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.

Updates and Plans for January

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

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

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

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

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

— Got a number of papers and conference proposals in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exercise that I’ve decided to start off my personal memory data collection process with is from Chapter 5 of Autoethnography as Method — it’s Exercise 5.6: “List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”

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

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

Reflective Games: This Just In! playtest

critical making, playtest, Process Writing, reflective games

As you might have realized from my posts over these past few months, I’ve been working with and researching larps since October or so. Last week, I ran my first larp, a pre-made nanolarp called “Abattoir” — you can read my previous post about that here.

This Just In! materials

This Just In! mindmap from development

In the time since then, I set a deadline for myself to create my own nanolarp. From start to finish, including the discussion before the game and the debrief afterwars, this larp should take around forty-five minutes to play.

For a long while, while reading up on all these topics, I struggled to find a topic that I could explore in a short larp for the reflective games group to play. Last week, when I finally sat down to do some brainstorming and create a mindmap, the tumblers fell into place in the lock and in about an hour, I had the basics of the game decided and put into place. I just had to develop characters and a self-contained ruleset based on my research.

This morning, I playtested the larp with the Reflective Games group.

In a nutshell, this is a larp about subjectivity and how different networks “spin” the news – there are overarching, oversimplified narratives that show up time and time again in news stories.

You can read, or even play, the entire larp here on Here’s a ringing endorsement from one of the players who playtested with me this morning:

“Thank God I didn’t go to journalism school.”

A little more on how the playtesting went:

The players appreciated the flow of information — it stimulated their conversation and added a good level of complication. Players were aware of the kinds of news narratives they were reproducing as they were producing them, which created a kind of unease. For some players, they avoided bringing up certain narratives deliberately (i.e. mental health), while other players said that they embraced their role and said whichever shitty thing came to mind.

When asked to tell me about something memorable that happened during play, players highlighted these occurrences:

* Trying to negotiate the meta and self-awareness around the topic of mainstream news outlets was satisfyingly awkward. One player said that this felt like it was probably pretty true to what happened in these kinds of spaces, with “edgy” content slowly grounded down until it had no edge.
* The news team agreed, at Station Management’s insistence, that they should not mention the “alt right” in the news cast, since it might alienate some of their viewers. During the news cast, “alt right” accidentally slipped out, and the reaction from Station Management (shock) and the Young Idealist (Pulitzer! Pulitzer!) was very satisfying.
* The alarm that signaled the end of the discussion was surprising and memorable when it came – one player felt that this was a nice moment.

Here’s some of the feedback that players provided to improve the game:
About the news cast at the end, players suggested that perhaps they might be able to work jointly on a kind of teleprompter script or to have players take notes. I’ve decided not to go that route, but have decided to encourage the newscaster (who needs to deliver the news report) to take notes. Additionally, the folk in the Reflective Game group suggested that I emphasize that they will indeed have to give a sixty second report at the end of the game.

There were some adjustments to be made in terms of the instructions for the players to let them know what they ought to be doing. From my own observations, I decided to make it explicit that players should introduce themselves, and have added in a warm-up exercise to get players into character and more comfortable with the play.

On the whole, I’m quite satisfied with how this larp played, although I’m aware that the people who played with me this time around were an ideal audience, and that the game might play differently with another group. That’s just how larps work, I guess.

For now, I’ve decided to release this as a prototype with the one “tragedy” that I ran today. In the future, I would like to develop other situations and create a deck that could be shuffled, or a table of results which could be chosen from with dice rolls.

Reflective Games: My First Time as a Larp GM

Process Writing, reflective games, research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflective Games: Coming Home to a New Form

critical making, Process Writing, reflective games, research

Learning about Nordic Larp and the culture around it is a little like coming home. The discourse often focuses on taking care of people, making sure that consent and boundaries are negotiated, and making sure that larp can be a space to explore difficult subjects as safely as possible. On the other hand, there are so many styles and schools within Nordic Larp, and learning about those is both thrilling and intimidating.

