Dissertation: Autoethnography and Anxiety

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

It’s been a little over three weeks since my last update, which is because I have been largely focused on reading and writing about larps and nanolarp design from a critical, reflective point of view. I finished a solid first draft of this paper last Thursday, and am letting it sit a bit before I write a talk and make slides based on it for this year’s CGSA conference in Regina. The paper is sitting at around 9500 words…which is a lot more than I intend to keep, so rewriting and editing is a future challenge on the docket.

I’ve been making some progress on my dissertation work since my last post. I have done some experimentation with the micro:bits that I ordered, and found that they do communicate in an easy, friendly way, as advertised.

I built code that displays a simple graphical pattern in LEDs when they receive a transmission from each other. This could be the signal for the “shoulda said” aspect of my first dissertation game. I also ordered a number of new electronic components: three Floras and a number of Neopixel rings that can easily be sewn onto textiles. I also made a sizable Fabricville order of different fleece materials for making puppets. This is reflected in the ads I am being shown on the internet, which have been asking me whether I would like to meet other single seniors in my area.

I have also bought a simple puppet pattern to give me an idea of what will be involved in making a traditional hand puppet. I feel confident in my ability to wing it, but that doesn’t mean that one of these patterns won’t turn out nicely, with a lot less effort on my part.

I’ve received updated ethics approval after submitting amendments regarding group playtesting!

I have also started to think about and draft the Background chapter of my dissertation. Though I’ll no doubt have to add to it before my final dissertation, having a version of the background chapter seems like a good goal, especially since the other activity that I have been engaged in is a great deal of reading. In the past few weeks, that has taken the form of the larp research that I have been doing, but I am now reading Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge. A friend of mine has also recommended, based on a brief description of my planned dissertation game, that I read about Psychodrama, and loaned me a book with a chapter on it. Also, a project report about the followup to “Hybridex” has just been published about Hybrid games, and is just perfect for my background chapter.

The reason that one of the words in this blog title is “anxiety” is because I am feeling anxious about my dissertation. I understand that this is probably normal, but, I want to faithfully document these thoughts and feelings as well as I can for the autoethnographic process.

The first feeling, common to grad students and probably faculty members in academia everywhere, is that I am not getting enough done everyday. But, I know that I have been doing well, and doing a lot, on the whole, and making sure to take care of myself and others. I’ve done grocery shopping, gone to the gym, taken my cat for walks, cooked many sumptuous and delicious meals, and generally done a good job at those parts of being an adult human. I took care of my family and friends as well, being there for them emotionally, and finishing a first draft of two separate projects that I have been working on for about two years, with my father and my brother. I also wrote 9500 words in about two weeks. 9500 academic words! That’s a lot — so it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m feeling a bit tired, and haven’t done as much writing on the Background chapter. The reading is going well, and it takes time to read — I have to remind myself of that as well.

The next source of anxiety is related to Tom’s job, and unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about that, except to say that some of my days have been spent helping him, and I have no regrets there.

The next feeling is the feeling of time pressure: if you know me, you may know that I occasionally call myself a reverse procrastinator — that I like to get things done long before they are due so that I don’t have to worry about them. In planning my dissertation timeline, I wrote off January entirely and gave myself an additional two months for my first dissertation game project because I had a feeling that, with everything going on in my personal life, and with this being the first OFFICIAL PROJECT of my dissertation, that there might be some fumbling and stumbling blocks.

This brings us to what seems like a very important source of anxiety: designing the game itself. Generally speaking, when I make a project, I have the freedom to let the project be what it will be, take the time that it will take, and I don’t have to worry that much about making an “amazing” game. I am feeling a lot of pressure, somehow, to make this first dissertation project the best game ever, and feel like somehow the scope has to be bigger than my usual work. But that’s entirely not the point of these projects: I’m not studying whether the game that I make is any good, I am studying the process of making it and archiving it. I’m collecting data about the project and what people think about it. I’m studying my own game-making practice. I know that I will likely make better games, and I will likely make worse ones. I know that I also generally do my best work in small teams with other folks, and that for the most part, I intend these games to be solo. I know that I will be pushing against the limits of my skills, bettering myself, and learning entirely new skills.

Honestly, that’s a lot of pressure to put on six months of work that will include so much of the other necessary parts of grad school, even if they aren’t officially mandated: the reading, the writing, the preparing for conferences, the meetings, the interacting with the rest of my community. And yes, this all feeds into making this game, but at some point, I have to start making it.

Another problem with designing this game that I am having is that because I am putting heavy emphasis on the design of the physical objects involved, part of my brain is wary about working “for nothing”: I don’t want to start working on the physical crafting components, and have to scrap/restart them because the game has totally changed. Usually, that means I would just rapidly prototype with the cheapest available materials and be done with it. But that presents two problems at the moment:

— Fort McMurray is remote. I can’t just pop by the electronics store, the fabric store, or whatever other store to get more materials. There’s also no one or two-day shipping to Fort McMurray. If I need an object, I have to plan for it ahead of time.

— In this game, it feels like the interaction will only “feel” right and complete with the final objects because of their materiality. So, prototyping without a finished object is possible but presents some challenges for the imagination.

