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: Early June Update and Notes on Lying Fallow

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, critical making, reflective games

I figured it was time for a little update from my notes and documentation!

So, since my last update, the project has moved forward considerably!

I also presented my Reflective Games research on a panel which I chaired at CGSA (the Canadian Games Studies Association) and had some great questions about it from other scholars, and had the chance to chair a talk by Kara Stone about Reparative Game Design and Time (in many forms — queer time, crip time, deep time). We got a lot of good questions and feedback, and I felt quite recharged by the conference.

To simplify things a little, beyond preparing for and presenting at CGSA, here are the…

Egh. As I opened the link to github with the intent of sharing my code repository, I found out about the news that github is being acquired by Microsoft, and I’m not too sure how to feel about that.

Well, at any rate, the code lives there for now, so here’s a timeline of the progress since my last blog post, along with some short descriptions and pictures.

TIMELINE
May 20th-21st:

After finishing Harle, my first puppet, I got to work on a puppet that I came to call Avi. The names of the two colours of fleece that I bought from Fabricville were Guacamole and Chai Tea, and reminded me of the colours of the inside of an avocado. So, despite the fact that Avi looks a lot like a turtle, their look is actually avocado-inspired.

I was invited to an impromptu get-together at a friend’s house, and I knew that I would have a lot of hand-sewing to do, based on Harle. So, I machine-sewed everything possible ahead of time, and brought my pins, fabric, stuffing, needle and thread over to this friend’s house. I have found that I can watch, listen and speak while handsewing, and so while we conversed and others played board games, Avi’s body came together. The next day, I added features like Avi’s eyes and other details.

May 23rd-25th:

My friend Gina suggested that my third puppet should be a red dragon, complete with wings. I had been planning to use red fabric so that the puppets are each sort of in correspondence with CMY/RGB colour theory (Avi, while not Cyan, is both green and yellow). Since Drake was my third puppet, I felt confident enough to experiment with the design, particular when it came to character details. I had this vision of fringes and crests, and, measuring against the puppet’s face, I free-handed a pattern on a piece of cardstock, cut it out, and used the same technique that is used to machine-sew the hands of the puppets to sew my fringes.

Yes, Drake is an obvious name for a dragon-inspired puppet, but I was also thinking of my Toronto friends who are huge Drake fans (in particular, the writers, artists and game designers).

May 26th-28th:
I spent the next few days working on Microbits/Neopixel code, and created a Git repository for this (not very reader-friendly but very small in size) code here.

I used the Microbits coding environment and their drag-and-drop code along with the Adafruit Neopixels package/library for the environment. It was astoundingly easy to get things up and running. I ran into a persistent problem using repetitive loops (like the While loop and the loop that allows you to repeat code multiple times) — the code couldn’t be interrupted. That meant that I couldn’t turn the signal off when I wanted to. That felt clunky, so instead, the LEDs animate a few times, and then continue to be their rainbow selves until the other button is pressed and they are turned off (this is something that I just updated yesterday, but didn’t feel like I should separate from this section — it’ll still get its own timeline entry!).

One major change was deciding to use one neopixel instead of two — basically, I didn’t want to have wires hanging around everywhere and the one LED seemed sufficient for the signal.

May 28th:
Following that, I started to design vests to hold the electronics. While I could have embedded them directly onto the puppets, I felt that it would be better not to damage the puppets and also easy to develop an agile, changeable solution if the electronics were on something that the puppets wore instead. The vests are perhaps not the most aesthetic things in the world, but on the whole, I think that they look fine. I only had time to start the basics before having to pack and get ready for CGSA. At first, I thought of using my cat’s harness pattern, but that seemed to take up too much fabric, and anyway, wasn’t based on the same shape as the puppets. This gave me the idea of using the existing puppet pattern as a base. So, using the larger puppet back pattern, I slightly altered the shapes and left room for arm holes.

May 29th – June 2nd: I was at CGSA!

June 3rd-4th:

A whirlwind of staying up too late and sewing tiny vests for puppets! After designing the shape and ensuring that it worked, I had to design a pocket for the batteries (which I talked through with Tom), a way of making the Microbits buttons easier to use no matter a person’s handedness/what hand they chose to put the puppet on, and decide on LED positioning. Tom helped me talk through the pocket decision, which due to the flexible positioning of the microbits (which are attached by velcro and can be repositioned), had to be in a specific orientation. Last night, I finished all three vests and they’re all in working order.

