Player Studies: Thoughts about ‘The Riddle Promenade’

critical making, Uncategorized

[This text was submitted to accompany a muse-based game design assignment for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might enjoy reading it. Look out for a postmortem after the game gets playtested a bit! Feel free to sign up for the Google group if you want to play with us!]

A STATEMENT ABOUT THE RIDDLE PROMENADE

The number one lesson that I’ve learned from making a game for my muse, Tom Deliva, is that writing original riddles is quite hard. The premise of The Riddle Promenade is as follows: a riddle is posted to a community of players on Tumblr and through a Google group. Players first solve the riddle and then take the “best” photo that they can in order to represent the answer – they may do so by going out and finding something in their community that represents the answer, by staging their own photo, or by making some other work of art that they can then photograph. There is a deadline for all photos to be sent to the moderator in charge of the game through the Google group so that the riddle isn’t spoiled for anybody. The photos are then posted all at once with the name of the submitter (and their Tumblr if they have one) and players can engage with them as they wish.

Given the information that I gleaned from my player analysis, there are quite a few directions that I could have taken for this design that would probably have worked. As the player analysis shows, Tom plays eclectically. I knew that I didn’t want to create an adversarial design, and I knew that there were aspects of Tom’s personality and day to day reality that didn’t come across in the player analysis. These are aspects that I know about because I’ve been his partner for around a decade, but that are not always easily pinned down and explained. The player analysis is still a good starting point, but sometimes there were decisions that I made that were not based on evidence from the player analysis, or points where I could have gone either way. In those cases, I used the privileged knowledge that I had to make choices, along with my experience as a game designer (such as it is – I’ve been designing games since January 2013). In this design, I was taking aim at a number of goals which I will explain along with the decisions that I made below.

This game doesn’t take place wholly in the digital realm, but nevertheless I was reminded of our readings about social play, specifically the Steinkuehler and Williams piece and the Eklund piece. One of the goals that I am trying to achieve in this game is tying Tom back into communities online and back home, so that Fort McMurray won’t feel so lonely. So, the fact that there is a lot of evidence for the utility of online spaces as third spaces (Steinkuehler and Williams 2006) and as places of community for both family and friends (Eklund 2013) makes me think that if I can get players to participate, this goal will be successfully met.

Since Tom has played widely in all sorts of different genres and types of games, one of my other goals was to surprise him and to test his skills. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to build something very elaborate in terms of mechanics and levels during the course of the class. Although I could have done a vertical slice, I wanted to scope in such a way that there was a complete, playable and scalable version of the game available by the end of this course. I don’t just want to know whether I’m correct in assessing that this game would be a good fit for Tom, I want to actually get it up and running and have him play it for more than just this class.

Additionally, I wanted the game to fit in easily with tools and routines that the players would already have. These are the reasons (time constraints, ease of use for players, the desire to keep the game up and discoverable for new players) why I have chosen to use readily-available tools rather than programming something from scratch.

There are quite a few reasons that I have chosen to use both Tumblr and Google Groups at the same time. For one, Google Groups can be used to send the riddle directly into the players’ inboxes and act as a reminder when the page is updated (something that Tom will appreciate given his schedule). Additionally, if players make their submissions through Google Groups, the moderator can post them all to Tumblr at once rather. The reason to then use Tumblr on top of Google Groups (which could easily handle the mailing list aspects and the photo-sharing) is so that the game is discoverable to new players (who is going to go looking for a game on Google Groups?), so that the rules and other information about the game are easily organized (Google Groups is not ideal for this purpose), and so that the Tumblr page can act as an archive for past photos and riddles.

With all this in mind, I happen to know two key things about Tom: he hasn’t played much in the way of augmented reality games (he, in fact, did not even play Pokémon Go), and he is a fairly bad photographer. So, although I know he probably expected to have his skills tested in terms of strategy, reflexes and other standard video game playing skills, I think having to take “good” photographs will be challenging and skill-testing for him. In this sense, one of my aims is to surprise him, and is a choice that is a bit teasing if not outright adversarial. It questions Tom’s assumptions around what skills are valid in video games.

Another goal for this project is to encourage Tom (and other players) to explore their surroundings. Since Tom is newly arrived to Fort McMurray, Alberta, I hope that this game will be helpful to him in giving him an excuse to wander and get to know the place. That’s the “Promenade” part of The Riddle Promenade. This aspect of the game may or may not be successful because my understanding is the weather has already gotten quite cold out there. Tom also mentioned during our Pathfinder game that he enjoys discovering “information, places and items” and “know[ing] the history and fluff.” Through his exploration, I hope that Tom will be able to engage with the history and local points of interest in Fort McMurray.

