The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at QGCon 2017

adventures in gaming, research

[My trip to QGCon 2017 and this writeup about the experience were sponsored by the lovely folks from ReFiG (Refiguring Innovation in Games). You can learn more at refig.ca. This blog post is cross-posted on their website, and was written for that venue, so my usual readers may be familiar with some of what I have written here – like, you know, who I am.]

The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at QGCon 2017

Here is a bit of context for those who may not know me. The 2017 Queerness and Games conference was my first queer games conference as an out nonbinary queer person, having come out in 2016. It is only in the past few years that I have been exposed to language that described my personal experiences with gender and sexuality, and there was some time between knowing the words and deciding that I should come out. Going to QGCon this year, therefore, had a fair bit of personal significance for me. I started making games in January 2013, and my work as a designer addresses intersectional feminist issues.


[Photo by Jess Marcotte]

For this year’s Queerness and Games conference, I was there to showcase a game called The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, which is a physical/digital hybrid game about emotional labour, radical softness, and the “traveling other.”

What I mean by emotional labour is “the frequently invisible work of caring, keeping others’ in mind and taking their needs into account, managing one’s own mood and masking so-called ‘unpleasant’ emotions for the benefit of others, managing other people’s emotions, both by not causing upset to begin with and by helping others feel better, and any number of other activities in line with these that are far too many to count” (Marcotte and Squinkifer 2017).


[Photo by Jess Marcotte]

When I talk about radical softness for this game, I am referring to both the physical construction and aesthetic of the game and to a specific mindset that is common to some feminist art circles. All the objects in the game were handcrafted by Dietrich Squinkifer and myself through traditionally feminine-coded crafts such as crochet, sewing, and embroidery. The objects are “cute” and “squishy”, but are contained within the hard shell of carry-on sized suitcase. Radical softness, both as an aesthetic and as a way of being in the world, can also refer to the conscious decision not to be “hardened” just because that is what the world seems to demand of us. It refers to making a choice to be vulnerable, embracing softness, cuteness and traditionally “femme” aesthetics. It also refers to finding strength in our most vulnerable moments, whether with respect to our feelings, to the challenges that we might face with mental or phyiscal illnesses, or the situations that we are faced with as a result of life in a kyriarchical society.

The “traveling other” is a concept that Squinky and I use to talk about the relative instability of some advisors and advice-givers over others. The classic figure of the traveling fortune teller, for example, is frequently “othered” due to their identity, which may be a marginalized one along several axes (gender, sexuality, class, race, etcetera). In contrast, white male advisors tend to be of high social status, perhaps advising nobility or holding a trusted position within a community.

In The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, one player takes on the role of a trained Troubleshooter who specializes in activities such as active listening and problem-solving. The other player is a Customer who, through provided prompts, generates a made-up Trouble to be worked through. After hearing out the problem, the Troubleshooter raises the issue of (fictional) payment, which is then negotiated with the Customer. After they have agreed, the Customer represents their method of payment on a coupon, which they hold onto until the end of the game. Next, the Troubleshooter makes use of the objects in the SUITCASE (Suitcase Unit Intended To Cure All Sorts of Emotions) to inspire their discussion and reach a resolution. Once the Troubleshooter has examined the different angles of the trouble and given the Customer their advice, the Customer then decides whether or not the Troubleshooter has earned their pay. [You can read a longer description on the game’s website here: http://handsomefoxes.wordpress.com.]

At least, in theory, the troubles are meant to be fictionalized (although there’s no rule against using a real trouble, and players are encouraged to generate a problem based on their lived experience). At the QGCon arcade, The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter was very warmly received, but I was surprised to find that very few Customers, when prompted, decided to raise a fictional trouble. Instead, most people asked for advice about real troubles. Although some were, upon further discussion, exaggerated or a situation that the player had faced in the past, most people raised real issues that they were currently facing, demonstrating a great deal of vulnerability and trust for the game (and for us, as designers). As I moderated the game or took on the role of Customer or Troubleshooter myself, I have to admit that I was very concerned about whether or not the game would be effective and feel safe for those who had just revealed a part of themself to a relative stranger. As it turns out, the attendees of QGCon proved to be sensitive and kind to each other, and the rules of the game helped them to give, overall, quite decent advice to one another. It was a heartening experience.


