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!
Just a quick update so that I have a record of what I was working on yesterday. I spent around seven hours fiddling with the near-field communication tech and trying out different programming. It turns out that there is a lot less detailed guidance for the recommended Adafruit libraries than one would hope — and the alternate libraries are often deprecated, don’t work nearly so well with my physical technology, or just don’t quite do the thing that I want them to do. To make matters a bit more complicated, my chosen NFC tags don’t work with newer phones, which was one of the ways that I was testing, and, without additional apps, the NFC for phones is really only designed for very specific uses (actually activating email, the phone, a webpage), or so it appears. So, just generally not a lot of guidance for using NFC for what I intend to. Generally, people seem to program them on their computer and use them on their phones, or they don’t care about what the actual message on the cards say? Or, if they do, the projects don’t clearly indicate the steps for getting there.
When I program a tag and read it on the reader with my current library (PN532), however, there doesn’t appear to be a function to a) just have it be a string of text and b) to read what the tag actually says.
The library itself has almost no clear documentation, just example projects.
I was talking to Tom about this yesterday: I want to be independent and handle the tech myself this time. It’s not that I mind collaborating with others, but because I am largely self-taught when it comes to all the tech that I use, I need to prove to myself that I’m able to do it, or something like that. It seems a bit ridiculous putting it into words, but that’s the feeling that I have. Maybe the truth is that I just need to ask for help because the documentation just isn’t there. It was frustrating to work for that long yesterday and not have a lot of concrete work to show for it. Or maybe the documentation is out there somewhere and I’m just not finding it.
The seven weeks since I began my latest design project, working title/codename “TRACES” have been busy, but I’ve already talked a bit about that, so I won’t go too far into it — first, Ars Electronica, then guest-lecturing, then QGCon, then Different Games, and then a family event in New York City. This, alongside further issues with Tom’s work situations. My apartment still needs to be painted, and we still have furniture to build, rooms to fix up, and boxes to unpack. One thing that I haven’t mentioned that took up a fair bit of time and energy recently is that I released an open letter talking a bit about Tom’s situation. You can read it here if you want to. There are times when this situation makes me completely unable to work, both because my help is needed, and also because it’s incredibly stressful. So I want to be sure to note that, for autoethnography purposes.
All of that means that I haven’t had a lot of breathing room to focus on the project — but things are moving ahead, little by little. Technology is on its way. I have started to write the game’s story and script. I am thinking about aesthetics, and rules, and context. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about time travel — I’ve run two sessions of my time travel RPG with my usual RPG night group, and am aiming to run a third one soon. I’ve also started to read Ryan North’s How To Invent Everything (which is a guide for stranded time travelers to recreating modern amenities and “civilization”). My spouse and I are watching (re-watching, in my case) Altered Carbon. So yeah, I have been thinking a lot about the future and about time travel.
I thought consuming this media about time travel and thinking about the rules of the technology of this world, linked to the thinking about societies and gender that I’ve been doing in relation to The Left Hand of Darkness, would be all the “research” that I needed to do for the writing. But I should have been reading about fascism, bigotry, the darkness of human history.
I wanted to tell a story about my transness and feeling undervalued and underappreciated in a conservative country’s art world context, feeling alienated by people who were supposed to be peers. I wanted to tell a story of hope and community, even if just as the backdrop for a society that did value the characters in question. But now, the stakes have changed. The real-world ones.
It didn’t happen overnight, and maybe they haven’t actually changed as dramatically as all that. But the facts remain that a major world power (the United States) and a neighbour to my country, who is currently electing conservative leaders all over the place, is trying to legislate transgender and intersex people out of existence, based on pure bigotry, ignorance and hatred. This is just the latest in a series of exhausting, dehumanizing events in the United States. Fascism never went away, really, but it just keeps rearing its head in government-mandated ways and somehow each moment feels like that’s as bad as this administration can get. And somehow people keep normalizing these new situations, or somehow believing that there are “two sides” that have equal validity and a right to be heard.
This game…might not be what I thought it was going to be.
Since my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in order to revise an article for a journal. I also wrote a draft of the full rules for Flip the Script! The week before last, I got to talk about them with the Reflective Games Group, and run through some of the rules, which led me to rewrite my section on intersectionality. This week, we did a full playtest (which I recorded the audio for).
The playtest went well, on the whole, but I was astounded to find that the run time was two hours, and I will have to find a way to streamline that amount of time in the future. It’s just too long to reasonably expect most festival players to commit to.
The major revisions that I plan to make other than trying to streamline the introductory parts is to try to use the LED interfaces in a different way. Squinky and I had criticized another puppet interface for just being buttons on the puppets’ heads that did things in game, and it’s true that this interface isn’t as embedded into the puppets as I originally envisioned. The truth is that I didn’t want to embed the electronics in places where I couldn’t easily access them, in the end, and so we’ve got this current version where the electronics aren’t even really sewn onto the puppets. And I’ve made my peace with that — it’s a different game than what I thought it would be in terms of its use of technology.
But, at the moment, there was very little reason for players to use the technology, and players rightly suggested that maybe offloading more onto the tech and getting it more involved would do good things for the game. It was also suggested that maybe I could have my own microbit to send signals, especially if the meaning of those signals changed (like perhaps the players could switch roles, or a new character is introduced — maybe I could make each of these into a more formalized rule for each round, sort of like the way that the games change in “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — I don’t know why that specific reference comes to mind except that it’s the same general concept each time, with specific rules for each individual game/scene. Another interesting idea that came up was what it would be like to play my other nanolarps using puppets instead of having the players play themselves.
