Reflective Games: Shared Knowledge & Horizons of Expectations

critical making, reflective games

For my Reflective Games work, I am currently still playing around with nanolarp design, which has been a productive but challenging constraint. As with “This Just In”, the problem with running a nanolarp that also aims to inspire critical reflection is that there is so little time to convey a nuanced, in-depth situation to the player. So, situations that players are likely to be familiar with lend themselves well to having a larp created around them.

I’ve spent the past month or so exploring this limitation through a variety of different research paths. I started out thinking about “stereotyping as shorthand” — the kinds of information that are compressed by stereotypes in order to communicate quickly (but without nuance, of course). When I took an introductory philosophy class, we spent a fair bit of time talking about the difference between “stereotyping” and “negative stereotyping”, and how humans have historically used stereotypes for survival. That fire is hot and that gravity will cause me to fall if I step out of a window are both stereotypes that I don’t have to test in order to believe that they are true.

But the connotation of the word has been pretty strongly cemented at this point, and it was difficult to find literature that explored this idea of “shorthanding” — I also tried looking into “data compression”, and of course that was largely about technical protocols and algorithms for encoding data. From there, I moved into more linguistic areas of thought, after detouring around fortune telling and how fortune telling props are used as prompts for fortune tellers to access information stored in their brains. I did gather some interesting reading materials, including a source all about cold reading — I think that I will almost definitely use this information in a future project given how we made use of objects as “tarot”-style cues in The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter.

Really, I thought to myself, all of language is about representing complex objects, ideas and wholes with just a few syllables. So, I decided to do some research into Semiotics and Linguistics (and just for fun also found some texts about Contextual Behavioural Science that I intend to read).

Last week, during our Reflective Games check-in meeting, Rilla and Enric brought up some interesting ideas about the moment that we are forced to rethink received knowledge and shorthand that we have taken for granted, and the moments that come afterwards, and how these moments might in fact be the most crucial to reflection. From there, I returned to thinking through what kinds of information people in a particular region or culture were likely to commonly know.

While “This Just In” had been about narrowing in on a common narrative by trying to please competing concerns, I want this next larp to be about widening out from a narrow idea of what the horizon of expectations might be. I have been thinking carefully about how to seed these moments.

Through some free association, I started to think about the essay/letter that the teenagers write at the end of The Breakfast Club, describing how they were so much more than the stereotypes that people might see when they looked at them. From there, of course I thought about the eighties more generally and John Hughes, and coming-of-age movies/texts (which are a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine).

This led me think about Fiasco and how it operates on movie genres. A genre sets a common horizon of expectations in a way that isn’t too proscriptive. But then, I wanted to be sure that things would go off-script, and that the players would definitely move beyond that horizon of expectations and those genre tropes.

In games like Spyfall and Fake Artist in New York, one player is missing information that all the other players have. I am still formulating what this larp might look like, but I think it might go something like this: all the players are given a movie genre, but one player’s genre is different from the others. I might tell them something like “be the genre-movie-version of yourself” and include a set of rules that mean that the other players have to also behave as if the odd-genred person is perfectly normal and integrate whatever they bring to the table into the play.

I’m not sure on the rules yet, or the set of objects, but I think that this could be tested pretty easily.

So, we’ll see how things develop. I’m excited to be making something again, alongside all of this reading and research.

Global Game Jam 2018: transgalactica

critical making, game jams

For Global Game Jam 2018, I took on a local organizational role to make sure that things could run smoothly when our creative director, Gina Hara, was having her film, Geek Girls, launch in theatres on the same day. Nevertheless, the jam was relatively hands-off except for keeping an eye on the space, once I had made announcements, played the keynote, and helped a few people form teams. That meant that I had a fair bit of time to work with Squinky (Dietrich Squinkifer) on a project. Jammers rarely take my advice, but I never work in teams largely than three for a jam project, if I can avoid it, and in fact, two has been an even more ideal number of late for me, when working with Squinky. This year, the theme of the jam was “transmission”, and since Squinky and I are both nonbinary trans people, we decided that we absolutely wanted to make a game with trans themes and content.

We scoped tightly but ambitiously, aiming to write, record and subtitle a number of original texts as well as finding and editing other audio to fill out our soundscape. It’s rare that I work with narrative or writing-heavy projects for a jam, so I was actually quite pleased that things worked out so well this time. I think that what was helpful was that I was able to write what was working in the moment, and discard the ideas that weren’t, and that I didn’t have to sustain any of the pieces for very long. Since the narrative for our game was that the player was meant to follow a trail of radio station-style broadcasts, each piece was distinct and self-contained, but also working with larger themes related to identity, acceptance, and frustration, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. That was helpful in terms of the writing. There were a couple of more serious, more explicitly personal pieces that I might have liked to be able to write and include for the project, but I couldn’t get that kind of writing done in the jam context, so rather than getting stuck on that, I wrote several pieces simultaneously, moving around when I got stuck.

When jamming, one core challenge is to on-goingly check in and understand your teammates’ needs and negotiate each other’s expectations — in our case, our schedules didn’t necessarily match up, since Squinky is a bit of a night owl, and I had to be at the jam relatively early to watch the space as one of the organizers. I would have preferred that we could be at the jam space at the same time and spend as much time as we could on the project (although I always make sure to have 8 hours of sleep a night during jams, regardless of what’s happening) — but I understood Squinky’s needs. Similarly, Squinky was concerned about the scope of the writing and audio involved in the game, given the jam context, but once we had gotten started, I really wanted to foreground the writing and audio and work with a distinct gated narrative, so I pushed for it.

The jam went smoothly on the whole!

I used my Zoom H2n for the first time, and am super pleased with how easy it is to use and how good the sound quality it produces is. In the end, we got it all done, including writing and recording an original theme song. In the end, we got it all done, only to discover during the first few minutes of playtesting that some of the audio was accidentally skipped because it was triggered when people accidentally passed the right station very quickly. Since Squinky isn’t big on crowds and there was a lot of potential for sensory overload, they decided to go somewhere quiet and add a delay as to how much of the audio had to be played from a story-related clip before the player could move on to the next. That prevented any accidental speed-running of the game.

I am super glad with how the project turned out and I feel very good about the trans-positive content that I wrote. Squinky is a very resourceful programmer too, which really allowed us to push that extra little bit to make the game feel right.

The github repository for the project is here.

You can play the game here <3. If you do, please feel free to let us know what you think on twitter (our handles are in the credits at the end of the game).

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!