[Photo by Jess Marcotte]

One of the conference organizers who isn’t also a member of this game development team (Squinky was one of the organizers) played the game with me mid-Sunday afternoon. I won’t reveal what we discussed here, but at the end of the conference, during the closing session, organizers were asked to reveal their favourite moment of the entire conference. For that organizer, it was the experience of playing our game.

For me, these moments of human connection between players are the things that I most strive for in much of my design work. It is always excellent to see my and my team’s design decisions validated when players experience these unexpected instances of real feeling for another human, one that they might already know very well, or not at all. I was so glad to be able to bring this game to QGCOn.


[Photo by Jill Binder]

[As a result of my Arcade duties, I was only able to see a few of the many excellent sessions at QGCon this year. The highlights for me were the “Post Mortems: ‘Making Queer Games'” session featuring Josie Noronha, Kara Stone, and Yifat Shaik, the “Out of Sheer Spite” microtalks session moderated by Kris Ligman, and the roundtable on “Invisible Gender and Sexual Identities in the Queer Community,” which turned out to be a much broader intersectional discussion about identity, and T. L. Taylor’s keynote, “Play as Transformative Work,” about streaming communities.]

WORKS CITED

Marcotte, J. R. & Squinkifer, D. 2017, ‘Radically Soft Design and the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter’, paper presented to CGC: Imagined Realities, Carleton University, Ottawa, March 17th 2017.

GGJ 2017: Some Thoughts on rustle your leaves to me softly

adventures in gaming, critical making, game jams, research

rustle your leaves to me softly

It seems wrong to call this a postmortem given that the project was just born on the weekend and involves living creatures, so instead I’ll call these “some thoughts.”

Plants, wow! Plants are amazing! I’ve been thinking of plants as an example of an “other” that could be helpful in conceptualizing designs’ for entities besides the standard human user ever since some conversations last year with Ida Toft. Donna Haraway’s writings are especially relevant here, but here’s an easy-to-digest BBC article about plants and their various sensory abilities and complexities that might serve as an introduction to the subject.

I’ve just recently started to split my time between here and Fort McMurray, Alberta. As a result, I had been talking with Squinky about making a plant that people in our lab could take care of that would signal their care to me far away through the internet. To that end, I had ordered things for a tweeting plant project , so I had a sparkfun redboard, some breadboards, some moisture sensors, and some other odds and ends for working with plants.

It was only after I had ordered these parts that TAG’s local diversifier for Global Game Jam 2017, Sustainability, was announced. As part of this diversifier, one of this year’s TAG Global Game Jam co-organizers, Liane, acquired a bunch of plants. Our brainstorm quickly turned to what we could make with these plants, and I don’t regret it.

Initially, we were supposed to have a third team member, Six, but unfortunately, after the initial brainstorm, they weren’t feeling up to jamming. I just wanted to make sure to highlight their contributions to our conversation, which sent us down some interesting rabbit holes that ultimately lead to us making what I think is a really cool experience. It’s called “rustle your leaves to me softly” and it is an ASMR Plant Dating Simulator. I’ll try to take you through some of our process in this post.

This year’s theme was “Waves.” We began to talk a lot about soundwaves and Squinky half-jokingly mentioned ASMR — I of course wrote this down on our brainstorm. We began to brainstorm around the idea of an “ASMRchestra” played by touching various plants. Six suggested a more intimate relationship with one plant, with more varieties of interaction, including flex sensors, touch, sound detection which would activate sound and LEDs on the plant, possibly in an intimate space like the tent.

After Six let us know that they wouldn’t be jamming with us, Squinky and I had to scope the design in a bit more tightly to accomplish our work with two people instead of three. As we experimented with the simplest version of what the game could be, we discovered that rather than just being a switch, the redboard could detect consistent/predictable ranges of resistance when hooked up as a button (with a ground, a resistor, and a plain wire). With a strong enough resistor, the ranges of numbers we were receiving varied consistently with softer and firmer touches, and a variety of touch locations (as well as on the person doing the touching – some people are more conductive than others, based on their skin moisture).

