Dissertation: Autoethnography and Anxiety

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

It’s been a little over three weeks since my last update, which is because I have been largely focused on reading and writing about larps and nanolarp design from a critical, reflective point of view. I finished a solid first draft of this paper last Thursday, and am letting it sit a bit before I write a talk and make slides based on it for this year’s CGSA conference in Regina. The paper is sitting at around 9500 words…which is a lot more than I intend to keep, so rewriting and editing is a future challenge on the docket.

I’ve been making some progress on my dissertation work since my last post. I have done some experimentation with the micro:bits that I ordered, and found that they do communicate in an easy, friendly way, as advertised.

I built code that displays a simple graphical pattern in LEDs when they receive a transmission from each other. This could be the signal for the “shoulda said” aspect of my first dissertation game. I also ordered a number of new electronic components: three Floras and a number of Neopixel rings that can easily be sewn onto textiles. I also made a sizable Fabricville order of different fleece materials for making puppets. This is reflected in the ads I am being shown on the internet, which have been asking me whether I would like to meet other single seniors in my area.

I have also bought a simple puppet pattern to give me an idea of what will be involved in making a traditional hand puppet. I feel confident in my ability to wing it, but that doesn’t mean that one of these patterns won’t turn out nicely, with a lot less effort on my part.

I’ve received updated ethics approval after submitting amendments regarding group playtesting!

I have also started to think about and draft the Background chapter of my dissertation. Though I’ll no doubt have to add to it before my final dissertation, having a version of the background chapter seems like a good goal, especially since the other activity that I have been engaged in is a great deal of reading. In the past few weeks, that has taken the form of the larp research that I have been doing, but I am now reading Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge. A friend of mine has also recommended, based on a brief description of my planned dissertation game, that I read about Psychodrama, and loaned me a book with a chapter on it. Also, a project report about the followup to “Hybridex” has just been published about Hybrid games, and is just perfect for my background chapter.

The reason that one of the words in this blog title is “anxiety” is because I am feeling anxious about my dissertation. I understand that this is probably normal, but, I want to faithfully document these thoughts and feelings as well as I can for the autoethnographic process.

The first feeling, common to grad students and probably faculty members in academia everywhere, is that I am not getting enough done everyday. But, I know that I have been doing well, and doing a lot, on the whole, and making sure to take care of myself and others. I’ve done grocery shopping, gone to the gym, taken my cat for walks, cooked many sumptuous and delicious meals, and generally done a good job at those parts of being an adult human. I took care of my family and friends as well, being there for them emotionally, and finishing a first draft of two separate projects that I have been working on for about two years, with my father and my brother. I also wrote 9500 words in about two weeks. 9500 academic words! That’s a lot — so it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m feeling a bit tired, and haven’t done as much writing on the Background chapter. The reading is going well, and it takes time to read — I have to remind myself of that as well.

The next source of anxiety is related to Tom’s job, and unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about that, except to say that some of my days have been spent helping him, and I have no regrets there.

The next feeling is the feeling of time pressure: if you know me, you may know that I occasionally call myself a reverse procrastinator — that I like to get things done long before they are due so that I don’t have to worry about them. In planning my dissertation timeline, I wrote off January entirely and gave myself an additional two months for my first dissertation game project because I had a feeling that, with everything going on in my personal life, and with this being the first OFFICIAL PROJECT of my dissertation, that there might be some fumbling and stumbling blocks.

This brings us to what seems like a very important source of anxiety: designing the game itself. Generally speaking, when I make a project, I have the freedom to let the project be what it will be, take the time that it will take, and I don’t have to worry that much about making an “amazing” game. I am feeling a lot of pressure, somehow, to make this first dissertation project the best game ever, and feel like somehow the scope has to be bigger than my usual work. But that’s entirely not the point of these projects: I’m not studying whether the game that I make is any good, I am studying the process of making it and archiving it. I’m collecting data about the project and what people think about it. I’m studying my own game-making practice. I know that I will likely make better games, and I will likely make worse ones. I know that I also generally do my best work in small teams with other folks, and that for the most part, I intend these games to be solo. I know that I will be pushing against the limits of my skills, bettering myself, and learning entirely new skills.

