Games and Their Outcomes: Qualitative Analysis Coding

research

coding

I’m currently upscaling my knowledge about different qualitative methods approaches, and one of the approaches that I read extensively about and have now tried out is qualitative data analysis using codes applied in a software designed for such coding (in my case, Dedoose…largely because of the free trial month).

What seemed clear just from reading about this kind of methodology, and what became clear from my analysis is that the scope of the work is potentially quite large. I could have kept coding and working with the data for weeks longer, but because the data in question was only gathered for the purpose of this exercise, I decided to make sure that I dedicated an appropriate amount of time to the work and got what I could out of the exercise in that reasonable amount of time.

A few notes about the data: I asked my Monday Night RPG group if I could record one of our playsessions, code the data, and then write a blog post about it. With their permission, I recorded a 2.5 hour session and then chose a 25 minute section for transcription. I anonymized the data by using the character names rather than the player names in the transcript.

What I learned can probably be summarized thusly (no, not actually):
1. Transcription is awful and I wish I could pay someone else to do it.
2. Coding is a rabbit-hole from which one must plan a careful return. There are so many lenses I could have held up to the data.
3. Writing memos connected to the data helps to clarify just what lens you were using – both for yourself and others.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, our Monday night roleplaying group, as it exists now, contains an equal amount of male-identified and female-identified core members (when I say core, I mean those who attend weekly), with currently no “core” non-binary members, but with occasional guests. I understand that this is fairly unusual. With that knowledge as a starting point (and unsure where else to start, or how one ought to begin coding), I started to code the speakers as male-identified or female-identified. I also coded for the topic of conversation. I did a comparative analysis across codes and excerpts to see what patterns seemed to be emerging.

The section that I chose for analysis was a problem-solving activity involving decoding a journal entry. Not accounting for the lengths of contributions, the female-identified players spoke up 185 distinct times, where as the male-identified players spoke up a total of 99 times. Overall, the group usually spoke up to think aloud through the problem together, comparing notes and helping the group through the problem. Some players may have been more silent than usual as they tried to work on the problem separately. Female players were more likely to speak up in affirmation or support of their fellow players and their achievements towards solving the problem. Male players were more likely to question where the female players were drawing their conclusions from (perhaps because they were working the problem separately and not necessarily following the conversation).

Perhaps due to the problem-solving task that was put before them, in this excerpt the players did not act clearly “in-character” at any point. The only references to the setting and characters in this transcript were jokes related to anachronisms and game rules, as well as the contents of the journal itself.

Overall, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this technique, but, as is also evident from the literature, my skills will evolve the more that I use this technique. In terms of my own game making practice, I could see this kind of analysis potentially being useful for analyzing focus group-type and other similarly-sustained conversations about my games. I don’t think this is something that I would use on shorter questionnaires or on shorter comments about my games. It is definitely something that works well when comparing different interviews together.

I want to thank my RPG group for being such good sports and letting me record them, given that my last post was about “accidentally” doing research while running Fate Accelerated for them last week. Thanks, folk!

Speculative Play: Deep Time and the Onkalo RPG

adventures in gaming, game jams, research

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After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.

Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.

I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.

The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.

Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.

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(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).

Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.

For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.

Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).

radioactivity-symbol

As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.

The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?

As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.

After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.

Crossposted here and here.

Critical Making and Design: Cultural Ambassadors

adventures in gaming, critical making, research

This week, I made a game called Cultural Ambassadors by attempting to defamiliarize Space Invaders and the act of shooting.

Given that I had just a week (and that I am trying to limit the number of hours I spend on this one class), I started with someone else’s Space Invader clone made using Construct 2. In playing it, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t quite a perfect clone of the original game, but close enough for the base on which I would build this new game.

GolbosonGlobesletter

Taking a common way that I’ve seen defamiliarization explained (“What if an alien encountered this cultural object – how would they understand it?”) to its natural conclusion, I made a game where aliens are enamoured with our television commercials and think that places like Starbucks and McDonalds are really kind of awesome — and isn’t it a shame that not everyone has access to the rolled back prices of Walmart? So, helpfully, the Golbos on Globes team (they were very impressed by Holmes on Holmes and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) has decided to make over your planet…starting with your town. And by you, I mean a tiny robot carrying a book with the ability to beam cultural objects up to these aliens to counteract all that they have learned from cable commercials.

bookrobot

As errant hammers fly, there’s the chance that they’ll miss the building that they are converting and accidentally hit you instead. Meanwhile, you send them books, movies, games, music and other cultural objects to take a look at. Those who are affected by them have minor epiphanic moments (“oh I see”, “I understand!”, “now I get it”) and leave Earth’s skies.

Here is the list of items that the game chooses from for you to throw:
“Throwing Cultural Object: ” & choose(“Octavia Butler’s Kindred”,”Will Shakespeare’s Plays”,”Gone Home by Fullbright”,”Jesus Christ Superstar”,”Amadeus (1984)”,”Tanya Tagaq’s Throatsinging”, “Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water”, “Schindler’s List (1993)”, “Europa Europa (1990)”, “Carl Sagan’s Cosmos”, “Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent”, “Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis”, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House”, “Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding”, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird”, “S. E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish”, “Jean Paul Riopelle’s La Roue/Cold Dog – Indian Summer”, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete (2013)”, “Idiocracy (2006)”, “Journey by Thatgamecompany”, “Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia”, “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”, “Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”, “Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One”, “Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist”, “Richard Adams’ Watership Down”, “Papo y Yo by Minority”, “Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence”)

Given that the game was made in under a week, I mostly went with what occurred to me to chuck at aliens if I wanted them to understand my culture beyond McDonald’s commercials – which feels fine for a prototype. However, also, given that the list is short, each entry matters more… I had to decide if my loving a cultural object and thinking that it was interesting was enough for it to go on the list – and I tried to mostly stay away from “canon important cultural objects”, which are mostly the work of dead white dudes, and instead include a bit more variety. Then again, I happen to love Shakespeare and chose to include his work — and I guess that it’s okay to appreciate and love an object even understanding that it might contribute to a problem or be problematic, something that I occasionally wrestle with. I tried to balance it out with work by creators that I feel might be underexposed or would be excluded from the canon.

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WalmartStorefront

Something that you might be interested to know is that I have never made a game that involved the act of shooting before. That’s a conscious decision and that might actually be why I chose shooting as something to defamiliarize. However, because I started from Space Invaders, there’s some meaning embedded in the rules already, and the act still feels oppositional. There’s a lot of history in the act of shooting, I guess, and shooting hammers or wifi beams doesn’t erase that, especially in as familiar an object as Space Invaders. Trying to get shooting to feel like something other than shooting is difficult. What I think does work is this idea of accidental or unintended harm on the part of the aliens and their colonizer attitude. What doesn’t work, is, as I’ve mentioned, this sense of opposition — that we should shoot at the other, or assume that they mean us harm.

One of the things that I am quickly realizing about my approach to design work, having done three projects in three weeks, is that I enjoy making things that revolve around some element of humour, but that I want my audience to be in on the joke – or I want it to be possible for them to be in on the joke without too many obstacles.