June 4th: After finishing the vests, I tweaked the code, cleaning it up to reflect the single neopixel, turning down the brightness of the LEDs, and making it so that the second button turned the pixels to “black” or “off” instead of to the very-bright white setting.

And that brings us to now.

NOW!

I am ready to draft rules of play for the game, but I have started to do some reading to familiarize myself a little bit with the literature on psychodrama and on sociodrama (which may actually be more what I am aiming for — systems and the experiences of a group rather than necessarily individual experiences).

In terms of narrowing down the themes of the game, I have been thinking a lot about harassment, bullying, and microaggressions. This, I think, is the confluence of a few factors: some of my friends and colleagues have recently told me about harassment which they are experiencing, my own family is facing harassment and bullying, and I just watched Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why.

So, I’ll be doing some reading and thinking before I sit down and commit to the rules.

On the Autoethnography side of things, I wanted to note the difficulty of tracing the influences on my thought process. This thought is based partially on this quote from a recent blog post by Pippin Barr about Translation Studies:

“One of the most difficult things about trying to actually talk about design is that it’s so ephemeral much of the time. Even with the best will in the world and the determination to pause and reflect on your design work in the moment as you make decisions, it can be hard to think of how to even frame what you’re doing, and thus hard to get words out. The most important thing in that context is to actually know what you’re trying to make, for which you can refer to design documents, artist statements, or similar. But even then it can be tricky to make the connections between some specific design decision and the high level statement of purpose.”

To really note all the overheard bits of conversation, all of the media that I am consuming (willingly or not, whether it’s the music playing in the grocery store, or an accidental glance at someone else’s phone, or all the myriad things I might scroll past on social media) that might have an influence on my process, and still have this project be manageable in scope is…just not possible.

What I can do, and what I am doing is documenting, writing notes, and recording conversations when I can clearly say that yes, this is part of my design process. I am taking notes about the things that I am deliberately consuming and thinking about as part of this design process. But there is so much going on, and for both ethical and practical reasons, it can’t all go in. So, the data is necessarily incomplete. I guess I have to make peace with that. I already have hours of conversation recorded.

On another note about productivity and scheduling: I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow designer this morning, and we were talking about what I’ll summarize as the concept of “lying fallow” — I’m not sure if others have used this term before… I feel like the answer to that is yes. These thoughts are also definitely influenced by Kara Stone’s CGSA talk, which is forthcoming as a paper, about Reparative Design. Increasingly, I am coming to recognize the importance of the times where a project is active but I am not working on it. This is something I think that I discussed in my writing earlier this year, in January and February, when I was experiencing burnout symptoms.

Now that this idea has had the time to lie fallow, all of a sudden, things are just coming together. It’s a joy to work on it. It’s a joy to talk about it. But it needed that time. And so did I — I think that, like a field that has given all it has to grow the previous seasons’ crops, I needed to rest. I needed to be taking in information and thinking about the project without worrying too much about time. My past development cycles have definitely been about these bursts of activity, followed by refinement.

Having given six months to each game project (eight in the case of the first one, though I’m hoping to not need all of those extra months, in order to be able to build more of a buffer), and knowing that I also have to do things like writing and editing (for my dissertation, for publication) as well as teaching, and y’know, taking care of my physical and emotional needs, I know that my schedule is a lot. It can be difficult to feel okay about lying fallow, but ultimately, the past year has shown me that it is a necessity.

Your faithful autoethnographer,
Doing the best that they can,
Jess

Autoethnography: Personal Memory Data Collection – Exercise 5.6 Artefacts of Play

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, dissertation

Using Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (“List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”) as a prompt, I’m going to use these artefacts to talk about my history with artefacts of play and artefacts of design.

In trying to write these lists, I’m aware of the difficulty of the word “importance” — my play and design practices have existed for a long time now, and it’s difficult to know what to give weight to. On the one hand, I could list “firsts” — but are the first games I played actually any more important for being first? There’s also games that I played often or repeatedly, not necessarily because they were particularly good or important games to me, but because they were there. In some cases, I just “remember” certain artefacts vividly — is the fact that they are memorable important? At any rate, I’ve done my best to make these lists without worrying too much about whether I’ve got all the most important ones down, and with a multi-faceted understanding of what the term “important” might mean.