Honestly, that’s a lot of pressure to put on six months of work that will include so much of the other necessary parts of grad school, even if they aren’t officially mandated: the reading, the writing, the preparing for conferences, the meetings, the interacting with the rest of my community. And yes, this all feeds into making this game, but at some point, I have to start making it.

Another problem with designing this game that I am having is that because I am putting heavy emphasis on the design of the physical objects involved, part of my brain is wary about working “for nothing”: I don’t want to start working on the physical crafting components, and have to scrap/restart them because the game has totally changed. Usually, that means I would just rapidly prototype with the cheapest available materials and be done with it. But that presents two problems at the moment:

— Fort McMurray is remote. I can’t just pop by the electronics store, the fabric store, or whatever other store to get more materials. There’s also no one or two-day shipping to Fort McMurray. If I need an object, I have to plan for it ahead of time.

— In this game, it feels like the interaction will only “feel” right and complete with the final objects because of their materiality. So, prototyping without a finished object is possible but presents some challenges for the imagination.

Another source of anxiety is working remotely in Fort McMurray: in addition to the difficulties sourcing materials, I am struggling with the fact that I am not in my usual creative environment. I have grown used to making things at the TAG lab, surrounded by other researchers, creators, and friends, and being able to casually discuss my project. I would much rather be working on these projects in Montreal.

…However, all of my crafting materials (and there is a lot of it) are up here in Fort McMurray, so popping back and forth to Montreal as I have been doing since the beginning of last year simply isn’t possible in this context. Or at least, it doesn’t feel very possible without a heck of a lot of money spent on checked baggage or shipping.

Thankfully, I should be moving back to Montreal soon. At the very latest, I am teaching a course in Winter 2019, and so I should be back in the city for my third dissertation project, at least.

This brings me to another very present source of anxiety or trepidation: Will this game be any good? Is “Flip the Script” a good idea? Won’t there be issues with constantly interrupting the play? How should I handle those issues? Should I make something a little less open with a little more story to it? Will this game be meaningful? Will it be reflective and critical? Am I taking advantage of the digital components enough? And, related to that: Am I running out of time?

Well…these are the things that are on my mind, and even just writing about them as been helpful. I hope this documentation will be helpful to future Jess as they write their dissertation. Certainly, the discussion about time limits, and the uncertainty about designing to spec and within certain limitations (that it has to be a game that explores physical-digital hybrid design, that it has to be made in roughly six months, that it should be about critical, reflective subjects) reminds me of my work with Rilla about critical game design, where a number of designers designed according to a prompt that we provided (you can read our chapter in Game Design Research)

Your faithful autoethnographer,

Dissertation: Game Idea – FLIP THE SCRIPT

critical making, dissertation

Coming up with 50 Puppet game ideas at the end of last month really did help unblock me creatively, and I think that I will be moving forward in making a game with puppets. I’m still refining the idea, but here are my rough notes about what the game might look like:

“A game where a player narrates a negative interaction/experience that they had from start to finish. Then, the players act out this experience with puppets, deciding on roles among them. At any time, a player (any player) can “activate” a signal for “flipping the script” — this means that they want to interject with a redo of an action or statement with how they think it should have gone instead/how they wish it would have gone. The ‘flip the script’ button causes LEDs to light up (flashing rainbows, probably) on both the puppets and some kind of device that the narrator would hold. Together, action by action/sentence by sentence, the players improvise a “flipped script” version of the incident. At the end of the game, together, the players get to add to a Master document of ‘wishes”‘ for how other humans would treat them, deciding together on what their addition should be, or things they would like to see in the world. Inspired by Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed, improv inspirations from the “Shoulda said” game, and by Snafu Dance Theatre’s Snack Food Music show.

I’d use the micro:bits for the signal and for making the LEDs flash — maybe the signal for getting the leds to flash is covering them or something like that (since they can be used as light sensors), or maybe a puppet bringing its hands together for a certain amount of time (this could also be the case for the human narrator if the human wore gloves, but maybe they could just press a darn button). It probably has to be pretty instantaneous so that the scene can be interrupted quickly, but it should also be something that’s unlikely to happen accidentally. Maybe Arduino Gemma?

