autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, playtest

The interesting thing about my dissertation is that I’ve managed to be both ahead and behind my schedule at the same time.

I expected to finish Flip the Script! at the end of August, and to start playtesting in September, but I think that the game is close to reaching its final form now (as I’ve done early playtesting and the concept works, but the design work I’ve done since then is to make better, more interesting use of the technology involved). In this period, I’m also supposed to be writing first drafts of my background and methodology chapters.

As I wrote the last time that I updated you all, I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading (and now rewriting). Last week, I spent roughly 6 or 7 ten-hour days completely rewriting an article, basically from scratch, for publication to include the requested revisions (after all, I read 19+ sources to better inform myself on the field that I am making a foray into). The sources turned out to be very, very helpful and gave me a lot to think about. I think the resulting article is many orders of magnitude better than the original.

So, now, having finished a draft, a fair number of generous people have agreed to read the draft. Since the revisions to the article are due on the 25th, I’ve asked commenters to finish reading for the 21st.

When I finished a draft on Saturday night, I felt drained, and I promised myself that I would take the next day off. Of course, when Sunday came along, having slept, and having already received some feedback, I immediately felt guilty and unable to really relax and take a break. This is an issue with graduate studies, but it’s also an issue with modern work: many of us could literally always be working. It’s exhausting, it’s toxic, and I don’t know exactly how to teach myself not to feel that way. I reasoned to myself that it would make more sense to gather more feedback and address it all at once, rather than rewriting as people were reading and commenting.

At the same time, while waiting for the comments, I find myself with some free/liminal time. I feel the need to keep myself thinking about the article in progress, rather than moving onto the background (lit review) and the methodology chapters. I think it would be difficult to switch modes. That leaves, then, playtesting my game. Although I am only scheduled to playtest it in September, my September is functionally gone: I will be away in Europe attending Ars Electronica and doing a bit of traveling from September 4th-18th, I’ll be in Hamilton around the 20th, I’m giving a guest lecture on the 27th, and QGCon is happening on the 29th and 30th of September. That’s basically all of September, gone — or at least, trying to schedule a playtest at an appropriate time for my game seems ill-advised.

The third factor in all this is what I have to give of myself in exchange for running a playtest, especially one for which I’m collecting Very Important Data for my dissertation. My games often require me to facilitate them — my knowledge, my (eventually acquired) ease with the patter and “game mastering” of a particular game are necessary to the game, especially when it comes to these physical-digital hybrids addressing intersectional issues. When I am at my most resilient, this is not an issue. I’ve spent eight hours at a time getting people to play a game about consent (In Tune), or facilitating play about emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter).

Was I just younger then (a few months ago)? Or was I just less tired? I think the truth is that there are issues facing my partner (and therefore both of us) that are weighing me down, taking up energy that I would rather give to my art. This affirms my belief that the whole “suffering for art” thing is bullshit — while suffering might give you lived experiences, it’s a lot harder (at least for me) to make creative work when I am exhausted, or unhappy. I can’t really speak much publicly about what is going on, but I know that it is well and truly sapping me.

So, this week, feeling guilty about not working, feeling unable to move onto other writing until I have settled this article, and feeling too exhausted to do the labour of actually planning playtests in the short term, I find myself trying to find better ways of working. I find myself doing the small things that I have put off. I find myself trying to recover and recharge, reminding myself that breaks and relaxation are essential.

Yesterday, for example, I revamped this website, added sections, reworked the games section to be more usable (rather than just a chronological listing of my projects), added more of a history to where I’ve showcased games, what I’m up to, and where I’ll be in the future.

Yesterday, the thought also came to me, inspired by Pippin Barr, to use tinyletter to communicate with people who might want to play my games. The prospect of reaching out repeatedly to mailing lists full of people who may or may not want to hear from me felt exhausting, along with the work of trying to organize playtests, let alone running them when they require my continuous, present, attentive moderation. So, to gather potential playtesters, I made a tinyletter and shared it in my networks. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the numbers so far — people are being very generous with their time (or at least their willingness to be contacted) for playtesting. If you’re local to Montreal (and even if you’re not), you can sign up for it here.

I’m also trying to just listen to my body and let myself rest. So far, since Sunday, the guilt has subsided a fair bit. After all, it is the summer. Once this article is done, I can move onto other academic writing and scheduling playtesters with the people who have signed up for my mailing list.

On another note: I wrote last time about the need to streamline Flip the Script! down from two hours, but I think that I was maybe wrong in that assessment. I know that two hours limits the audience for the game, but since it is inspired by theatre, I think that, in fact, I just need to think of this like a performance that needs to be scheduled rather than something that I can have people play in loud expo halls and arcades. 90 minutes is pretty darn short (or at least, average) for something like, say, a tabletop RPG or board game, for example.

Reflective Games: Genres of Thought Playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

Last week, I finished a playtestable version of a new nanolarp/improv game called “Genres of Thought” and had the chance to play one round with the folks from the Reflective Games project. We discussed it before playing, and Enric brought up the idea that technologically-assisted larps could be a different way of framing a larp and thinking about what “counts” as a larp and what could count, opening up the definition and hopefully making the form more accessible and less scary to new players.

During the game, I noticed a few elements that needed smoothing out, or that I had accidentally omitted from the rules — but, this wasn’t so much of an issue since I was the gamemaster and could make a decision on the fly about things like who should start the scene (it would have been utter confusion to have all the players at once), or who should be the “odd genre out” (I used a random number generator).