The ASMRchestra and the more focused single-plant experience were both still possible avenues of exploration, but we didn’t determine right away which we wanted to do. Instead, Squinky focused on the programming, both physical and digital, of the Arduino, determining how things should be connected up, and programming a system that would let us detect the variations in resistance, and play sounds accordingly. They massaged the feel of the interaction with different numbers and adjusted how sounds faded in and out based on those numbers. They found and implemented what we would need to achieve fine grain control over the sound.

Meanwhile, I began to research ASMR more closely, writing down common traits of the voices and sounds that I was hearing, including what kind of sound combinations were common. Here are some of my notes:

Overall, the ASMR community seems to think that everyone can experience ASMR and it’s just a matter of finding the right triggers. That means that there is a huge variety of possible triggers. What helped us focus in on the kind of ASMR we would be creating was the notion of a reciprocal relationship between human and plant. The human inputs caresses, touches, and other inputs (such as blowing wind across the plant’s surface, or speech) and the plant, in this narrative, responds to the touches that it appreciates by outputting an ASMR soundscape that it hopes will be pleasing to the human. Respect for the ASMR community was important for us, despite what might be considered the inherent absurdity of humans and plants in a sensual relationship like this one (I don’t think it’s all that ridiculous – we are intimately linked to our environment). We wanted our attempts at ASMR to be sincere, despite our limited time to work on it.

While Squinky worked on programming, I took up asset creation, including physical crafting. My first task was to select robust plant specimens that would be the least likely to be harmed by our touches as long as we were respectful (I chose one plant with waxy leaves and several succulents).

Next, I worked on building controllers/homes for our chosen plants using ceramic cups, river rocks, dirt, copper tape, wire, electrical tape, and screws. The copper tape on the outside of the cup was a convenient and aesthetically pleasing place to put the ground, as people could grasp the cup to steady the plant as they touched it. With Ida Toft’s advice, we used the fact that both the plants and the earth in their pots contained moisture and were conductive to avoid attaching anything to the plants themselves. The screw provided a large contact that I could simply plant in the earth.

As usual, a jam involving a good deal of crafting meant that I took several trips to the Dollarama to find and repurpose objects there for the project. We decided early on that we wanted to avoid using screens as much as possible if we could, so, with that in mind, I made sure that what there was to look at instead (the plants, the electronics, the instruction booklet, the housing for the electronics, the table where the game would be played at) would look as unified and as pleasing as possible. Aesthetics when people won’t be completely focused on a screen are important (and of course I’d argue that they’re important in general, with or without screens). Right before the playtest, I found a quiet spot and decorated it with a green tablecloth, setting up just what was needed to play our game on the table. It was a bit removed from the rest of the space since audio was important to the game. I made signs to lead players to the game that said things like “4 plants in your area looking to meet” and the name of our game and team (we were “TEAM TINY CACTUS,” by the way – everytime Squinky and I work on a new project together, we give ourselves a new team name).

By Saturday evening, we knew that our game was no longer ASMRchestra, despite that being an excellent pun name. I was concerned that hooking up all the plants up at once would discourage people from discovering their individuality, that it would instrumentalize them in more ways than one: that people would cease to see them as living creatures and see them just as controllers, and that they would just try to play them as instruments simply making sounds instead of responding to the feedback they were receiving. The relationship between each plant and human, with the human taking the time to discover their differences, became an important part of how I was thinking about the game. We retreated to the jam space’s campground (complete with tent) to figure out a new name for our game. Names are important, because they’re conceptual tools — they help me figure out how to think about a game. As we giggled to each other in the intimacy of the tent, we settled on “rustle your leaves to me softly” – it immediately suggested something that we hadn’t considered before: poetry.

For me, this was the missing piece of the ASMR script. I would write a poem that could be randomized, line by line, from the plant’s perspective. We recorded the poem and other sets of words that night. Here are the word sets and the lines of the poem.