What’s amazing about larp is that there is a huge amount of content (especially proceedings-style papers from the Knutepunkt conference) published each year and available for free. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot that makes me feel uncertain about the best way to proceed. At the same time, the sheer volume and variety of manifestos and articles available signal the lack of unified consensus about larp design. That means that maybe I can carve out a space that I am comfortable designing in. I’ll try to explain my discomfort and excitement a little bit.

So. As a game designer, the subjects and scenarios that I design around are often ones where there is the potential for discomfort and even outright (emotional) harm to the player. To name a few topics, I’ve worked with design questions related to consent and physical touch, sensual relationship with plants, inequality and harassment for women in the workplace, different intersections of oppression, and emotional labour and radical softness.

My games often invite players to be vulnerable. Although they may choose their own level of comfort, players frequently choose to be quite vulnerable, as it turns out, particularly when it comes to my game about consent (In Tune) and the one related to emotional labour (The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter). Negotiating consent and learning about one’s comfort levels frequently means a certain amount of disclosure to one’s partner, by way of explanation for why a boundary exists, or even by disclosing the existence of a boundary. Similarly, since The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter prompts players to draw on their own experiences to come up with a (fictional or non-fictional, player’s choice) trouble, players often wind up coming up with problems that are partially based on the ones that they are already facing.

These experiences are carefully crafted, and I have considered how to facilitate this sort of play through rules, framing, and control of the experience. That is what makes some forms of larp intimidating — there’s a loss of control that goes beyond anything that I am used to as a game designer or as a tabletop game master. There are many techniques to help restore some of that control, though, which makes this loss of control both intimidating and exciting. I am used to crafting moments both as a designer and as a game master, and responding on-the-fly to my players, but I am always there in order to provide additional information, to tell them what they see, to play non-player characters and shape the experience.

There are so many forms of larp to learn about, and relatively few chances to experience them all for someone living in Canada. That means that I will have to feel out what will work best for me as a designer by reading widely — on the other hand, there is so much to read that it has been difficult to absorb everything as well as I would like. I’m working on it, but there’s still plenty to read.

For my larp, I think that I would like to invite the Reflective Games group to play, along with some other folk at TAG and perhaps my usual Monday Night RPG gaming group. That would mean having roughly ten or so people, so perhaps I will create a smaller-scale prototype to experiment with an even smaller group.

When it comes to subject matter for the larp, gender has, as one might imagine, been on my mind lately, as I approach a legal name change and have been using they/them pronouns for roughly a year and a half with most people. I keep thinking about the discomfort of being misgendered, the compromises I choose to make, and the discomfort that some people seem to feel at even the idea of nonbinary identity. This isn’t a very settled subject — there’s a lot of (not necessarily in good faith) debate around this, especially lately with respect to the Jordan Petersen video incident at Laurier. Maybe this is a good thing because of the questions that it raises – questions that I have no answer to. I am also not altogether sure yet what the “thesis” of such a game would be. I’m working on it.

I will continue to read, but this week, I think I’ll also focus on trying to create something.

[PS: I also had the chance to showcase The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter at MEGA this weekend — I had some very interesting conversations around it, and on the whole the game was well-received. To children, I got to talk about making conductive buttons and makey-makeys. To parents, I got to talk about the value of emotional labour. To my academic peers and other designers, I got to talk about physical-digital hybrid games and the genesis of this game. On the whole, the feedback that I got was that generally people were surprised by how effective a tool this was. Oh, and of course, in case you missed it, the digital edition of The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is available here!]

Reflective Games: GAMERella and the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter

Process Writing, reflective games

NOTE: When I say “week” in this post, I’m talking about the time between the Reflective Games Group meetings, which generally happen on Wednesday mornings.

