Reflective Games: Roleplaying for Reflection

reflective games

I began my work this week by brainstorming actions that could have meanings ascribed to them, or that seemed to easily support meaning-making in ways that could potentially be reflective. I’m including this portion of my week as a record of my process, even though I didn’t pursue this avenue for very long, because it led me, along with other factors, to what I’ll be working on next for Reflective Games. Here are a few of the actions that made my list:

— Sorting (Categorizing)
— Dividing/Separating
— Button-clicking
— Rolling Dice
— Teaching
— Speaking
— Running to/Running from
— Searching/Hunting
— Attacking/Defending

After this point, I finished reading Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, which is going to be of use for both reflective games as we study design processes and for my dissertation. Then, as part of my weekly roleplaying group activities, I started to roll up and conceptualize a character for a campaign where everyone will be playing a monster, and we have the opportunity to play with some powerful abilities and character concepts. Mine is the ghost of a Dhampir, and let me tell you, with the Dhampir and ghost stat boosts, my ghost character now has a charisma score of 25, and is only level 3 (+2 levels for the ghost template, which is powerful).

The process of character creation made me think back to the avenue that I was exploring with Blast Theory, bleed, deictic language, and Nordic Larp.

I have been considering the strengths, limitations and challenges of narrative as a tool for creating reflective moments. So, it occurred to me that a roleplaying campaign, either purely physical or with a special added digital element or alt controller, might be an interesting thing to design. I next thought about how I could design a campaign in an extant system, and how I am currently designing a tabletop roleplaying system called Radio D-20, which involves sections of play divided up according to the structure of radio program segments (inspired by the usual structure of a Welcome to Night Vale episode), and involves collaborative character creation and a shared character pool. In roleplaying games, there are always a lot of unknown elements and it is difficult to say whether players will ever reach the content that you write for them (railroading and reorganizing aside), so there are no guarantees whether the moment that you as a writer/designer think is so poignant will also affect them. However, I have had many reflective moments as a player, and I think that the openness of the system can support that by balancing that openness with constraints. This is still a strong possibility for a future design, but it occurred to me that this is a potential opportunity to experiment with a format that I have been curious about designing around for a long, long time, and doubly so after reading about some of the amazingly reflective game examples within it: larp (Live-Action Roleplay).

Having never designed a larp, but read about them at length, my next step is to read some larp manifestos and creation guides, starting with the ones listed here, all while considering the subject of my larp:
https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Category:Documentation

Thematically, there have been explorations of some incredibly nuanced and difficult topics in larps, especially in the Nordic Larp scene in particular. The tip of the iceberg includes terminal illness, the 1980s AIDS crisis, and sexual assault. Larping can be a very intense experience, especially when one deals with these kinds of themes. For some LARPs, the organizers have mental health professionals on-hand as a resource for during or after the experience.

“Bleed” is the idea that one’s experience in a larp, where one is asked to totally identify with and embody a character, can “leak” (y’know, or bleed) over into the rest of one’s life. This might happen during a break in the game, but it can frequently also happen in the weeks and months that follow a larp. These feelings, which may be negative and difficult to deal with, are one reason why many larps include a sort of debriefing session with the organizers, potentially the other players, and mental health professionals. It seems like an excellent opportunity for critical reflection.

This hearkens back to Blast Theory’s Ulrike & Eamon Compliant and the interview at the end of the experience — something that I have been considering all along. It’s satisfying to have circled back around this way.

Thus far, I’m thinking that I will choose a theme that relates to my own lived experience with my intersectional identities. I also think that this should be a short larp, although I’m not sure how short. Larps can range between five minutes (Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou) to being spread across multiple sessions over the course of months, or even years (Vampire: The Masquerade). More experienced larp writers have experimented with characterless larps that are about the environment created, with very specific constraints around speech and language, but I think that even for a short larp, I’d like to have the players participate in character development sessions ahead of time. I am not an actor, but I think that I may be able to design exercises to help players discover who their character is, and perhaps I can enlist the help of some friends who are involved in the Montreal Improv community.

Even before having settled on a subject, I am thinking of the kind of “gamemaster” that I usually am, and the techniques that I use to approach the control of information. This makes me think that I don’t necessarily want to just provide the rules and see what happens. I think I’ll have to communicate with players either in-character or through technology. I’m already considering how to diegetically pass along information. I know that some styles of larp are very directed and take place in a contained space. This is where reading more about larp manifestos will be invaluable.