It also occurs to me that I wound up using a blackboard to record notes from the session where all the players could see them this time, and that I will want to do that in the future. That means I’ll have to get a carry-on sized whiteboard (possibly at the dollar store, possibly a picture frame with plastic or glass in the frame?) to do so in the future.
The subject that we wound up discussing in this game was the concept of the “good” migrant, explicitly asking “what does it mean to be a ‘good’ migrant?” To contextualize this, we were problematizing the idea of a good migrant while also recognizing that many nationalists and other people have expectations of what good migrants are, even if those expectations might be subconscious. We unpacked those in the context of apartment hunting.
I feel good about the playtesting, though, again, astounded that it took so long.
This is the statement that the players and I jointly came up with for our playthrough to release out into the world:
“Use what privilege you have to act in concrete, actionable solidarity.”
I figured it was time for a little update from my notes and documentation!
So, since my last update, the project has moved forward considerably!
I also presented my Reflective Games research on a panel which I chaired at CGSA (the Canadian Games Studies Association) and had some great questions about it from other scholars, and had the chance to chair a talk by Kara Stone about Reparative Game Design and Time (in many forms — queer time, crip time, deep time). We got a lot of good questions and feedback, and I felt quite recharged by the conference.
To simplify things a little, beyond preparing for and presenting at CGSA, here are the…
Egh. As I opened the link to github with the intent of sharing my code repository, I found out about the news that github is being acquired by Microsoft, and I’m not too sure how to feel about that.
Well, at any rate, the code lives there for now, so here’s a timeline of the progress since my last blog post, along with some short descriptions and pictures.
TIMELINE May 20th-21st:
After finishing Harle, my first puppet, I got to work on a puppet that I came to call Avi. The names of the two colours of fleece that I bought from Fabricville were Guacamole and Chai Tea, and reminded me of the colours of the inside of an avocado. So, despite the fact that Avi looks a lot like a turtle, their look is actually avocado-inspired.
I was invited to an impromptu get-together at a friend’s house, and I knew that I would have a lot of hand-sewing to do, based on Harle. So, I machine-sewed everything possible ahead of time, and brought my pins, fabric, stuffing, needle and thread over to this friend’s house. I have found that I can watch, listen and speak while handsewing, and so while we conversed and others played board games, Avi’s body came together. The next day, I added features like Avi’s eyes and other details.
My friend Gina suggested that my third puppet should be a red dragon, complete with wings. I had been planning to use red fabric so that the puppets are each sort of in correspondence with CMY/RGB colour theory (Avi, while not Cyan, is both green and yellow). Since Drake was my third puppet, I felt confident enough to experiment with the design, particular when it came to character details. I had this vision of fringes and crests, and, measuring against the puppet’s face, I free-handed a pattern on a piece of cardstock, cut it out, and used the same technique that is used to machine-sew the hands of the puppets to sew my fringes.
Yes, Drake is an obvious name for a dragon-inspired puppet, but I was also thinking of my Toronto friends who are huge Drake fans (in particular, the writers, artists and game designers).
I spent the next few days working on Microbits/Neopixel code, and created a Git repository for this (not very reader-friendly but very small in size) code here.
I used the Microbits coding environment and their drag-and-drop code along with the Adafruit Neopixels package/library for the environment. It was astoundingly easy to get things up and running. I ran into a persistent problem using repetitive loops (like the While loop and the loop that allows you to repeat code multiple times) — the code couldn’t be interrupted. That meant that I couldn’t turn the signal off when I wanted to. That felt clunky, so instead, the LEDs animate a few times, and then continue to be their rainbow selves until the other button is pressed and they are turned off (this is something that I just updated yesterday, but didn’t feel like I should separate from this section — it’ll still get its own timeline entry!).
One major change was deciding to use one neopixel instead of two — basically, I didn’t want to have wires hanging around everywhere and the one LED seemed sufficient for the signal.
Following that, I started to design vests to hold the electronics. While I could have embedded them directly onto the puppets, I felt that it would be better not to damage the puppets and also easy to develop an agile, changeable solution if the electronics were on something that the puppets wore instead. The vests are perhaps not the most aesthetic things in the world, but on the whole, I think that they look fine. I only had time to start the basics before having to pack and get ready for CGSA. At first, I thought of using my cat’s harness pattern, but that seemed to take up too much fabric, and anyway, wasn’t based on the same shape as the puppets. This gave me the idea of using the existing puppet pattern as a base. So, using the larger puppet back pattern, I slightly altered the shapes and left room for arm holes.
May 29th – June 2nd: I was at CGSA!
A whirlwind of staying up too late and sewing tiny vests for puppets! After designing the shape and ensuring that it worked, I had to design a pocket for the batteries (which I talked through with Tom), a way of making the Microbits buttons easier to use no matter a person’s handedness/what hand they chose to put the puppet on, and decide on LED positioning. Tom helped me talk through the pocket decision, which due to the flexible positioning of the microbits (which are attached by velcro and can be repositioned), had to be in a specific orientation. Last night, I finished all three vests and they’re all in working order.
June 4th: After finishing the vests, I tweaked the code, cleaning it up to reflect the single neopixel, turning down the brightness of the LEDs, and making it so that the second button turned the pixels to “black” or “off” instead of to the very-bright white setting.
And that brings us to now.
I am ready to draft rules of play for the game, but I have started to do some reading to familiarize myself a little bit with the literature on psychodrama and on sociodrama (which may actually be more what I am aiming for — systems and the experiences of a group rather than necessarily individual experiences).
In terms of narrowing down the themes of the game, I have been thinking a lot about harassment, bullying, and microaggressions. This, I think, is the confluence of a few factors: some of my friends and colleagues have recently told me about harassment which they are experiencing, my own family is facing harassment and bullying, and I just watched Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why.
So, I’ll be doing some reading and thinking before I sit down and commit to the rules.