Another source of anxiety is working remotely in Fort McMurray: in addition to the difficulties sourcing materials, I am struggling with the fact that I am not in my usual creative environment. I have grown used to making things at the TAG lab, surrounded by other researchers, creators, and friends, and being able to casually discuss my project. I would much rather be working on these projects in Montreal.

…However, all of my crafting materials (and there is a lot of it) are up here in Fort McMurray, so popping back and forth to Montreal as I have been doing since the beginning of last year simply isn’t possible in this context. Or at least, it doesn’t feel very possible without a heck of a lot of money spent on checked baggage or shipping.

Thankfully, I should be moving back to Montreal soon. At the very latest, I am teaching a course in Winter 2019, and so I should be back in the city for my third dissertation project, at least.

This brings me to another very present source of anxiety or trepidation: Will this game be any good? Is “Flip the Script” a good idea? Won’t there be issues with constantly interrupting the play? How should I handle those issues? Should I make something a little less open with a little more story to it? Will this game be meaningful? Will it be reflective and critical? Am I taking advantage of the digital components enough? And, related to that: Am I running out of time?

Well…these are the things that are on my mind, and even just writing about them as been helpful. I hope this documentation will be helpful to future Jess as they write their dissertation. Certainly, the discussion about time limits, and the uncertainty about designing to spec and within certain limitations (that it has to be a game that explores physical-digital hybrid design, that it has to be made in roughly six months, that it should be about critical, reflective subjects) reminds me of my work with Rilla about critical game design, where a number of designers designed according to a prompt that we provided (you can read our chapter in Game Design Research)

Your faithful autoethnographer,
Jess

AUTOETHNOGRAPHY: PERSONAL MEMORY DATA COLLECTION – EXERCISE 5.6 ARTEFACTS OF DESIGN

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:

ARTEFACTS OF DESIGN

*Mindmaps
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!

Updates and Plans for January

administrative, autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

First post of 2018! First, some updates, then, some research work.

Here’s what’s going on with me and my work currently:

— I have applied for a legal name change. Update your contact lists — you should now have me as Jess Rowan Marcotte!

— My partner and I are likely moving in the next few months.

— Got a number of papers and conference proposals in.

— I will continue to work as part of the Reflective Games research group this spring. So far, I’m continuing to focus on larps and theatre. Right now, I’m thinking through and researching the “language” and “mechanics” of short-handing information in nanolarps. More writing on this to come soon, I think!

— I’ve submitted my dissertation proposal along with a two and half year timeline for completing my thesis-related creative work, autoethnographic study, archival practices, and the dissertation detailing all of this. This work will begin in earnest on February 1st, pending my updated ethics certificate and hopefully receiving a passing grade for the proposal.

— I am spending January tying up a few loose ends, setting up a museum exhibit that I helped to curate at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener-Waterloo called INTERPLAY: Thinking Through Games (see the exhibit description here: https://themuseum.ca/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/digital-dynamics-2018/interplay/), and running and participating in Global Game Jam 2018 at the TAG location.

— I have been reading more on autoethnography, which continues to prove itself to be a method with deep ties to intersectionality and feminism. My latest readings (& re-readings) have been Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research by Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis (Oxford UP 2015), Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life edited by Robin M. Boylorn & Mark P. Orbe (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2014), and Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (Routledge 2016 — first published by Left Coast Press 2008).

Heewon Chang’s work has been the most useful from a practical “how do I get started” standpoint, and, with that in mind, I’ve adapted some of the exercises from Autoethnography as Method as I begin collecting what Chang calls “personal memory data.” My goal for January is to try and get as much of the preliminary investigation into personal memory data as possible finished. So, this blog is going to be a mix of personal memory data posts and Reflective Games research for a while.

One of the differences between much of the autoethnographical work I have been reading and what I am undertaking in my dissertation is that my focus is primarily on my identity as a creator and game designer. What I mean to say is that the group that I am studying are game designers, not members of a marginalized group or who necessarily share a particular identity beyond the fact that they are designers and academics working in the field of games and game studies — and those identities are far from unified wholes. That’s not necessarily totally different from what other autoethnographers are doing, but there are some key differences in the kind of subject matter I’ll be addressing. I wasn’t “born” as a part of this group in the way that I was born into other identities. My own positionality and intersections (and those of others) will of course be a part of this research, but nevertheless, many of the exercises suggested have to be adapted.

The exercise that I’ve decided to start off my personal memory data collection process with is from Chapter 5 of Autoethnography as Method — it’s Exercise 5.6: “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.”

Using this exercise as a starting prompt, I’ve decided to do multiple lists of artefacts with a focus on my identities as a player and as a designer. I’m planning to write a little bit about each artefact, and I’ve decided that I’ll place them first in a chronological order, and then later try to rank them by order of importance. I’m also going to write as much as comes out, drawing connections and pointing out gaps for future exploration or thoughts that are in tension as I go. This part of the process will be of course be in danger of being in large part revisionist, but knowing what I think is important in this moment and having some thoughts about why I think that’s the case should still be helpful. So, look out for a series of artefact lists related to play, digital play, and game design coming your way in the next little while.

Thanks for reading! Here comes a lot of dissertation work!