Because I want the game to be flexible in terms of content and length, and mostly improvised, I am finding less use for “puppets as controllers” than I thought I might. If the game were more “gamified”, then I could easily see ways of making use of the puppet’s mouth or hands or other aspects (like, for example, the ‘guitar hero’ puppets game idea from my list).”

More on this as it happens!

Dissertation: 50 Game Ideas with Puppets

critical making, dissertation

I am trying to decide whether or not to pursue this idea of a game with puppets, and so I have been doing my best to generate ideas. As I said to Rilla, my supervisor, the other day, it is hard to recapture what the idea generation process has been like on other occasions — whether ideas took time to form or whether they formed, whole-hog, when working on my own. Keeping in mind that I document fairly rigorously and do a lot of writing about my work, this already begins to show me the added value of the autoethnographic processes that I am employing for my dissertation. I can’t imagine what it would be like to try to retrace my creative process if I weren’t documenting so much.

I ambitiously started out this list with the notion that I would come up with 100 of these ideas, but I’ve been at this since Tuesday evening, and I honestly think that I have got what I needed from the exercise. So, instead, I shortened the number to 50. Even coming up with 50 ideas was very challenging. Sitting in front of the computer and trying to generate ideas without distractions was worse than useless. I had to have input coming into my brain from all sorts of different sources in order to come up with anything that I found interesting — but that also meant not coming up with ideas and playing/experiencing/doing other things.

And it is hard to keep a record of the hundreds of things that one might encounter in one’s day to day life. In this case, I’m making a concerted effort, so I can say that I’ve consumed Korean boyband videos (BTS, specifically), I finished co-playing Wild Arms with Tom and have started Final Fantasy VIII, I had my tarot read by a friend and fellow academic, I have read a fair number of sad news articles related to a missing boy in Montreal, and to police brutality and abuses of the Canadian Justice system, I’ve played with my cat, listened to Welcome To Night Vale, pulled out my own Tarot deck for inspiration, as well as Rilla Khaled and Christopher Moore’s Onkalo/deep time-related “We Should Just” card project, as well as Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood, and I’ve done a heck of a lot of sketching.

Nevertheless, there are loads of blank spots here, and tiny tasks here and there, like grocery shopping, or answering emails, that are no doubt influencing my thinking. I guess even if I can’t unearth the whole of this…I dunno, creative artefact… that I’m trying to preserve, I have to settle for doing my best, and not worry too much about the gaps. There will always be gaps, right? Like the gaps between unverbalized thoughts and impressions and language, for starters, or all the processes going on inside my head that are outside of the scope of even a dedicated autoethnographic dissertation, and what I might have dreamt and forgotten about during the night.

Well, without any further musing for the moment… Here are 50 puppet game ideas, with or without digital aspects, and without regard as to whether the ideas are any good, or whether they are “critical”:

1. a game where the embedded microbits on the puppet change colour and give simple (or not simple) behaviour cues for players to follow (possibly a mood change)

2. a game where players dress the characters up according to a specific set of rules that is reflected in play — possibly character roles, possibly something to do with gender roles

3. a game where you learn the basic rules and approaches to puppeteering

4. a game where you have to convince a small child that the puppet is a living and breathing entity

5. a puppeteering game where the first person to laugh loses a point

6. Coffee: A Misunderstanding, but with the puppets puppeteering puppets and trying to throw their voices

7. Rockband/Guitar Hero but with puppets and their actions and dialogue, or lip-synching songs

8. A Puppet Cooking Show where there are different connections and switches which are closed/open based on where you place the materials down.

