Critical Design and Orangutans: An Interview with Hanna Wirman

Interview by Anna Faelens
Discord: blueberry23

I had the pleasure of interviewing Hanna Wirman, Head of Study Programme for Games at ITU, course manager for Making Games and Playable Media, critical game designer and jam organiser. Whereas her introduction makes her out as a woman wearing many hats — and I’m certain she does — her areas of expertise are closely intertwined. Read on to learn more about how she cartwheels along the lines between research and design.

Hi, Hanna! Thank you for letting me interview you. First off, I was wondering, how did you become a games scholar?

Me and my friend wrote our master’s thesis at the University of Lapland. We wanted to study the gender aspect of games, and, yeah, that’s how we got started. When I was around 23, people at the university recognized we might be able to do more research, and we got into some projects, went to international conferences, took on some teaching duties, and so on. So, quite the conventional trajectory, although it is important for a young person entering that world to get support from a more experienced academic figure. Especially for someone like me, who doesn’t always recognize their strengths.

And of course, luck plays a big role. If you don’t have the money to fund your PhD, you need external funding. When I first applied for PhD funding in Finland, I did not get it, I believe because the field of game studies was still underdeveloped at the time. Then I got funding from Bristol, and from there on I was able to continue my research more independently.

How do you combine being a scholar with being a developer?

The very first research project I worked on also had a game development component. That game, a location-based mobile game called TriX, will be part of an exhibition at The Finnish Game Museum this autumn. The goal was to study existing games, but also to create a serious game meant to educate young people about democratic decision-making. Because the concept was very different from what existed at the time, we had to think critically, and with an academic mindset, about what design decisions to make. You don’t just explore and create prototype after prototype, but you document and justify every decision you make.

So, design is closely interlinked with research. Especially when designing serious games, because you need an expert for every domain that the game is linked to. The game does not only need to be fun, but it also needs to have the intended effect on the target audience. That is why, for the longest time, serious games were not successful: Some of the areas of expertise were simply missing. Educators were making games, but they did not have experts in game design. Or software developers were making games without the expertise of educators or other domains. Nowadays, we have more holistic teams where experts from all required areas are present.

Later during my career I moved from researching and creating games by myself to creating environments where others can do the same. Together with good friends, I started the Global Game Jam in Hong Kong. It turned out to be one of the biggest Global Game Jam sites year after year. In 2014, I ran Orangujam, where we let high schoolers create games for orangutans. Here at ITU, Pawel Grabarczyk and I have been the Danish leads for a Northern European project that runs game jams focusing on sustainability (NASG).

Do you have any parting advice for students interested in Critical Design?

Hmm, it’s difficult to give general advice about Critical Design, because many graduates from ITU ultimately want to be a part of the commercial world. I think doing experimental, fringe projects while trying things out is beneficial to anybody’s career. Who knows, maybe such projects become financially successful in addition to bringing interesting knowledge to your practice, but they are not likely to be the ones that bring you a stable income. So, it would be best to find a middle ground where the ideas of Critical Theory inform a responsible approach to design in general. Of course, it depends on where you want to go after your studies. Being in academia, I have the luxury of doing all kinds of quirky projects as long as they are related to play. Ultimately, I do believe that doing unusual and unconventional projects is beneficial for learning about the world and one’s craft.