This week, I decided to focus on getting a project that’s been lingering for a long while done, which is the digital version of the Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter. Up until the previous week, my time when I worked on it (in between my synthesis essay and other commitments) was spent making 3D models. The project is fairly simple, but I am teaching myself Unity in order to make it. Unity isn’t so difficult, but it does have its quirks and of course I’m using it to make something that is quite unlike the usual beginner tutorials. It’s amazing how much of my programming knowledge from other languages and engines applies in Unity, so I’m not quite starting cold. The reason that I haven’t learned Unity up until now is because my previous laptop wouldn’t run Unity at all — some quirk of my particular processor and Windows 7 rather than a speed issue. I had run previous versions and done KO-OP Mode’s “make weird stuff in unity” tutorial, which is quite fun.

I’m hoping to finish the project this week — I already have the “main mechanic” implemented, basically, but now I’ve got to add in explanations, text, menus, an introductory screen, persona generation, etcetera. For now, all the objects are textureless — it’s a look that I’m into, but we’ll see if I stick with it. I think I will for this version.

The other project that I worked on this week was journaling as a form of data collection during the GAMERella jam, where I made a project called #nofilter with Squinky, Serena Fisher and Diana Lazzaro. You can check it out here: As it turns out, journaling took up a fair bit of time during the jam. I wound up writing about 2000 words or so.

So, with two days spent on the digital version of The Truly Terrific Travelling Troubleshooter last week, followed by the GAMERella jam — an intense two days of making — I find myself rather tired. I think that I’ll spend the next two days on The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter and try to finish it. That way, I can focus on my dissertation proposal, getting some writing out there into the world, my Reflective Games design work, and my tabletop game design work (Radio D-20 and my new time travelling campaign) from now on. Perpetually working on so many different projects is tiring sometimes because I have to keep them all in mind. In a way, that’s what I find refreshing about jams — you make something self-contained and finished in a single weekend. I’m ready to finish something on my task list!

Reflective Games: Roleplaying for Reflection

Process Writing, reflective games

I began my work this week by brainstorming actions that could have meanings ascribed to them, or that seemed to easily support meaning-making in ways that could potentially be reflective. I’m including this portion of my week as a record of my process, even though I didn’t pursue this avenue for very long, because it led me, along with other factors, to what I’ll be working on next for Reflective Games. Here are a few of the actions that made my list:

— Sorting (Categorizing)
— Dividing/Separating
— Button-clicking
— Rolling Dice
— Teaching
— Speaking
— Running to/Running from
— Searching/Hunting
— Attacking/Defending

After this point, I finished reading Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method, which is going to be of use for both reflective games as we study design processes and for my dissertation. Then, as part of my weekly roleplaying group activities, I started to roll up and conceptualize a character for a campaign where everyone will be playing a monster, and we have the opportunity to play with some powerful abilities and character concepts. Mine is the ghost of a Dhampir, and let me tell you, with the Dhampir and ghost stat boosts, my ghost character now has a charisma score of 25, and is only level 3 (+2 levels for the ghost template, which is powerful).

The process of character creation made me think back to the avenue that I was exploring with Blast Theory, bleed, deictic language, and Nordic Larp.

I have been considering the strengths, limitations and challenges of narrative as a tool for creating reflective moments. So, it occurred to me that a roleplaying campaign, either purely physical or with a special added digital element or alt controller, might be an interesting thing to design. I next thought about how I could design a campaign in an extant system, and how I am currently designing a tabletop roleplaying system called Radio D-20, which involves sections of play divided up according to the structure of radio program segments (inspired by the usual structure of a Welcome to Night Vale episode), and involves collaborative character creation and a shared character pool. In roleplaying games, there are always a lot of unknown elements and it is difficult to say whether players will ever reach the content that you write for them (railroading and reorganizing aside), so there are no guarantees whether the moment that you as a writer/designer think is so poignant will also affect them. However, I have had many reflective moments as a player, and I think that the openness of the system can support that by balancing that openness with constraints. This is still a strong possibility for a future design, but it occurred to me that this is a potential opportunity to experiment with a format that I have been curious about designing around for a long, long time, and doubly so after reading about some of the amazingly reflective game examples within it: larp (Live-Action Roleplay).

