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: First Game Update — Puppets, Cosplay, Masks

critical making, curious games, dissertation

Writing here as a record of what my process has been like of late in relation to this first dissertation game. The work is proving hard to get a handle on — for a number of reasons, I think.

So, lately, I’ve been reading about larps and I also just picked up and am about to read Queer Game Studies, edited by Bo Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw. Since what I have been absorbing reading-wise is larp related, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I have had no trouble writing my latest larp once I settled on the topic. I completed a draft in just seven hours, and you can read that draft here: https://jekagames.itch.io/queer-sleepover-witching-hour

I have the materials that I need in order to experiment with making some objects for my latest game, but I am having trouble figuring out what I would like to explore in the game. The truth is, with everything that is going on in my personal life with my spouse’s work, and my difficulties with living in Fort McMurray, not to mention that doctoral programs are not known to be stellar for one’s mental health, I have been having trouble working at the same pace that I am used to. In January, I had to take a break because I was exhibiting burnout symptoms. The break seemed to work well, but I still haven’t been able to return to my former pace of work, and although my symptoms are not nearly as bad as they were, I still am having much more trouble focusing than I am used to. My resilience is not what it used to be. I’m not who I used to be.

Maybe it will all get better if this situation ever resolves itself, but for now, I have to continuously remind myself to be kind to myself and not to rush the work. But I feel guilty not being productive and not making as much as I am used to (even though I’ve released like three games in the first three months of 2018 and have been doing plenty of reading, writing and other work – sheesh).

I’ve been having doubts about this game as a “puppet” game, and with the materials I’ve gathered, I find myself interested in maybe making a game with masks, or costumes. The problem with masks and costumes, I think, is that it is difficult to make something that will be “one size fits all” — because one size doesn’t fit all. Nevertheless, I am considering the affordances of these different possibilities. One theme that is very present for me at the moment is mental health. It’s a bit of a tired metaphor if I work it from the “masks” angle, so I would have to consider carefully what I want to say and how.

The puppets are causing me trouble possibly because of the relationship between puppet and audience, and the kinds of activities that puppets are used for. I want the interaction to be meaningful and supported by the digital components of the game. I find myself thinking of the Bird Game Collective’s “Lovebirds” and how they made use of masks.

Amongst the materials that I have gathered to play with are three micro:bits, twenty-dollar microcontrollers developed by the BBC and brought to my attention by my colleague, Enric Llagostera. They are Bluetooth and radio-communication enabled straight out of the box, which is making me rethink my initial thoughts. I initially thought that the puppets would be easier to make and less likely to break if I had them interact with an environment that was wired up and close circuits using conductive material rather than having them wired up, since I didn’t want to have to deal with strain on the wires and such. While that’s probably true, I think that having interactions embedded in the puppets themselves probably gives me more interesting design possibilities. Maybe I should use a combination of both. I can also certainly find ways to protect the wires and avoid stretching them too badly.

Well, I wish I had some solutions and could get right into the making. I hope that this long, contemplative process will be well-worth it! I won’t stop playing around with ideas, sketching, and trying to make stuff, though.

Platforms and Programming: One Month in the Life Postmortem

adventures in gaming, critical making, curious games

GuybrushSquarePortrait

[WARNING: There are a lot of feelings in this post and there is a lot of frankness — about mental health, mostly. MUCH FRANKNESS AHEAD. If that’s not for you, you probably shouldn’t read this.]

This past semester, I learned how to learn to program (no, that’s not a mistake). With the help and guidance of Rilla Khaled and Pippin Barr, I first learned Processing (Daniel Shiffman is a great programming teacher) and then after a brief evaluation of p5.js, moved on to Phaser and JavaScript.

[A note on guidance: all this learning actually happened under the guidance of a whole community of programmers both in and outside of TAG lab. When I couldn’t figure out how to space out the flower petals around my stem in a Processing exercise, the community was there to help. The other day, when it turned out that I hadn’t learned enough about object-oriented programming in JavaScript to properly manage states in phaser, the community was there to help. So, thank you, community.]

For something that I had been dreading for so long, it was revelatory to find out that I enjoy coding — like, really enjoy it! When the pressure is off and I can appreciate the puzzle of figuring out what to do, I like writing code a lot. This should come as no surprise: I love learning languages, which is why I know, in addition to English and French (the ones that I had to learn), Spanish, a bit of Italian, a bit of German, and an anime fan’s Japanese (so, also not very much).

But, the final project for this class is one of the hardest games that I have ever had to make. It was difficult for a variety of reasons. In my last post, I mentioned how Tom was getting ready to leave for RCMP training, and how I could think of little else, creatively and otherwise. That’s why I decided to make a game about the month between Tom learning of the RCMP’s decision and leaving for Depot. I wanted to take away some of the event’s power by making a game about it.

