DISSERTATION: A general kind of exhaustion, but also hope

autoethnography, critical making, curious games, dissertation, playtest, reflective games, research

It’s been exactly one month since I last wrote an autoethnographic blog post, and let me tell you, it’s been some month. There’s still plenty ahead too — I’ll be traveling to Europe for Ars Electronica, Hamilton for a BTS Concert (yes, I’m a fan — it’s astounding how many graduate students in game studies are and how many of us de-stress [not relax, but de-stress] watching their flashy music videos), Montreal for QGCon (which I’m co-organizing!), Worcester, MA for Different Games, New York for my nibling’s christening, and home again in Montreal for Maker Faire.

From the end of July into the beginning of August, I continued my yearly tradition of participating in GISH (formerly known as GISHWHES). That finished August 4th, and I’ll eventually post some of the items and videos that I made — one video even featured Harle, Avi and Drake as puppets from the 1950s!

From there, from the 5th onward, began a nightmare move that I still haven’t seen the end of. To make a long story short, I have had to make insurance claims and the movers were very unpleasant. It’s left me with a lot of work in addition to my already-hectic schedule, and it’s pretty stressful. At times, it’s been overwhelming. I’m chipping away at it bit by bit, though, and hopefully things will keep shaping up. There’s still a lot of cleaning, renovating, painting, furniture-buying, furniture-building, and decorating to do.

I have run four playtests of Flip the Script in the past two weeks! It’s a game that takes up a lot of energy, and I’ve decided that in the future, I think that the best that I can do is run it once a day. The game relies heavily on the facilitating role, and the facilitation itself IS heavy.

As you might remember about Flip the Script!, one of the debriefing and de-roling exercises that I do with players is formulating a statement that we’d like to put out ot the world — it can be a statement of hope, advice, just something that the players would like others to know. I try to listen and facilitate this. There were four statements to come out of these playtests. I won’t tell you which statement is in relation to what topic.

“Please be attuned to the subtle signs of our inner experiences and invisible struggles (and thank you for your patience).”

“Each ‘small’ drop in the bucket still eventually fills it and can make it overflow.”

“Be critical of the information you consume; be a good observer, be a good listener, and go deeper than the surface.”

“In recognizing each other’s humanity within rigid systems, there may be potential for unusual alliances and creative solutions.”

Some things that I’ve learned from the playtesting: the microbit and LED technology isn’t pulling its weight as much as it could, although it’s not horribly mismatched, it’s a facilitator-heavy game, I need to help players connect to their puppets by making sure that they interact with them early and often and make things up about them, and I need to carefully shape scenes by regeneralizing any personal anecdotes that people tell, and ensure that the scene is robust enough to support multiple playthroughs. That means carefully setting up the characters and potentialities/story seeds. Also, the way that the game goes and how much is disclosed depends very heavily on who is playing (but I knew that would be the case).

Player reception has been generally positive, and people seem to get something out of the game on an emotional level, even if it’s not a perfect game. I guess it’s okay that it’s not perfect.

What I think I am realizing is that I do need to be careful about how much emotional labour the next project demands of me, because these playtest sessions have been very rewarding, but also quite draining. Given the fact that there are many draining situations in my life at the moment (this nightmare move, everything to do with Tom, just the general stressors of being a grad student with many things to do, plus community organizing and the things that come with it). That means I need to offload more onto the tech and interface and game rules and less onto the facilitator. That’ll hopefully mean that playtesting will be easier, even if initially there’s more work to be done with the tech (which is not necessarily my strongest suit — but it’s always getting stronger!).

With Flip the Script!, I spent a lot of time agonizing over the game idea and getting it to a point where I felt good about it. Then, a lot of my time was spent making the puppets and their interfaces. The rules themselves also took up a good chunk of that time. I’ll have to see where the next project takes me, but I think I need to be able to run the next game even if I’m not feeling at 100%. Maybe that means bringing back a screen. Maybe that means bringing in Raspberry Pi and pre-recorded things. Maybe that means more quick, written rules.

I would like to work more with costumes and theatre, but at the same time, with toys and tiny worlds. I guess I’m thinking of wearables and board games, or even of something like Polly Pocket, or, for a digital reference, Gnog. I want to embed a narrative into the interfaces and have players spend time exploring and discovering that narrative through the interface. I am also feeling inspired by Ida Toft’s Promises project, which I think is vibrant and alive in a very satisfying way, even though it’s quite stripped-down. There’s a suggestion of life within the vibrations in the river rock-like objects that the player engages with.

