Autoethnography: Personal Memory Data Collection – Exercise 5.6 Artefacts of Play

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, dissertation

Using Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (“List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”) as a prompt, I’m going to use these artefacts to talk about my history with artefacts of play and artefacts of design.

In trying to write these lists, I’m aware of the difficulty of the word “importance” — my play and design practices have existed for a long time now, and it’s difficult to know what to give weight to. On the one hand, I could list “firsts” — but are the first games I played actually any more important for being first? There’s also games that I played often or repeatedly, not necessarily because they were particularly good or important games to me, but because they were there. In some cases, I just “remember” certain artefacts vividly — is the fact that they are memorable important? At any rate, I’ve done my best to make these lists without worrying too much about whether I’ve got all the most important ones down, and with a multi-faceted understanding of what the term “important” might mean.

Here’s the first list, five artefacts of play. Writing about myself in great detail is less easy than I thought it would be!

ARTEFACTS OF PLAY, BOTH DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL

* My mother’s brown silk skirt: I used to borrow this skirt constantly to wear it as a cape, or to pretend to be a two-headed monster with a friend. Dress-up and imagination-based games were very important to me as a child. I loved to play pretend. Nowadays, I still enjoy making costumes and cosplaying, and making objects, and I play tabletop RPGs all the time.

* My brother’s PlayStation 2: Many of the early gaming experiences that I remember were with the SNES and then the original PlayStation. I remember having a very limited set of games, which meant that I had to replay or watch my brother replay the same games over and over again. When our household finally got a PlayStation 2, I also got my own memory card, which was important because it was mine to save what I wanted on it. I remember the saved game icons, like the badges that I had earned as a Scout, lined up in rows. What’s important about the PlayStation 2 is that when we finally got one, I was old enough to buy games for myself, if I saved up enough money. The first game I remember buying for myself was Final Fantasy VII, years after it came out. Things are a little fuzzy — it’s hard to remember what I played first. I remember playing the Monster Rancher series, where game discs and others were special artefacts that could gain me unusual fantastic creatures…or often just boring old “Mochi”, the game’s mascot, designed to look like a Japanese treat that I didn’t try until I was an adult.

Even later, I often replayed the same games again and again because I couldn’t afford new ones. One of the games I remember renting most often was Wild Arms, a JRPG with puzzle elements where different characters had different special abilities that could solve puzzles in the dungeons. It was a compelling little game, but the copies that I had access to — one borrowed from a friend of my brother’s, and one rented from Game Zone, my rental spot of choice, always froze at the same point in the game when I played it on our PlayStation. The PlayStation 2 was better able to handle any scratches or flaws on discs, and so I was able to play past that point in the game on the rented disc. I remember longing to own a copy, and finally got one as a gift a few years ago.

I spent a lot of time on that PlayStation 2.

* JRPGs: My games of choice as a child were JRPGs. I especially played the Final Fantasy series, because they had a good reputation and I had limited disposable income, which made it harder to take chances on games. Lately, I have been replaying certain “classic” games that I own copies of with my spouse, including Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Small moments in the play call to mind my childhood and my earlier formative game-playing experiences. I remember that I played Chrono Cross before I ever played Chrono Trigger, meaning that some references in the game to the other series were totally lost on me the first time around. I remember that one of my best friends’ brothers introduced me to Chrono Trigger, saying how he could choose to do the final boss battle right now, at any time, but that he would get his butt kicked if he did. At the time, I was intrigued, but had no idea who Lavos was.

* A Football: My dad was part of an amateur touch-football league for something like fifteen years. When I was about five years old, my brother started to play football with a local tackle football league. Every game, I would ask the coaches if I could play, and they would tell me “come back when you’re seven.” So I did, and from the ages of seven to twelve, I played in a boys’ tackle football league. I played snapper, offensive line, defensive line, defensive back, tight end, and specialty teams. At that age, I had hit a growth spurt before the other kids on my team, and I was pretty strong and coordinated. I learned a lot from this experience, about what it meant to be a “girl” in a patriarchy, about cooperation and being a part of a team, and about persistance. I also learned that I loved to tackle things and play in the mud. Rainy practices were the best practices. In addition to our taste in books and games, football is something that I share with my brother and father.

* My First Set of Dice: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition when I was seventeen years old, and I still have the first set of dice that I bought. They are simple, black and white dice. When my spouse tried to test their balance using the old heavily-salted water technique, they wouldn’t float. Over the years, I’ve garnered a reputation for being unnaturally lucky with dice — and not just these ones. I don’t roll a twenty every time, but my character stats, now always rolled under close observation, are always a bit better than normal, and I have been known to come through dramatically in a pinch when playing Battlestar Galactica and piloting. For the past few years, I have played a tabletop roleplaying game once a week (barring any unforeseen scheduling issues) with the same group of people. I’ve played multiple campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Hunter: The Vigil, Ogg, Chaosium, Fate SRD, Fate Accelerated, Honey Heist, Fiasco!, Microscope, Kingdom, The Quiet Year, and many a random one-shot. Even when I’m at my most busy and can’t seem to make any time for leisure, I am usually still attending my weekly game night. So, tabletop games, and my dice, are constant companions of play for me.

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.