DISSERTATION: Playtesting TRACES and ACT ‘NORMAL’ this week!

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, playtest

I’m happy to be able to say that tomorrow and Thursday, TRACES, along with its companion larp, ACT ‘NORMAL’, will be playtested this week!

It’s been a hard road since September 1st — I easily lost three productive months (September, December, January). Technically, May is the 9th month since I started TRACES. I am hoping the next creative project goes more smoothly and fits more neatly into the 6-month timeline that I have planned for it. Actually, I am hoping to be able to use this last project to end up back on track in terms of writing the dissertation component of this project.

We will see if that happens — at this point, I think that I have to accept that doctorates are hard, doctorates while dealing with systemic issues doubly so, and that they take time. I have to be careful about how I plan my time in order to avoid burnout (I really came up to the edge of it during this project around December and January, largely because of issues related to Tom’s work). Learning to take a step back and limiting my involvement with the things that I do not have energy for is an important lesson.

Meanwhile, I have seventeen players lined up to play this week. That’s amazing! And I think it’s plenty of data for my purposes, although there will certainly be future playtests if I can manage it.

Some of the challenges around playtesting this game are that, ideally, it would be played in a crowded, busy space. The challenge with that is not wanting anything to break or go missing, or to get in trouble for playtesting publically where I’m not allowed (since I will basically gaffer-tape the sculptures in various positions where they won’t damage any paint). Getting the space that I did get is not going to be possible as often as I would like — it’s unusual for a solo project to be allowed to use the space in that way.

I guess that brings me to the Companion Larp for TRACES, which I wrote in order to try and solve the issue of not having a crowd to play in. In a nutshell, I am asking people to play characters/caricatures of people they would expect to meet in 2019.

What else should I be recording for posterity in this post? A lot of the records are in github, in the version history of documents I’ve been writing.

I guess I am just, at this point, overwhelmed with how much care I have for this game. I really feel like I’ve put myself out there in a way that feels vulnerable and exciting.

Oh, I guess it’s also worth mentioning that the “final for now” version of the Escape Room that I have been helping with is up and running as of today.

I have no idea what I’ll make next, but I haven’t stopped collecting the molded pulp paper forms when I get the chance. I’ve got some excellent ones that Marc and Gina gave me recently. For now, I’m focusing on doing the best job that I can playtesting and documenting this game that I care for so much.

DISSERTATION: Playtest Crunch

autoethnography, dissertation, playtest, Uncategorized

I have an unsurprising confession to make: in the time since my last blog post, I crunched to get a version of TRACES ready for playtesting at Arcade 11.

You can follow the traces (ha) of my digital programming crunch here: https://github.com/jekagames/traces

Between each commit, I was working with all the different broken processes unless I was sleeping.

The other physical object-making crunch that I engaged in is evident on instagram.

Everything took longer than expected. There was a lot to do to get the project ready — and the fact that each task took longer than I expected it to — each and every single task — was a constant source of stress.

The documentation for each of the libraries that I was using was incomplete, poorly-written, or assumed knowledge that I didn’t have (or was never meant to be combined in the ways that I needed). They’re usually open-source of course, and I appreciate that people have other jobs and other work, but when your constructor uses the same name for the variable and the data type without explaining, that’s really difficult to parse (looking at you, socket.io).

For the installation of certain things on the Raspberry Pi, I got it to work once and I’m not sure why it worked, because it wouldn’t work again on the other machines even though I followed the same instructions. So, instead, I cloned the card. I’m a bit nervous about when I have to update the code and the audio files and such. I hope it’ll go okay.

My 3D models would look fine in theory, but would have physical limitations or issues when I actually printed them. I had to redesign one particular object something like 4 or 5 times — and wait in between each re-design to print it to see what problems arose.

So, I expected to have around a week to build certain parts of the project and instead wound up with 24 hours. What a mess.

I am very, very grateful to the people that helped me — by volunteering their voices, by helping me with programming, by physically building things with me.

