Dissertation: Autoethnography Project Notes from Steyr, Austria

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games

[NOTE: These notes are transcribed, annotated but unedited, from a handwritten version.]

PROJECT 02 for my dissertation. Sept 9th 2018.

I was hoping to find inspiration for this project in my travels. Before I even left, I was sort of dreading this trip. I was feeling exhausted but still had so much to do. I didn’t want to leave home and Tom because of all the work to be done, and also because we’ve been away from each other so long with no time to rest and just be in each other’s company. The first 24 hours of this trip were stressful and restless, with trains to catch and a new country to navigate, with the knowledge that when we arrived, we still wouldn’t be able to make it to the place we were staying [clarifying note: our train arrived at 11:17 but the last train to Steyr departed at 10:52]. The next day, we found out that the folks in charge of setup had been unable to get the project working, and when and how they told us this was a tad frustrating and unprofessional.

We fixed it.

Still, the frustration and exhaustion didn’t go away, and in many ways we struggled to feel welcomed to this place.

This is the first place I’ve felt truly out of place as a trans person. I’m not on on any sort of supplement to alter my hormones, but i guess with a binder and short hair, I “tip the scale” into an uncomfortable place for these people. I felt stared at, and was worried when someone approached me on the train platform to ask how I felt about gay and trans people. It wound up being a friendly conversation, but the whole place feels fraught. So. Discomfort and alienation, even from the people we’re supposed to be here with, is definitely a huge, present concern for me.

Yesterday was a bit better. We checked out more of the other exhibits, had to fix part of our installation that someone decided to fiddle with, and I had a long conversation with two older artists working in textiles. They’ve been collaborating for over twenty years (and they also totally thought I was a dude through most of this conversation. At least they thought I was a nice dude).

The installations that we saw and that discussion have got me tihnking about this project as a narrative wearable project about being a stranger in a strange land. I am also thinking of the wearable as a living, alien guide. Maybe using defamiliartization and recontextualization with language. I’m definitely thinking of the work of Blast Theory and ZU-UK.

A narrative you can experience and carry around with you.

I’m trying not to let myself get too bogged down in how technically difficult the concept will be at first. I could see this requiring QR, GPS, radio coms…

I also really do want to think about Augmented Reality and also interactive theater/escape the room projects.

I’d like this to not need to be site-specific. At the same time, I’m only one person. I’m not sure I can keep track of someone wandering through a truly open space.

What if someone wanders off, or gets lost?

I don’t want this to just be an app or a webpage people use on their phones. I want to highlight the interface. But phones come equipped with so much useful junk — the GPS, gyroscope, the QR scanner.

This is why I don’t think I want to narrow the focus and worry about scope or tech yet.

I’m also thinking of the voice that the writing in transgalactica uses — sort of rueful, sort of hopeful, but jaded, a tad bitter.

I’m also thinking about time travel because of the Time Travel RPG I’ve been running. And again, that whole ZU-UK, Place des Alts [explanatory note: a recent TAG project that started out as a collaborative piece between ZU-UK and TAG] inspiration.

I was really inspired by the MIT Cillia project. I wonder if there would be a way to access that.

A pocket companion, guiding you through an almost familiar, alien civilization…

Actually, it’s worth noting that I just finished Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

I guess I could maybe limit the scope to certain parts of the EV building, 10th+11th floors.

Players could play different parts — some the populace of this alien, different time, a few others the time travelers. Maybe something like two rooms and a boom?

I think having audio communication through some kind of wireless device would be nice. I think having some kind of costumes (I’m thinking scarves) could be nice.

The scope of the playtesting immediately comes to mind as a concern, but I’ll try to put that aside for now.

All of this makes me think that this might ultimately be that game about genderfeels that I wanted to make in some form.

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: Flip the Script! first full playtest

adventures in gaming, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

Since my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in order to revise an article for a journal. I also wrote a draft of the full rules for Flip the Script! The week before last, I got to talk about them with the Reflective Games Group, and run through some of the rules, which led me to rewrite my section on intersectionality. This week, we did a full playtest (which I recorded the audio for).

The playtest went well, on the whole, but I was astounded to find that the run time was two hours, and I will have to find a way to streamline that amount of time in the future. It’s just too long to reasonably expect most festival players to commit to.

The major revisions that I plan to make other than trying to streamline the introductory parts is to try to use the LED interfaces in a different way. Squinky and I had criticized another puppet interface for just being buttons on the puppets’ heads that did things in game, and it’s true that this interface isn’t as embedded into the puppets as I originally envisioned. The truth is that I didn’t want to embed the electronics in places where I couldn’t easily access them, in the end, and so we’ve got this current version where the electronics aren’t even really sewn onto the puppets. And I’ve made my peace with that — it’s a different game than what I thought it would be in terms of its use of technology.

But, at the moment, there was very little reason for players to use the technology, and players rightly suggested that maybe offloading more onto the tech and getting it more involved would do good things for the game. It was also suggested that maybe I could have my own microbit to send signals, especially if the meaning of those signals changed (like perhaps the players could switch roles, or a new character is introduced — maybe I could make each of these into a more formalized rule for each round, sort of like the way that the games change in “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — I don’t know why that specific reference comes to mind except that it’s the same general concept each time, with specific rules for each individual game/scene. Another interesting idea that came up was what it would be like to play my other nanolarps using puppets instead of having the players play themselves.

It also occurs to me that I wound up using a blackboard to record notes from the session where all the players could see them this time, and that I will want to do that in the future. That means I’ll have to get a carry-on sized whiteboard (possibly at the dollar store, possibly a picture frame with plastic or glass in the frame?) to do so in the future.

The subject that we wound up discussing in this game was the concept of the “good” migrant, explicitly asking “what does it mean to be a ‘good’ migrant?” To contextualize this, we were problematizing the idea of a good migrant while also recognizing that many nationalists and other people have expectations of what good migrants are, even if those expectations might be subconscious. We unpacked those in the context of apartment hunting.

I feel good about the playtesting, though, again, astounded that it took so long.

This is the statement that the players and I jointly came up with for our playthrough to release out into the world:
“Use what privilege you have to act in concrete, actionable solidarity.”