On the Autoethnography side of things, I wanted to note the difficulty of tracing the influences on my thought process. This thought is based partially on this quote from a recent blog post by Pippin Barr about Translation Studies:
“One of the most difficult things about trying to actually talk about design is that it’s so ephemeral much of the time. Even with the best will in the world and the determination to pause and reflect on your design work in the moment as you make decisions, it can be hard to think of how to even frame what you’re doing, and thus hard to get words out. The most important thing in that context is to actually know what you’re trying to make, for which you can refer to design documents, artist statements, or similar. But even then it can be tricky to make the connections between some specific design decision and the high level statement of purpose.”
To really note all the overheard bits of conversation, all of the media that I am consuming (willingly or not, whether it’s the music playing in the grocery store, or an accidental glance at someone else’s phone, or all the myriad things I might scroll past on social media) that might have an influence on my process, and still have this project be manageable in scope is…just not possible.
What I can do, and what I am doing is documenting, writing notes, and recording conversations when I can clearly say that yes, this is part of my design process. I am taking notes about the things that I am deliberately consuming and thinking about as part of this design process. But there is so much going on, and for both ethical and practical reasons, it can’t all go in. So, the data is necessarily incomplete. I guess I have to make peace with that. I already have hours of conversation recorded.
On another note about productivity and scheduling: I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow designer this morning, and we were talking about what I’ll summarize as the concept of “lying fallow” — I’m not sure if others have used this term before… I feel like the answer to that is yes. These thoughts are also definitely influenced by Kara Stone’s CGSA talk, which is forthcoming as a paper, about Reparative Design. Increasingly, I am coming to recognize the importance of the times where a project is active but I am not working on it. This is something I think that I discussed in my writing earlier this year, in January and February, when I was experiencing burnout symptoms.
Now that this idea has had the time to lie fallow, all of a sudden, things are just coming together. It’s a joy to work on it. It’s a joy to talk about it. But it needed that time. And so did I — I think that, like a field that has given all it has to grow the previous seasons’ crops, I needed to rest. I needed to be taking in information and thinking about the project without worrying too much about time. My past development cycles have definitely been about these bursts of activity, followed by refinement.
Having given six months to each game project (eight in the case of the first one, though I’m hoping to not need all of those extra months, in order to be able to build more of a buffer), and knowing that I also have to do things like writing and editing (for my dissertation, for publication) as well as teaching, and y’know, taking care of my physical and emotional needs, I know that my schedule is a lot. It can be difficult to feel okay about lying fallow, but ultimately, the past year has shown me that it is a necessity.
Your faithful autoethnographer,
Doing the best that they can,
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!
ARTEFACTS OF PLAY, BOTH DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL
* 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.
[My trip to QGCon 2017 and this writeup about the experience were sponsored by the lovely folks from ReFiG (Refiguring Innovation in Games). You can learn more at refig.ca. This blog post is cross-posted on their website, and was written for that venue, so my usual readers may be familiar with some of what I have written here – like, you know, who I am.]
The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at QGCon 2017
Here is a bit of context for those who may not know me. The 2017 Queerness and Games conference was my first queer games conference as an out nonbinary queer person, having come out in 2016. It is only in the past few years that I have been exposed to language that described my personal experiences with gender and sexuality, and there was some time between knowing the words and deciding that I should come out. Going to QGCon this year, therefore, had a fair bit of personal significance for me. I started making games in January 2013, and my work as a designer addresses intersectional feminist issues.
[Photo by Jess Marcotte]
For this year’s Queerness and Games conference, I was there to showcase a game called The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, which is a physical/digital hybrid game about emotional labour, radical softness, and the “traveling other.”
What I mean by emotional labour is “the frequently invisible work of caring, keeping others’ in mind and taking their needs into account, managing one’s own mood and masking so-called ‘unpleasant’ emotions for the benefit of others, managing other people’s emotions, both by not causing upset to begin with and by helping others feel better, and any number of other activities in line with these that are far too many to count” (Marcotte and Squinkifer 2017).
[Photo by Jess Marcotte]
When I talk about radical softness for this game, I am referring to both the physical construction and aesthetic of the game and to a specific mindset that is common to some feminist art circles. All the objects in the game were handcrafted by Dietrich Squinkifer and myself through traditionally feminine-coded crafts such as crochet, sewing, and embroidery. The objects are “cute” and “squishy”, but are contained within the hard shell of carry-on sized suitcase. Radical softness, both as an aesthetic and as a way of being in the world, can also refer to the conscious decision not to be “hardened” just because that is what the world seems to demand of us. It refers to making a choice to be vulnerable, embracing softness, cuteness and traditionally “femme” aesthetics. It also refers to finding strength in our most vulnerable moments, whether with respect to our feelings, to the challenges that we might face with mental or phyiscal illnesses, or the situations that we are faced with as a result of life in a kyriarchical society.
The “traveling other” is a concept that Squinky and I use to talk about the relative instability of some advisors and advice-givers over others. The classic figure of the traveling fortune teller, for example, is frequently “othered” due to their identity, which may be a marginalized one along several axes (gender, sexuality, class, race, etcetera). In contrast, white male advisors tend to be of high social status, perhaps advising nobility or holding a trusted position within a community.
In The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, one player takes on the role of a trained Troubleshooter who specializes in activities such as active listening and problem-solving. The other player is a Customer who, through provided prompts, generates a made-up Trouble to be worked through. After hearing out the problem, the Troubleshooter raises the issue of (fictional) payment, which is then negotiated with the Customer. After they have agreed, the Customer represents their method of payment on a coupon, which they hold onto until the end of the game. Next, the Troubleshooter makes use of the objects in the SUITCASE (Suitcase Unit Intended To Cure All Sorts of Emotions) to inspire their discussion and reach a resolution. Once the Troubleshooter has examined the different angles of the trouble and given the Customer their advice, the Customer then decides whether or not the Troubleshooter has earned their pay. [You can read a longer description on the game’s website here: http://handsomefoxes.wordpress.com.]
