Player Studies: Thoughts about ‘The Riddle Promenade’

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[This text was submitted to accompany a muse-based game design assignment for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might enjoy reading it. Look out for a postmortem after the game gets playtested a bit! Feel free to sign up for the Google group if you want to play with us!]

A STATEMENT ABOUT THE RIDDLE PROMENADE

The number one lesson that I’ve learned from making a game for my muse, Tom Deliva, is that writing original riddles is quite hard. The premise of The Riddle Promenade is as follows: a riddle is posted to a community of players on Tumblr and through a Google group. Players first solve the riddle and then take the “best” photo that they can in order to represent the answer – they may do so by going out and finding something in their community that represents the answer, by staging their own photo, or by making some other work of art that they can then photograph. There is a deadline for all photos to be sent to the moderator in charge of the game through the Google group so that the riddle isn’t spoiled for anybody. The photos are then posted all at once with the name of the submitter (and their Tumblr if they have one) and players can engage with them as they wish.

Given the information that I gleaned from my player analysis, there are quite a few directions that I could have taken for this design that would probably have worked. As the player analysis shows, Tom plays eclectically. I knew that I didn’t want to create an adversarial design, and I knew that there were aspects of Tom’s personality and day to day reality that didn’t come across in the player analysis. These are aspects that I know about because I’ve been his partner for around a decade, but that are not always easily pinned down and explained. The player analysis is still a good starting point, but sometimes there were decisions that I made that were not based on evidence from the player analysis, or points where I could have gone either way. In those cases, I used the privileged knowledge that I had to make choices, along with my experience as a game designer (such as it is – I’ve been designing games since January 2013). In this design, I was taking aim at a number of goals which I will explain along with the decisions that I made below.

This game doesn’t take place wholly in the digital realm, but nevertheless I was reminded of our readings about social play, specifically the Steinkuehler and Williams piece and the Eklund piece. One of the goals that I am trying to achieve in this game is tying Tom back into communities online and back home, so that Fort McMurray won’t feel so lonely. So, the fact that there is a lot of evidence for the utility of online spaces as third spaces (Steinkuehler and Williams 2006) and as places of community for both family and friends (Eklund 2013) makes me think that if I can get players to participate, this goal will be successfully met.

Since Tom has played widely in all sorts of different genres and types of games, one of my other goals was to surprise him and to test his skills. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to build something very elaborate in terms of mechanics and levels during the course of the class. Although I could have done a vertical slice, I wanted to scope in such a way that there was a complete, playable and scalable version of the game available by the end of this course. I don’t just want to know whether I’m correct in assessing that this game would be a good fit for Tom, I want to actually get it up and running and have him play it for more than just this class.

Additionally, I wanted the game to fit in easily with tools and routines that the players would already have. These are the reasons (time constraints, ease of use for players, the desire to keep the game up and discoverable for new players) why I have chosen to use readily-available tools rather than programming something from scratch.

There are quite a few reasons that I have chosen to use both Tumblr and Google Groups at the same time. For one, Google Groups can be used to send the riddle directly into the players’ inboxes and act as a reminder when the page is updated (something that Tom will appreciate given his schedule). Additionally, if players make their submissions through Google Groups, the moderator can post them all to Tumblr at once rather. The reason to then use Tumblr on top of Google Groups (which could easily handle the mailing list aspects and the photo-sharing) is so that the game is discoverable to new players (who is going to go looking for a game on Google Groups?), so that the rules and other information about the game are easily organized (Google Groups is not ideal for this purpose), and so that the Tumblr page can act as an archive for past photos and riddles.

With all this in mind, I happen to know two key things about Tom: he hasn’t played much in the way of augmented reality games (he, in fact, did not even play Pokémon Go), and he is a fairly bad photographer. So, although I know he probably expected to have his skills tested in terms of strategy, reflexes and other standard video game playing skills, I think having to take “good” photographs will be challenging and skill-testing for him. In this sense, one of my aims is to surprise him, and is a choice that is a bit teasing if not outright adversarial. It questions Tom’s assumptions around what skills are valid in video games.

