Reflective Games: Shared Knowledge & Horizons of Expectations

critical making, reflective games

For my Reflective Games work, I am currently still playing around with nanolarp design, which has been a productive but challenging constraint. As with “This Just In”, the problem with running a nanolarp that also aims to inspire critical reflection is that there is so little time to convey a nuanced, in-depth situation to the player. So, situations that players are likely to be familiar with lend themselves well to having a larp created around them.

I’ve spent the past month or so exploring this limitation through a variety of different research paths. I started out thinking about “stereotyping as shorthand” — the kinds of information that are compressed by stereotypes in order to communicate quickly (but without nuance, of course). When I took an introductory philosophy class, we spent a fair bit of time talking about the difference between “stereotyping” and “negative stereotyping”, and how humans have historically used stereotypes for survival. That fire is hot and that gravity will cause me to fall if I step out of a window are both stereotypes that I don’t have to test in order to believe that they are true.

But the connotation of the word has been pretty strongly cemented at this point, and it was difficult to find literature that explored this idea of “shorthanding” — I also tried looking into “data compression”, and of course that was largely about technical protocols and algorithms for encoding data. From there, I moved into more linguistic areas of thought, after detouring around fortune telling and how fortune telling props are used as prompts for fortune tellers to access information stored in their brains. I did gather some interesting reading materials, including a source all about cold reading — I think that I will almost definitely use this information in a future project given how we made use of objects as “tarot”-style cues in The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter.

Really, I thought to myself, all of language is about representing complex objects, ideas and wholes with just a few syllables. So, I decided to do some research into Semiotics and Linguistics (and just for fun also found some texts about Contextual Behavioural Science that I intend to read).

Last week, during our Reflective Games check-in meeting, Rilla and Enric brought up some interesting ideas about the moment that we are forced to rethink received knowledge and shorthand that we have taken for granted, and the moments that come afterwards, and how these moments might in fact be the most crucial to reflection. From there, I returned to thinking through what kinds of information people in a particular region or culture were likely to commonly know.

While “This Just In” had been about narrowing in on a common narrative by trying to please competing concerns, I want this next larp to be about widening out from a narrow idea of what the horizon of expectations might be. I have been thinking carefully about how to seed these moments.

Through some free association, I started to think about the essay/letter that the teenagers write at the end of The Breakfast Club, describing how they were so much more than the stereotypes that people might see when they looked at them. From there, of course I thought about the eighties more generally and John Hughes, and coming-of-age movies/texts (which are a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine).

This led me think about Fiasco and how it operates on movie genres. A genre sets a common horizon of expectations in a way that isn’t too proscriptive. But then, I wanted to be sure that things would go off-script, and that the players would definitely move beyond that horizon of expectations and those genre tropes.

In games like Spyfall and Fake Artist in New York, one player is missing information that all the other players have. I am still formulating what this larp might look like, but I think it might go something like this: all the players are given a movie genre, but one player’s genre is different from the others. I might tell them something like “be the genre-movie-version of yourself” and include a set of rules that mean that the other players have to also behave as if the odd-genred person is perfectly normal and integrate whatever they bring to the table into the play.

I’m not sure on the rules yet, or the set of objects, but I think that this could be tested pretty easily.

So, we’ll see how things develop. I’m excited to be making something again, alongside all of this reading and research.

Global Game Jam 2018: transgalactica

critical making, game jams

For Global Game Jam 2018, I took on a local organizational role to make sure that things could run smoothly when our creative director, Gina Hara, was having her film, Geek Girls, launch in theatres on the same day. Nevertheless, the jam was relatively hands-off except for keeping an eye on the space, once I had made announcements, played the keynote, and helped a few people form teams. That meant that I had a fair bit of time to work with Squinky (Dietrich Squinkifer) on a project. Jammers rarely take my advice, but I never work in teams largely than three for a jam project, if I can avoid it, and in fact, two has been an even more ideal number of late for me, when working with Squinky. This year, the theme of the jam was “transmission”, and since Squinky and I are both nonbinary trans people, we decided that we absolutely wanted to make a game with trans themes and content.

We scoped tightly but ambitiously, aiming to write, record and subtitle a number of original texts as well as finding and editing other audio to fill out our soundscape. It’s rare that I work with narrative or writing-heavy projects for a jam, so I was actually quite pleased that things worked out so well this time. I think that what was helpful was that I was able to write what was working in the moment, and discard the ideas that weren’t, and that I didn’t have to sustain any of the pieces for very long. Since the narrative for our game was that the player was meant to follow a trail of radio station-style broadcasts, each piece was distinct and self-contained, but also working with larger themes related to identity, acceptance, and frustration, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. That was helpful in terms of the writing. There were a couple of more serious, more explicitly personal pieces that I might have liked to be able to write and include for the project, but I couldn’t get that kind of writing done in the jam context, so rather than getting stuck on that, I wrote several pieces simultaneously, moving around when I got stuck.