Having never designed a larp, but read about them at length, my next step is to read some larp manifestos and creation guides, starting with the ones listed here, all while considering the subject of my larp:

Thematically, there have been explorations of some incredibly nuanced and difficult topics in larps, especially in the Nordic Larp scene in particular. The tip of the iceberg includes terminal illness, the 1980s AIDS crisis, and sexual assault. Larping can be a very intense experience, especially when one deals with these kinds of themes. For some LARPs, the organizers have mental health professionals on-hand as a resource for during or after the experience.

“Bleed” is the idea that one’s experience in a larp, where one is asked to totally identify with and embody a character, can “leak” (y’know, or bleed) over into the rest of one’s life. This might happen during a break in the game, but it can frequently also happen in the weeks and months that follow a larp. These feelings, which may be negative and difficult to deal with, are one reason why many larps include a sort of debriefing session with the organizers, potentially the other players, and mental health professionals. It seems like an excellent opportunity for critical reflection.

This hearkens back to Blast Theory’s Ulrike & Eamon Compliant and the interview at the end of the experience — something that I have been considering all along. It’s satisfying to have circled back around this way.

Thus far, I’m thinking that I will choose a theme that relates to my own lived experience with my intersectional identities. I also think that this should be a short larp, although I’m not sure how short. Larps can range between five minutes (Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou) to being spread across multiple sessions over the course of months, or even years (Vampire: The Masquerade). More experienced larp writers have experimented with characterless larps that are about the environment created, with very specific constraints around speech and language, but I think that even for a short larp, I’d like to have the players participate in character development sessions ahead of time. I am not an actor, but I think that I may be able to design exercises to help players discover who their character is, and perhaps I can enlist the help of some friends who are involved in the Montreal Improv community.

Even before having settled on a subject, I am thinking of the kind of “gamemaster” that I usually am, and the techniques that I use to approach the control of information. This makes me think that I don’t necessarily want to just provide the rules and see what happens. I think I’ll have to communicate with players either in-character or through technology. I’m already considering how to diegetically pass along information. I know that some styles of larp are very directed and take place in a contained space. This is where reading more about larp manifestos will be invaluable.

Some of the themes that I’m considering right now relate to queer identity (and, in particular, my lived experience with nonbinary gender identity) or mental health, or queer identity and mental health. Although the stakes are very different, I was deeply affected by the actions available to the player in …&maybetheywontkillyou, where the actions available to the player are to speak up, or choose to be silent. This is something I think I might want to experiment with. And, although I didn’t like A Closed World (MIT GAMBIT) very much, one of the ways that it has been easier to talk about gender identity, pronouns and sexuality with my family has been by “swapping the norm”, which is something A Closed World sometimes does (this is, if I understand correctly, randomized at the beginning of the game). The premise there is basically, “What if being heterosexual were the ‘abnormal’ identity?” or, y’know, calling someone whose gender identity matches their assigned-at-birth identity the wrong pronouns for five minutes to let them see how they like it — these things obviously don’t stand in for lived experience, but I suppose they illustrate a rhetorical point.

Well, these are the thoughts and work that is percolating at the moment. On to researching nordic larp design!

Reflective Games: Rolling the Critical Perspective Dice

Process Writing, reflective games

Last week, I discussed some of the ways that I wanted to refine my reflective games research questions with the Reflective Games Group. We talked especially about different ways of controlling the flow of information in games, and approaches such as “pulling the rug out from underneath the player”, as Train does, versus the concept of the “slow reveal”, where meaning and revelations are layered upon each other slowly.

As I thought about how I might refine my research question, I tried to focus on what I am curious about and also about what I would like to be doing and making. Though it’s a (very!) broad subject, I am interested in being able to deliberately create and engender reflective moments. Since a good portion of my creative life was spent on writing and narrative, I thought about how I was interested in how narrative framing and controlling the flow of information can ascribe new meaning to simple “innocuous” actions. Manipulating the flow of information and how that information is uncovered/discovered seems pretty important too.

