DISSERTATION UPDATE: The F***king BOX!

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, playtest, research

It sure has been a while since I wrote a dissertation blog post. The last time I wrote was right before October 25th, when my students’ project proposals were due, and I had to give detailed feedback to almost 70 students so that they could complete final projects (which I also had to correct). I’m feeling a lot less overworked and a lot better now, although I am still very busy.

I’ve been doing a lot of documentation through photos and through posts on Instagram and Twitter (which I’ve also been screenshotting). I couldn’t do as many design interviews because of the activities I was doing with the person I was collaborating with involved a lot of loud power tools and silent working, punctuated by problem-solving. And there were a lot of finicky things.

I did however keep talking about the project at the lab’s weekly design meeting whenever I could.

In a nutshell, October through November was mostly all about physical crafting. With the puzzles designed and mostly programmed (although there have been tweaks here and there since then), I had to buckle down and do things like designing and embroidering conductive patches (with lots hand-sewing), and finishing up the box, besides the hardware. This also involved sanding and staining.

From there, toward the end of November, most of my energy went to my students and preparing for my deviated septum surgery (which finally happened December 9th). With almost 70 students, getting all the grading done between November 29th and December 9th was certainly an adventure.

The good news is that the project is finished except for a name and a carrying strap, and any fixes I do to things that arise in playtesting (and some already have, like some errant shapes that I didn’t realize were there). We finished the box just before New Years, and toasted the completion on New Years Day with a shot. I realized that I might be a designer because I enjoy problem-solving and working with all of the issues that we encountered, whereas the person that I was collaborating with was more frustrated with the process.

Since then, I finessed a few things (used steel wool to smooth the box a bit, and wrapped wires with gaffer’s tape, for example), and sewed a cover to protect the case.

I am really pleased with the results of the limited playtesting I’ve done so far (4 playthroughs with a total of 8 people in various configurations, 2 groups of 2, 1 group of 3, and one solo player). Based on the experience of the solo player, I’ve decided that, as I thought might be the case, 2-3 is the sweet spot for the number of players.

I am next bringing the suitcase to QGCarnival, where I hope to play a few rounds. It’s QGCon’s official fundraiser!

After that, everything is likely to stall for a few weeks as I am scheduled for top surgery on the 16th. I hope to get a little bit of work done (getting the audio transcription stuff going) but I will need a lot of rest.

So, I’ve got playtesting to do this semester, and then need to write my dissertation, I’m leading the QGCon team, I’m getting top surgery, and I’m helping to plan an exhibition over the summer. That’s a lot less than last semester, even though it’s a lot! Oh, and I may apply for a conference or two. I really want to apply to CGSA if I can find the time this year.

DISSERTATION: Escape Suitcase Progress & Challenges

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, research

I thought I’d write a little update to say that the physical making of the escape suitcase is going pretty darn well. I’m very happy with the look so far. The structure of the box itself is done, and the outside parts are done (but not stained and the hardware isn’t on). Next, we have to plan and make the inside of the box (I’d list some parts but I want to avoid spoilers for the solutions).

What makes that a bit difficult is the fact that I still haven’t managed to finish that last puzzle. I talked about it at the new design group that’s forming at TAG, I had some conversations with Tom about it, and still, I’m having a hard time getting into it. The general advice seems to be to try and change my frame of reference/point of view — either in terms of the puzzle type, or the theme, or the interaction. That’s what I’ll be trying my best to do today.

For my good friend Gina’s birthday, we played an escape room yesterday — we won! The one thing we got stuck on was…maybe a bit unfair given the horizon of expectations that the escape room genre sets up, and the positioning of the clue in the room, along with some red herrings, which in the end required us to revisit a puzzle. We had to ask for a hint on that one! But from there, it was pretty smooth. It was on the whole a very well-designed room but, I have to say, the thing that I am trying to avoid in this last puzzle, which is feeling that there’s a kind of disconnect (or only a shallow connection) between the puzzles in the room and the narrative was definitely present. It’s definitely hard to design puzzles and narratives that fill fit those puzzles without being stilted, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal for escape rooms, and for my project.

Okay, time to try designing this puzzle once again!

DISSERTATION: Project 03 has started!

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, research

Last week, I managed to break through and figure out what I want to do for my third and final dissertation project! It’s a suitcase game where you have to unlock a variety of small boxes, encounter messages from previous players, and leave messages of your own about particular themes/prompts/topics.

Now that I’ve come up with my concept for my last project, I am researching whether something like this has existed before. There are definitely “escape rooms in a box”, but these are largely cardboard boxes with items that you then take OUT of the box and use to solve the puzzle. The box itself seems to matter very little — and I think that’s an affordance that could use more exploration.

What makes this challenging as a constraint is that there isn’t going to be a lot of physical space or surface area to work with. But I think that as long as I colour-code things and clearly signpost the connection between the clues and the boxes, it’ll be fine.

So today is a day for researching. I’m immersing myself in escape room literature, looking at Escape Room boxes, guides and philosophies about designing escape rooms and types of puzzles. It’s fun! It’s exciting — and that matters a lot when you’ve been feeling burnt out. The fact that something feels right and good is nice.

Recently, a peer of mine (Scott DeJong) who saw my design sketch about the new project recommended looking into Scott Nicholson’s work with Escape Room boxes in classrooms, and I’m now noticing that his work also comes up from Escape Room designers, which is neat! Scott came to my queering game controls panel at CGSA a few years ago and his insights were really interesting.

There’s a lot of puzzle advice out there, both generally and specifically for Escape Rooms, and I am definitely already breaking the rules because I am using such a constrained space, so I will have to play up other aspects like colour-coding (for example) to clearly signpost what goes with what.

I’m about to go down some rabbit holes… See you later!