Interview: Tanya Krzywinska, professor of games

"Games’ ability to enfold you into a fictional space is crucially different to other media"

We got the chance to interview Tanya Krzywinska, the first professor of games in the UK, director of an indie gaming studio, and one of the top 100 women in games.

Hi Tanya, tell us a bit about yourself

Hi, I’m Director of the Games Academy at Falmouth University based in Cornwall and I’m also Professor in digital games. I’m also a Director of Round Table Game Studios working on a game that has a strong Lovecraftian theme. I come from a literature/film background, but worked within the computer sector when studying for my MA and PhD. It was there that I learned that my love of visual storytelling would find a new medium of expression in games. As well as designing University-based courses on games, I have written books and many articles on games – particularly focused on horror, gothic and weird games. I’m also an artist and often have to be creative about finding time to paint! I’m currently working on a book entitled Gothic Games, and on a painting project focused on the Wyrd sisters (not the Terry Pratchett books but those of North European mythology who determine the fate of humans).

You’re the UK’s first Professor of gaming and head of the Games Academy at Falmouth University, tell us about that. What are the academy’s main aims and how does it achieve them?

A world-class games development education is our main aim, achieved by giving students a sustained experience working in a studio, working from concept through the delivery, and supported by staff with industry and scholarly expertise. Research is also in the equation, giving weight and purpose to our teaching but also aimed to generate new ideas in terms of game technology and design.

Do you think it’s important that game developers have an academic understanding of games as well as the technical skills required to create them?

It certainly helps game developers to have an understanding of the many factors that inform game-making and how players engage with games, as well as market and socio-cultural contexts. Studying game development isn’t simply about learning how to use software. More than this, it’s about engaging with game-making as both an Art and Science.

Are there any games in particular that made you see the medium’s academic potential?

I’m not sure that games have ‘academic’ potential, more a case of the academic having the potential for informing the development of game media. There are games that I believe ask more questions and test the boundaries of the medium in different ways, however; games such as Silent Hill, Bioshock, The Stanley Parable, Primal and, in some ways, The Secret World. As you can see I do tend to have a personal preference towards a certain genre!

What do you think it is about games that makes them stand apart as an expressive narrative medium?

Games’ ability to enfold you into a fictional space is crucially different to other media. Principally, it’s the fact that games offer the ability to create real choices for players that have ramifications for storyline. This is where the Art of game-making begins.

Describe your ideal game

It has depth, challenge, delights and surprises. It provides an intriguing story, told through game mechanics, graphics and audio in a creative and unpredictable way. It makes me think about and reflect upon what it is to be human, perhaps asking me to make difficult moral choices and importantly those choices shape the trajectory and outcome of events.

Horror games are incredibly popular, and you love them yourself. What do you think it is about being interactively involved in horror that people love so much?

Maybe some people like horror because it’s thrilling and exciting and that might be their principle reason for a love of the genre. For me, it goes a little deeper than that. Horror has the capacity to express fundamental truths of what it is to be an embodied human and the profound effects on our psychology of knowing that death is real. In some ways, horror might be described as a philosophical genre because it asks questions about the ‘other’ (things/beings that are not like us, or that are unknown and enigmatic), and about distinctions between the human and the inhuman, also, about morality, and, ultimately, about what it means to die.

You’re a founder of indie development studio Roundtable Games who are currently creating a game called Deal With the Devil, tell us about the game and its protagonist Amelia. She sounds really interesting.

Amelia © Round Table Games

Deal with the Devil is a Lovecraft-inspired game set within the 1920s. Its central protagonist, Amelia, is a woman in her 30s. She is a strong advocate of women’s rights and bears the scars of a traumatic past. The player joins Amelia’s journey just as she is starting to understand her past and together they’ll face difficult choices, the outcome of which affect Amelia’s development as a character.

As a woman in academics and videogames, what’s your experience been like?

This is a big question! I guess the deepest struggle has been to get games on the academic agenda. While games courses are popping up all over the place now, it was not easy back in the late 90s to persuade University senior management to invest in games courses, mainly because games were not regarded then as important culturally or economically. Very different story now I’m pleased to say.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Moving to Falmouth and having the opportunity to design and develop the Games Academy. My younger self would have found it very hard to believe that such a thing was possible!

If you could give your younger self some advice what would it be?

Sounds like a cliché I know, but follow your passion. Don’t hunt for success, enjoy the journey and feed your soul.

What developments in tech and gaming have you most excited at the moment?

Augmented Reality is by far the most exciting thing upcoming. I look forward to the day that we can get rid of these screens we all stare at all the time and when we can get geometry interacting intelligently with our real spaces. I can’t wait to be able to turn my own house into a haunted house game!