Last weekend, July 7th-11th, the global community of game studies researchers gathered both in-person and online for the 2022 Digital Games and Research Association (DiGRA) annual conference. While originally slated to be in Guadalajara, Mexico, the conference had to be relocated due to complications stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, eventually finding a welcoming host for the global event at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Over the course of the 5-day weekend conference, DiGRA hosted a vast array of important and interesting research presentations, design and research workshops, and keynote speeches through a primarily hybrid format of both digital and irl participation in an effort to create a sense of global community amongst game researchers and exemplify the conferences unifying topic: “Bringing Worlds Together.”
Amongst numerous panels and presentations, nine members of TAG across five sessions provided insights into diverse corners of digital games research. Excitingly, this included TAG’s recently returning director Rilla Khaled, who gave the conference’s Sunday morning keynote address (outlined below in more detail). While it is impossible to truly capture the scope of the entire weekend, this summary will hopefully capture the success and brilliance of all the TAGsters who presented their amazing and engaging research topics over the weekend.
Fictional Functions and Functional Fictions: Designing for Speculative Play Keynote
It is incredibly exciting to welcome back Dr. Rilla Khaled to the TAG community as our returning director, especially given her keynote presentation at the 2022 DiGRA conference. As a game designer and professor of computational arts at Concordia University, Dr. Khaled’s keynote centered around the design philosophy and successful implementations of speculative play. Speculative play, as emphasized during the keynote, is the successful marriage between critical design philosophies and the best practices of game design that endeavor to bring complex social and cultural questions to life through playful interaction. This is perhaps best exemplified for the purposes of this summary through Khaled’s own game design work, including projects such as ChaBoT, NEO//QAB, and Aunties-Algorithms.
What is most important to Dr. Khaled in regard to the possibilities of speculative and critical design practices is the potential for designers to make real-world socio-political complexities playable through familiar digital interfaces that are set in alternative presents and near-futures. In the digital game Aunties-Algorithms, Khaled employed the familiar design of online dating interfaces to speculatively engage in a dialogue surrounding the effects of digital romance and marriage platforms on cultural norms surrounding marriage in India.
Khaled’s talk also outlined crucial aspects surrounding the best practices designers can follow to ensure that their critically designed speculative play experience is impactful and relevant to the issues it is trying to speak to. While many digital games of varying scales attempt to provide social commentary through overfamiliar or instantly recognizable tropes, with the primary trend relying on dystopian fictions, Dr. Khaled argues that these designed dystopias are a “mic drop” on a particular issue or set of socio-political issues that leave little-to-no room for thoughtful conversation or provocation between users and the designed experience. Instead, Khaled argues for the use of paratopias in speculative play to invoke thoughtful, provocative, and impactful experiences. Toying with the space between utopias and dystopias, paratopias involve a paradigm shift from established systems, creating closeness between real-world issues and the intended provocations of the designer’s socio-political commentary. ChaBoT is another of Khaled’s “speculative play” games that imagines what would happen if mental health work were offloaded to an AI chatbot, a paratopia that is not far removed from the technological solutions we see being implemented in real-world problem-solving.
To close out the presentation, Dr. Khaled emphasized the importance of orienting, or onboarding, the user to the speculative fiction that the designer is attempting to invoke in order to acclimatize the user to their role in the diegetic world of the experience. As speculative play and critical design experiences have a very specific idea or issue that they are seeking to explore, it is critical to design an alibi (strategies that enable players to interact and (re)construct a socially acceptable spectrum of play) for users so they can be acclimatized to the experience’s logic, connection to real-world issues, and their place within the fictional world.
Overall, Dr. Khaled’s keynote made a very compelling case for game designers to explore the possibilities of speculative play and critical design in order to create compelling, playable provocations that can create incredibly useful dialogue between users and designers surrounding complex socio-political issues. While this overview covers the pillars of Dr. Khaled’s speculative play, I encourage those seeking more information to visit either Rilla’s website, https://www.rillakhaled.com/, or the tweet below to further explore her research and projects.