Another goal for this project is to encourage Tom (and other players) to explore their surroundings. Since Tom is newly arrived to Fort McMurray, Alberta, I hope that this game will be helpful to him in giving him an excuse to wander and get to know the place. That’s the “Promenade” part of The Riddle Promenade. This aspect of the game may or may not be successful because my understanding is the weather has already gotten quite cold out there. Tom also mentioned during our Pathfinder game that he enjoys discovering “information, places and items” and “know[ing] the history and fluff.” Through his exploration, I hope that Tom will be able to engage with the history and local points of interest in Fort McMurray.

Now, anyone with a phone can go for a walk and take pictures. I wanted to give the exploration and the photography a goal and make it more likely that people would actually go take walks and explore. Since one of Tom’s stated interests is puzzles and riddles, I thought that a riddle which was answered with a photograph on a deadline would be a good solution. It’s clear from the success of Instagram and other social media sites that have photo-sharing options (Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr, etc) that people enjoy engaging with each other’s photographs, so this is a proven mechanic that I have decided to leverage in the game.

Additionally, this is a game with a flexible playtime, which, given the fact that Tom now works twelve hour shifts (four days on, four days off) is significant. Tom can think on the riddle while at work on other necessary tasks, and then pick a day to go for a walk for an hour or two in order to take his photograph. The frequency of the riddles and their deadlines may vary, but there will be no more than one a week, which means that Tom will be able to play when he can, without the game taking up too much of his spare time.

Overall, I think this is a game that Tom will enjoy and like, although it isn’t a traditional video game. Since Tom plays so widely in so many genres with so many mechanics, I think that a well-designed clone or reimagining of many kinds of games would have appealed to him. What I’ve tried to do is not only appeal to him but also help him adjust and deal with his new living situation, while connecting him back to a community that isn’t location-dependent.

It remains to be seen whether Tom will enjoy this game. There are a few challenges still ahead: finding and building a community of players, practicing my riddle-writing skills to make writing them a bit easier than it is now, and maintaining the game with regular updates once it is up and running.

You can find the game materials here:
Game Rules: the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com

WORKS CITED
Steinkuehler, C. A. and Williams, D. (2006), Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name:
Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11: 885–909.

Eklund, L. (2013) Family and Games: digital game playing in the social context of the family. In
Quandt, T & Kröger, S (Eds.) Multi.Player. Social Aspects of Digital Gaming. Routledge: London

Games and Their Outcomes: Ethics Paperwork

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This semester, I’m doing a directed reading course called “Games and Their Outcomes” and it is largely centered around this question:
“How can we make claims about player experience?”

Or, on a more basic level, what are qualitative research techniques that can be said to be “rigorous” and allow us to back up our methods and say with some degree of confidence that we know what we know. The upshot of taking on this kind of course is that I’m upscaling my research methods (or in a lot of cases, learning that what I was already doing intuitively is a thing that qualitative researchers who want to be rigorous do).

The first assignment that I’ve completed is one that, fittingly, also comes at the beginning of many research projects: the ethics portion. I’ve completed drafts of ethics paperwork for the Speculative Play team which I’ve just joined (featuring Rilla Khaled, Pippin Barr, Christopher Moore, Brian Greenspan, Liane Decary-Chen, Agustina Isidori and, now, me!)

There isn’t too much to say about the paperwork itself (it was fairly straightforward), except that Ethics within a research framework, especially at a University, especially for the arts, is not perfectly designed to fit research-creation work. Having co-designed a game about consent, I know my way around the topic fairly well.

But proposing ethics around design and art projects where what might develop is unknown and might potentially spiral into something completely different is a particularly strange experience. In research-creation, you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to do before you do it – it’s the nature of the beast. Ideally, we would like to not have to submit ethics paperwork for every tiny project that we plan to do — that would waste both our time and the Office of Research Ethics’ people’s time, too. We want a flexible framework that respects people and our ethical responsibilities that isn’t too bogged down in the bureaucracy of the thing. It turns out that, that’s complicated.

I think that what was important about this assignment was learning to complete ethics paperwork of a similar kind to what I will actually need for my research. It was…demystifying. But I also kept bumping up against the limits of my knowledge — and the limits of what I could decide on my own from common sense. But, if we wait to submit the paperwork until we know exactly what the project will be, we may end up waiting on the ethics paperwork to actually be able to do the research, which may delay the research. Definitely not an ideal solution!