This presents some challenges, because while I’m a fairly experienced writer, I also thoroughly believe that “good writing is rewriting.” So, while I want to work with narrative, it is definitely challenging to rapidly prototype very narratively-focused work.

A rough draft of my new question looks like this:

“What design approaches related to controlling the flow of information, especially information related to narrative, symbolism, metaphor, and the meaning of in-game actions and mechanics, consistently create compelling opportunities for critical reflection? What impact do particular thematic choices have on a designer’s ability to create opportunities for reflection (i.e. is there such a thing as a topic that is so innocuous that we cannot create space for critical reflection on it, and is it easier to create opportunities for reflection when dealing with a commonly-known “social justice”-related theme?).”

For a while, my brain got stuck on that explanatory note — is there such a thing as a topic so innocuous that we cannot create a space for critical reflection on it? So, with that in mind, I started to play a game with some dice — my dice are never very far away from me. What I did was, I tried to think up an innocuous topic, even just a noun, and rolled the dice. Then, based on the result of the roll, I tried to come up with that number of critically-engaged perspectives or thoughts about the object. I guess you could say it’s a prototype of a game, but honestly, it’s kind of obnoxious. I call it, “Is it political, though?” As it turns out, unsurprisingly to anyone who has read my thoughts (which reflect the thoughts of many other folk before me) about creative work and politics, it’s all political.

Even though I do think that it would be obnoxious to release this design exercise as some kind of more elaborated game prototype (hmm, do I care about being obnoxious? Maybe I ought to do it anyway?), I still think that it is valuable to train my brain to be sensitized to the fact that for every angle or issue that we think something is about, there are so many other intersections at play. Like, you know, just when you think it’s about ethics in game journalism…


But this is definitely an intersectional feminist research perspective — one that Davis talks about in terms of its methodological implications for feminists who want to be sure that they are considering intersectional perspectives (2017). She asks us to look deeper into the underlying causes and interrelations of our questions and concerns, and that’s a very valuable skill. Davis asks the reader to consider, roughly paraphrased, what other markers of difference have to do with questions that we assume are “about gender.” Davis asks, “For example, what could the consideration of able-bodiedness and disability possibly tell you about issues of citizenship in the EU?”

So, that’s one game that I’ve been playing with myself this week. Maybe I will release “rules” for it somewhere, though I think it’s something that critically-engaged scholars have been doing for a long time, and I can’t claim ownership over that. I just added dice.

At this point, I’m brainstorming and working on ideas for my next prototype. While working on the reflective games project, I’m simultaneously creating a digital version of another project of mine, and reading about performance studies and autoethnography for my dissertation proposal. Something that stuck with me about one of the autoethnography texts I read is this quote: “However, personal engagement in autoethnographic stories frequently stirs self-reflection of listeners, a powerful by-product of this research inquiry” (Chang 2016). This idea seems to flow pretty naturally — the “specific” is generally much more appealing than what we try to make appear general. Autobiography is one of the topics that my friend and collaborator Squinky is working on for their doctoral research, and I’ve often thought about how occasionally their work is read/talked about as being a general representation of what a particular experience is like when really, it’s about their personal experience. The same thing seems to have happened with work like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, which is about Anthropy’s experience but is read as “what it is like to be a trans woman undergoing the transition process,” an “empathy” game.

As usual, more as it happens and as I write about it!


Chang, H. (2016). Autoethnography as Method. London & New York: Routledge.

Davis, K. (2017). Intersectionality as Critical Methodology. In: N. Lykke, ed., Writing Academic
Texts Differently: Intersectional Feminist Methodology and the Playful Art of Writing, 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge, pp.41-57.

Reflective Games: What Makes Design “Critical”

Process Writing, reflective games

The reflective games group has been working in earnest since the beginning of the semester and my chosen focus has been on moments in play that I call “the reflective turn” — that is to say, the moments that help encourage reflection in players. For now, here are the two approaches that I’m taking and questions that I’m asking:

1* Inspired by the Nordic LARP concept of bleed, one design strategy I want to experiment with is a moment of disruption in the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life. For example, Blast Theory’s Ulric & Eamon Compliant does this via their interview at the end of the experience, which addresses an ambiguous “you” that could be talking about Ulric or Eamon, or could be talking to the player, and through the use of deictic grammar.