At least, in theory, the troubles are meant to be fictionalized (although there’s no rule against using a real trouble, and players are encouraged to generate a problem based on their lived experience). At the QGCon arcade, The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter was very warmly received, but I was surprised to find that very few Customers, when prompted, decided to raise a fictional trouble. Instead, most people asked for advice about real troubles. Although some were, upon further discussion, exaggerated or a situation that the player had faced in the past, most people raised real issues that they were currently facing, demonstrating a great deal of vulnerability and trust for the game (and for us, as designers). As I moderated the game or took on the role of Customer or Troubleshooter myself, I have to admit that I was very concerned about whether or not the game would be effective and feel safe for those who had just revealed a part of themself to a relative stranger. As it turns out, the attendees of QGCon proved to be sensitive and kind to each other, and the rules of the game helped them to give, overall, quite decent advice to one another. It was a heartening experience.
[Photo by Jess Marcotte]
One of the conference organizers who isn’t also a member of this game development team (Squinky was one of the organizers) played the game with me mid-Sunday afternoon. I won’t reveal what we discussed here, but at the end of the conference, during the closing session, organizers were asked to reveal their favourite moment of the entire conference. For that organizer, it was the experience of playing our game.
For me, these moments of human connection between players are the things that I most strive for in much of my design work. It is always excellent to see my and my team’s design decisions validated when players experience these unexpected instances of real feeling for another human, one that they might already know very well, or not at all. I was so glad to be able to bring this game to QGCOn.
[Photo by Jill Binder]
[As a result of my Arcade duties, I was only able to see a few of the many excellent sessions at QGCon this year. The highlights for me were the “Post Mortems: ‘Making Queer Games'” session featuring Josie Noronha, Kara Stone, and Yifat Shaik, the “Out of Sheer Spite” microtalks session moderated by Kris Ligman, and the roundtable on “Invisible Gender and Sexual Identities in the Queer Community,” which turned out to be a much broader intersectional discussion about identity, and T. L. Taylor’s keynote, “Play as Transformative Work,” about streaming communities.]
Marcotte, J. R. & Squinkifer, D. 2017, ‘Radically Soft Design and the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter’, paper presented to CGC: Imagined Realities, Carleton University, Ottawa, March 17th 2017.
It seems wrong to call this a postmortem given that the project was just born on the weekend and involves living creatures, so instead I’ll call these “some thoughts.”
Plants, wow! Plants are amazing! I’ve been thinking of plants as an example of an “other” that could be helpful in conceptualizing designs’ for entities besides the standard human user ever since some conversations last year with Ida Toft. Donna Haraway’s writings are especially relevant here, but here’s an easy-to-digest BBC article about plants and their various sensory abilities and complexities that might serve as an introduction to the subject.
I’ve just recently started to split my time between here and Fort McMurray, Alberta. As a result, I had been talking with Squinky about making a plant that people in our lab could take care of that would signal their care to me far away through the internet. To that end, I had ordered things for a tweeting plant project , so I had a sparkfun redboard, some breadboards, some moisture sensors, and some other odds and ends for working with plants.
It was only after I had ordered these parts that TAG’s local diversifier for Global Game Jam 2017, Sustainability, was announced. As part of this diversifier, one of this year’s TAG Global Game Jam co-organizers, Liane, acquired a bunch of plants. Our brainstorm quickly turned to what we could make with these plants, and I don’t regret it.
Initially, we were supposed to have a third team member, Six, but unfortunately, after the initial brainstorm, they weren’t feeling up to jamming. I just wanted to make sure to highlight their contributions to our conversation, which sent us down some interesting rabbit holes that ultimately lead to us making what I think is a really cool experience. It’s called “rustle your leaves to me softly” and it is an ASMR Plant Dating Simulator. I’ll try to take you through some of our process in this post.
This year’s theme was “Waves.” We began to talk a lot about soundwaves and Squinky half-jokingly mentioned ASMR — I of course wrote this down on our brainstorm. We began to brainstorm around the idea of an “ASMRchestra” played by touching various plants. Six suggested a more intimate relationship with one plant, with more varieties of interaction, including flex sensors, touch, sound detection which would activate sound and LEDs on the plant, possibly in an intimate space like the tent.
After Six let us know that they wouldn’t be jamming with us, Squinky and I had to scope the design in a bit more tightly to accomplish our work with two people instead of three. As we experimented with the simplest version of what the game could be, we discovered that rather than just being a switch, the redboard could detect consistent/predictable ranges of resistance when hooked up as a button (with a ground, a resistor, and a plain wire). With a strong enough resistor, the ranges of numbers we were receiving varied consistently with softer and firmer touches, and a variety of touch locations (as well as on the person doing the touching – some people are more conductive than others, based on their skin moisture).
The ASMRchestra and the more focused single-plant experience were both still possible avenues of exploration, but we didn’t determine right away which we wanted to do. Instead, Squinky focused on the programming, both physical and digital, of the Arduino, determining how things should be connected up, and programming a system that would let us detect the variations in resistance, and play sounds accordingly. They massaged the feel of the interaction with different numbers and adjusted how sounds faded in and out based on those numbers. They found and implemented what we would need to achieve fine grain control over the sound.