On another note, playtesting made me feel oddly “on-track” for my dissertation projects. I feel like this project, even if it’s imperfect, is a success. I think it engages with complex ideas that are coming through in the game, that the level of work that I put into it feels appropriate for a six month project, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s a nice feeling, amidst all this turmoil.

DISSERTATION: RHYTHMS OF WORK & PLAY

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, playtest

The interesting thing about my dissertation is that I’ve managed to be both ahead and behind my schedule at the same time.

I expected to finish Flip the Script! at the end of August, and to start playtesting in September, but I think that the game is close to reaching its final form now (as I’ve done early playtesting and the concept works, but the design work I’ve done since then is to make better, more interesting use of the technology involved). In this period, I’m also supposed to be writing first drafts of my background and methodology chapters.

As I wrote the last time that I updated you all, I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading (and now rewriting). Last week, I spent roughly 6 or 7 ten-hour days completely rewriting an article, basically from scratch, for publication to include the requested revisions (after all, I read 19+ sources to better inform myself on the field that I am making a foray into). The sources turned out to be very, very helpful and gave me a lot to think about. I think the resulting article is many orders of magnitude better than the original.

So, now, having finished a draft, a fair number of generous people have agreed to read the draft. Since the revisions to the article are due on the 25th, I’ve asked commenters to finish reading for the 21st.

When I finished a draft on Saturday night, I felt drained, and I promised myself that I would take the next day off. Of course, when Sunday came along, having slept, and having already received some feedback, I immediately felt guilty and unable to really relax and take a break. This is an issue with graduate studies, but it’s also an issue with modern work: many of us could literally always be working. It’s exhausting, it’s toxic, and I don’t know exactly how to teach myself not to feel that way. I reasoned to myself that it would make more sense to gather more feedback and address it all at once, rather than rewriting as people were reading and commenting.

At the same time, while waiting for the comments, I find myself with some free/liminal time. I feel the need to keep myself thinking about the article in progress, rather than moving onto the background (lit review) and the methodology chapters. I think it would be difficult to switch modes. That leaves, then, playtesting my game. Although I am only scheduled to playtest it in September, my September is functionally gone: I will be away in Europe attending Ars Electronica and doing a bit of traveling from September 4th-18th, I’ll be in Hamilton around the 20th, I’m giving a guest lecture on the 27th, and QGCon is happening on the 29th and 30th of September. That’s basically all of September, gone — or at least, trying to schedule a playtest at an appropriate time for my game seems ill-advised.

The third factor in all this is what I have to give of myself in exchange for running a playtest, especially one for which I’m collecting Very Important Data for my dissertation. My games often require me to facilitate them — my knowledge, my (eventually acquired) ease with the patter and “game mastering” of a particular game are necessary to the game, especially when it comes to these physical-digital hybrids addressing intersectional issues. When I am at my most resilient, this is not an issue. I’ve spent eight hours at a time getting people to play a game about consent (In Tune), or facilitating play about emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter).

Was I just younger then (a few months ago)? Or was I just less tired? I think the truth is that there are issues facing my partner (and therefore both of us) that are weighing me down, taking up energy that I would rather give to my art. This affirms my belief that the whole “suffering for art” thing is bullshit — while suffering might give you lived experiences, it’s a lot harder (at least for me) to make creative work when I am exhausted, or unhappy. I can’t really speak much publicly about what is going on, but I know that it is well and truly sapping me.

So, this week, feeling guilty about not working, feeling unable to move onto other writing until I have settled this article, and feeling too exhausted to do the labour of actually planning playtests in the short term, I find myself trying to find better ways of working. I find myself doing the small things that I have put off. I find myself trying to recover and recharge, reminding myself that breaks and relaxation are essential.

Yesterday, for example, I revamped this website, added sections, reworked the games section to be more usable (rather than just a chronological listing of my projects), added more of a history to where I’ve showcased games, what I’m up to, and where I’ll be in the future.

Yesterday, the thought also came to me, inspired by Pippin Barr, to use tinyletter to communicate with people who might want to play my games. The prospect of reaching out repeatedly to mailing lists full of people who may or may not want to hear from me felt exhausting, along with the work of trying to organize playtests, let alone running them when they require my continuous, present, attentive moderation. So, to gather potential playtesters, I made a tinyletter and shared it in my networks. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the numbers so far — people are being very generous with their time (or at least their willingness to be contacted) for playtesting. If you’re local to Montreal (and even if you’re not), you can sign up for it here.