Right now, that’s these folks (quoted from my credits):

“VOICE ACTING
System Voice – Natural Reader (modified)
The Handler – Jess Rowan Marcotte
Object 10 – Ash Cheshire
Object 09 – Thomas Deliva
Object 01 – Gina Hara
Object 05 – Enric Llagostera
Object 02, 08 – Jordan McRae
Object 03, 04, 06 – Lukas Rowland
Object 07 – Dietrich Squinkifer

3D-PRINTED OBJECTS
Jess Marcotte (20×4 LCD cover, Arduino Uno Case top)
brandroid64 (Brandon Bowles) (Customizable Raspberry Pi 3 (A+/B+) Case)
djminnesota (Dan Johnson) (Arduino Uno Case bottom, modified by Jess Marcotte)

SPECIAL THANKS TO
Enric Llagostera and Dietrich Squinkifer for their help with all of my programming questions and for helping me debug.”

Some of that will change, though, now that I have had the chance to playtest. I have some internal playtest notes, both physically written down and that I took of my general impressions after the playtest.

Obviously, the sculptures that Tom and I made in 24 hours are not the final sculptures. I actually spent a fair bit of time calling around and contacting Molded Pulp product companies to try and find more of the kind of molded pulp that I had from our dishwasher (that I turned into objects for the game). It turns out that most local packaging companies do not make molded pulp products. One company only made 2 products, which they sold by around 20 000 units at a time: 4-cup holders and egg cartons.

So. I went to a caterer’s store and bought molded pulp takeout containers and plates in a variety of shapes. The nice thing is that they’re compostable, so I feel okay about using them for that reason since I imagine there will be waste/mistakes (though I will be painting the final sculptures). I do have a few leftover shapes from the products I had. I’ll try to work them into what I make.

So. That’s on my list. Making molded pulp takeout container sculptures. Nice.

The next thing on my list is finishing 2 more controllers to accompany the first one that I made fully. I managed to make 2 for playtesting — one that I had fully finished and one on a wooden form that Tom helped me make. So, that’s something I still have to do.

Then, from there, I want to try and further synchronize the text that’s displaying with the audio. I think that means adding another database entry and passing a variable into it in milliseconds that also changes when a specific object from the database is called, and for me to individually check how fast the text needs to display compared to the speaking voice of whoever voices a particular object.

That brings me to two very important other items: first, it seems that some of the voices were a bit distracting to players, so I will likely have to re-record those. Certain voices may also need to just be a tad louder.

Second, it seems like some of the objects are overly didactic, leading to an overly didactic impression of the game. With some playtester advice in mind, I will be thinking about whether I should cut certain objects, about whether to add or change certain stories, and whether to shorten certain parts (like in the introduction — I think I will cut a bit out from there).

This project really changed gears in November 2018 and became more about the rise of fascism in North America, in some ways. I think that I need to return to my goal of telling the stories about trans people (particularly nonbinary trans folk) in our times. The rise of fascism is a part of that, but I think there’s a little too much of it in there right now, which is why it’s coming across as didactic. Also, I was trying to write from the perspective of people coming to the past to study it — so I guess the didactic tone in that way is part of that. But I guess I need to bring it back to the characters and personal stories.

There’s a lot to do! But I do think it’s worth taking the time to do it before I move on to the final project.

DISSERTATION: A general kind of exhaustion, but also hope

autoethnography, critical making, curious games, dissertation, playtest, reflective games, research

It’s been exactly one month since I last wrote an autoethnographic blog post, and let me tell you, it’s been some month. There’s still plenty ahead too — I’ll be traveling to Europe for Ars Electronica, Hamilton for a BTS Concert (yes, I’m a fan — it’s astounding how many graduate students in game studies are and how many of us de-stress [not relax, but de-stress] watching their flashy music videos), Montreal for QGCon (which I’m co-organizing!), Worcester, MA for Different Games, New York for my nibling’s christening, and home again in Montreal for Maker Faire.

From the end of July into the beginning of August, I continued my yearly tradition of participating in GISH (formerly known as GISHWHES). That finished August 4th, and I’ll eventually post some of the items and videos that I made — one video even featured Harle, Avi and Drake as puppets from the 1950s!

