Reflective Games: The Dice of Destiny

Process Writing, reflective games

I have been drawing inspiration from performance studies and theatre for some time now in terms of game design. In particular, since I often ask inexpert players to come up and act without rehearsal, I have found myself interested in improvisation. I have a close friend, Jordan McRae, who runs a monthly tabletop RPG-themed improv show called “The Dice of Destiny” — it has been happening on the last Thursday of every month since August or September, and I have attended every show that I have been in town for. Importantly, this show incorporates game mechanics and improvisation together, with the outcomes of important player/improvisor actions being determined by a d20 roll. In a lot of ways, there many similarities between what I am designing and this show such as the in-character and interstitial scenes (character creation in Dice of Destiny, the mid-game intermission/check in) and the other improvisational aspects.

Last night, I went to see Jordan’s show, and afterward, discussed my current reflective games project with him — although it’s a larp, there are heavy improvisational elements. Jordan pointed out a missing piece in the design, which was how to ensure that players who have the odd genre out would deliberately try to raise the stakes in the scene and actively try to highlight their genre, instead of going along with the other players.

Jordan suggested adding a new dimension: there would be a public goal for the group, but the odd person out will also have a secret objective related to their genre that would actively encourage them to interact with the others in a genre-specific way.

I think that this will encourage interesting scenes. I’ll be working on programming an app to handle the game this week. Here’s the pseudocode/wishlist for what I’d like the app to be able to do:

1. Display an introduction to the game and the game rules.
2. Display instructions for gamemaster [i.e. responsible for texting/letting players secretly know the genres, responsible for describing elements in the scene, responsible for cutting when they feel it is appropriate] and players [act like yourself if you were in that genre with its horizon of expectations, work with other players’ ideas (yes, and…), try to accomplish your set task, answer questions between scenes].
3. Display a genre and a goal for the group chosen at random from a list.
4. Display a genre and a secret goal related to that genre for the odd person out, chosen from a list. Compare to see that the genres are not the same, and if they are, re-roll before displaying.
5. Display a question chosen at random from a list.
6. Have a button that the gamemaster presses to re-roll for a new scene and question.

Reflective Games: Genre and Ideology

Process Writing, reflective games

This week, I took some strides towards having something complete and playtestable for my latest larp. Since I want to preserve the process, I thought I would share my notes with you as well as the new insights I’ve had today into the design.

NOTES February 14th-15th 2018

“I have compressed disc in my back that I am getting treatment for, which has limited the amount of work I was able to do in the past little while. Last week I spent some time playing some games that I thought might have a reflective angle to them (What Remains of Edith Finch, Oxenfree, and Nicky Case’s simulation, the Evolution of Trust, which I highly recommend and I think belongs firmly on our list of reflective media — I also started playing Fallout 4, and am pretty disappointed by it so far.

I also spent some time thinking more about the larp I’m designing. Right now, I’m trying to work on what I might be able to say using the setup that I talked with you about last week, with movie genres setting the horizon of expectations, and one player belonging to a different genre that must nevertheless be integrated into the narrative. I think the setup is going to work well to create a productive pause that can lead to reflection but the question is, what do I want players to reflect about? One thought is that I may be able to guide the reflection through whatever goal or scenario the players are given to work out, where acting according to different movie genres will lead to different modes of thought and therefore different solutions. That would turn this larp into a system that could contain many possible areas of reflection, in the same way that /This Just In/ could possibly operate with different scenarios in an expanded version.”

NOTES February 19th-20th

* Every player assigned a movie genre
* 1 Player assigned a different genre
* All players have to use the “yes, and…” rule and incorporate each other’s behaviours as if they were normal
* They have to solve a problem together while staying in character as the “movie-genre” version of themselves

* changing a flat tire, doing a grocery run, deciding where to get food, preparing a birthday cake

This version of the game would not necessarily lead to reflections about critical subjects — but does a game have to be about a critical subject to get us to reflect?

I don’t think so, in terms of creating the moment of reflection, but it might be nice to target things a little more, in order to say, talk about problems in film? Representation in all spheres is a problem in Hollywood.

Is there a way to bridge in a discussion around stats/these issues? I think players that could spontaneously discuss such things would be rare, or I would be preaching to the choir. I think maybe the game needs to become more focused.”

