Psychology Alumna Is One Of Technology’s Most Influential Women

Erin Robinson Swink, Artsci’08, was a first-year psychology student in 2004 living in Adelaide Hall when she started designing video games as a way to avoid studying for exams.

Surprisingly that procrastination has evolved into a successful career as in independent video game designer.

In 2011, Erin was named one of the most influential women in technology by the tech website Fast Company (link is external). Her game Gravity Ghost (link is external) is being developed for PlayStation 4 and she recently started work as the creative director at the University of California Santa Cruz (link is external)’s master's degree program in games and playable media.

She never took computing at Queen’s but managed to teach herself game design while studying in Kingston. Erin credits her psychology degree for helping her better understand what a player might be thinking when playing a game and also feels the hours she spent writing for Golden Words (link is external) helped her find her voice.

She took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her Queen’s experience and what it is like to be an independent video game designer.

Question: You started designing games while at Queen’s, but surprisingly you were a psychology student and not at the Queen’s School of Computing. Tell us how you broke into the industry.

Answer: I started making games from my dorm room in Adelaide Hall as a first year (I think I was procrastinating on my exams, if we're being honest). I'd loved games as a kid, especially point-and-click adventure games like King's Quest. But by the time I got to university, there were few studios making the kinds of games I wanted to play. I was nostalgic for those older games, and I thought, "Why wait for someone else to make what I want? I'll just do it myself."

I joined an internet forum for game developers, posted some of my art, and said, "Anyone want to help me make this?" Fortunately, people did! About eight months later I released my first game, Spooks. And while I no longer make adventure games, my guiding principle is the same: I just try to make the kinds of games I want to play.

During my entire time at Queen's, I was writing and drawing comics for Golden Words. I knew it was the only weekly humor publication in Canada, and it was part of the reason I chose to come to Queen's, believe it or not. I didn't have any ambitions to make games when I first arrived, I just knew that I liked writing comics. 

The editors at Golden Words deserve a lot of credit for helping me find my voice. During my first year, about 3/4 of what I submitted was rejected outright. The next year it was about half. By fourth year I was the Senior Staff Writer. That experience helped me land a publishing deal for my first commercial game, Puzzle Bots. When that game was finally finished in 2010, I founded my own company: Ivy Games.

Question: You have written articles about the intersection of neuroscience and video games. How does your psychology background from Queen’s help you in the video game world?

Answer: It helps in lots of ways, some large, some small. The biggest advantage to having a psychology background is having some base understanding of what people find rewarding. A lot of game design is making educated guesses. For example, I might think, "It'd be fun for the main character to have a double jump, because that will help them explore new parts of the level." If you're going to spend the time and money to implement a new feature, you'd better have a reason to think it'll be fun. 

Another big advantage is knowing about different learning styles. Every player comes to a game with a different ability level. You can't make one thing that suits everyone, but if you playtest with dozens of different people, you develop a feeling about what's fun about your game. Exploration is a big motivator. So is collection. So is completion (though not, as it turns out, for everyone). It's an invisible art.

I also try to reward curiosity in as many ways as I can.  In Gravity Ghost, players might ask themselves, "Can I get the character into a steady orbit where I don't have to give input?" and I reward that by saying, "Yes you can! Here's an achievement for doing that for a long time."

Finally, I try to provide a lot of engagement hooks, and that is especially true for the story. People are really, really good at filling in the blanks when you give them incomplete information (pretty sure I learned that in psych class). 

So in Gravity Ghost, I tried to tell a story in as few scenes as possible, and left a lot of things for the player to figure out on their own. I figured the player would chew over the pieces of the story in their mind – "Why did he say that? Why did she run away?" – while they played through the levels where they run and jump on planets.

Question: You have developed some great video games. Which one is your favourite?

Answer: It's a tie between Gravity Ghost (link is external) and Fair Play (link is external). Gravity Ghost because I managed to make something really weird and personal that still managed to reach people. Despite being the farthest thing from a traditional video game (there's no killing, no dying, and no way to fail), our reviews are 97% positive on Steam, which makes me very happy. And I'm proud of Fair Play because it's a game that has already made a difference in the world. 

Fair Play was the result of a $2 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to reduce implicit bias in STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, math, medicine). I was the lead designer of that game almost from its inception. Because of my background in both psychology and game development, I could read academic papers and think about how to turn that data into an interactive system. It was a colossal challenge: how do you make a game about something most people would rather not think about, i.e. their own racial biases? So we created this very human story about a Black grad student named Jamal who is going through all the normal trials of climbing the academic ladder – on top of dealing with implicit racism. 

The game made a real connection with people, and it ended up decreasing implicit bias in players. In a study conducted after the game was complete, the researchers found that playing the game had a stronger bias reduction effect than just reading about the same topic. 

It's still an ongoing area of research, but it seems like there's something about embodying a character in a video game that helps people feel empathy. Even children who played our game gained a surprising amount of insight. A University of Wisconsin staff member who worked on the game shared this quote from an 11-year-old boy after he played it: "It made me realize that I could be hurting other people's feelings without knowing. But now that I realize it, I can do better." 

When I heard that, it was one of my proudest moments as a game designer.

Question: How did it feel to be named one of the most influential women in technology in 2011 by the tech website Fast Company (link is external)?

Answer: It was quite the honour! At that time I had only just released my first commercial game, Puzzle Bots. I wasn't sure if the game had made it onto anyone's radar, but apparently it had! That was very validating. It made me think that games could be my actual career, rather than a flight of fancy to try for a year or two.

Question: You were recently named Creative Director at University of California Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media (link is external). What do you hope to achieve in that role?

Answer: My main responsibility is to help the masters students make good games. We are part of the Baskin School of Engineering, and a computer science background is required for all students. However, many are making video games for the first time. It's easy to get distracted by technical problems and forget that we're supposed to be making entertainment. So they have me checking in all the time to help make sure their games are fun for players.

I'm very happy to say that UC Santa Cruz has also encouraged me to continue developing my own independent games. They've made it clear that they support me continuing to build weird experimental games, as well as commercial ones, which is pretty much a dream come true. I'd like to continue traveling and speaking around the world, and finding ways to encourage young people who want a career in games. 

Making games is difficult, but the challenges are different every day. And it's really a lot of fun. People don't believe me, but it's true: making games can be a lot more fun than playing them.