At time of writing, we are waiting to talk to the OOR ethics folk over the phone to see what we can do with our application that will allow for proper ethics but also won’t require us to submit an application for every small-scale project.

Platforms and Programming: Some Thoughts on Processing

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startscreen

Part of the challenge of this semester-long intensive solo programming boot camp that Rilla and Pippin are so kindly leading me through is learning how to learn. I’m not just learning a programming language or two, I am learning about libraries, APIs, references, object-oriented thinking, how to structure my code, how to debug, the vocabulary I’ll need to add to my google fu repertoire…and, perhaps most importantly, I’m learning how programming languages are learned.

One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn is something that I already knew but have to keep reminding myself of: there are probably only a few rare somebodies who store all their programming knowledge completely in their memory. It’s normal to have to google, use the references, and refer back. I felt curiously guilty about that at first, but I’m getting used to the idea now.

So! In seven weeks, I finished the twenty-three chapters of Daniel Shiffman’s Learning Processing. Here are a few observations about Processing as a tool (I was about to say language and I guess it sort of is, but it’s also basically Java with the Processing library and applet, so…):

* Processing is very good at algorithmic, procedurally generated visuals and it handles playing around with colour very well.

* Processing (while it probably has a library for this) doesn’t handle sprite sheet-based animation very well. The animation chapter section covered flipping a head back and forth when it reached the edge of a sketch and that was about it.

* Processing can do fantastic things with video very easily! Loads of fun!

* Shiffman points out that Processing is primarily geared towards visuals – and he ought to know, he’s written most of the tutorials up on the Processing.org website. Case in point: with new updates, the sound library appears to break fairly frequently , but the video library doesn’t.

* Processing can do networking, but it involves installing extra software and additional libraries. While it takes maybe three lines of code (excluding the curly brackets) to draw something in Processing, it’s something like 30 to do any networking at all. So, clearly, visuals are a priority in comparison.

* Shiffman’s Learning Processing is really excellent. I definitely recommend it for beginners – everything is explained very clearly in the early chapters.

To celebrate finishing the Learning Processing book, I made this funky little game toy thing called Earth Twin! It uses Processing’s computer vision capabilities with an Eliza chatbot library by codeanticode. It’s available to play for either PC or Mac. Let me know what you think (@jekagames). Here’s a sample transcript:

>> Hello. Greetings and salutations. As you know, I’m here as part of a Keplerian delegation to learn more about the human world. Tell me your favourite things about humans.

Hello there.

>> Greetings. Hi. Yo. Heya. I’m from an earth-twin planet called Kepler and I want to know about humans and stuff.

I want to know about humans too!

>> What would it mean to you if you got to know about humans too ? Seriously, what would that even look like?

I don’t know anything about humans.

>> Of course you don’t know anything about humans ! Isn’t that illegal ?

It is not illegal for humans to know about humans.

>> Is this some strange human custom? I’m not sure I understand.

Yes, it is.

>> You are sure. Remember: if you ever visit Kepler, certainty is a thought crime.

That is good advice.

>> Please go on. Does this have something to do with the Internet ?

Everything reaches the internet at some point.

>> On Kepler, that might be considered an untoward suggestion.

I understand, yes.

>> You say you understand ? On Kepler, you could lose an eye for that.

Kepler sounds like a harsh place.

>> The swim to understanding is filled with eddies, currents, and large predator fish. Oh – that ? Just an old Keplerian saying.

Well, there you have it.

>> We were discussing you — not me. I’m here to gather information on humans, not to allow humans to gather information about Keplerians.

Fair enough.

>> A nematode in the pod is worth twenty in the toxic ooze that covers all known surfaces, as they say.

Goodbye.

>> Goodbye. Thank you for facilitating the Keplerian invasion.

Meanwhile, I’m moving on to JavaScript. That also means brushing up on my html and CSS (when I used to mess with html as a teenager, CSS was just barely getting started). Wish me luck! First up is p5.js, and we’ll be re-evaluating from there. I know we plan to do some messing around in Phaser and PICO-8, and I think we’ll also be looking at the Nature of Code.

Exciting! New world unlocked!

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