Reflective Games: Coming Home to a New Form

critical making, reflective games, research

Learning about Nordic Larp and the culture around it is a little like coming home. The discourse often focuses on taking care of people, making sure that consent and boundaries are negotiated, and making sure that larp can be a space to explore difficult subjects as safely as possible. On the other hand, there are so many styles and schools within Nordic Larp, and learning about those is both thrilling and intimidating.

What’s amazing about larp is that there is a huge amount of content (especially proceedings-style papers from the Knutepunkt conference) published each year and available for free. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot that makes me feel uncertain about the best way to proceed. At the same time, the sheer volume and variety of manifestos and articles available signal the lack of unified consensus about larp design. That means that maybe I can carve out a space that I am comfortable designing in. I’ll try to explain my discomfort and excitement a little bit.

So. As a game designer, the subjects and scenarios that I design around are often ones where there is the potential for discomfort and even outright (emotional) harm to the player. To name a few topics, I’ve worked with design questions related to consent and physical touch, sensual relationship with plants, inequality and harassment for women in the workplace, different intersections of oppression, and emotional labour and radical softness.

My games often invite players to be vulnerable. Although they may choose their own level of comfort, players frequently choose to be quite vulnerable, as it turns out, particularly when it comes to my game about consent (In Tune) and the one related to emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter). Negotiating consent and learning about one’s comfort levels frequently means a certain amount of disclosure to one’s partner, by way of explanation for why a boundary exists, or even by disclosing the existence of a boundary. Similarly, since The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter prompts players to draw on their own experiences to come up with a (fictional or non-fictional, player’s choice) trouble, players often wind up coming up with problems that are partially based on the ones that they are already facing.

These experiences are carefully crafted, and I have considered how to facilitate this sort of play through rules, framing, and control of the experience. That is what makes some forms of larp intimidating — there’s a loss of control that goes beyond anything that I am used to as a game designer or as a tabletop game master. There are many techniques to help restore some of that control, though, which makes this loss of control both intimidating and exciting. I am used to crafting moments both as a designer and as a game master, and responding on-the-fly to my players, but I am always there in order to provide additional information, to tell them what they see, to play non-player characters and shape the experience.

There are so many forms of larp to learn about, and relatively few chances to experience them all for someone living in Canada. That means that I will have to feel out what will work best for me as a designer by reading widely — on the other hand, there is so much to read that it has been difficult to absorb everything as well as I would like. I’m working on it, but there’s still plenty to read.

For my larp, I think that I would like to invite the Reflective Games group to play, along with some other folk at TAG and perhaps my usual Monday Night RPG gaming group. That would mean having roughly ten or so people, so perhaps I will create a smaller-scale prototype to experiment with an even smaller group.

When it comes to subject matter for the larp, gender has, as one might imagine, been on my mind lately, as I approach a legal name change and have been using they/them pronouns for roughly a year and a half with most people. I keep thinking about the discomfort of being misgendered, the compromises I choose to make, and the discomfort that some people seem to feel at even the idea of nonbinary identity. This isn’t a very settled subject — there’s a lot of (not necessarily in good faith) debate around this, especially lately with respect to the Jordan Petersen video incident at Laurier. Maybe this is a good thing because of the questions that it raises – questions that I have no answer to. I am also not altogether sure yet what the “thesis” of such a game would be. I’m working on it.

I will continue to read, but this week, I think I’ll also focus on trying to create something.

[PS: I also had the chance to showcase The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at MEGA this weekend — I had some very interesting conversations around it, and on the whole the game was well-received. To children, I got to talk about making conductive buttons and makey-makeys. To parents, I got to talk about the value of emotional labour. To my academic peers and other designers, I got to talk about physical-digital hybrid games and the genesis of this game. On the whole, the feedback that I got was that generally people were surprised by how effective a tool this was. Oh, and of course, in case you missed it, the digital edition of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is available here!]

Reflective Games: GAMERella and the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter

reflective games

NOTE: When I say “week” in this post, I’m talking about the time between the Reflective Games Group meetings, which generally happen on Wednesday mornings.

This week, I decided to focus on getting a project that’s been lingering for a long while done, which is the digital version of the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Up until the previous week, my time when I worked on it (in between my synthesis essay and other commitments) was spent making 3D models. The project is fairly simple, but I am teaching myself Unity in order to make it. Unity isn’t so difficult, but it does have its quirks and of course I’m using it to make something that is quite unlike the usual beginner tutorials. It’s amazing how much of my programming knowledge from other languages and engines applies in Unity, so I’m not quite starting cold. The reason that I haven’t learned Unity up until now is because my previous laptop wouldn’t run Unity at all — some quirk of my particular processor and Windows 7 rather than a speed issue. I had run previous versions and done KO-OP Mode’s “make weird stuff in unity” tutorial, which is quite fun.

I’m hoping to finish the project this week — I already have the “main mechanic” implemented, basically, but now I’ve got to add in explanations, text, menus, an introductory screen, persona generation, etcetera. For now, all the objects are textureless — it’s a look that I’m into, but we’ll see if I stick with it. I think I will for this version.

The other project that I worked on this week was journaling as a form of data collection during the GAMERella jam, where I made a project called #nofilter with Squinky, Serena Fisher and Diana Lazzaro. You can check it out here: https://jekagames.itch.io/nofilter. As it turns out, journaling took up a fair bit of time during the jam. I wound up writing about 2000 words or so.

So, with two days spent on the digital version of The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter last week, followed by the GAMERella jam — an intense two days of making — I find myself rather tired. I think that I’ll spend the next two days on The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter and try to finish it. That way, I can focus on my dissertation proposal, getting some writing out there into the world, my Reflective Games design work, and my tabletop game design work (Radio D-20 and my new time travelling campaign) from now on. Perpetually working on so many different projects is tiring sometimes because I have to keep them all in mind. In a way, that’s what I find refreshing about jams — you make something self-contained and finished in a single weekend. I’m ready to finish something on my task list!