The Group Genre was “Fantasy” and the task was “to keep the surprise party a secret at all costs. The Odd Genre Out was mystery, and the Odd Genre goal was to describe your alibi for a crime, perhaps explaining the details of the crime. In the scene, players were preparing a surprise party for their 30-year-old Elder (people in Fantasy medieval age eras didn’t live so long, remember) and the Odd Genre Out was professing that they had not in fact told the Elder about the surprise party. There was also a bit with a giant magical frog, and a lot of laughter. With five players, it was a bit of a jumble, but the players seemed to have fun.

The genres were not as much a part of the focus as I would have liked — I think this also might have been because all the players were active at once, and both trying to pay attention to each other and be active in the game. More playtesting is needed to determine whether five players is too many, or whether players just needed to go “on” and “off-scene” more in the way that improvisers do. For now, I’ve not included that as a requirement, because I intend for this to be a nanolarp, and in larps, simultaneous scenes happen all the time.

The question that we discussed at the end of the round was, “What is something that you used to believe in that you don’t believe anymore, and why might that be the case?”

One of the players, noting that it’s the “big questions” that are likely to occur to people right away, noted that they no longer believe in God. The rest of our discussion focused on this topic, and people’s experiences with spirituality and the institutions that surround religion.

We also talked about the experience of playing afterwards — I think that many of the first round jitters would have been smoothed out with a few more scenes, and I admitted that while I eventually expected players to build up a rapport and a comfort/intimacy through play that would allow them to get to the “heavy” topics, I was surprised that it happened right away for our group. The Reflective games folk generally seemed to agree that playing together did make players feel open to discussing this vulnerable topic, but that also our pre-existing relationships as a research group (with the exception of a guest to the lab who was meeting us for the first time) likely also impacted what the players were willing to discuss.

I spent a bit of time reworking the rules to clarify some aspects of the game for both gamemaster and players based on this playthrough. Primarily, the rules I added have to do with how to choose the focus for the scene (basically, it’s okay to do it however you want and have multiple conversations going on at once, because it’s a larp, but if you want to play for an audience, use the Gamemaster as a “camera,” focusing attention on certain players in the scene). And with that, this prototype is ready to release out into the world. Here it is! Here’s the github repository.

When I brought up the fact that I knew some fairly experienced improvisers who might be willing to try out the game, the Reflective Games group expressed curiosity about what the gameplay would be like with these more experienced players. While I wasn’t able to arrange anything for my current visit in Montreal, my friend Jordan McRae has put together a group of people who are willing to playtest the game the next time that I am in town.

Reflective Games: This Just In! playtest

critical making, playtest, reflective games

As you might have realized from my posts over these past few months, I’ve been working with and researching larps since October or so. Last week, I ran my first larp, a pre-made nanolarp called “Abattoir” — you can read my previous post about that here.

This Just In! materials

This Just In! mindmap from development

In the time since then, I set a deadline for myself to create my own nanolarp. From start to finish, including the discussion before the game and the debrief afterwars, this larp should take around forty-five minutes to play.

For a long while, while reading up on all these topics, I struggled to find a topic that I could explore in a short larp for the reflective games group to play. Last week, when I finally sat down to do some brainstorming and create a mindmap, the tumblers fell into place in the lock and in about an hour, I had the basics of the game decided and put into place. I just had to develop characters and a self-contained ruleset based on my research.

This morning, I playtested the larp with the Reflective Games group.

In a nutshell, this is a larp about subjectivity and how different networks “spin” the news – there are overarching, oversimplified narratives that show up time and time again in news stories.

You can read, or even play, the entire larp here on itch.io. Here’s a ringing endorsement from one of the players who playtested with me this morning:

“Thank God I didn’t go to journalism school.”

A little more on how the playtesting went:

The players appreciated the flow of information — it stimulated their conversation and added a good level of complication. Players were aware of the kinds of news narratives they were reproducing as they were producing them, which created a kind of unease. For some players, they avoided bringing up certain narratives deliberately (i.e. mental health), while other players said that they embraced their role and said whichever shitty thing came to mind.

When asked to tell me about something memorable that happened during play, players highlighted these occurrences:

* Trying to negotiate the meta and self-awareness around the topic of mainstream news outlets was satisfyingly awkward. One player said that this felt like it was probably pretty true to what happened in these kinds of spaces, with “edgy” content slowly grounded down until it had no edge.
* The news team agreed, at Station Management’s insistence, that they should not mention the “alt right” in the news cast, since it might alienate some of their viewers. During the news cast, “alt right” accidentally slipped out, and the reaction from Station Management (shock) and the Young Idealist (Pulitzer! Pulitzer!) was very satisfying.
* The alarm that signaled the end of the discussion was surprising and memorable when it came – one player felt that this was a nice moment.

Here’s some of the feedback that players provided to improve the game:
About the news cast at the end, players suggested that perhaps they might be able to work jointly on a kind of teleprompter script or to have players take notes. I’ve decided not to go that route, but have decided to encourage the newscaster (who needs to deliver the news report) to take notes. Additionally, the folk in the Reflective Game group suggested that I emphasize that they will indeed have to give a sixty second report at the end of the game.

There were some adjustments to be made in terms of the instructions for the players to let them know what they ought to be doing. From my own observations, I decided to make it explicit that players should introduce themselves, and have added in a warm-up exercise to get players into character and more comfortable with the play.

On the whole, I’m quite satisfied with how this larp played, although I’m aware that the people who played with me this time around were an ideal audience, and that the game might play differently with another group. That’s just how larps work, I guess.

For now, I’ve decided to release this as a prototype with the one “tragedy” that I ran today. In the future, I would like to develop other situations and create a deck that could be shuffled, or a table of results which could be chosen from with dice rolls.