Living on Twitch: An Ethnography of Fatigue
Andrei Zanescu, Mia Consalvo and Marc Lajeunesse
As part of the “Play and Players” hybrid session, this power team of TAG & mLab members, led by Andrei Zanescu, presented a focused assessment of livestreaming fatigue from their larger ethnographic research surrounding the lived experiences of small streamers in livestreaming ecosystems. Choosing to focus on fatigue due to its frequent mentions in their autoethnographic data, the research team demonstrated how ever-present fatigue stems from enrollment in affiliate and partnership streaming programs and is additionally exacerbated by harassment and systemic inequalities that target minority gaming populations, such as women, neurodivergent individuals, people with disabilities, queer identities, and people of color.
Understanding Liveness in Theatre, LARP, and Games
Bart Simon, Lynn Hughes, Jaakko Stenros, Jorge Lopes Ramos, Jodee Allen and Persis Jade Maravala
Kicking off the “Philosophy and Theory of Play & Games” session, Jaakko Stenros presented on behalf of this impressive group of international and interdisciplinary researchers, including TAG’s own Bart Simon, Lynn Hughes, and JoDee Allen, and covered the research group’s work-in-progress surrounding liveness in theory and design of participatory media experiences. Started in 2019 and based out of our own Concordia University, this group’s continually evolving research seeks to reevaluate liveness, a concept and discussion in the humanities that was popular in the 1990s, in the context of the contemporary mass digitization of media and experiences. Working across a variety of medial forms – including, but not limited to, digital games, participatory theatre, dance, and live-action role-playing – this research focuses on the core tenants of liveness in participatory media, such as authenticity, co-presence, and mutual attentiveness, to ultimately reflect on the practices and possibilities of implementing liveness in the design philosophy of participatory media experiences.
Final Fantasies: Final Fantasy III/VI Authenticity Hacks
As part of a panel simply titled “Mixed”, given the wide array of topics covered by the panelists, Michael presented on issues of authenticity in retranslation hacks of Final Fantasy III (VI). Retranslation hacks, as outlined by Michael, are fan-driven modifications that seek to adjust the game’s dialogue, narration, and other rhetorical elements in an effort to create the most “authentic” version of the game. Seeking to combat issues such as mistranslation or censorship, fan retranslations create “an idealized meta-text that consists of the narrative and ludic values that they feel embody the core elements of the game” (ibid.). Looking at three separate translation hacks of FF III (VI) that claim to increase the authenticity of the game’s narration and dialogue, Michael outlined the rhetoric of authenticity in fan translation communities, which often orbit around feelings of loss, with fans feeling that the official English translation, made by Ted Woolsey, removed or lost “authentic” content from the original Japanese script. However, as Michael’s research indicates, some translations have attempted homage to the original Woolsey translation, while others are much more fundamentalist, seeking to directly translate the original Japanese script. Michael ended on the assertion that a truly “authentic” translation is forever out of reach based on different perceptions of authenticity amongst the games retranslation community; however, he emphasizes the importance of studying retranslation hacks and communities to further understand the community maintenance of authenticity of game texts following their initial releases.
Questioning alternative and standard game controllers through hegemonic models
Enric Granzotto Llagostera
The final TAG presenter at DiGRA, Enric’s presentation centered on hegemony-informed models for alternative game controller practice as part of the session “Game Design, Production and Distribution.” Centering on important questions, such as “What is alternative about alternative controls?” and how to unpack the label of alternative-ness, Enric’s research questioned the political implications of altctrl schemes through Raymond William’s conceptualization of hegemony. By analyzing the difference between controller inputs that are labeled as standard or alternative, and how these notions impact the production, circulation, and use of input devices, Enric’s work emphasized the importance of continual interrogation into the way dominant controller schemas construct an idealized player-subject-body and how altctrl games and projects, particularly those made outside the bounds of corporate production and marketing, can “continue, negotiate and/or oppose the standard metagame” (ibid.) normalized by “standard” controller design.
Congratulations to all the TAGsters and all members of the community who presented at this year’s DiGRA conference. Echoing Andrei’s sentiments in the tweet below, these exciting conferences and presentations are not possible without the support of the global game studies community, and it is important to recognize the extensive work that makes all this incredible research possible.