2* Thinking about the concept of the unreliable narrator, is there a way that we can leverage misinformation/omission in the game instructions, or in the stated/unstated purpose/impact of a player’s actions to encourage players to question and reflect on their actions as they uncover this information? Brenda Romero’s Train comes immediately to mind as an example.

There are definitely more distinctions to be made and more specificity that could be added to these questions, especially in terms of what distinguishes these instances of reflective design from other standard game occurrences.

When I was reading Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, I wondered about what made critically-engaged game design different from other practices. According to Flanagan’s model, the steps involved in traditional iterative game design, which are cyclical, are as follows: “set a design goal –> develop rules –> develop playable prototype –> playtest –> revise goal –> REPEAT.” The “Critical Play” game design model is as follows: “set design goals + values goals (eg. empowerment, diversity) –> develop rules + tasks which support these values –> design for diverse play styles + subversion –> develop playable prototype –> playtest with diverse audiences –> verify values, revise goals –> REPEAT.” I found that this second model lacked specificity, as it didn’t unpack how designers approach these individual steps, or how individual designers work (it would have been nice to hear about Flanagan’s own practice). It also immediately came to mind that the idea that values are embedded into the work of all creators, not just critical designers. By not making this explicit, the first model reinforces the notion of apolitical art as something that it is actually possible to create, rather than art that supports the status quo (“apolitical”, politics which are rendered invisible by the status quo) versus art that challenges it. Is it truly just subject matter, and the design approaches that flow from that subject matter that make something critical versus affirmative of the status quo?

Context, too, matters, of course — the easiest example of this is historical context, but the conditions under which a project was created, as well as who has created it (an example of positionality as context) are other examples. What this means is that subversion in one context may be affirmative of the status quo in others. This is a particular question of concern when it comes to games designed around lived experiences, and especially around lived experiences with marginalized identities. Who profits from the telling of these stories and how they profit can reproduce problematic dynamics.

In trying to think through how these questions could be better-delineated or more specific, the same sorts of questions arise. Controlling the flow of information and surprising players with the impact of their decisions and play is hardly unique to reflective games. Leveraging surprise is a common-enough storytelling tactic as well. Many authors and creators aim to build tension and leave the reader wanting to know what will come next — for some readers/players, this is why they read or play. What separates a game like Brenda Romero’s Train from others might be that the actions leading up to the revelation seem quite innocuous. Logistical optimization is hardly uncommon in Eurogames, which are also the sorts of games that tend to have little wooden people (one particular type, common to many Eurogames, is known as a Meeple), and are themed around economics and being the player to earn the most points. So, the actions in /Train/ are almost banal. All the symbols are there, in the game, waiting to be read — the broken glass board, the trains, packing as many people as possible onto the trains. Knowing the destination of the trains suddenly reveals the meaning of these apparently innocuous actions, revealing, in effect, the banality of evil. The historical context matters a great deal, and the themes and content of the game that point to that history.

This is a site of interest for me, but I wonder how far the design lessons of Train can be taken — this sort of moment can feel like a “gotcha” if it isn’t handled well. I think there are other games that make use of procedural rhetoric to slowly impress upon the player that there is something negative or unfair about a system — in this regard, Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou and Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please are notable. I think there are fewer subjects for which the Train approach, which might be described as “you are performing an innocuous action or a series of innocuous actions, and because you are used to the rules of games, you do not question this innocuous action, but this series of innocuous actions is in service of a very horrible occurrence,” works. The idea of being a cog in a machine without understanding the purpose of the larger machine is compelling, but the surprise can only work so many times. If you know ahead of time that this is what is about to happen, I wonder if playing the game becomes a matter of admiration for what the designer hides in plain sight and about clever choice of subject. The packed-to-capacity trains in Train are visible from the start – it’s the “Auschwitz” card that re-contextualizes them.

