along to the Junior Boys, then swoon to some of Bjork's amazing vocal arrangements, and then run smack into the Arcade Fire’s piano tsunami. Like jumping out of a hot tub, into a pool, and then back into the hot tub!
I imagine them in the studio, working on that communication. So that even though I know the songs by heart, they each strike me like a fist, or embrace me like a friend. That communication is intelligence, to me. Our gift, as designers…as people.