At this point, I drew this mindmap:

Here are my notes from today, February 21st 2018:

“genres as frames of analysis

genres as ideology

*Ask them questions in between tasks a la In Tune
‘if your life as a genre, what genre would it be?’
‘how did the genre you were given affect your interpretation of events?’
Genres: a set of ‘rules’ and expectations
Ideologies: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture, a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group or culture
change the ideology/genre, change the interpretation of events.”

So. This is what the game might look like. I’m not one hundred percent satisfied that this will be the best game ever, but would look something like this.

1. The Gamemaster loads a web app on their phone which gives them the genres to assign to players in secret via text message. The app also loads up the nature of the scene and the interstitial questions.

2. Players receive their genres via text message. The gamemaster describes the scenario and the starting scene setup with as little or as much colour as they want.

3. Players play through the scene in physical space. The Gamemaster provides improvised supporting detail as needed.

4. The Gamemaster decides when to cut the scene.

5. After the scene, the Gamemaster asks the interstitial question. [Not sure if players should just be allowed some time to reflect here or if there should be a discussion.]

6. The Gamemaster reloads the page for a new scene.

7. Play is of variable length — 3-5 scenes?

I’ve created a repository for the code here, but haven’t put anything in it yet. My goal is to have a working prototype of the game for next week.

Autoethnography: Personal Memory Data Collection – Exercise 5.6 Artefacts of Play

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, dissertation, Process Writing

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 use these artefacts to talk about my history with artefacts of play and artefacts of design.

In trying to write these lists, I’m aware of the difficulty of the word “importance” — my play and design practices have existed for a long time now, and it’s difficult to know what to give weight to. On the one hand, I could list “firsts” — but are the first games I played actually any more important for being first? There’s also games that I played often or repeatedly, not necessarily because they were particularly good or important games to me, but because they were there. In some cases, I just “remember” certain artefacts vividly — is the fact that they are memorable important? At any rate, I’ve done my best to make these lists without worrying too much about whether I’ve got all the most important ones down, and with a multi-faceted understanding of what the term “important” might mean.

Here’s the first list, five artefacts of play. Writing about myself in great detail is less easy than I thought it would be!


* My mother’s brown silk skirt: I used to borrow this skirt constantly to wear it as a cape, or to pretend to be a two-headed monster with a friend. Dress-up and imagination-based games were very important to me as a child. I loved to play pretend. Nowadays, I still enjoy making costumes and cosplaying, and making objects, and I play tabletop RPGs all the time.

* My brother’s PlayStation 2: Many of the early gaming experiences that I remember were with the SNES and then the original PlayStation. I remember having a very limited set of games, which meant that I had to replay or watch my brother replay the same games over and over again. When our household finally got a PlayStation 2, I also got my own memory card, which was important because it was mine to save what I wanted on it. I remember the saved game icons, like the badges that I had earned as a Scout, lined up in rows. What’s important about the PlayStation 2 is that when we finally got one, I was old enough to buy games for myself, if I saved up enough money. The first game I remember buying for myself was Final Fantasy VII, years after it came out. Things are a little fuzzy — it’s hard to remember what I played first. I remember playing the Monster Rancher series, where game discs and others were special artefacts that could gain me unusual fantastic creatures…or often just boring old “Mochi”, the game’s mascot, designed to look like a Japanese treat that I didn’t try until I was an adult.

Even later, I often replayed the same games again and again because I couldn’t afford new ones. One of the games I remember renting most often was Wild Arms, a JRPG with puzzle elements where different characters had different special abilities that could solve puzzles in the dungeons. It was a compelling little game, but the copies that I had access to — one borrowed from a friend of my brother’s, and one rented from Game Zone, my rental spot of choice, always froze at the same point in the game when I played it on our PlayStation. The PlayStation 2 was better able to handle any scratches or flaws on discs, and so I was able to play past that point in the game on the rented disc. I remember longing to own a copy, and finally got one as a gift a few years ago.

I spent a lot of time on that PlayStation 2.