Some of the themes that I’m considering right now relate to queer identity (and, in particular, my lived experience with nonbinary gender identity) or mental health, or queer identity and mental health. Although the stakes are very different, I was deeply affected by the actions available to the player in …&maybetheywontkillyou, where the actions available to the player are to speak up, or choose to be silent. This is something I think I might want to experiment with. And, although I didn’t like A Closed World (MIT GAMBIT) very much, one of the ways that it has been easier to talk about gender identity, pronouns and sexuality with my family has been by “swapping the norm”, which is something A Closed World sometimes does (this is, if I understand correctly, randomized at the beginning of the game). The premise there is basically, “What if being heterosexual were the ‘abnormal’ identity?” or, y’know, calling someone whose gender identity matches their assigned-at-birth identity the wrong pronouns for five minutes to let them see how they like it — these things obviously don’t stand in for lived experience, but I suppose they illustrate a rhetorical point.

Well, these are the thoughts and work that is percolating at the moment. On to researching nordic larp design!

Reflective Games: Rolling the Critical Perspective Dice

reflective games

Last week, I discussed some of the ways that I wanted to refine my reflective games research questions with the Reflective Games Group. We talked especially about different ways of controlling the flow of information in games, and approaches such as “pulling the rug out from underneath the player”, as Train does, versus the concept of the “slow reveal”, where meaning and revelations are layered upon each other slowly.

As I thought about how I might refine my research question, I tried to focus on what I am curious about and also about what I would like to be doing and making. Though it’s a (very!) broad subject, I am interested in being able to deliberately create and engender reflective moments. Since a good portion of my creative life was spent on writing and narrative, I thought about how I was interested in how narrative framing and controlling the flow of information can ascribe new meaning to simple “innocuous” actions. Manipulating the flow of information and how that information is uncovered/discovered seems pretty important too.

This presents some challenges, because while I’m a fairly experienced writer, I also thoroughly believe that “good writing is rewriting.” So, while I want to work with narrative, it is definitely challenging to rapidly prototype very narratively-focused work.

A rough draft of my new question looks like this:

“What design approaches related to controlling the flow of information, especially information related to narrative, symbolism, metaphor, and the meaning of in-game actions and mechanics, consistently create compelling opportunities for critical reflection? What impact do particular thematic choices have on a designer’s ability to create opportunities for reflection (i.e. is there such a thing as a topic that is so innocuous that we cannot create space for critical reflection on it, and is it easier to create opportunities for reflection when dealing with a commonly-known “social justice”-related theme?).”

For a while, my brain got stuck on that explanatory note — is there such a thing as a topic so innocuous that we cannot create a space for critical reflection on it? So, with that in mind, I started to play a game with some dice — my dice are never very far away from me. What I did was, I tried to think up an innocuous topic, even just a noun, and rolled the dice. Then, based on the result of the roll, I tried to come up with that number of critically-engaged perspectives or thoughts about the object. I guess you could say it’s a prototype of a game, but honestly, it’s kind of obnoxious. I call it, “Is it political, though?” As it turns out, unsurprisingly to anyone who has read my thoughts (which reflect the thoughts of many other folk before me) about creative work and politics, it’s all political.

Even though I do think that it would be obnoxious to release this design exercise as some kind of more elaborated game prototype (hmm, do I care about being obnoxious? Maybe I ought to do it anyway?), I still think that it is valuable to train my brain to be sensitized to the fact that for every angle or issue that we think something is about, there are so many other intersections at play. Like, you know, just when you think it’s about ethics in game journalism…

Sorry.

But this is definitely an intersectional feminist research perspective — one that Davis talks about in terms of its methodological implications for feminists who want to be sure that they are considering intersectional perspectives (2017). She asks us to look deeper into the underlying causes and interrelations of our questions and concerns, and that’s a very valuable skill. Davis asks the reader to consider, roughly paraphrased, what other markers of difference have to do with questions that we assume are “about gender.” Davis asks, “For example, what could the consideration of able-bodiedness and disability possibly tell you about issues of citizenship in the EU?”

So, that’s one game that I’ve been playing with myself this week. Maybe I will release “rules” for it somewhere, though I think it’s something that critically-engaged scholars have been doing for a long time, and I can’t claim ownership over that. I just added dice.

At this point, I’m brainstorming and working on ideas for my next prototype. While working on the reflective games project, I’m simultaneously creating a digital version of another project of mine, and reading about performance studies and autoethnography for my dissertation proposal. Something that stuck with me about one of the autoethnography texts I read is this quote: “However, personal engagement in autoethnographic stories frequently stirs self-reflection of listeners, a powerful by-product of this research inquiry” (Chang 2016). This idea seems to flow pretty naturally — the “specific” is generally much more appealing than what we try to make appear general. Autobiography is one of the topics that my friend and collaborator Squinky is working on for their doctoral research, and I’ve often thought about how occasionally their work is read/talked about as being a general representation of what a particular experience is like when really, it’s about their personal experience. The same thing seems to have happened with work like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, which is about Anthropy’s experience but is read as “what it is like to be a trans woman undergoing the transition process,” an “empathy” game.

As usual, more as it happens and as I write about it!