When jamming, one core challenge is to on-goingly check in and understand your teammates’ needs and negotiate each other’s expectations — in our case, our schedules didn’t necessarily match up, since Squinky is a bit of a night owl, and I had to be at the jam relatively early to watch the space as one of the organizers. I would have preferred that we could be at the jam space at the same time and spend as much time as we could on the project (although I always make sure to have 8 hours of sleep a night during jams, regardless of what’s happening) — but I understood Squinky’s needs. Similarly, Squinky was concerned about the scope of the writing and audio involved in the game, given the jam context, but once we had gotten started, I really wanted to foreground the writing and audio and work with a distinct gated narrative, so I pushed for it.

The jam went smoothly on the whole!

I used my Zoom H2n for the first time, and am super pleased with how easy it is to use and how good the sound quality it produces is. In the end, we got it all done, including writing and recording an original theme song. In the end, we got it all done, only to discover during the first few minutes of playtesting that some of the audio was accidentally skipped because it was triggered when people accidentally passed the right station very quickly. Since Squinky isn’t big on crowds and there was a lot of potential for sensory overload, they decided to go somewhere quiet and add a delay as to how much of the audio had to be played from a story-related clip before the player could move on to the next. That prevented any accidental speed-running of the game.

I am super glad with how the project turned out and I feel very good about the trans-positive content that I wrote. Squinky is a very resourceful programmer too, which really allowed us to push that extra little bit to make the game feel right.

The github repository for the project is here.

You can play the game here <3. If you do, please feel free to let us know what you think on twitter (our handles are in the credits at the end of the game).

Dissertation Autoethnography: Journal Entry #1


February 1st marked the start date for my autoethnographical data collection and the death of my Uncle Roger. I guess that if there is a method that takes particular care to acknowledge how personal factors and lived experiences affect research, it would be autoethnography.

The year has been off to a rough, complicated start, and I think that it is important that I be candid about that so that there’s a record of the ebbs and flows and complicating factors related to my creative practice. My uncle’s death, followed closely by the birth of a new nibling (a gender neutral term for niece/nephew), alongside my exhaustion from dealing with uncertainty related to my spouse’s employment, and the fact that doctorates are known to be stressful for one’s mental health, are all examples of the things that are keeping me from focusing as much as I would like to on my dissertation work. I have been having a hard time focusing on my work, and have been noticing some early warning signs for burnout. I am doing my best to be patient with myself, say no to as many things as possible, and take breaks when things aren’t working. I’m already feeling much better.

Although I’m not behind on my dissertation schedule quite yet, there are a number of blog posts that I have intended to write that I haven’t yet. Some are in progress, such as an adapted form of Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, and others are a part of my creative process (such as writing about the creation of my global game jam game, transgalactica, which you can play here). Since you’re reading this, that means I’ve managed to get some work down, so here’s hoping that I can keep that up!

In terms of my new project, what I will say for now is that I have been toying about the idea of working with puppets for some time now. Here’s the history of the project so far as I can reconstruct it: I took a course called Objects, Agency and Material Performance with Mark Sussman, and some of the discussions centered around puppets. As part of this course, I attended a puppetry performance involving a bunraku-style puppet (in the sense that it was controlled by three operators) called The Tablesee a trailer here.

Then, last spring, Dietrich Squinkifer & I talked about making a series of games in suitcases, one of which would involve puppets and soft circuits. I was signed up for a puppet creation workshop in the summer, but the workshop was cancelled. This year, a game that ostensibly used puppets as alternative controllers made the alt.ctrl.GDC lineup, and I have several critiques of the game’s design. For one, it is still screen-based, drawing the focus away from the puppets, involving a series of minigames that, from what I can tell, are played by pressing a button on top of the puppet’s head (I find this disappointing since there are so many other possible interactions to do with puppets). For my first dissertation project, after discussions with my supervisor, other game designers, and my partner, I’ve decided that I’ll use puppets as a starting point despite the disappointing GDC puppet game. I am thinking that I may want to work with bunraku-inspired puppets because I’m interested in playing with distributed agency and having players either collaborate or have differing agendas, but needing to maybe keep up the facade of unity and make the puppet work as best they can. I’ve barely started to think about what gameplay might be like, or what I might like to do.

Today, with this puppet project in mind, I managed to sit in at the last minute on part one of a soft circuit workshop at the Milieux Institute, given by Marc Beaulieu and Genevieve Moisan. I’ve worked extensively with the Makey Makey, but not with many sensors or circuits more complicated than that. The project that my team chose to work on (the workshop will continue next week) was proposed by a person named Pat, whose father has Alzheimer’s and benefits from tactile stimulation. She had been thinking about making a fidget quilt or mat for him for some time. So, today, we thought through what that project would look like with three separate interactions that would be tailored specifically to her father and his personal history. By the end of the workshop, we decided that we probably needed to scope down, and that Pat would then be able to extend the project later on.

I learned a lot, though I still need practice drawing circuits and making sure that everything that needs power or input gets what it needs. It’s amazing how much working with more complex computers and boards handle for you. Sensors are exciting but mysterious things that I can break or short-circuit if I wire them wrong. I think much bread boarding will be needed. I’ll need to work more with smaller, possibly wireless electronics to make a project like this work, I think.

So. Life is happening all around me, and it’s seriously messing with my best laid plans! But, I trust the schedule that I’ve set for myself, and I’ll do my best to take care of myself as needed.