Meanwhile, I began to research ASMR more closely, writing down common traits of the voices and sounds that I was hearing, including what kind of sound combinations were common. Here are some of my notes:
Overall, the ASMR community seems to think that everyone can experience ASMR and it’s just a matter of finding the right triggers. That means that there is a huge variety of possible triggers. What helped us focus in on the kind of ASMR we would be creating was the notion of a reciprocal relationship between human and plant. The human inputs caresses, touches, and other inputs (such as blowing wind across the plant’s surface, or speech) and the plant, in this narrative, responds to the touches that it appreciates by outputting an ASMR soundscape that it hopes will be pleasing to the human. Respect for the ASMR community was important for us, despite what might be considered the inherent absurdity of humans and plants in a sensual relationship like this one (I don’t think it’s all that ridiculous – we are intimately linked to our environment). We wanted our attempts at ASMR to be sincere, despite our limited time to work on it.
While Squinky worked on programming, I took up asset creation, including physical crafting. My first task was to select robust plant specimens that would be the least likely to be harmed by our touches as long as we were respectful (I chose one plant with waxy leaves and several succulents).
Next, I worked on building controllers/homes for our chosen plants using ceramic cups, river rocks, dirt, copper tape, wire, electrical tape, and screws. The copper tape on the outside of the cup was a convenient and aesthetically pleasing place to put the ground, as people could grasp the cup to steady the plant as they touched it. With Ida Toft’s advice, we used the fact that both the plants and the earth in their pots contained moisture and were conductive to avoid attaching anything to the plants themselves. The screw provided a large contact that I could simply plant in the earth.
As usual, a jam involving a good deal of crafting meant that I took several trips to the Dollarama to find and repurpose objects there for the project. We decided early on that we wanted to avoid using screens as much as possible if we could, so, with that in mind, I made sure that what there was to look at instead (the plants, the electronics, the instruction booklet, the housing for the electronics, the table where the game would be played at) would look as unified and as pleasing as possible. Aesthetics when people won’t be completely focused on a screen are important (and of course I’d argue that they’re important in general, with or without screens). Right before the playtest, I found a quiet spot and decorated it with a green tablecloth, setting up just what was needed to play our game on the table. It was a bit removed from the rest of the space since audio was important to the game. I made signs to lead players to the game that said things like “4 plants in your area looking to meet” and the name of our game and team (we were “TEAM TINY CACTUS,” by the way – everytime Squinky and I work on a new project together, we give ourselves a new team name).
By Saturday evening, we knew that our game was no longer ASMRchestra, despite that being an excellent pun name. I was concerned that hooking up all the plants up at once would discourage people from discovering their individuality, that it would instrumentalize them in more ways than one: that people would cease to see them as living creatures and see them just as controllers, and that they would just try to play them as instruments simply making sounds instead of responding to the feedback they were receiving. The relationship between each plant and human, with the human taking the time to discover their differences, became an important part of how I was thinking about the game. We retreated to the jam space’s campground (complete with tent) to figure out a new name for our game. Names are important, because they’re conceptual tools — they help me figure out how to think about a game. As we giggled to each other in the intimacy of the tent, we settled on “rustle your leaves to me softly” – it immediately suggested something that we hadn’t considered before: poetry.
For me, this was the missing piece of the ASMR script. I would write a poem that could be randomized, line by line, from the plant’s perspective. We recorded the poem and other sets of words that night. Here are the word sets and the lines of the poem.
Sunday morning, I worked on the instructions and on creating housing for our electronics. The instruction booklet is another example of functionality and aesthetics combined. Using a book from the Dollar store as a base, I had to remove the metal spiral because I’m left-handed and planned to handwrite the instructions inside. I replaced the spine with twine, and painted the name of the game on the cover. crafted the book itself and the instructions to go in it. With safety of plants in mind. Respect for plants and their safety became a key concern for us. As I wrote the instructions, I realized that the plants already had built-in personalities based on their physical properties and their needs in terms of physical safety. As I wrote the instructions, I had to translate their needs and suggest interactions into the language of dating profiles. Here are what the instructions looked like:
The conceptual thought behind the game is rather twisty. As designers, we were trying to take on the perspective of plants, thinking in ways that we thought a plant might think, where the plant in question was trying to conceive what a human would appreciate most from them, without understanding just what a human was, and thus thinking of it in plant terms. Based on what we decided plants would like in ASMR, the plants are then trying to please human tastes.
Since the sounds could be dropped in afterwards, collecting them and putting them into the game was one of our last tasks. I collected Creative Commons 0 attribution license ambient music tracks, water droplets, rain, rustling leaves, and other sounds (sources can get a bit tricky in the heat of a jam, so I usually use CC0 resources). Based on my notes about ASMR, Squinky and I then recorded a series of plant-related words and the individual lines of the poem that I wrote to be randomized. Squinky then figured out how to layer them beautifully, figuring out volumes and when sounds should stop and start in order for the plant to feel most responsive without the sound design being too busy.
As we playtested the game, I was surprised at the intimacy created by the experience. I was also surprised that the context was so transposed, and that the sound was working so well together, that I didn’t even mind listening to the sound of my own voice coming from a plant. It was eery and touching all at once.
The official jam playtest went well, but there were way more people that wanted to play than could be accommodated over the course of the time that we had. This was a good sign, although it was also a shame. Those who did play seemed to enjoy the game. Their first reaction was frequently laughter – I think they laughed out of surprise. Afterwards, they often got quiet, contemplative. Some seemed reluctant to stop playing, but felt the pressure of others waiting behind them to play. Some players also experienced ASMR sensations for the first time. Many seemed to discover that touching the plant felt good – and felt intimate. The textures, combined with the responsive sound, made for a pleasing sensory experience.