I’m also trying to just listen to my body and let myself rest. So far, since Sunday, the guilt has subsided a fair bit. After all, it is the summer. Once this article is done, I can move onto other academic writing and scheduling playtesters with the people who have signed up for my mailing list.

On another note: I wrote last time about the need to streamline Flip the Script! down from two hours, but I think that I was maybe wrong in that assessment. I know that two hours limits the audience for the game, but since it is inspired by theatre, I think that, in fact, I just need to think of this like a performance that needs to be scheduled rather than something that I can have people play in loud expo halls and arcades. 90 minutes is pretty darn short (or at least, average) for something like, say, a tabletop RPG or board game, for example.

DISSERTATION: Early June Update and Notes on Lying Fallow

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, critical making, reflective games

I figured it was time for a little update from my notes and documentation!

So, since my last update, the project has moved forward considerably!

I also presented my Reflective Games research on a panel which I chaired at CGSA (the Canadian Games Studies Association) and had some great questions about it from other scholars, and had the chance to chair a talk by Kara Stone about Reparative Game Design and Time (in many forms — queer time, crip time, deep time). We got a lot of good questions and feedback, and I felt quite recharged by the conference.

To simplify things a little, beyond preparing for and presenting at CGSA, here are the…

Egh. As I opened the link to github with the intent of sharing my code repository, I found out about the news that github is being acquired by Microsoft, and I’m not too sure how to feel about that.

Well, at any rate, the code lives there for now, so here’s a timeline of the progress since my last blog post, along with some short descriptions and pictures.

TIMELINE
May 20th-21st:

After finishing Harle, my first puppet, I got to work on a puppet that I came to call Avi. The names of the two colours of fleece that I bought from Fabricville were Guacamole and Chai Tea, and reminded me of the colours of the inside of an avocado. So, despite the fact that Avi looks a lot like a turtle, their look is actually avocado-inspired.

I was invited to an impromptu get-together at a friend’s house, and I knew that I would have a lot of hand-sewing to do, based on Harle. So, I machine-sewed everything possible ahead of time, and brought my pins, fabric, stuffing, needle and thread over to this friend’s house. I have found that I can watch, listen and speak while handsewing, and so while we conversed and others played board games, Avi’s body came together. The next day, I added features like Avi’s eyes and other details.

May 23rd-25th:

My friend Gina suggested that my third puppet should be a red dragon, complete with wings. I had been planning to use red fabric so that the puppets are each sort of in correspondence with CMY/RGB colour theory (Avi, while not Cyan, is both green and yellow). Since Drake was my third puppet, I felt confident enough to experiment with the design, particular when it came to character details. I had this vision of fringes and crests, and, measuring against the puppet’s face, I free-handed a pattern on a piece of cardstock, cut it out, and used the same technique that is used to machine-sew the hands of the puppets to sew my fringes.

Yes, Drake is an obvious name for a dragon-inspired puppet, but I was also thinking of my Toronto friends who are huge Drake fans (in particular, the writers, artists and game designers).

May 26th-28th:
I spent the next few days working on Microbits/Neopixel code, and created a Git repository for this (not very reader-friendly but very small in size) code here.

I used the Microbits coding environment and their drag-and-drop code along with the Adafruit Neopixels package/library for the environment. It was astoundingly easy to get things up and running. I ran into a persistent problem using repetitive loops (like the While loop and the loop that allows you to repeat code multiple times) — the code couldn’t be interrupted. That meant that I couldn’t turn the signal off when I wanted to. That felt clunky, so instead, the LEDs animate a few times, and then continue to be their rainbow selves until the other button is pressed and they are turned off (this is something that I just updated yesterday, but didn’t feel like I should separate from this section — it’ll still get its own timeline entry!).

One major change was deciding to use one neopixel instead of two — basically, I didn’t want to have wires hanging around everywhere and the one LED seemed sufficient for the signal.