From there, from the 5th onward, began a nightmare move that I still haven’t seen the end of. To make a long story short, I have had to make insurance claims and the movers were very unpleasant. It’s left me with a lot of work in addition to my already-hectic schedule, and it’s pretty stressful. At times, it’s been overwhelming. I’m chipping away at it bit by bit, though, and hopefully things will keep shaping up. There’s still a lot of cleaning, renovating, painting, furniture-buying, furniture-building, and decorating to do.

I have run four playtests of Flip the Script in the past two weeks! It’s a game that takes up a lot of energy, and I’ve decided that in the future, I think that the best that I can do is run it once a day. The game relies heavily on the facilitating role, and the facilitation itself IS heavy.

As you might remember about Flip the Script!, one of the debriefing and de-roling exercises that I do with players is formulating a statement that we’d like to put out ot the world — it can be a statement of hope, advice, just something that the players would like others to know. I try to listen and facilitate this. There were four statements to come out of these playtests. I won’t tell you which statement is in relation to what topic.

“Please be attuned to the subtle signs of our inner experiences and invisible struggles (and thank you for your patience).”

“Each ‘small’ drop in the bucket still eventually fills it and can make it overflow.”

“Be critical of the information you consume; be a good observer, be a good listener, and go deeper than the surface.”

“In recognizing each other’s humanity within rigid systems, there may be potential for unusual alliances and creative solutions.”

Some things that I’ve learned from the playtesting: the microbit and LED technology isn’t pulling its weight as much as it could, although it’s not horribly mismatched, it’s a facilitator-heavy game, I need to help players connect to their puppets by making sure that they interact with them early and often and make things up about them, and I need to carefully shape scenes by regeneralizing any personal anecdotes that people tell, and ensure that the scene is robust enough to support multiple playthroughs. That means carefully setting up the characters and potentialities/story seeds. Also, the way that the game goes and how much is disclosed depends very heavily on who is playing (but I knew that would be the case).

Player reception has been generally positive, and people seem to get something out of the game on an emotional level, even if it’s not a perfect game. I guess it’s okay that it’s not perfect.

What I think I am realizing is that I do need to be careful about how much emotional labour the next project demands of me, because these playtest sessions have been very rewarding, but also quite draining. Given the fact that there are many draining situations in my life at the moment (this nightmare move, everything to do with Tom, just the general stressors of being a grad student with many things to do, plus community organizing and the things that come with it). That means I need to offload more onto the tech and interface and game rules and less onto the facilitator. That’ll hopefully mean that playtesting will be easier, even if initially there’s more work to be done with the tech (which is not necessarily my strongest suit — but it’s always getting stronger!).

With Flip the Script!, I spent a lot of time agonizing over the game idea and getting it to a point where I felt good about it. Then, a lot of my time was spent making the puppets and their interfaces. The rules themselves also took up a good chunk of that time. I’ll have to see where the next project takes me, but I think I need to be able to run the next game even if I’m not feeling at 100%. Maybe that means bringing back a screen. Maybe that means bringing in Raspberry Pi and pre-recorded things. Maybe that means more quick, written rules.

I would like to work more with costumes and theatre, but at the same time, with toys and tiny worlds. I guess I’m thinking of wearables and board games, or even of something like Polly Pocket, or, for a digital reference, Gnog. I want to embed a narrative into the interfaces and have players spend time exploring and discovering that narrative through the interface. I am also feeling inspired by Ida Toft’s Promises project, which I think is vibrant and alive in a very satisfying way, even though it’s quite stripped-down. There’s a suggestion of life within the vibrations in the river rock-like objects that the player engages with.

On another note, playtesting made me feel oddly “on-track” for my dissertation projects. I feel like this project, even if it’s imperfect, is a success. I think it engages with complex ideas that are coming through in the game, that the level of work that I put into it feels appropriate for a six month project, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s a nice feeling, amidst all this turmoil.