WORKS CITED

Chang, H. (2016). Autoethnography as Method. London & New York: Routledge.

Davis, K. (2017). Intersectionality as Critical Methodology. In: N. Lykke, ed., Writing Academic
Texts Differently: Intersectional Feminist Methodology and the Playful Art of Writing, 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge, pp.41-57.

Reflective Games: What Makes Design “Critical”

reflective games

The reflective games group has been working in earnest since the beginning of the semester and my chosen focus has been on moments in play that I call “the reflective turn” — that is to say, the moments that help encourage reflection in players. For now, here are the two approaches that I’m taking and questions that I’m asking:

1* Inspired by the Nordic LARP concept of bleed, one design strategy I want to experiment with is a moment of disruption in the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life. For example, Blast Theory’s Ulric & Eamon Compliant does this via their interview at the end of the experience, which addresses an ambiguous “you” that could be talking about Ulric or Eamon, or could be talking to the player, and through the use of deictic grammar.

2* Thinking about the concept of the unreliable narrator, is there a way that we can leverage misinformation/omission in the game instructions, or in the stated/unstated purpose/impact of a player’s actions to encourage players to question and reflect on their actions as they uncover this information? Brenda Romero’s Train comes immediately to mind as an example.

There are definitely more distinctions to be made and more specificity that could be added to these questions, especially in terms of what distinguishes these instances of reflective design from other standard game occurrences.

When I was reading Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, I wondered about what made critically-engaged game design different from other practices. According to Flanagan’s model, the steps involved in traditional iterative game design, which are cyclical, are as follows: “set a design goal –> develop rules –> develop playable prototype –> playtest –> revise goal –> REPEAT.” The “Critical Play” game design model is as follows: “set design goals + values goals (eg. empowerment, diversity) –> develop rules + tasks which support these values –> design for diverse play styles + subversion –> develop playable prototype –> playtest with diverse audiences –> verify values, revise goals –> REPEAT.” I found that this second model lacked specificity, as it didn’t unpack how designers approach these individual steps, or how individual designers work (it would have been nice to hear about Flanagan’s own practice). It also immediately came to mind that the idea that values are embedded into the work of all creators, not just critical designers. By not making this explicit, the first model reinforces the notion of apolitical art as something that it is actually possible to create, rather than art that supports the status quo (“apolitical”, politics which are rendered invisible by the status quo) versus art that challenges it. Is it truly just subject matter, and the design approaches that flow from that subject matter that make something critical versus affirmative of the status quo?

Context, too, matters, of course — the easiest example of this is historical context, but the conditions under which a project was created, as well as who has created it (an example of positionality as context) are other examples. What this means is that subversion in one context may be affirmative of the status quo in others. This is a particular question of concern when it comes to games designed around lived experiences, and especially around lived experiences with marginalized identities. Who profits from the telling of these stories and how they profit can reproduce problematic dynamics.

In trying to think through how these questions could be better-delineated or more specific, the same sorts of questions arise. Controlling the flow of information and surprising players with the impact of their decisions and play is hardly unique to reflective games. Leveraging surprise is a common-enough storytelling tactic as well. Many authors and creators aim to build tension and leave the reader wanting to know what will come next — for some readers/players, this is why they read or play. What separates a game like Brenda Romero’s Train from others might be that the actions leading up to the revelation seem quite innocuous. Logistical optimization is hardly uncommon in Eurogames, which are also the sorts of games that tend to have little wooden people (one particular type, common to many Eurogames, is known as a Meeple), and are themed around economics and being the player to earn the most points. So, the actions in /Train/ are almost banal. All the symbols are there, in the game, waiting to be read — the broken glass board, the trains, packing as many people as possible onto the trains. Knowing the destination of the trains suddenly reveals the meaning of these apparently innocuous actions, revealing, in effect, the banality of evil. The historical context matters a great deal, and the themes and content of the game that point to that history.

This is a site of interest for me, but I wonder how far the design lessons of Train can be taken — this sort of moment can feel like a “gotcha” if it isn’t handled well. I think there are other games that make use of procedural rhetoric to slowly impress upon the player that there is something negative or unfair about a system — in this regard, Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou and Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please are notable. I think there are fewer subjects for which the Train approach, which might be described as “you are performing an innocuous action or a series of innocuous actions, and because you are used to the rules of games, you do not question this innocuous action, but this series of innocuous actions is in service of a very horrible occurrence,” works. The idea of being a cog in a machine without understanding the purpose of the larger machine is compelling, but the surprise can only work so many times. If you know ahead of time that this is what is about to happen, I wonder if playing the game becomes a matter of admiration for what the designer hides in plain sight and about clever choice of subject. The packed-to-capacity trains in Train are visible from the start – it’s the “Auschwitz” card that re-contextualizes them.

