Updates and Plans for January

administrative, autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

First post of 2018! First, some updates, then, some research work.

Here’s what’s going on with me and my work currently:

— I have applied for a legal name change. Update your contact lists — you should now have me as Jess Rowan Marcotte!

— My partner and I are likely moving in the next few months.

— Got a number of papers and conference proposals in.

— I will continue to work as part of the Reflective Games research group this spring. So far, I’m continuing to focus on larps and theatre. Right now, I’m thinking through and researching the “language” and “mechanics” of short-handing information in nanolarps. More writing on this to come soon, I think!

— I’ve submitted my dissertation proposal along with a two and half year timeline for completing my thesis-related creative work, autoethnographic study, archival practices, and the dissertation detailing all of this. This work will begin in earnest on February 1st, pending my updated ethics certificate and hopefully receiving a passing grade for the proposal.

— I am spending January tying up a few loose ends, setting up a museum exhibit that I helped to curate at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener-Waterloo called INTERPLAY: Thinking Through Games (see the exhibit description here: https://themuseum.ca/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/digital-dynamics-2018/interplay/), and running and participating in Global Game Jam 2018 at the TAG location.

— I have been reading more on autoethnography, which continues to prove itself to be a method with deep ties to intersectionality and feminism. My latest readings (& re-readings) have been Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research by Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis (Oxford UP 2015), Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life edited by Robin M. Boylorn & Mark P. Orbe (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2014), and Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2008).

Heewon Chang’s work has been the most useful from a practical “how do I get started” standpoint, and, with that in mind, I’ve adapted some of the exercises from Autoethnography as Method as I begin collecting what Chang calls “personal memory data.” My goal for January is to try and get as much of the preliminary investigation into personal memory data as possible finished. So, this blog is going to be a mix of personal memory data posts and Reflective Games research for a while.

One of the differences between much of the autoethnographical work I have been reading and what I am undertaking in my dissertation is that my focus is primarily on my identity as a creator and game designer. What I mean to say is that the group that I am studying are game designers, not members of a marginalized group or who necessarily share a particular identity beyond the fact that they are designers and academics working in the field of games and game studies — and those identities are far from unified wholes. That’s not necessarily totally different from what other autoethnographers are doing, but there are some key differences in the kind of subject matter I’ll be addressing. I wasn’t “born” as a part of this group in the way that I was born into other identities. My own positionality and intersections (and those of others) will of course be a part of this research, but nevertheless, many of the exercises suggested have to be adapted.

The exercise that I’ve decided to start off my personal memory data collection process with is from Chapter 5 of Autoethnography as Method — it’s Exercise 5.6: “List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”

Using this exercise as a starting prompt, I’ve decided to do multiple lists of artefacts with a focus on my identities as a player and as a designer. I’m planning to write a little bit about each artefact, and I’ve decided that I’ll place them first in a chronological order, and then later try to rank them by order of importance. I’m also going to write as much as comes out, drawing connections and pointing out gaps for future exploration or thoughts that are in tension as I go. This part of the process will be of course be in danger of being in large part revisionist, but knowing what I think is important in this moment and having some thoughts about why I think that’s the case should still be helpful. So, look out for a series of artefact lists related to play, digital play, and game design coming your way in the next little while.

Thanks for reading! Here comes a lot of dissertation work!

Reflective Games: This Just In! playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

As you might have realized from my posts over these past few months, I’ve been working with and researching larps since October or so. Last week, I ran my first larp, a pre-made nanolarp called “Abattoir” — you can read my previous post about that here.

This Just In! materials

This Just In! mindmap from development

In the time since then, I set a deadline for myself to create my own nanolarp. From start to finish, including the discussion before the game and the debrief afterwars, this larp should take around forty-five minutes to play.

For a long while, while reading up on all these topics, I struggled to find a topic that I could explore in a short larp for the reflective games group to play. Last week, when I finally sat down to do some brainstorming and create a mindmap, the tumblers fell into place in the lock and in about an hour, I had the basics of the game decided and put into place. I just had to develop characters and a self-contained ruleset based on my research.

This morning, I playtested the larp with the Reflective Games group.

In a nutshell, this is a larp about subjectivity and how different networks “spin” the news – there are overarching, oversimplified narratives that show up time and time again in news stories.

You can read, or even play, the entire larp here on itch.io. Here’s a ringing endorsement from one of the players who playtested with me this morning:

“Thank God I didn’t go to journalism school.”

A little more on how the playtesting went:

The players appreciated the flow of information — it stimulated their conversation and added a good level of complication. Players were aware of the kinds of news narratives they were reproducing as they were producing them, which created a kind of unease. For some players, they avoided bringing up certain narratives deliberately (i.e. mental health), while other players said that they embraced their role and said whichever shitty thing came to mind.