Sunday morning, I worked on the instructions and on creating housing for our electronics. The instruction booklet is another example of functionality and aesthetics combined. Using a book from the Dollar store as a base, I had to remove the metal spiral because I’m left-handed and planned to handwrite the instructions inside. I replaced the spine with twine, and painted the name of the game on the cover. crafted the book itself and the instructions to go in it. With safety of plants in mind. Respect for plants and their safety became a key concern for us. As I wrote the instructions, I realized that the plants already had built-in personalities based on their physical properties and their needs in terms of physical safety. As I wrote the instructions, I had to translate their needs and suggest interactions into the language of dating profiles. Here are what the instructions looked like:

You can read the full instructions here, including more plant dating profiles.

The conceptual thought behind the game is rather twisty. As designers, we were trying to take on the perspective of plants, thinking in ways that we thought a plant might think, where the plant in question was trying to conceive what a human would appreciate most from them, without understanding just what a human was, and thus thinking of it in plant terms. Based on what we decided plants would like in ASMR, the plants are then trying to please human tastes.

Since the sounds could be dropped in afterwards, collecting them and putting them into the game was one of our last tasks. I collected Creative Commons 0 attribution license ambient music tracks, water droplets, rain, rustling leaves, and other sounds (sources can get a bit tricky in the heat of a jam, so I usually use CC0 resources). Based on my notes about ASMR, Squinky and I then recorded a series of plant-related words and the individual lines of the poem that I wrote to be randomized. Squinky then figured out how to layer them beautifully, figuring out volumes and when sounds should stop and start in order for the plant to feel most responsive without the sound design being too busy.

As we playtested the game, I was surprised at the intimacy created by the experience. I was also surprised that the context was so transposed, and that the sound was working so well together, that I didn’t even mind listening to the sound of my own voice coming from a plant. It was eery and touching all at once.

The official jam playtest went well, but there were way more people that wanted to play than could be accommodated over the course of the time that we had. This was a good sign, although it was also a shame. Those who did play seemed to enjoy the game. Their first reaction was frequently laughter – I think they laughed out of surprise. Afterwards, they often got quiet, contemplative. Some seemed reluctant to stop playing, but felt the pressure of others waiting behind them to play. Some players also experienced ASMR sensations for the first time. Many seemed to discover that touching the plant felt good – and felt intimate. The textures, combined with the responsive sound, made for a pleasing sensory experience.

Thanks to the very talented Matthias Graham (@coraxincarna), who took photos and filmed for us, and Squinky, who figured out a way to record the sounds as people were playing, we were able to cut together a rough version of a video of what the experience is like — unfortunately, without the tactility and without the pleasure of that immediate connection between touch and sound — for those who haven’t had a chance to play.

We hope to set up the game at TAG sometime soon so that more folk can play it! There’s more to say, I think, about this game, but I wanted to get out a few thoughts as soon as possible after the jam before they faded away.

Player Studies: The Riddle Promenade Postmortem

adventures in gaming, critical making, research

[This postmortem was written for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might appreciate reading it as well. You can find the Game Rules, more pictures of player answers, and other context at the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com — if you like, you can even join in and play!]

POSTMORTEM: The Riddle Promenade

Overall, The Riddle Promenade is a slow game. Getting feedback in time for the postmortem was a challenge because from the day that the game was finished to the time that this postmortem had to be written, there were only two weeks of playtesting. That’s only two riddles on the Promenade. Of course, this slowness was an intentional part of the design. The aspects that I chose to take up in my design of a game for Tom Deliva, my muse, were his love of puzzles, mechanics that test his skills (if cheekily, in the case of photography), and his desire to explore and know the history of the things around him. Additionally, Tom works long hours, and doesn’t have much time to devote to games. He and the other players need time to puzzle out the answer to the riddle and then time to go take their picture. Unfortunately, it still means that I haven’t been able to garner as much feedback from as many playthroughs as I might usually have been able to do with a different style of game.