* JRPGs: My games of choice as a child were JRPGs. I especially played the Final Fantasy series, because they had a good reputation and I had limited disposable income, which made it harder to take chances on games. Lately, I have been replaying certain “classic” games that I own copies of with my spouse, including Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Small moments in the play call to mind my childhood and my earlier formative game-playing experiences. I remember that I played Chrono Cross before I ever played Chrono Trigger, meaning that some references in the game to the other series were totally lost on me the first time around. I remember that one of my best friends’ brothers introduced me to Chrono Trigger, saying how he could choose to do the final boss battle right now, at any time, but that he would get his butt kicked if he did. At the time, I was intrigued, but had no idea who Lavos was.

* A Football: My dad was part of an amateur touch-football league for something like fifteen years. When I was about five years old, my brother started to play football with a local tackle football league. Every game, I would ask the coaches if I could play, and they would tell me “come back when you’re seven.” So I did, and from the ages of seven to twelve, I played in a boys’ tackle football league. I played snapper, offensive line, defensive line, defensive back, tight end, and specialty teams. At that age, I had hit a growth spurt before the other kids on my team, and I was pretty strong and coordinated. I learned a lot from this experience, about what it meant to be a “girl” in a patriarchy, about cooperation and being a part of a team, and about persistance. I also learned that I loved to tackle things and play in the mud. Rainy practices were the best practices. In addition to our taste in books and games, football is something that I share with my brother and father.

* My First Set of Dice: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition when I was seventeen years old, and I still have the first set of dice that I bought. They are simple, black and white dice. When my spouse tried to test their balance using the old heavily-salted water technique, they wouldn’t float. Over the years, I’ve garnered a reputation for being unnaturally lucky with dice — and not just these ones. I don’t roll a twenty every time, but my character stats, now always rolled under close observation, are always a bit better than normal, and I have been known to come through dramatically in a pinch when playing Battlestar Galactica and piloting. For the past few years, I have played a tabletop roleplaying game once a week (barring any unforeseen scheduling issues) with the same group of people. I’ve played multiple campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Hunter: The Vigil, Ogg, Chaosium, Fate SRD, Fate Accelerated, Honey Heist, Fiasco!, Microscope, Kingdom, The Quiet Year, and many a random one-shot. Even when I’m at my most busy and can’t seem to make any time for leisure, I am usually still attending my weekly game night. So, tabletop games, and my dice, are constant companions of play for me.

Reflective Games: Shared Knowledge & Horizons of Expectations

critical making, Process Writing, reflective games

For my Reflective Games work, I am currently still playing around with nanolarp design, which has been a productive but challenging constraint. As with “This Just In”, the problem with running a nanolarp that also aims to inspire critical reflection is that there is so little time to convey a nuanced, in-depth situation to the player. So, situations that players are likely to be familiar with lend themselves well to having a larp created around them.

I’ve spent the past month or so exploring this limitation through a variety of different research paths. I started out thinking about “stereotyping as shorthand” — the kinds of information that are compressed by stereotypes in order to communicate quickly (but without nuance, of course). When I took an introductory philosophy class, we spent a fair bit of time talking about the difference between “stereotyping” and “negative stereotyping”, and how humans have historically used stereotypes for survival. That fire is hot and that gravity will cause me to fall if I step out of a window are both stereotypes that I don’t have to test in order to believe that they are true.

But the connotation of the word has been pretty strongly cemented at this point, and it was difficult to find literature that explored this idea of “shorthanding” — I also tried looking into “data compression”, and of course that was largely about technical protocols and algorithms for encoding data. From there, I moved into more linguistic areas of thought, after detouring around fortune telling and how fortune telling props are used as prompts for fortune tellers to access information stored in their brains. I did gather some interesting reading materials, including a source all about cold reading — I think that I will almost definitely use this information in a future project given how we made use of objects as “tarot”-style cues in The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter.

Really, I thought to myself, all of language is about representing complex objects, ideas and wholes with just a few syllables. So, I decided to do some research into Semiotics and Linguistics (and just for fun also found some texts about Contextual Behavioural Science that I intend to read).

Last week, during our Reflective Games check-in meeting, Rilla and Enric brought up some interesting ideas about the moment that we are forced to rethink received knowledge and shorthand that we have taken for granted, and the moments that come afterwards, and how these moments might in fact be the most crucial to reflection. From there, I returned to thinking through what kinds of information people in a particular region or culture were likely to commonly know.