When asked to tell me about something memorable that happened during play, players highlighted these occurrences:

* Trying to negotiate the meta and self-awareness around the topic of mainstream news outlets was satisfyingly awkward. One player said that this felt like it was probably pretty true to what happened in these kinds of spaces, with “edgy” content slowly grounded down until it had no edge.
* The news team agreed, at Station Management’s insistence, that they should not mention the “alt right” in the news cast, since it might alienate some of their viewers. During the news cast, “alt right” accidentally slipped out, and the reaction from Station Management (shock) and the Young Idealist (Pulitzer! Pulitzer!) was very satisfying.
* The alarm that signaled the end of the discussion was surprising and memorable when it came – one player felt that this was a nice moment.

Here’s some of the feedback that players provided to improve the game:
About the news cast at the end, players suggested that perhaps they might be able to work jointly on a kind of teleprompter script or to have players take notes. I’ve decided not to go that route, but have decided to encourage the newscaster (who needs to deliver the news report) to take notes. Additionally, the folk in the Reflective Game group suggested that I emphasize that they will indeed have to give a sixty second report at the end of the game.

There were some adjustments to be made in terms of the instructions for the players to let them know what they ought to be doing. From my own observations, I decided to make it explicit that players should introduce themselves, and have added in a warm-up exercise to get players into character and more comfortable with the play.

On the whole, I’m quite satisfied with how this larp played, although I’m aware that the people who played with me this time around were an ideal audience, and that the game might play differently with another group. That’s just how larps work, I guess.

For now, I’ve decided to release this as a prototype with the one “tragedy” that I ran today. In the future, I would like to develop other situations and create a deck that could be shuffled, or a table of results which could be chosen from with dice rolls.

Reflective Games: My First Time as a Larp GM

reflective games, research

This morning, for the reflective games group, I ran “Abattoir” (also known as Heiferdammerung) by Mike Young and Scott David Grey. You can find it here. This nano larp is meant to last around ten minutes. The original game has nine playable characters, but this morning, there were only five of us including myself. Here are some brief notes.

I’ve got a fair bit of experience as a tabletop gamemaster, but this was my first time running a larp.

I used the opportunity to try out a number of nordic larp techniques and approaches to framing a game that I haven’t used formally before. It feels like the sort of opt-in that I often frame my games with, however, so it felt comfortable enough. After I cast the four players, I started off by offering a little bit of information on the themes of the game — this wasn’t exactly a content warning. Content warnings are not usual for most larps, from what I have seen in my research, because it is difficult to know, especially in something freeform, what topics might arise. Instead, there are rules and systems that larpers put into place to deal with difficult content as it arises and afterwards, once the game is finished. Specifically, the systems that I’m thinking of are the “cut/break” system, which players can use to redirect or interrupt the game, and the “Debrief” period after the end of the game.

Last week, I gathered together a set of rules cobbled together from some of the sources I’ve been reading for the kinds of larps that I would like to run. I’ve gathered that information here.

So, after the content warning, I explained the concepts of “break” and “cut” and how to use them. In terms of physical boundaries, I suggested that this time around we have a no-touch larp, since it didn’t seem necessary for the sake of the story, and then I opened up a discussion about boundaries. Knowing that it can be hard to figure out what to say at that point, I tried to give the players enough time to think about what subjects or topics that might arise and what they were up for or not. What that wound up meaning this time around is that one player decided to observe rather than play given the subject matter. I think this underscores the importance of creating opportunities for players to opt out, and talking about the themes of a larp even if you can’t quite give completely accurate content warnings. I had to rethink my casting choices a little bit, and decided that I would be a GMPC, which is to say that I would play a character in the game as well as run it.

The space that we ran the game in was set up for a meeting, with eight interconnected tables arranged in a square, with an empty central space. The creators suggest running the game in an open field, but one wasn’t readily available in the immediate environs of downtown Montreal, and our time was limited.

This was a good first experience in terms of learning when to wait (which in this game, was responsible for quite a lot of the tension, I think), when to cut/go to the next part of the game, and when to improvise. To make the game run smoothly with so few players, I had to occasionally add in information or events. For example, all the players managed to dodge the winches and hooks that were meant to capture them. As a result, although they could not go backwards, there was not necessarily any incentive for them to go forward. I considered ending the game there, with them waiting, but instead introduced an event with a non-player character that one of the player characters had an attachment to, which worked to urge them further into the abattoir.

The players remarked on the tension between knowing approximately what happens in an abattoir and trying to think and behave like a cow. One player also noted in our debrief that it was largely possible for this to be played in such a short amount of time because most people are at least a little bit familiar with the subject.

I think this is an important note for the nanolarp that I will be designing this week, to be played next Wednesday, the 13th. I’m trying to delineate a topic with the idea that it might be good for the group to have some general, common knowledge about it in mind. More on this soon!