Now, anyone with a phone can go for a walk and take pictures. I wanted to give the exploration and the photography a goal and make it more likely that people would actually go take walks and explore. Since one of Tom’s stated interests is puzzles and riddles, I thought that a riddle which was answered with a photograph on a deadline would be a good solution. It’s clear from the success of Instagram and other social media sites that have photo-sharing options (Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr, etc) that people enjoy engaging with each other’s photographs, so this is a proven mechanic that I have decided to leverage in the game.

Additionally, this is a game with a flexible playtime, which, given the fact that Tom now works twelve hour shifts (four days on, four days off) is significant. Tom can think on the riddle while at work on other necessary tasks, and then pick a day to go for a walk for an hour or two in order to take his photograph. The frequency of the riddles and their deadlines may vary, but there will be no more than one a week, which means that Tom will be able to play when he can, without the game taking up too much of his spare time.

Overall, I think this is a game that Tom will enjoy and like, although it isn’t a traditional video game. Since Tom plays so widely in so many genres with so many mechanics, I think that a well-designed clone or reimagining of many kinds of games would have appealed to him. What I’ve tried to do is not only appeal to him but also help him adjust and deal with his new living situation, while connecting him back to a community that isn’t location-dependent.

It remains to be seen whether Tom will enjoy this game. There are a few challenges still ahead: finding and building a community of players, practicing my riddle-writing skills to make writing them a bit easier than it is now, and maintaining the game with regular updates once it is up and running.

You can find the game materials here:
Game Rules: the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com

WORKS CITED
Steinkuehler, C. A. and Williams, D. (2006), Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name:
Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11: 885–909.

Eklund, L. (2013) Family and Games: digital game playing in the social context of the family. In
Quandt, T & Kröger, S (Eds.) Multi.Player. Social Aspects of Digital Gaming. Routledge: London

Games and Their Outcomes: Qualitative Analysis Coding

research

coding

I’m currently upscaling my knowledge about different qualitative methods approaches, and one of the approaches that I read extensively about and have now tried out is qualitative data analysis using codes applied in a software designed for such coding (in my case, Dedoose…largely because of the free trial month).

What seemed clear just from reading about this kind of methodology, and what became clear from my analysis is that the scope of the work is potentially quite large. I could have kept coding and working with the data for weeks longer, but because the data in question was only gathered for the purpose of this exercise, I decided to make sure that I dedicated an appropriate amount of time to the work and got what I could out of the exercise in that reasonable amount of time.

A few notes about the data: I asked my Monday Night RPG group if I could record one of our playsessions, code the data, and then write a blog post about it. With their permission, I recorded a 2.5 hour session and then chose a 25 minute section for transcription. I anonymized the data by using the character names rather than the player names in the transcript.

What I learned can probably be summarized thusly (no, not actually):
1. Transcription is awful and I wish I could pay someone else to do it.
2. Coding is a rabbit-hole from which one must plan a careful return. There are so many lenses I could have held up to the data.
3. Writing memos connected to the data helps to clarify just what lens you were using – both for yourself and others.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, our Monday night roleplaying group, as it exists now, contains an equal amount of male-identified and female-identified core members (when I say core, I mean those who attend weekly), with currently no “core” non-binary members, but with occasional guests. I understand that this is fairly unusual. With that knowledge as a starting point (and unsure where else to start, or how one ought to begin coding), I started to code the speakers as male-identified or female-identified. I also coded for the topic of conversation. I did a comparative analysis across codes and excerpts to see what patterns seemed to be emerging.

The section that I chose for analysis was a problem-solving activity involving decoding a journal entry. Not accounting for the lengths of contributions, the female-identified players spoke up 185 distinct times, where as the male-identified players spoke up a total of 99 times. Overall, the group usually spoke up to think aloud through the problem together, comparing notes and helping the group through the problem. Some players may have been more silent than usual as they tried to work on the problem separately. Female players were more likely to speak up in affirmation or support of their fellow players and their achievements towards solving the problem. Male players were more likely to question where the female players were drawing their conclusions from (perhaps because they were working the problem separately and not necessarily following the conversation).

Perhaps due to the problem-solving task that was put before them, in this excerpt the players did not act clearly “in-character” at any point. The only references to the setting and characters in this transcript were jokes related to anachronisms and game rules, as well as the contents of the journal itself.

Overall, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this technique, but, as is also evident from the literature, my skills will evolve the more that I use this technique. In terms of my own game making practice, I could see this kind of analysis potentially being useful for analyzing focus group-type and other similarly-sustained conversations about my games. I don’t think this is something that I would use on shorter questionnaires or on shorter comments about my games. It is definitely something that works well when comparing different interviews together.

I want to thank my RPG group for being such good sports and letting me record them, given that my last post was about “accidentally” doing research while running Fate Accelerated for them last week. Thanks, folk!

Speculative Play: Deep Time and the Onkalo RPG

adventures in gaming, game jams, research

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After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.

Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.

I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.

The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.

Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.

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(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).

Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.

For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.

Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).

radioactivity-symbol

As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.

The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?

As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.

After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.

Crossposted here and here.