DISSERTATION: Creative Check-In

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams

In tracking my creative work closely, I am learning a lot about myself and how I work. I hope that eventually that data can be generalized to others, although that’s not my goal. At the very least, I can propose hypotheses. Here are some thoughts.

1. Most importantly, the more stressed and unwell that I am, the harder it is to feel able to do creative work, both in terms of scheduling and prioritizing it, and actually accomplishing it when I finally do sit down to work.

In December, I opened and looked at my script a good half a dozen times, but I was stuck. I was too worried about other things (primarily, things related to Tom’s work situation and precarity). While being busy has gotten in the way of my creative work in the past, finding the time to get down to work was always the challenge.

2. Enjoyable, challenging work balanced with breaks and personal time can be fulfilling fuel.

Sure, I am now adjusting to teaching for the first time and managing other commitments that I have made (opportunities to publish, to edit/give feedback to others on their work, to collaborate on design projects), but I enjoy that work for the most part. It affirms (in most cases) my confidence in my own abilities, even though I may have the occasional doubt. Doing work that shows me my own capabilities helps me fight impostor syndrome!

But I also definitely need to build in more breaks and rest into my schedule. Yes, sometimes that means choosing between taking the time to cook a larger (time-consumption-wise), healthier, homecooked meal or eating something fast. It’s a balancing act. I also still need to find ways to fit more exercise into my schedule. But it also means actually taking a break and actually letting myself do nothing, take naps, stay at home, and, y’know, read a book, play a video game, regardless of whether there are chores that are left undone for a while longer. I am trying to get better at balancing all of this. I suspect it’s something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, especially with my tendency to overcommit (which is prized and encouraged because it makes me so *productive*).

As an example of how skewed these priorities can get, I finally managed to make myself a doctor’s appointment and attended it to deal with some issues that I had started investigating in Fort McMurray. I had to cancel my Fort McMurray appointments when we moved here, and I only got a Quebec health care card in early November. So, yeah, it feels good to have those balls rolling.

3. Recognizing and naming burnout, and taking as much of a break as you can from the things burning you out seems crucial.

I feel like I keep having these mini-burnouts — I have the evidence of them and their mounting severity every time I write one of these posts. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but after not even attempting to work on my dissertation project for the past few weeks, I have felt able to do creative work and I find myself excited to work on my dissertation project once more.

4. It is easier for me to work with someone else. I find it easier to get past blocks and prioritize working when I’m working with at least one other person. This is born out by how many solo projects I’ve released versus how many team projects, I think. At least right now, having a lot of creative control is important to me, so I like working in small groups on all aspects of the game. Maybe that will change with experience.

I’m also trying to get better at asking for help (even with individual projects) and letting other people take over tasks in groups that I’m working with. One of my problems is feeling like if I ask for something, I’m being a pest or taking up other people’s time, but I think I am fairly generous with my own time, so I am trying to ask for help in ways that I feel are fair and respect people’s boundaries.


Speaking of that creative work, I participated in Global Game Jam 2019 with Squinky this year. We decided to scope really small and made a queer dressup game called “Mx. Dressup: Squinky and Jeka’s Outfit Creator for Dapper Queer Millennials”, which you can play here: https://squinky.github.io/mxdressup/

Squinky and I designed the game together, then Squinky focused on the programming and I focused on the art assets. Taking a whole weekend just to draw cute clothes was so relaxing. I gave myself permission not to think about anything else. We scoped small, so whatever assets I was able to get done, that was what went into the game. It was really, really nice.

And now, as an extra surprise, my brother is in town, and Tom is teaching him to drive (with the occasional backseat help from me — I can’t be the accompanying driver because I’m probationary, but I am allowed in the car, so I can give a different perspective and whatnot).

That also means that my brother and I are doing our best to get Icosahedral (which is a working title) into fully playtestable shape, as final as we can get it. We’ve been working on the project off and on since April 2017, which is pretty amazing. We’ve already done some playtesting with an earlier version and it went really well. But now, it’s time to think about the numbers and whether other people can run it, and the usual business of playtesting. It feels great to be back at it! I think we’ll have a playtestable version ready real soon, and I’ll be sending out calls for playtesters.

Time, scheduling and how busy I am is always a concern, but I am doing my best not to worry about the dissertation project. I feel like my thoughts about it have slowly matured inside of me, and I am excited to get back to it. That’s far different from feeling like I was banging my head against the wall in December and early January trying to get something done. I will be trying to prioritize working on it more now that I’ve had the chance to get used to my new schedule a bit. Of course, Tom’s situation could throw all of my plans out the window at any moment (yikes).

Now then, here’s hoping I can manage to make more progress on my second dissertation project!

