Dissertation: First Game Update — Puppets, Cosplay, Masks

critical making, curious games, dissertation

Writing here as a record of what my process has been like of late in relation to this first dissertation game. The work is proving hard to get a handle on — for a number of reasons, I think.

So, lately, I’ve been reading about larps and I also just picked up and am about to read Queer Game Studies, edited by Bo Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw. Since what I have been absorbing reading-wise is larp related, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I have had no trouble writing my latest larp once I settled on the topic. I completed a draft in just seven hours, and you can read that draft here: https://jekagames.itch.io/queer-sleepover-witching-hour

I have the materials that I need in order to experiment with making some objects for my latest game, but I am having trouble figuring out what I would like to explore in the game. The truth is, with everything that is going on in my personal life with my spouse’s work, and my difficulties with living in Fort McMurray, not to mention that doctoral programs are not known to be stellar for one’s mental health, I have been having trouble working at the same pace that I am used to. In January, I had to take a break because I was exhibiting burnout symptoms. The break seemed to work well, but I still haven’t been able to return to my former pace of work, and although my symptoms are not nearly as bad as they were, I still am having much more trouble focusing than I am used to. My resilience is not what it used to be. I’m not who I used to be.

Maybe it will all get better if this situation ever resolves itself, but for now, I have to continuously remind myself to be kind to myself and not to rush the work. But I feel guilty not being productive and not making as much as I am used to (even though I’ve released like three games in the first three months of 2018 and have been doing plenty of reading, writing and other work – sheesh).

I’ve been having doubts about this game as a “puppet” game, and with the materials I’ve gathered, I find myself interested in maybe making a game with masks, or costumes. The problem with masks and costumes, I think, is that it is difficult to make something that will be “one size fits all” — because one size doesn’t fit all. Nevertheless, I am considering the affordances of these different possibilities. One theme that is very present for me at the moment is mental health. It’s a bit of a tired metaphor if I work it from the “masks” angle, so I would have to consider carefully what I want to say and how.

The puppets are causing me trouble possibly because of the relationship between puppet and audience, and the kinds of activities that puppets are used for. I want the interaction to be meaningful and supported by the digital components of the game. I find myself thinking of the Bird Game Collective’s “Lovebirds” and how they made use of masks.

Amongst the materials that I have gathered to play with are three micro:bits, twenty-dollar microcontrollers developed by the BBC and brought to my attention by my colleague, Enric Llagostera. They are Bluetooth and radio-communication enabled straight out of the box, which is making me rethink my initial thoughts. I initially thought that the puppets would be easier to make and less likely to break if I had them interact with an environment that was wired up and close circuits using conductive material rather than having them wired up, since I didn’t want to have to deal with strain on the wires and such. While that’s probably true, I think that having interactions embedded in the puppets themselves probably gives me more interesting design possibilities. Maybe I should use a combination of both. I can also certainly find ways to protect the wires and avoid stretching them too badly.

Well, I wish I had some solutions and could get right into the making. I hope that this long, contemplative process will be well-worth it! I won’t stop playing around with ideas, sketching, and trying to make stuff, though.


autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams, research

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 talk about my history with artefacts of design. I already wrote about my “artefacts of play” here [https://tag.hexagram.ca/jekagames/autoethnography-personal-memory-data-collection-exercise-5-6-artefacts-play/].

Of course, neither of these lists are exhaustive. In the artefacts of play list, for example, board games are notably absent, and I’ve spent many hours playing games like Battlestar Galactica or Betrayal at House on the Hill with friends. I may later try to do some kind of reconstructive timeline work to supplement them.

These lists are also deeply personal, despite the fact that I belong to a community at TAG and a broader “community.” It’s just overwhelming to try and pick out five canon artefacts. That’s because, let’s face it, everyone plays or has played in their life. It’s part of our development. And while maybe not everyone has “officially” designed a game, whatever that means, designing and adapting games and play is also a part of childhood play. So, with that said, here are my 5 Artefacts of Game Design, or, five important tools and influences on my game design process:


Especially when working from a pre-determined theme, mapping out my ideas and writing things down on paper in a spatially-organized way has always been an effective way of coming up with a game for me. It also makes it much easier to retrace my lines of thought later. This is a very important design tool for me.

*Game Jams/Rapid Prototyping
Looking at the roughly 30 games and game prototypes that I have made since January 2013, fully 21 originally started out as part of a rapid prototyping session (7 of them, with the first version made in less than a week) or as a game jam project (14 of them, with the first version usually made in 48 hours or less), whether later refined and reworked or otherwise. Having a playable version to refine and work with has been a key tool for me. It also helps me to discard what isn’t working before I have invested a lot of energy into it.

When I was studying creative writing, I was always more of a “short story” writer than a novelist or someone who wanted to sustain a long term project. I generally prefer to focus on one or two themes and ideas in a project, which I think is true of my game-making practice as well. I think that I can sustain longer term projects if I want — I have a current collaborative project that I have been working on for well over a year, and several other projects that took about six months of sustained work. But I haven’t yet found a project that I wanted to expand enough to make it into a single focus.

*Google Search Engine
The first game-making tool that I used (other than when someone else programmed my first video game ever during Global Game Jam 2013 in Unity) was Stencyl. From there, I moved on to Construct 2, then did a bit of Unity, and then learned Processing, then Phaser and some JavaScript, and now, I’m developping in JavaScript with whichever libraries are necessary to the project, and Unity once again for 3D projects (I’m not big on 3D for 3D’s sake at the moment — heck, I still need to learn how to make textures and align them). But, through it all, (and I normally use Duck Duck Go if I can help it), googling my problems has been a constant. I’d say that roughly half of my time spent programming is looking up code and figuring out how to make things work. Luckily, I’m very good at picking the right search engine terms. I would not have been able to develop games without a cracking good search engine as a resource.