While “This Just In” had been about narrowing in on a common narrative by trying to please competing concerns, I want this next larp to be about widening out from a narrow idea of what the horizon of expectations might be. I have been thinking carefully about how to seed these moments.

Through some free association, I started to think about the essay/letter that the teenagers write at the end of The Breakfast Club, describing how they were so much more than the stereotypes that people might see when they looked at them. From there, of course I thought about the eighties more generally and John Hughes, and coming-of-age movies/texts (which are a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine).

This led me think about Fiasco and how it operates on movie genres. A genre sets a common horizon of expectations in a way that isn’t too proscriptive. But then, I wanted to be sure that things would go off-script, and that the players would definitely move beyond that horizon of expectations and those genre tropes.

In games like Spyfall and Fake Artist in New York, one player is missing information that all the other players have. I am still formulating what this larp might look like, but I think it might go something like this: all the players are given a movie genre, but one player’s genre is different from the others. I might tell them something like “be the genre-movie-version of yourself” and include a set of rules that mean that the other players have to also behave as if the odd-genred person is perfectly normal and integrate whatever they bring to the table into the play.

I’m not sure on the rules yet, or the set of objects, but I think that this could be tested pretty easily.

So, we’ll see how things develop. I’m excited to be making something again, alongside all of this reading and research.

Global Game Jam 2018: transgalactica

critical making, game jams, Process Writing

For Global Game Jam 2018, I took on a local organizational role to make sure that things could run smoothly when our creative director, Gina Hara, was having her film, Geek Girls, launch in theatres on the same day. Nevertheless, the jam was relatively hands-off except for keeping an eye on the space, once I had made announcements, played the keynote, and helped a few people form teams. That meant that I had a fair bit of time to work with Squinky (Dietrich Squinkifer) on a project. Jammers rarely take my advice, but I never work in teams largely than three for a jam project, if I can avoid it, and in fact, two has been an even more ideal number of late for me, when working with Squinky. This year, the theme of the jam was “transmission”, and since Squinky and I are both nonbinary trans people, we decided that we absolutely wanted to make a game with trans themes and content.

We scoped tightly but ambitiously, aiming to write, record and subtitle a number of original texts as well as finding and editing other audio to fill out our soundscape. It’s rare that I work with narrative or writing-heavy projects for a jam, so I was actually quite pleased that things worked out so well this time. I think that what was helpful was that I was able to write what was working in the moment, and discard the ideas that weren’t, and that I didn’t have to sustain any of the pieces for very long. Since the narrative for our game was that the player was meant to follow a trail of radio station-style broadcasts, each piece was distinct and self-contained, but also working with larger themes related to identity, acceptance, and frustration, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in. That was helpful in terms of the writing. There were a couple of more serious, more explicitly personal pieces that I might have liked to be able to write and include for the project, but I couldn’t get that kind of writing done in the jam context, so rather than getting stuck on that, I wrote several pieces simultaneously, moving around when I got stuck.

When jamming, one core challenge is to on-goingly check in and understand your teammates’ needs and negotiate each other’s expectations — in our case, our schedules didn’t necessarily match up, since Squinky is a bit of a night owl, and I had to be at the jam relatively early to watch the space as one of the organizers. I would have preferred that we could be at the jam space at the same time and spend as much time as we could on the project (although I always make sure to have 8 hours of sleep a night during jams, regardless of what’s happening) — but I understood Squinky’s needs. Similarly, Squinky was concerned about the scope of the writing and audio involved in the game, given the jam context, but once we had gotten started, I really wanted to foreground the writing and audio and work with a distinct gated narrative, so I pushed for it.

The jam went smoothly on the whole!

I used my Zoom H2n for the first time, and am super pleased with how easy it is to use and how good the sound quality it produces is. In the end, we got it all done, including writing and recording an original theme song. In the end, we got it all done, only to discover during the first few minutes of playtesting that some of the audio was accidentally skipped because it was triggered when people accidentally passed the right station very quickly. Since Squinky isn’t big on crowds and there was a lot of potential for sensory overload, they decided to go somewhere quiet and add a delay as to how much of the audio had to be played from a story-related clip before the player could move on to the next. That prevented any accidental speed-running of the game.