9. A game about the uncanny valley but from the puppets’ point-of-view

10. A game where you reenact famous scenes from movies or moments in history, but with puppets.

11. A game with very flirty puppets who are trying to teach humans how to flirt

12. Puppets singing songs about gender from musicals (ie Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”)

14. A dress-up game where you have to dress the puppets according to a stereotype based on the available clothing

15. A game where you have to have awkward holiday dinner conversations and each player puts words in their puppet’s mouth that they might expect to hear from a particular diner (i.e. the racist uncle at Thanksgiving trope)

16. A game where puppets representing the able-bodied, ridiculously-athletic characters from video games talk about their invisible chronic pain and how they still can’t stop performing if the players won’t stop playing.

17. A game where puppets build a Utopia together & we get to see what players define their Puppet’s Utopia as.

18. A game where some puppets are ocean creatures and some puppets are plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the plastic has to kill off the ocean creatures by convincing them to eat them (i.e. a plastic bag pretending it is a jellyfish).

19. A game about climate change denial where a digital thermometer slowly heats up and the players simulate the effects on their world through the magic of theatre, while others play politicians and other humans trying to deny that it is happening or that it is our fault. At the end of the game, everyone loses. The lobbyists and politicians are entombed with their piles of money.

20. A game about the idea that “infinite growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”

21. A game where humanity is on trial and there’s no one left to defend it

22. The spiritual successor to Magical Girl Olympics, except it’s Eidolon, Aeon, Guardian, etc, transformation sequences.

23. To recreate famous paintings with puppets.

24. Friends use puppets to do impressions of each other, highlighting their best qualities.

25. A game where you make a very padded puppet, convince your cat it is alive, and wrestle your cat with the puppet

26. a game about the anatomy of puppets

27. Puppets deconstructing 50 Shades of Grey together & talking about consent, BDSM, and kink

28. A game where humans are practically extinct and puppets must build a new society together. What is a puppet idea of Utopia?

29. A game where puppets are jealous of human agency and want to puppeteer/take control of them! Jinkies!

30. A game about Kpop fan culture where all the puppets are secret boyfriends (fanservice and perceptions and queerbaiting).

31. A game about queerbaiting in the media where the puppets perform typical queerbaiting activities

32. A game where a player tells a story about a dream that they had recently, and puppets reenact the dream, even the parts that don’t make very much sense.

33. a game about negotiating consent between a puppeteer and the puppet– “you’re going to put your hand WHERE?”

34. A puppet seance where the humans are spirits who possess the attendees

35. A Sesame Street rip-off regarding gentrification and social justice (& Oscar the Grouch)

36. A game where you use puppets to tell stories from your ancestors/grandparents.

37. Wipeout, but you’re trying to contort puppets into the correct shapes.

38. A game where the Puppets can transform into other kinds of puppets to show their affective responses (like the double-headed doll I have from my aunt that has a happy side and a sad side).

39. Zombie Puppet Game: a game where the virulent PUPT Virus — an even more catching version of the IMPRV Virus, causes people to spontaneously become puppeteers. “Infected” players have to hide their status in creative ways to pretend they’re not infected and then suddenly reveal their puppets to non-infected players to turn them into puppeteers.

40. A game where three people control 1 puppet, representing various forces in the world acting upon us humans when we “try to do the right thing”

41. A game about the similarities and differences between puppets and avatars.

42. Debate club, but with puppets.

43. Human Dressage for the Distinguished Puppet — Players play puppets leading the human puppeteer through an obstacle course.

44. Puppets doing their own action-movie stunts.

45. Puppet Hair Salon where the puppets cut hair in the same way that Cookie Monster eats cookies. The hair in question is wigs, probably.

46. A Larp game where the puppets are the human players’ consciences and they always tell the truth about things the players might feel bad about, which everyone can hear, but must not acknowledge it directly in-game because it is meta-knowledge.

47. A game where everyone acts like the puppeteers don’t exist and the puppets are regular-butt humans, except for one person.

48. A puppeteer-off where the humans have to puppeteer increasingly abstracted puppets, until they are puppeteering things like sponges and spatulas. Three judges.

49. A Giant Game of Chess where each piece is a puppet and the teams engage in puppeteered combat each time a square is challenged.

50. A game where the puppets gesticulate and act things out, and two other players “subtitle”/”dub” the conversation according to what they think is going on.