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.”

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,
Jess