As I also mentioned in my last post, I would normally never, ever, ever consider making a game (or any kind of writing or other creative work) about something that happened in my life so close to when it happened. Normally, I’d let such an idea sit in a drawer for a few years and then give it a go. But, as I mentioned before, this was hugely preoccupying for me. After being with Tom for nearly ten years and never being apart longer than that one time last year when I went to Europe for 45 days, I knew that this was going to be a big change, and probably a very difficult one.

And it was. I just wasn’t prepared for how hard. A lot of the reasons that made it hard for me to be without him, even though he was an email or a video chat away were because of things that we would normally deal with together — but more on that later.

At first, I didn’t have much time to devote to the game: I had to finish up my semester’s course work, fulfill my TA responsibilities, get Tom ready to leave for the RCMP, and be present for a friend that was also having a hard time. I chose to prioritize my relationships with people that I cared about, and would do so again. And that’s where the time went, up until Tom left.

After Tom left, the game was my priority. I had finished my course work and everything else could be put off for a while. I went into hermit mode and started working on the game. And that’s when my 96-year-old grandfather went into the hospital.

Now, as someone who lives in a town with decent public transit, I haven’t yet acquired my license. We visit my grandfather fairly frequently, and Tom usually would rent a Communauto (car-sharing service) car and off we’d go. I was upset that my grandfather was sick and that I had to rely on there maybe being space in my relative’s cars in order to go visit him, or possibly not visit him at all (as it turns out, I now have a standing offer from a friend to drive me so long as she’s not at work). I was upset because, at 96, even small ailments can be hugely important, and these ones weren’t so small. I found myself completely unable to focus on the project. I felt like my brain was betraying me – this was when I needed to be able to focus the most, and I was getting nothing done.

livingroomfront

So, I left the scary parts for later. When I was able to focus, I did the parts that were familiar and pleasurable to me — I wrote dialogue, I drew pictures of my cat and my apartment, and I thought about the design of the game. But, when all that work was finished, the deadline was coming and I still hadn’t programmed anything. What’s worse, I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned all semester. On top of that, feeling like I might not be able to finish the project before the deadline was stressing me out even more, increasing the pressure.

I had actually chosen a slightly early deadline for the project, thinking that I would get nothing done during IndieCade East, which was happening right after the deadline and which was where we were going to show In Tune perhaps for the last time.

So, I fought back the feeling that I was somehow disappointing the people who had been so kind as to take time out of their schedule to teach me in a directed study this semester, and I wrote asking for an extension.

The relief was palpable when the extension was granted. That, along with the fact that, at that point, my grandfather was getting better and would be released any day, helped me regain my focus (unfortunately, he’s now back in hospital). Things went slowly at first, but working diligently through IndieCade East at the NYU MAGNET, with the support of some lovely friends there, I managed to program portions of my game. And I was enjoying it. And, given that this was my first time with JavaScript and Phaser, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job. I managed it! It had seemed impossibly stressful the week before, but things fell into place.

Well, so that’s how it was to work on this game. In terms of the workflow, what I would have of course liked to do differently is give myself more time to work on the project long before the due date – that’s kind of my style. But, up until now, I have had the privilege of an excellent support system that has allowed me to focus on my work, even when other things in my life were going on, and this was my first time doing without it. I’m not sure what I could have done differently about that.

That means that it’s time to talk about the game itself and the design decisions.

What I wanted to do in the game was juxtapose some version of the conversations that Tom and I were having about his departure with our cat’s daily shenanigans. As it says in the game, cats don’t care about human drama. They don’t understand it. So, what felt very dramatic and important to me didn’t have much of an impact on our cat at all.

I like the juxtaposition. The game is pretty slow-paced, so there’s time to read the conversations and interact with the environment (at least, I think so). My worry is that there aren’t enough animations to keep the player engaged in each scene.

For this project, I had to scope very tighly given the time frame, but I was also sick of certain of the choices that I usually make while making games on a short timeline. Namely, I wanted to try a different art style. I was sick of making pixel art for these short little games. This was at odds with the fact that I didn’t have much time to work on the game. Each individual animation was taking way too long to make. So, I had to make the decision to do story-board style animations, with very few keyframes and a simple style. Overall, it’s not what I had originally envisioned but I’m happy with the result given the timeframe.

I’m not a professional animator – I just dabble. What that means is that even the storyboard-style animations took enough time that I made relatively few of them. I wish that I could have made more of them, because I wanted to them to function as a visual reward for the player. How I made up for it is made it so that when you click the cat, messages about the cat appear, and I find those fairly entertaining. But that might just be me.

Of course, the most important thing to me about this game is that I programmed it myself in Phaser/JavaScript and that it works. That’s a big milestone for me. It was also one of the main goals of this directed study, so I’m happy that I managed it. It’s an empowering feeling, even if I know that I might struggle just as much the next time that I sit down to program something. I’m okay with that — knowing that I can do it at all is huge.

[This game is available for play here.]

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