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!


* 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.

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.

Updates and Plans for January

administrative, autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

First post of 2018! First, some updates, then, some research work.

Here’s what’s going on with me and my work currently:

— I have applied for a legal name change. Update your contact lists — you should now have me as Jess Rowan Marcotte!

— My partner and I are likely moving in the next few months.

— Got a number of papers and conference proposals in.

— I will continue to work as part of the Reflective Games research group this spring. So far, I’m continuing to focus on larps and theatre. Right now, I’m thinking through and researching the “language” and “mechanics” of short-handing information in nanolarps. More writing on this to come soon, I think!

— I’ve submitted my dissertation proposal along with a two and half year timeline for completing my thesis-related creative work, autoethnographic study, archival practices, and the dissertation detailing all of this. This work will begin in earnest on February 1st, pending my updated ethics certificate and hopefully receiving a passing grade for the proposal.

— I am spending January tying up a few loose ends, setting up a museum exhibit that I helped to curate at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener-Waterloo called INTERPLAY: Thinking Through Games (see the exhibit description here:, and running and participating in Global Game Jam 2018 at the TAG location.

— I have been reading more on autoethnography, which continues to prove itself to be a method with deep ties to intersectionality and feminism. My latest readings (& re-readings) have been Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research by Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis (Oxford UP 2015), Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life edited by Robin M. Boylorn & Mark P. Orbe (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2014), and Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2008).

Heewon Chang’s work has been the most useful from a practical “how do I get started” standpoint, and, with that in mind, I’ve adapted some of the exercises from Autoethnography as Method as I begin collecting what Chang calls “personal memory data.” My goal for January is to try and get as much of the preliminary investigation into personal memory data as possible finished. So, this blog is going to be a mix of personal memory data posts and Reflective Games research for a while.

One of the differences between much of the autoethnographical work I have been reading and what I am undertaking in my dissertation is that my focus is primarily on my identity as a creator and game designer. What I mean to say is that the group that I am studying are game designers, not members of a marginalized group or who necessarily share a particular identity beyond the fact that they are designers and academics working in the field of games and game studies — and those identities are far from unified wholes. That’s not necessarily totally different from what other autoethnographers are doing, but there are some key differences in the kind of subject matter I’ll be addressing. I wasn’t “born” as a part of this group in the way that I was born into other identities. My own positionality and intersections (and those of others) will of course be a part of this research, but nevertheless, many of the exercises suggested have to be adapted.

The exercise that I’ve decided to start off my personal memory data collection process with is from Chapter 5 of Autoethnography as Method — it’s Exercise 5.6: “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.”

Using this exercise as a starting prompt, I’ve decided to do multiple lists of artefacts with a focus on my identities as a player and as a designer. I’m planning to write a little bit about each artefact, and I’ve decided that I’ll place them first in a chronological order, and then later try to rank them by order of importance. I’m also going to write as much as comes out, drawing connections and pointing out gaps for future exploration or thoughts that are in tension as I go. This part of the process will be of course be in danger of being in large part revisionist, but knowing what I think is important in this moment and having some thoughts about why I think that’s the case should still be helpful. So, look out for a series of artefact lists related to play, digital play, and game design coming your way in the next little while.

Thanks for reading! Here comes a lot of dissertation work!