Thanks to the very talented Matthias Graham (@coraxincarna), who took photos and filmed for us, and Squinky, who figured out a way to record the sounds as people were playing, we were able to cut together a rough version of a video of what the experience is like — unfortunately, without the tactility and without the pleasure of that immediate connection between touch and sound — for those who haven’t had a chance to play.
We hope to set up the game at TAG sometime soon so that more folk can play it! There’s more to say, I think, about this game, but I wanted to get out a few thoughts as soon as possible after the jam before they faded away.
[This postmortem was written for Mia Consalvo’s Player Studies class, but I thought you might appreciate reading it as well. You can find the Game Rules, more pictures of player answers, and other context at the-riddle-promenade.tumblr.com — if you like, you can even join in and play!]
POSTMORTEM: The Riddle Promenade
Overall, The Riddle Promenade is a slow game. Getting feedback in time for the postmortem was a challenge because from the day that the game was finished to the time that this postmortem had to be written, there were only two weeks of playtesting. That’s only two riddles on the Promenade. Of course, this slowness was an intentional part of the design. The aspects that I chose to take up in my design of a game for Tom Deliva, my muse, were his love of puzzles, mechanics that test his skills (if cheekily, in the case of photography), and his desire to explore and know the history of the things around him. Additionally, Tom works long hours, and doesn’t have much time to devote to games. He and the other players need time to puzzle out the answer to the riddle and then time to go take their picture. Unfortunately, it still means that I haven’t been able to garner as much feedback from as many playthroughs as I might usually have been able to do with a different style of game.
I have also noticed that, even with a network full of people who play games, it can be difficult to get people to come play a game — particularly for playtest purposes. The people who are playing, with the exception of two people from Twitter, are people that I specifically mentioned the game to, and even then, the pool is very small. At time of writing, there are only seven players who have signed up for the google group (one of the accounts on the google group is the moderator’s email, and another is mine for testing purposes and to make sure emails go through). I suppose that it’s possible that some people are seeing the content without signing up for the official group. I have heard that finding participants for academic studies can be a common problem, especially with no monetary incentives (or, as I’ve seen for certain psychological experiments at Concordia, a Tim Horton’s gift card).
What is exciting about having used a platform like Tumblr that allows for others to discover the game is that some people who happen to be into riddles have discovered and liked posts from the site. My hope is that I’ll continue to get better at writing riddles, and that people will join the game over time. Building a community takes more than two weeks, I guess!
I checked in with my muse, Tom, several times during the two weeks of the playtest (November 29th to December 12th). He had solved the first riddle (#2, since #1 was a test riddle) on the first day — almost immediately after reading it. I, of course, neither confirmed nor denied whether he had the right answer, but he was fairly confident in his answer (and it was in fact the right one). He nevertheless thought that it was a good level of challenge, telling me, “that’s often how riddles are — either you get it in a flash or you have to puzzle it out.” For example, another player told me that they weren’t getting the riddle “at all” and “couldn’t wrap [their] head around it.” Overall, Tom liked the game, and appreciated that it wasn’t overly time-consuming. The first time that we spoke, he had solved Riddle #2, but not yet found a good spot to take his picture. He enjoyed that the game encouraged him to go out and get to know Fort McMurray. His one concern at this point was that he wanted the community aspect – commenting and discussing the photos – to be a key aspect, and worried that the community was still very small. The next time that we talked, he had taken and submitted his first picture. He was a bit exhilarated, and in addition to the picture in response to the actual riddle, he sent me a picture of a walking stick that he had picked up along the way. As it turns out, northern Alberta is pretty flat, and in order to find a vantage point, he had to go to one of the areas hit by the big forest fire in the spring and hike through the burnt-out woods.
When I posted Riddle #3, Tom told me that he again immediately had an answer, but after speaking to him later in the week, I had to hold back from giving him any hints that he, in fact, had the wrong answer. Nevertheless, he submitted a well-considered picture.
A surprise for me as a designer was that, in my head, I thought that our friend group would all want to play this game and share these moments with Tom, but although I shared it with them, initially none of them joined in. Perhaps this has something to do with timing, the end of the semester, and holidays, or perhaps they simply weren’t interested in this style of game. At any rate, this was one aspect of the design that was different than what I had imagined. Tying Tom back to a new online community rather than his existing friend group is not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t what was intended — and that community still needs to be built.
Generally, people seemed to like the concept of this game. I received a lot of comments about it from family (my riddle playtesters) and friends (some of whom said they would join but didn’t). Out of those who actually played the game, which included four players other than Tom who signed up for the Google group, and, as a result, had “officially” signed on to play (there were also Tumblr followers), there were mixed reactions that were generally positive. In this small sample of players, only two (Tom and a close friend) submitted an answer for the first riddle. However, after I shared the post with the answers and photographs on social media, a new player (a personal friend) was immediately drawn in. This post also garnered the first player that I didn’t have prior knowledge of, or my first stranger! Perhaps this trend will continue over time. The deadline for answering the second riddle is December 12th, so this assignment was due sooner than the riddle answers. As of now, I’ve received Tom’s answer to the riddle (he has it wrong) and his picture (he took a nice one), but nothing from anyone else.
I wonder if players who did sign up but submitted no picture were just particularly busy during the first week or if one week is too short of a time in which to answer the riddle and take a picture. I suspect that having to go outside to take a picture in inclement weather might also be a barrier — this might be a game that does better in summer. There is of course always the possibility that this game, which Tom is enjoying, really does appeal only to a small subset of people that share Tom’s player profile.
Another disappointment, although I am again hopeful that this may change over time, is that no comments were exchanged about any of the photos, beyond my conversations with Tom. Nobody commented on anyone else’s photograph (as I mentioned, I didn’t receive many submissions), and I thought that this would be easy to get players to do given the platform and that people seem to enjoy posting comments about photos on social media. Maybe I should have actually made this game on Instagram!