I have also noticed that, even with a network full of people who play games, it can be difficult to get people to come play a game — particularly for playtest purposes. The people who are playing, with the exception of two people from Twitter, are people that I specifically mentioned the game to, and even then, the pool is very small. At time of writing, there are only seven players who have signed up for the google group (one of the accounts on the google group is the moderator’s email, and another is mine for testing purposes and to make sure emails go through). I suppose that it’s possible that some people are seeing the content without signing up for the official group. I have heard that finding participants for academic studies can be a common problem, especially with no monetary incentives (or, as I’ve seen for certain psychological experiments at Concordia, a Tim Horton’s gift card).

What is exciting about having used a platform like Tumblr that allows for others to discover the game is that some people who happen to be into riddles have discovered and liked posts from the site. My hope is that I’ll continue to get better at writing riddles, and that people will join the game over time. Building a community takes more than two weeks, I guess!

I checked in with my muse, Tom, several times during the two weeks of the playtest (November 29th to December 12th). He had solved the first riddle (#2, since #1 was a test riddle) on the first day — almost immediately after reading it. I, of course, neither confirmed nor denied whether he had the right answer, but he was fairly confident in his answer (and it was in fact the right one). He nevertheless thought that it was a good level of challenge, telling me, “that’s often how riddles are — either you get it in a flash or you have to puzzle it out.” For example, another player told me that they weren’t getting the riddle “at all” and “couldn’t wrap [their] head around it.” Overall, Tom liked the game, and appreciated that it wasn’t overly time-consuming. The first time that we spoke, he had solved Riddle #2, but not yet found a good spot to take his picture.  He enjoyed that the game encouraged him to go out and get to know Fort McMurray. His one concern at this point was that he wanted the community aspect – commenting and discussing the photos – to be a key aspect, and worried that the community was still very small. The next time that we talked, he had taken and submitted his first picture. He was a bit exhilarated, and in addition to the picture in response to the actual riddle, he sent me a picture of a walking stick that he had picked up along the way. As it turns out, northern Alberta is pretty flat, and in order to find a vantage point, he had to go to one of the areas hit by the big forest fire in the spring and hike through the burnt-out woods.

When I posted Riddle #3, Tom told me that he again immediately had an answer, but after speaking to him later in the week, I had to hold back from giving him any hints that he, in fact, had the wrong answer. Nevertheless, he submitted a well-considered picture.

A surprise for me as a designer was that, in my head, I thought that our friend group would all want to play this game and share these moments with Tom, but although I shared it with them, initially none of them joined in. Perhaps this has something to do with timing, the end of the semester, and holidays, or perhaps they simply weren’t interested in this style of game. At any rate, this was one aspect of the design that was different than what I had imagined. Tying Tom back to a new online community rather than his existing friend group is not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t what was intended — and that community still needs to be built.

Generally, people seemed to like the concept of this game. I received a lot of comments about it from family (my riddle playtesters) and friends (some of whom said they would join but didn’t). Out of those who actually played the game, which included four players other than Tom who signed up for the Google group, and, as a result, had “officially” signed on to play (there were also Tumblr followers), there were mixed reactions that were generally positive. In this small sample of players, only two (Tom and a close friend) submitted an answer for the first riddle. However, after I shared the post with the answers and photographs on social media, a new player (a personal friend) was immediately drawn in. This post also garnered the first player that I didn’t have prior knowledge of, or my first stranger! Perhaps this trend will continue over time. The deadline for answering the second riddle is December 12th, so this assignment was due sooner than the riddle answers. As of now, I’ve received Tom’s answer to the riddle (he has it wrong) and his picture (he took a nice one), but nothing from anyone else.

I wonder if players who did sign up but submitted no picture were just particularly busy during the first week or if one week is too short of a time in which to answer the riddle and take a picture. I suspect that having to go outside to take a picture in inclement weather might also be a barrier — this might be a game that does better in summer. There is of course always the possibility that this game, which Tom is enjoying, really does appeal only to a small subset of people that share Tom’s player profile.

Another disappointment, although I am again hopeful that this may change over time, is that no comments were exchanged about any of the photos, beyond my conversations with Tom. Nobody commented on anyone else’s photograph (as I mentioned, I didn’t receive many submissions), and I thought that this would be easy to get players to do given the platform and that people seem to enjoy posting comments about photos on social media. Maybe I should have actually made this game on Instagram!