*Duct Tape
Duct Tape is meant to represent two artistic practices for me — the first is “Making the most tin-foil, duct-tape version of a thing quickly” to test out concepts, and the other is how crafting and making physical objects is a core part of many of my games. I have always been a person who makes things. I enjoy prop-making, costume-making, sewing, sculpting, building structures, painting, drawing…

Luckily, I have been able to use these skills as part of my game-making practice with alternative controls. It’s been very useful to know about the materiality of things.

*The Desks of TAG Lab
I couldn’t think of an object that represented the role of collaborators in my process. Over the years, I’ve worked with many people in small teams (usually just 2-3 people) to make all sorts of projects. I’m very grateful to my collaborators — and each is listed on my games’ page next to the game(s) that we made together. I work best when I have other people to bounce ideas off of — and this is true even for my solo work. The reason I chose the Desks of TAG Lab as an artefact is because just sitting in the lab, amongst other people working, can lead to all sorts of conversations or collaborations, and the folk sitting there are usually willing to stop by for a quick chat, or, in the case of the talented programmers in the room, help me to answer particularly thorny coding questions. Even when working alone, talking about my work to others is very helpful. This is definitely a very important aspect of my process. Of my 30-ish projects, just 13 are solo endeavours.


So, a fair few of these objects are abstracted, or are strategies rather than physical things. There are definitely other influences I could talk about.

Community is definitely one of those things, in the form of MRGS, Pixelles, and TAG. I could also talk about the specific designers who had an impact on the way that I make games, or who made me feel like I had permission to make “weird” games any which way I chose — like Pippin Barr, who taught the Curious Games Studio (my first “formal” game design class). I could also talk about specific tools, and their affordances, and what they encouraged me to make, and what I learned from them. I will eventually talk about the three years that I spent my summers doing Critical Hit, first as a participant, then as an assistant, then as a co-director. These were definitely very formative experiences.

More on this as my autoethnography continues!

Reflective Games: Sleepover Witching Hour

critical making, reflective games

Just a short entry to record for posterity an idea for a new nanolarp. This larp might be called “CAMP GENDERQUEER” or possibly “A SLEEPOVER PARTY FOR ADULTS” or…well, we’ll see.

Lately, I’ve been looking outside of nordic larp to other sources. This has led me to read a fair bit about “edularp”, which is to say larps and play-acting that takes place largely in primary school with young children. I guess this has contributed to my having childhood experiences on my mind.

Fellow Designer, friend and collaborator, Allison Cole made a series of nanolarps (well, shortish larps) for her MFA at the NYU Game Center where each game was designed with someone that she had not collaborated with before, but wanted to. One of the games that game out of this project, designed by Allison herself, Joachim Despland, and Carolyn Jong, is a game called “Remember That Time”, a game for three players and no facilitators which takes place at a high school reunion. Here’s the overview from Allison’s Anthology of Intimacy book (unpublished, artisanally handcrafted in a limited run):

“You are at a high school reunion. It has been 15 years since you graduated. When you were in high school you were in a triad and the three of you have found yourselves at a secluded table in the corner with a bottle of wine. The evening lies in front of you, with nothing to hold your attention but the exes from your fondly remembered youth and your memories.”

In this game, the players drink a bottle of wine together, reminiscing about their shared past and pouring toasts when they feel a scene is resolved, and playing until the bottle is finished. They then engage in a discussion about why the relationship ended and a number of other subjects. As the idea for this larp formulated in my mind, I was reminded of Allison, Joachim and Carolyn’s game (which I have not playtested because I do not drink). I’ve been considering what my next larp ought to be about, and I keep coming back to questions around my own gender and sexuality, and thinking about how to explore this very personal experience in a way that would be nice for other people.

As I flopped down onto my beanbag chairs in my office, in my permanent blanket fort (see picture below), I began to think about sleepovers and the intimacy of those strange, late-night conversations, which usually take place amongst people of shared assigned-at-birth gender of similar age. The conversations that I have had late at night during sleepovers, just as everyone is about to drift off to sleep, are some of the most intimate half-remembered conversations I ever had with friends in my youth.

The idea is only half-formulated for now, but I think that, in this larp, which would stretch the definition of nanolarp, I would like players to arrive in pajamas, watch a silly movie or play some silly board games, and then hang out on beanbag chairs and couches (both of which TAG has) in a room with the lights turned off, where nobody has to look anyone else in the face, and talk.

I think there would be rules to facilitate disclosure, and of course, some kind of fictional layer/persona, loosely defined, for each player. Maybe, if someone discloses something intimate, other players also have to bring up something about themselves. Maybe there are rules about what is said, and maybe there’s a cone of silence involved — what happens at Adult Sleepover stays at Adult Sleepover? It’s still forming in my mind. This may not be the case for everyone, but there’s a certain safety and intimacy involved in being bundled up cosily, chatting in the middle of the night, that’s difficult to otherwise replicate. The topics might be the usual ones — weird little stories that are too gross or embarrassing to tell in the light of day (if you see me in person, ask me about “Nickel”, a story that I still remember telling at Camp Tamaracouta as a Scout about a kid who picks his nose a lot), about crushes, opinions about anything from music to movies to how to solve all the world’s problems. I am sure this is partially my nostalgia talking, but I think this could be a warm, intimate and sincere experience, if I design it right and the players are feeling it.