Here’s the first list, five artefacts of play. Writing about myself in great detail is less easy than I thought it would be!

ARTEFACTS OF PLAY, BOTH DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL

* My mother’s brown silk skirt: I used to borrow this skirt constantly to wear it as a cape, or to pretend to be a two-headed monster with a friend. Dress-up and imagination-based games were very important to me as a child. I loved to play pretend. Nowadays, I still enjoy making costumes and cosplaying, and making objects, and I play tabletop RPGs all the time.

* My brother’s PlayStation 2: Many of the early gaming experiences that I remember were with the SNES and then the original PlayStation. I remember having a very limited set of games, which meant that I had to replay or watch my brother replay the same games over and over again. When our household finally got a PlayStation 2, I also got my own memory card, which was important because it was mine to save what I wanted on it. I remember the saved game icons, like the badges that I had earned as a Scout, lined up in rows. What’s important about the PlayStation 2 is that when we finally got one, I was old enough to buy games for myself, if I saved up enough money. The first game I remember buying for myself was Final Fantasy VII, years after it came out. Things are a little fuzzy — it’s hard to remember what I played first. I remember playing the Monster Rancher series, where game discs and others were special artefacts that could gain me unusual fantastic creatures…or often just boring old “Mochi”, the game’s mascot, designed to look like a Japanese treat that I didn’t try until I was an adult.

Even later, I often replayed the same games again and again because I couldn’t afford new ones. One of the games I remember renting most often was Wild Arms, a JRPG with puzzle elements where different characters had different special abilities that could solve puzzles in the dungeons. It was a compelling little game, but the copies that I had access to — one borrowed from a friend of my brother’s, and one rented from Game Zone, my rental spot of choice, always froze at the same point in the game when I played it on our PlayStation. The PlayStation 2 was better able to handle any scratches or flaws on discs, and so I was able to play past that point in the game on the rented disc. I remember longing to own a copy, and finally got one as a gift a few years ago.

I spent a lot of time on that PlayStation 2.

* JRPGs: My games of choice as a child were JRPGs. I especially played the Final Fantasy series, because they had a good reputation and I had limited disposable income, which made it harder to take chances on games. Lately, I have been replaying certain “classic” games that I own copies of with my spouse, including Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Small moments in the play call to mind my childhood and my earlier formative game-playing experiences. I remember that I played Chrono Cross before I ever played Chrono Trigger, meaning that some references in the game to the other series were totally lost on me the first time around. I remember that one of my best friends’ brothers introduced me to Chrono Trigger, saying how he could choose to do the final boss battle right now, at any time, but that he would get his butt kicked if he did. At the time, I was intrigued, but had no idea who Lavos was.

* A Football: My dad was part of an amateur touch-football league for something like fifteen years. When I was about five years old, my brother started to play football with a local tackle football league. Every game, I would ask the coaches if I could play, and they would tell me “come back when you’re seven.” So I did, and from the ages of seven to twelve, I played in a boys’ tackle football league. I played snapper, offensive line, defensive line, defensive back, tight end, and specialty teams. At that age, I had hit a growth spurt before the other kids on my team, and I was pretty strong and coordinated. I learned a lot from this experience, about what it meant to be a “girl” in a patriarchy, about cooperation and being a part of a team, and about persistance. I also learned that I loved to tackle things and play in the mud. Rainy practices were the best practices. In addition to our taste in books and games, football is something that I share with my brother and father.

* My First Set of Dice: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition when I was seventeen years old, and I still have the first set of dice that I bought. They are simple, black and white dice. When my spouse tried to test their balance using the old heavily-salted water technique, they wouldn’t float. Over the years, I’ve garnered a reputation for being unnaturally lucky with dice — and not just these ones. I don’t roll a twenty every time, but my character stats, now always rolled under close observation, are always a bit better than normal, and I have been known to come through dramatically in a pinch when playing Battlestar Galactica and piloting. For the past few years, I have played a tabletop roleplaying game once a week (barring any unforeseen scheduling issues) with the same group of people. I’ve played multiple campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Hunter: The Vigil, Ogg, Chaosium, Fate SRD, Fate Accelerated, Honey Heist, Fiasco!, Microscope, Kingdom, The Quiet Year, and many a random one-shot. Even when I’m at my most busy and can’t seem to make any time for leisure, I am usually still attending my weekly game night. So, tabletop games, and my dice, are constant companions of play for me.