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.

Reflective Games: Genres of Thought Playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

Last week, I finished a playtestable version of a new nanolarp/improv game called “Genres of Thought” and had the chance to play one round with the folks from the Reflective Games project. We discussed it before playing, and Enric brought up the idea that technologically-assisted larps could be a different way of framing a larp and thinking about what “counts” as a larp and what could count, opening up the definition and hopefully making the form more accessible and less scary to new players.

During the game, I noticed a few elements that needed smoothing out, or that I had accidentally omitted from the rules — but, this wasn’t so much of an issue since I was the gamemaster and could make a decision on the fly about things like who should start the scene (it would have been utter confusion to have all the players at once), or who should be the “odd genre out” (I used a random number generator).

The Group Genre was “Fantasy” and the task was “to keep the surprise party a secret at all costs. The Odd Genre Out was mystery, and the Odd Genre goal was to describe your alibi for a crime, perhaps explaining the details of the crime. In the scene, players were preparing a surprise party for their 30-year-old Elder (people in Fantasy medieval age eras didn’t live so long, remember) and the Odd Genre Out was professing that they had not in fact told the Elder about the surprise party. There was also a bit with a giant magical frog, and a lot of laughter. With five players, it was a bit of a jumble, but the players seemed to have fun.

The genres were not as much a part of the focus as I would have liked — I think this also might have been because all the players were active at once, and both trying to pay attention to each other and be active in the game. More playtesting is needed to determine whether five players is too many, or whether players just needed to go “on” and “off-scene” more in the way that improvisers do. For now, I’ve not included that as a requirement, because I intend for this to be a nanolarp, and in larps, simultaneous scenes happen all the time.

The question that we discussed at the end of the round was, “What is something that you used to believe in that you don’t believe anymore, and why might that be the case?”

One of the players, noting that it’s the “big questions” that are likely to occur to people right away, noted that they no longer believe in God. The rest of our discussion focused on this topic, and people’s experiences with spirituality and the institutions that surround religion.

We also talked about the experience of playing afterwards — I think that many of the first round jitters would have been smoothed out with a few more scenes, and I admitted that while I eventually expected players to build up a rapport and a comfort/intimacy through play that would allow them to get to the “heavy” topics, I was surprised that it happened right away for our group. The Reflective games folk generally seemed to agree that playing together did make players feel open to discussing this vulnerable topic, but that also our pre-existing relationships as a research group (with the exception of a guest to the lab who was meeting us for the first time) likely also impacted what the players were willing to discuss.

I spent a bit of time reworking the rules to clarify some aspects of the game for both gamemaster and players based on this playthrough. Primarily, the rules I added have to do with how to choose the focus for the scene (basically, it’s okay to do it however you want and have multiple conversations going on at once, because it’s a larp, but if you want to play for an audience, use the Gamemaster as a “camera,” focusing attention on certain players in the scene). And with that, this prototype is ready to release out into the world. Here it is! Here’s the github repository.

When I brought up the fact that I knew some fairly experienced improvisers who might be willing to try out the game, the Reflective Games group expressed curiosity about what the gameplay would be like with these more experienced players. While I wasn’t able to arrange anything for my current visit in Montreal, my friend Jordan McRae has put together a group of people who are willing to playtest the game the next time that I am in town.