Overall, the development of the game went well. I spent most of my time developing the game concept and design. Implementing and testing all the parts only took a few hours, once I had all the design work figured out. The aspect of the game that took the longest amount of time (and it doesn’t really show in the game) was writing riddles. I spent days writing riddles – and in the end, I only had five to show for all that work. Partially, that’s because I wrote a lot of bad riddles as I learned how it was done and hit my stride. I think that riddle-writing is a hard-won skill. It’s part poetry and part puzzle design. Making comparisons that are specific and finding answers that aren’t too broad or too narrow once in riddle form is challenging. Two things that I wanted very badly to write riddles about were a movie theatre and a fire station. With a movie theatre, the riddles tended to be about escapism, absorption and time, but were too general — the answer could have been almost anything that is considered a form of entertainment. With the fire station, the defining features were too specific and my fire station riddles ended up far too easy. Maybe I’ll take another crack at writing riddles about these things once I’m a riddle-writing master. One nice side effect of writing riddles and testing them out (mostly on my family) is that my dad started to text me his own riddle-writing efforts. During my writing process, I would call home, and whoever was there would gather around the phone and listen to my riddle (including extended family). That was fun.

Thinking through how such design exercises might benefit game studies and games, there’s a lot to discuss. I’ll first distinguish between how games as a medium and the games industry might benefit, as compared to how game studies in an academic context might benefit.

In the mainstream game industry, large studios tend to say one thing and do another when it comes to their audience. Ostensibly, they are making games for everyone. However, the same kind of games seem to get made all the time, and given the large amounts of money invested in these games, companies and marketing divisions are understandably but disappointingly risk-averse. Really, most games are already being made for a small, default demographic that we know doesn’t represent “everyone.” So, making games for a micro-audience that isn’t a part of that demographic is an exercise in highly-targeted design that probably won’t change the industry — at any rate, not right away. But it is possible that if designers entering the industry had to perform this kind of exercise with players that are very different than them, it might give them a new perspective. It probably still won’t solve the problem, because such a solution assumes that designers and writers don’t want to make innovative games with new storylines and more diverse characters. Since I have friends who work in the industry, I know that they have to fight very hard for every character and storyline that diverges from best practices.

This kind of exercise does also benefit researchers. Going through the process of making a game when it is not your usual mode of study can be an enlightening way of understanding what that process is like, giving academics a better understanding of the moving parts of games and how they are made because they have had the chance to do it for themselves. For those who already design work as one of their research outputs, normalizing design as a research tool helps to legitimize research-creation (and similar endeavours). Being allowed to submit games as class assignments is helpful in that regard. This is already the kind of work I am doing on my own time, so when classroom work lines up with the work I would like to be doing, I appreciate that. I think everyone who studies games should try making one at least once. As to what muse-based design target to one specific person brings to the table in particular, I think it represents a good, scalable microcosm and can result in clear, targeted feedback. Rather than trying to gather data about whether a sub-group of people liked the game for the reasons that I thought they would, I can ask one specific person and get a (hopefully) clear answer. I think it is a good tool for learning. In my own work, I am interested in figuring out how to describe the creative process for different creators, and formalized and examined exercises related to game design are one way of furthering our knowledge about that topic.

In the end, I am still pleased with how this project turned out. I appreciate that I acquired new skills while completing it (riddle-writing and, well, using Tumblr), My partner appreciated the game that I made for him, and the thought and care that was put into it. I think that I managed to design a game that hits the mark for him in terms of time commitment, easy-access (not a lot of extra hardware is needed except a camera and the ability to visit a website), and directing an experience that goes beyond the computer screen. I also appreciated completing this task as a design exercise, and think that there is a lot to be learned from exercises like this one. As I’ve mentioned before though, I want to take this game further and keep it up and running for longer. The fact that I didn’t manage to get that many people to join and play as part of the initial playtest, and that one of the main mechanics of the game (commenting on each other’s photos to help build community) was not used at all are where the project fell short, and I want to see what happens over time as I try to grow the community. I’ll keep trying for now.