I am super glad with how the project turned out and I feel very good about the trans-positive content that I wrote. Squinky is a very resourceful programmer too, which really allowed us to push that extra little bit to make the game feel right.

The github repository for the project is here.

You can play the game here <3. If you do, please feel free to let us know what you think on twitter (our handles are in the credits at the end of the game).

Dissertation Autoethnography: Journal Entry #1

autoethnography, Process Writing

February 1st marked the start date for my autoethnographical data collection and the death of my Uncle Roger. I guess that if there is a method that takes particular care to acknowledge how personal factors and lived experiences affect research, it would be autoethnography.

The year has been off to a rough, complicated start, and I think that it is important that I be candid about that so that there’s a record of the ebbs and flows and complicating factors related to my creative practice. My uncle’s death, followed closely by the birth of a new nibling (a gender neutral term for niece/nephew), alongside my exhaustion from dealing with uncertainty related to my spouse’s employment, and the fact that doctorates are known to be stressful for one’s mental health, are all examples of the things that are keeping me from focusing as much as I would like to on my dissertation work. I have been having a hard time focusing on my work, and have been noticing some early warning signs for burnout. I am doing my best to be patient with myself, say no to as many things as possible, and take breaks when things aren’t working. I’m already feeling much better.

Although I’m not behind on my dissertation schedule quite yet, there are a number of blog posts that I have intended to write that I haven’t yet. Some are in progress, such as an adapted form of Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, and others are a part of my creative process (such as writing about the creation of my global game jam game, transgalactica, which you can play here). Since you’re reading this, that means I’ve managed to get some work down, so here’s hoping that I can keep that up!

In terms of my new project, what I will say for now is that I have been toying about the idea of working with puppets for some time now. Here’s the history of the project so far as I can reconstruct it: I took a course called Objects, Agency and Material Performance with Mark Sussman, and some of the discussions centered around puppets. As part of this course, I attended a puppetry performance involving a bunraku-style puppet (in the sense that it was controlled by three operators) called The Tablesee a trailer here.

Then, last spring, Dietrich Squinkifer & I talked about making a series of games in suitcases, one of which would involve puppets and soft circuits. I was signed up for a puppet creation workshop in the summer, but the workshop was cancelled. This year, a game that ostensibly used puppets as alternative controllers made the alt.ctrl.GDC lineup, and I have several critiques of the game’s design. For one, it is still screen-based, drawing the focus away from the puppets, involving a series of minigames that, from what I can tell, are played by pressing a button on top of the puppet’s head (I find this disappointing since there are so many other possible interactions to do with puppets). For my first dissertation project, after discussions with my supervisor, other game designers, and my partner, I’ve decided that I’ll use puppets as a starting point despite the disappointing GDC puppet game. I am thinking that I may want to work with bunraku-inspired puppets because I’m interested in playing with distributed agency and having players either collaborate or have differing agendas, but needing to maybe keep up the facade of unity and make the puppet work as best they can. I’ve barely started to think about what gameplay might be like, or what I might like to do.

Today, with this puppet project in mind, I managed to sit in at the last minute on part one of a soft circuit workshop at the Milieux Institute, given by Marc Beaulieu and Genevieve Moisan. I’ve worked extensively with the Makey Makey, but not with many sensors or circuits more complicated than that. The project that my team chose to work on (the workshop will continue next week) was proposed by a person named Pat, whose father has Alzheimer’s and benefits from tactile stimulation. She had been thinking about making a fidget quilt or mat for him for some time. So, today, we thought through what that project would look like with three separate interactions that would be tailored specifically to her father and his personal history. By the end of the workshop, we decided that we probably needed to scope down, and that Pat would then be able to extend the project later on.

I learned a lot, though I still need practice drawing circuits and making sure that everything that needs power or input gets what it needs. It’s amazing how much working with more complex computers and boards handle for you. Sensors are exciting but mysterious things that I can break or short-circuit if I wire them wrong. I think much bread boarding will be needed. I’ll need to work more with smaller, possibly wireless electronics to make a project like this work, I think.

So. Life is happening all around me, and it’s seriously messing with my best laid plans! But, I trust the schedule that I’ve set for myself, and I’ll do my best to take care of myself as needed.