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 [].

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!

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:, 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!

Reflective Games: My First Time as a Larp GM

reflective games, research

This morning, for the reflective games group, I ran “Abattoir” (also known as Heiferdammerung) by Mike Young and Scott David Grey. You can find it here. This nano larp is meant to last around ten minutes. The original game has nine playable characters, but this morning, there were only five of us including myself. Here are some brief notes.

I’ve got a fair bit of experience as a tabletop gamemaster, but this was my first time running a larp.

I used the opportunity to try out a number of nordic larp techniques and approaches to framing a game that I haven’t used formally before. It feels like the sort of opt-in that I often frame my games with, however, so it felt comfortable enough. After I cast the four players, I started off by offering a little bit of information on the themes of the game — this wasn’t exactly a content warning. Content warnings are not usual for most larps, from what I have seen in my research, because it is difficult to know, especially in something freeform, what topics might arise. Instead, there are rules and systems that larpers put into place to deal with difficult content as it arises and afterwards, once the game is finished. Specifically, the systems that I’m thinking of are the “cut/break” system, which players can use to redirect or interrupt the game, and the “Debrief” period after the end of the game.

Last week, I gathered together a set of rules cobbled together from some of the sources I’ve been reading for the kinds of larps that I would like to run. I’ve gathered that information here.

So, after the content warning, I explained the concepts of “break” and “cut” and how to use them. In terms of physical boundaries, I suggested that this time around we have a no-touch larp, since it didn’t seem necessary for the sake of the story, and then I opened up a discussion about boundaries. Knowing that it can be hard to figure out what to say at that point, I tried to give the players enough time to think about what subjects or topics that might arise and what they were up for or not. What that wound up meaning this time around is that one player decided to observe rather than play given the subject matter. I think this underscores the importance of creating opportunities for players to opt out, and talking about the themes of a larp even if you can’t quite give completely accurate content warnings. I had to rethink my casting choices a little bit, and decided that I would be a GMPC, which is to say that I would play a character in the game as well as run it.

The space that we ran the game in was set up for a meeting, with eight interconnected tables arranged in a square, with an empty central space. The creators suggest running the game in an open field, but one wasn’t readily available in the immediate environs of downtown Montreal, and our time was limited.

This was a good first experience in terms of learning when to wait (which in this game, was responsible for quite a lot of the tension, I think), when to cut/go to the next part of the game, and when to improvise. To make the game run smoothly with so few players, I had to occasionally add in information or events. For example, all the players managed to dodge the winches and hooks that were meant to capture them. As a result, although they could not go backwards, there was not necessarily any incentive for them to go forward. I considered ending the game there, with them waiting, but instead introduced an event with a non-player character that one of the player characters had an attachment to, which worked to urge them further into the abattoir.

The players remarked on the tension between knowing approximately what happens in an abattoir and trying to think and behave like a cow. One player also noted in our debrief that it was largely possible for this to be played in such a short amount of time because most people are at least a little bit familiar with the subject.

I think this is an important note for the nanolarp that I will be designing this week, to be played next Wednesday, the 13th. I’m trying to delineate a topic with the idea that it might be good for the group to have some general, common knowledge about it in mind. More on this soon!