Overall, the development of the game went well. I spent most of my time developing the game concept and design. Implementing and testing all the parts only took a few hours, once I had all the design work figured out. The aspect of the game that took the longest amount of time (and it doesn’t really show in the game) was writing riddles. I spent days writing riddles – and in the end, I only had five to show for all that work. Partially, that’s because I wrote a lot of bad riddles as I learned how it was done and hit my stride. I think that riddle-writing is a hard-won skill. It’s part poetry and part puzzle design. Making comparisons that are specific and finding answers that aren’t too broad or too narrow once in riddle form is challenging. Two things that I wanted very badly to write riddles about were a movie theatre and a fire station. With a movie theatre, the riddles tended to be about escapism, absorption and time, but were too general — the answer could have been almost anything that is considered a form of entertainment. With the fire station, the defining features were too specific and my fire station riddles ended up far too easy. Maybe I’ll take another crack at writing riddles about these things once I’m a riddle-writing master. One nice side effect of writing riddles and testing them out (mostly on my family) is that my dad started to text me his own riddle-writing efforts. During my writing process, I would call home, and whoever was there would gather around the phone and listen to my riddle (including extended family). That was fun.
Thinking through how such design exercises might benefit game studies and games, there’s a lot to discuss. I’ll first distinguish between how games as a medium and the games industry might benefit, as compared to how game studies in an academic context might benefit.
In the mainstream game industry, large studios tend to say one thing and do another when it comes to their audience. Ostensibly, they are making games for everyone. However, the same kind of games seem to get made all the time, and given the large amounts of money invested in these games, companies and marketing divisions are understandably but disappointingly risk-averse. Really, most games are already being made for a small, default demographic that we know doesn’t represent “everyone.” So, making games for a micro-audience that isn’t a part of that demographic is an exercise in highly-targeted design that probably won’t change the industry — at any rate, not right away. But it is possible that if designers entering the industry had to perform this kind of exercise with players that are very different than them, it might give them a new perspective. It probably still won’t solve the problem, because such a solution assumes that designers and writers don’t want to make innovative games with new storylines and more diverse characters. Since I have friends who work in the industry, I know that they have to fight very hard for every character and storyline that diverges from best practices.
This kind of exercise does also benefit researchers. Going through the process of making a game when it is not your usual mode of study can be an enlightening way of understanding what that process is like, giving academics a better understanding of the moving parts of games and how they are made because they have had the chance to do it for themselves. For those who already design work as one of their research outputs, normalizing design as a research tool helps to legitimize research-creation (and similar endeavours). Being allowed to submit games as class assignments is helpful in that regard. This is already the kind of work I am doing on my own time, so when classroom work lines up with the work I would like to be doing, I appreciate that. I think everyone who studies games should try making one at least once. As to what muse-based design target to one specific person brings to the table in particular, I think it represents a good, scalable microcosm and can result in clear, targeted feedback. Rather than trying to gather data about whether a sub-group of people liked the game for the reasons that I thought they would, I can ask one specific person and get a (hopefully) clear answer. I think it is a good tool for learning. In my own work, I am interested in figuring out how to describe the creative process for different creators, and formalized and examined exercises related to game design are one way of furthering our knowledge about that topic.
In the end, I am still pleased with how this project turned out. I appreciate that I acquired new skills while completing it (riddle-writing and, well, using Tumblr), My partner appreciated the game that I made for him, and the thought and care that was put into it. I think that I managed to design a game that hits the mark for him in terms of time commitment, easy-access (not a lot of extra hardware is needed except a camera and the ability to visit a website), and directing an experience that goes beyond the computer screen. I also appreciated completing this task as a design exercise, and think that there is a lot to be learned from exercises like this one. As I’ve mentioned before though, I want to take this game further and keep it up and running for longer. The fact that I didn’t manage to get that many people to join and play as part of the initial playtest, and that one of the main mechanics of the game (commenting on each other’s photos to help build community) was not used at all are where the project fell short, and I want to see what happens over time as I try to grow the community. I’ll keep trying for now.
After spending the weekend immersed in thoughts about Deep Time at the Speculative Play Deep Time jam this weekend, it turned out that my Monday night RPG/board game group didn’t have anything to play that night. During the weekend, we had watched “Into Eternity” (http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/) and thought about Onkalo (a waste-storage facility being built 4 or 5 kilometers deep in the Finnish bedrock), as well as nuclear waste more generally. Our discussions about deep time had talked about problem of designing for someone who might or might not share the same physical attributes, sensibilities, and senses. We talked about how difficult it was for the human brain to conceptualize a 100 000-year time-span, given that our own recorded history is so short and yet older events still feel so remote. We talked about intergenerational communication and responsibility, the durability of different materials and how to communicate broad strokes in imprecise mediums – perhaps things like massively-scaled stones, or “universal” symbols like thorns or other things that might represent danger to some unknown beings. We also thought about whether such warnings would only spur on treasure-seekers, who, unconvinced of the altruism of the people sending such a message (well, altruism except in the sense of assuaging our own guilt, perhaps), might think that something valuable was being hidden from them. And, given that nuclear waste materials can be reprocessed, and that a relatively small amount of their energy is used before the material is considered waste, it might be considered valuable indeed.
Given that I am moving to Alberta fairly soon and that our membership is already becoming increasingly scattered (Guelph, NYC, Regina…), the RPG group is working on strategies for being able to continue playing when we’re apart. So far, we have had mixed results with digital play, and of course it comes with a whole host of potential challenges with regards to tech, lag, internet issues, etc. Meeting for a casual board game wouldn’t further that cause at all, and I had been itching to run a game of my own for some time. I used to run a Star Wars expanded universe campaign, but it became too much for me to manage, and so I hadn’t actually “GMed” in years — there just seemed to never be enough time. Fresh off of discussions from the weekend, I decided that, given a simple enough system (Fate Accelerated, in our case), I could indeed run a one-shot campaign on-the-fly that evening.