AUTOETHNOGRAPHY: PERSONAL MEMORY DATA COLLECTION – EXERCISE 5.6 ARTEFACTS OF DESIGN

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams, research

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 talk about my history with artefacts of design. I already wrote about my “artefacts of play” here [https://tag.hexagram.ca/jekagames/autoethnography-personal-memory-data-collection-exercise-5-6-artefacts-play/].

Of course, neither of these lists are exhaustive. In the artefacts of play list, for example, board games are notably absent, and I’ve spent many hours playing games like Battlestar Galactica or Betrayal at House on the Hill with friends. I may later try to do some kind of reconstructive timeline work to supplement them.

These lists are also deeply personal, despite the fact that I belong to a community at TAG and a broader “community.” It’s just overwhelming to try and pick out five canon artefacts. That’s because, let’s face it, everyone plays or has played in their life. It’s part of our development. And while maybe not everyone has “officially” designed a game, whatever that means, designing and adapting games and play is also a part of childhood play. So, with that said, here are my 5 Artefacts of Game Design, or, five important tools and influences on my game design process:

ARTEFACTS OF DESIGN

*Mindmaps
Especially when working from a pre-determined theme, mapping out my ideas and writing things down on paper in a spatially-organized way has always been an effective way of coming up with a game for me. It also makes it much easier to retrace my lines of thought later. This is a very important design tool for me.

*Game Jams/Rapid Prototyping
Looking at the roughly 30 games and game prototypes that I have made since January 2013, fully 21 originally started out as part of a rapid prototyping session (7 of them, with the first version made in less than a week) or as a game jam project (14 of them, with the first version usually made in 48 hours or less), whether later refined and reworked or otherwise. Having a playable version to refine and work with has been a key tool for me. It also helps me to discard what isn’t working before I have invested a lot of energy into it.

When I was studying creative writing, I was always more of a “short story” writer than a novelist or someone who wanted to sustain a long term project. I generally prefer to focus on one or two themes and ideas in a project, which I think is true of my game-making practice as well. I think that I can sustain longer term projects if I want — I have a current collaborative project that I have been working on for well over a year, and several other projects that took about six months of sustained work. But I haven’t yet found a project that I wanted to expand enough to make it into a single focus.

*Google Search Engine
The first game-making tool that I used (other than when someone else programmed my first video game ever during Global Game Jam 2013 in Unity) was Stencyl. From there, I moved on to Construct 2, then did a bit of Unity, and then learned Processing, then Phaser and some JavaScript, and now, I’m developping in JavaScript with whichever libraries are necessary to the project, and Unity once again for 3D projects (I’m not big on 3D for 3D’s sake at the moment — heck, I still need to learn how to make textures and align them). But, through it all, (and I normally use Duck Duck Go if I can help it), googling my problems has been a constant. I’d say that roughly half of my time spent programming is looking up code and figuring out how to make things work. Luckily, I’m very good at picking the right search engine terms. I would not have been able to develop games without a cracking good search engine as a resource.

*Duct Tape
Duct Tape is meant to represent two artistic practices for me — the first is “Making the most tin-foil, duct-tape version of a thing quickly” to test out concepts, and the other is how crafting and making physical objects is a core part of many of my games. I have always been a person who makes things. I enjoy prop-making, costume-making, sewing, sculpting, building structures, painting, drawing…

Luckily, I have been able to use these skills as part of my game-making practice with alternative controls. It’s been very useful to know about the materiality of things.

*The Desks of TAG Lab
I couldn’t think of an object that represented the role of collaborators in my process. Over the years, I’ve worked with many people in small teams (usually just 2-3 people) to make all sorts of projects. I’m very grateful to my collaborators — and each is listed on my games’ page next to the game(s) that we made together. I work best when I have other people to bounce ideas off of — and this is true even for my solo work. The reason I chose the Desks of TAG Lab as an artefact is because just sitting in the lab, amongst other people working, can lead to all sorts of conversations or collaborations, and the folk sitting there are usually willing to stop by for a quick chat, or, in the case of the talented programmers in the room, help me to answer particularly thorny coding questions. Even when working alone, talking about my work to others is very helpful. This is definitely a very important aspect of my process. Of my 30-ish projects, just 13 are solo endeavours.

—-

So, a fair few of these objects are abstracted, or are strategies rather than physical things. There are definitely other influences I could talk about.

Community is definitely one of those things, in the form of MRGS, Pixelles, and TAG. I could also talk about the specific designers who had an impact on the way that I make games, or who made me feel like I had permission to make “weird” games any which way I chose — like Pippin Barr, who taught the Curious Games Studio (my first “formal” game design class). I could also talk about specific tools, and their affordances, and what they encouraged me to make, and what I learned from them. I will eventually talk about the three years that I spent my summers doing Critical Hit, first as a participant, then as an assistant, then as a co-director. These were definitely very formative experiences.

More on this as my autoethnography continues!

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).