Knowing the surprise ahead of time, I wonder what the experience of playing it would be like. In many tabletop roleplaying games, keeping this knowledge from my “in-game” self and committing to play as if I didn’t know what was going to happen would be known as resisting the urge to metagame. However, generally speaking, the reward for not metagaming lies in the pleasure of playing a role. I don’t think that the roles in Train are particularly pleasurable, and my understanding is that the player is playing as themself playing a game, not in a particularly developped role (after all, that amount of information might ruin the surprise). In the end, this question, if taken to be specifically about unwitting participation through one’s actions in systems of oppression, may be too narrow, although I do think there’s room for exploration. If the question is taken to be about control of information and the moment of disruption, the question may in fact be too broad — after all, games are full of revelations and surprises, like other narrative mediums. These surprises are part of why some players and readers seek out these narrative experiences.

On a similar note, the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life is one that many games must negotiate. I think there may yet be a productive tension in highlighting and making visible this relationship. In games, players take on roles and perform actions that they might be uncomfortable with if they thought about them and examined them. It is not at all uncommon for players to kill non-player characters in games, for example. I think that Eamon & Ulrike Compliant is particularly interesting because of how it refamiliarizes (as opposed to defamiliarizing) the notion of terrorism. Terrorists are frequently viewed as “other”, as inhuman, but so long as we view acts of terror as incomprehensible, alien actions, it’s unsurprising that we would continue to fail to be able to understand how a person might be drawn into acts that eventually escalate into terrorism. This rhetoric is embedded into many mainstream responses to terrorism, which talk of “senseless” violence and dehumanize perpetrators of violence. Although undesirable and awful, however, maybe violence is altogether too human. Of course, it may be an uncomfortable experience to think about how we as humans are capable of violence, but not thinking about the topic won’t change that capacity.

The line between the player and the role that they play bears further examination, I think, especially in respect to how these roles bleed or fail to bleed into our lives, and how we constitute our identity alongside or in opposition to our actions. A related question could be about player identification with the various roles that they are asked to inhabit, and how designers can build a strong relationship between players and the characters that they play. How can we build identification that helps with the reflective turn? Another related topic that comes immediately to mind is about stakes — how can we “raise the stakes” for players such that they care about game events in a way that supports the reflective turn?

In terms of strategies for exploring these related questions, my mind immediately turns to narrative. It is possible to build stakes and interest in characters through the challenges that they face, if these challenges and narrative events can make players care about the characters. Another area which I think bears further consideration is usefulness. Perhaps we care more about characters that we like from a narrative standpoint, but that are also useful to us. Thinking back to the archetypal character death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, while I did choose Aeris as a love interest for Cloud, I had invested time building her skills as a healer partially because I found her to be less obnoxious than some of the other characters, and that investment made her useful to me. When she died, part of the impact of the moment came from the fact that this was simply not often done in games. To have a main character die without the possibility of recovering them through a sidequest or other means (I’m looking at you, Chrono Trigger) was unheard of — at least, in my gaming experience at the time. Another part of my emotional reaction came from the fact that I had lost a useful party member.

What all of this adds up to is that I think that I’m going to have to rethink and reformulate these research questions through further careful thought, reading and play. I still want to focus on the moment of the reflective turn. I am still interested in how Train accomplishes its reflective turn through control of information and reframing the meaning of actions in light of that information. For Ulrike & Eamon Compliant, I am still interested by the role that player identification, bleed, and the line between the player and their role play in the experience. It’s just that I need to figure out and stake out a grounds upon which to experiment. Reproducing these effects exactly with other subject matter might teach me something, but I think I would hate every minute of the design process. But branching out too generally likely won’t be an effective way of delineating an area to research through making either. Clarifying these research questions is a good way of clarifying which direction to take my reading and research.

Here are some thoughts about that reformulation, in closing (as this post is getting fairly long):

1. It really is facilitating the moment of disruption and reflection that I am interested in. What happens in that moment is likely to be highly individual, and the moment may not be the same for everyone. I’m tangentially interested in what impact the moment of disruption has on the player, however… First, I want to learn to master the creation of that disruptive, reflective space.

2. For some games, the whole game might be a “moment” of disruption — creating a different headspace to think about a topic can be disruptive in ways that permits reflection (such as In Tune, which asks people to reconsider their received notions of consent). Similarly, games like …&maybetheywontkillyou and Papers, Please don’t get more or less unfair, their systems are engineered to show you their procedural rhetoric from the start, and the player can take however long is needed to reach the conclusions that the rhetoric is pointing them towards. It’s not necessarily about one moment in time.

3. I understand that these first two statements point towards very, very broad research possibilities — all of Reflective Games, in fact. My next steps may in fact have something to do with picking a specific theme and exploring “moments of disruption” in relation to that topic or theme.

That’s all for now, folks!