May 28th:
Following that, I started to design vests to hold the electronics. While I could have embedded them directly onto the puppets, I felt that it would be better not to damage the puppets and also easy to develop an agile, changeable solution if the electronics were on something that the puppets wore instead. The vests are perhaps not the most aesthetic things in the world, but on the whole, I think that they look fine. I only had time to start the basics before having to pack and get ready for CGSA. At first, I thought of using my cat’s harness pattern, but that seemed to take up too much fabric, and anyway, wasn’t based on the same shape as the puppets. This gave me the idea of using the existing puppet pattern as a base. So, using the larger puppet back pattern, I slightly altered the shapes and left room for arm holes.

May 29th – June 2nd: I was at CGSA!

June 3rd-4th:

A whirlwind of staying up too late and sewing tiny vests for puppets! After designing the shape and ensuring that it worked, I had to design a pocket for the batteries (which I talked through with Tom), a way of making the Microbits buttons easier to use no matter a person’s handedness/what hand they chose to put the puppet on, and decide on LED positioning. Tom helped me talk through the pocket decision, which due to the flexible positioning of the microbits (which are attached by velcro and can be repositioned), had to be in a specific orientation. Last night, I finished all three vests and they’re all in working order.

June 4th: After finishing the vests, I tweaked the code, cleaning it up to reflect the single neopixel, turning down the brightness of the LEDs, and making it so that the second button turned the pixels to “black” or “off” instead of to the very-bright white setting.

And that brings us to now.

NOW!

I am ready to draft rules of play for the game, but I have started to do some reading to familiarize myself a little bit with the literature on psychodrama and on sociodrama (which may actually be more what I am aiming for — systems and the experiences of a group rather than necessarily individual experiences).

In terms of narrowing down the themes of the game, I have been thinking a lot about harassment, bullying, and microaggressions. This, I think, is the confluence of a few factors: some of my friends and colleagues have recently told me about harassment which they are experiencing, my own family is facing harassment and bullying, and I just watched Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why.

So, I’ll be doing some reading and thinking before I sit down and commit to the rules.

On the Autoethnography side of things, I wanted to note the difficulty of tracing the influences on my thought process. This thought is based partially on this quote from a recent blog post by Pippin Barr about Translation Studies:

“One of the most difficult things about trying to actually talk about design is that it’s so ephemeral much of the time. Even with the best will in the world and the determination to pause and reflect on your design work in the moment as you make decisions, it can be hard to think of how to even frame what you’re doing, and thus hard to get words out. The most important thing in that context is to actually know what you’re trying to make, for which you can refer to design documents, artist statements, or similar. But even then it can be tricky to make the connections between some specific design decision and the high level statement of purpose.”

To really note all the overheard bits of conversation, all of the media that I am consuming (willingly or not, whether it’s the music playing in the grocery store, or an accidental glance at someone else’s phone, or all the myriad things I might scroll past on social media) that might have an influence on my process, and still have this project be manageable in scope is…just not possible.

What I can do, and what I am doing is documenting, writing notes, and recording conversations when I can clearly say that yes, this is part of my design process. I am taking notes about the things that I am deliberately consuming and thinking about as part of this design process. But there is so much going on, and for both ethical and practical reasons, it can’t all go in. So, the data is necessarily incomplete. I guess I have to make peace with that. I already have hours of conversation recorded.

On another note about productivity and scheduling: I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow designer this morning, and we were talking about what I’ll summarize as the concept of “lying fallow” — I’m not sure if others have used this term before… I feel like the answer to that is yes. These thoughts are also definitely influenced by Kara Stone’s CGSA talk, which is forthcoming as a paper, about Reparative Design. Increasingly, I am coming to recognize the importance of the times where a project is active but I am not working on it. This is something I think that I discussed in my writing earlier this year, in January and February, when I was experiencing burnout symptoms.

Now that this idea has had the time to lie fallow, all of a sudden, things are just coming together. It’s a joy to work on it. It’s a joy to talk about it. But it needed that time. And so did I — I think that, like a field that has given all it has to grow the previous seasons’ crops, I needed to rest. I needed to be taking in information and thinking about the project without worrying too much about time. My past development cycles have definitely been about these bursts of activity, followed by refinement.

Having given six months to each game project (eight in the case of the first one, though I’m hoping to not need all of those extra months, in order to be able to build more of a buffer), and knowing that I also have to do things like writing and editing (for my dissertation, for publication) as well as teaching, and y’know, taking care of my physical and emotional needs, I know that my schedule is a lot. It can be difficult to feel okay about lying fallow, but ultimately, the past year has shown me that it is a necessity.

Your faithful autoethnographer,
Doing the best that they can,
Jess