I decided that I would give the group very little context, asking them only to give me information about who they were as a people (human, genetically-modified/differently-evolved humans, aliens). Their constraint was that they had to be of a similar size to humans (somewhere between human-sized and elephant-sized). My primary goal was to balance feasibility and fun, and so I did have to invent and alter certain details that may not be within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, although the results of this campaign were an interesting enough way into this design problem that I am now writing about it for you here, my primary motivation was running the game in a way that would be compelling for the players. Having dedicated so much thought and consideration to Deep Time and Onkalo over the weekend made them convenient subjects for exploration, and I thought that the ideas would work well in a one-shot campaign rather than something more sustained.
The players were experienced roleplayers from different backgrounds, although all were Canadians from the East Coast (Ontario and Quebec), including a biochemist, a store manager, a researcher working with Montreal’s itinerant population, and a bank worker. Although the group usually has an even gender split, the players this time were three male-identified players and one female-identified player.
Here is what they decided about themselves, their society and their context:
The game was to taking place 90 000 years in the future. The group was part of a race of genetically-modified humans that eventually evolved further to become quite sea-mammal like — specifically, they decided that they were the Otterfolken and had large lung capacity, webbed hands and feet, oily fur to protect themselves from cold in the water. They also decided that they would have bronze-age technology (and were quite insistent that this should include Archimedes’ death ray). Their characters were part of a caravan traveling across the land, seeking trade goods. One of them was the caravan chef and mixer-of-medicines, one of them was a religious elder/prophet who had visions, one was the caravan funder, a rich otterperson who was seeking adventure, and the other was a youngling who was in charge of caring for the caravan’s animals (these pack animals were known as “Finless”). Additionally, I seeded the adventure by giving them each one piece of information that none of the other players knew: the rich caravan funder knew that there were areas on this landmass that had not yet been scavenged by other caravans, the animal-tender knew that the area they were entering had very hard bedrock and was considered very stable (not prone to natural disasters, volcanoes, flooding, etc.), the caravan cook knew that food sources were getting more scarce and the land less hospitable as they ventured onwards, and the religious leader knew that there were legends/stories told in his religion about “places that you are supposed to forget, places that no one should ever go, deep places, sacred places” and that most of these were on land.
(That tiny track and even tinier truck represent the entrance to Onkalo).
Over the course of the weekend, Rilla Khaled and I explored questions around what we ended up calling “communicative geographies” — what kinds of human-made geographies could be used to primally communicate, beyond language, that Onkalo was a place to be feared. Using plasticine (reusable modeling clay), tin foil, and plastic cups, we built a structure that was designed to surround Onkalo. We were inspired by the shape of the Hoover dam — smooth, and descending at a terrifying angle — and by the idea, brought up in “Into Eternity,” that thorns were a threatening shape, one that might potentially still be understood in 100 000 years. So, Rilla and I surrounded the entrance to Onkalo with spikes on two sides and Hoover Dam-like curves of self-healing concrete (using bacteria) (knowing that such concrete is probably not infinitely self-repairing, we still decided to imagine it as such in a speculative future), all of this on a massive scale designed to inspire feelings of the sublime in the viewer.
For the RPG, I thought about Onkalo as more of a fortress – the huge thorny spikes on the outside, and smooth, Hoover-dam inspired bowl on the inside. To make it possible for the game to proceed, I decided that at some point since their creation, one small section of the spikes had fallen or been sheared off, allowing a climbable surface in one spot, should the adventurers decide to undertake such a climb.
Additionally, I surrounded Onkalo with other safe guards, attempts at communication: obelisk-like structures (some which had collapsed) with information in every known language, and a field of flowers, genetically-engineered to recoil away from other varieties to help them grow in set patterns (and also poisonous), forming the shape of a giant pictorial radiation warning as seen in the Onkalo film. However, the warning was designed to be seen from a birds-eye view, and they could not completely discern the pattern, although that they knew there was one (until, of course, they reached the top of the ominous structure, looked back and said “Oh, no!” — but their characters didn’t understand the symbols anyhow).
As the game played out, it became clear that the players, with no context, were playing out scenarios and thinking in ways that were consistent with our discussions over the weekend. When faced with a mystery, and in the context of the RPG, their solution was to go further and solve it. When presented with ominous symbols and danger, they decided that there must be something worth protecting hidden beyond — and, in the case of one character, their primary motivation was adventure-seeking, and this definitely looked like adventure.
The fact that this all took place in the context of an RPG night can’t be overlooked. This is the metagame — the tension between player knowledge (such as knowing the symbol for radioactivity) and character knowledge. The players knew, of course, that if I was leading them towards a certain place, there would be danger. This place wouldn’t just contain a pile of treasure for them to find. And although they discussed turning back many a time, they never did. The context of the game (and perhaps the lack of real-world stakes) encouraged them to move forward rather than turn back. But is the curiosity that drove the Otterfolken to Onkalo only human?
As I slowly pulled back the curtain and they discovered maps of the space within the Onkalo archives as well as more obelisks with writing and symbols, the group seemed driven by two motivations: uncover the rest of the mystery, and act according to the characters that they had set out for themselves. Afterwards, I gave them context for their adventure, telling them about “Into Eternity,” Onkalo and the weekend’s projects and adventures.
After this foray into using RPGs to explore a design problem, I’m convinced of their potential value as a design probe, especially for the Speculative Play project. Given time and space to do so, all humans are capable of speculation.