Knowing the surprise ahead of time, I wonder what the experience of playing it would be like. In many tabletop roleplaying games, keeping this knowledge from my “in-game” self and committing to play as if I didn’t know what was going to happen would be known as resisting the urge to metagame. However, generally speaking, the reward for not metagaming lies in the pleasure of playing a role. I don’t think that the roles in Train are particularly pleasurable, and my understanding is that the player is playing as themself playing a game, not in a particularly developped role (after all, that amount of information might ruin the surprise). In the end, this question, if taken to be specifically about unwitting participation through one’s actions in systems of oppression, may be too narrow, although I do think there’s room for exploration. If the question is taken to be about control of information and the moment of disruption, the question may in fact be too broad — after all, games are full of revelations and surprises, like other narrative mediums. These surprises are part of why some players and readers seek out these narrative experiences.

On a similar note, the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life is one that many games must negotiate. I think there may yet be a productive tension in highlighting and making visible this relationship. In games, players take on roles and perform actions that they might be uncomfortable with if they thought about them and examined them. It is not at all uncommon for players to kill non-player characters in games, for example. I think that Eamon & Ulrike Compliant is particularly interesting because of how it refamiliarizes (as opposed to defamiliarizing) the notion of terrorism. Terrorists are frequently viewed as “other”, as inhuman, but so long as we view acts of terror as incomprehensible, alien actions, it’s unsurprising that we would continue to fail to be able to understand how a person might be drawn into acts that eventually escalate into terrorism. This rhetoric is embedded into many mainstream responses to terrorism, which talk of “senseless” violence and dehumanize perpetrators of violence. Although undesirable and awful, however, maybe violence is altogether too human. Of course, it may be an uncomfortable experience to think about how we as humans are capable of violence, but not thinking about the topic won’t change that capacity.

The line between the player and the role that they play bears further examination, I think, especially in respect to how these roles bleed or fail to bleed into our lives, and how we constitute our identity alongside or in opposition to our actions. A related question could be about player identification with the various roles that they are asked to inhabit, and how designers can build a strong relationship between players and the characters that they play. How can we build identification that helps with the reflective turn? Another related topic that comes immediately to mind is about stakes — how can we “raise the stakes” for players such that they care about game events in a way that supports the reflective turn?

In terms of strategies for exploring these related questions, my mind immediately turns to narrative. It is possible to build stakes and interest in characters through the challenges that they face, if these challenges and narrative events can make players care about the characters. Another area which I think bears further consideration is usefulness. Perhaps we care more about characters that we like from a narrative standpoint, but that are also useful to us. Thinking back to the archetypal character death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, while I did choose Aeris as a love interest for Cloud, I had invested time building her skills as a healer partially because I found her to be less obnoxious than some of the other characters, and that investment made her useful to me. When she died, part of the impact of the moment came from the fact that this was simply not often done in games. To have a main character die without the possibility of recovering them through a sidequest or other means (I’m looking at you, Chrono Trigger) was unheard of — at least, in my gaming experience at the time. Another part of my emotional reaction came from the fact that I had lost a useful party member.

What all of this adds up to is that I think that I’m going to have to rethink and reformulate these research questions through further careful thought, reading and play. I still want to focus on the moment of the reflective turn. I am still interested in how Train accomplishes its reflective turn through control of information and reframing the meaning of actions in light of that information. For Ulrike & Eamon Compliant, I am still interested by the role that player identification, bleed, and the line between the player and their role play in the experience. It’s just that I need to figure out and stake out a grounds upon which to experiment. Reproducing these effects exactly with other subject matter might teach me something, but I think I would hate every minute of the design process. But branching out too generally likely won’t be an effective way of delineating an area to research through making either. Clarifying these research questions is a good way of clarifying which direction to take my reading and research.

Here are some thoughts about that reformulation, in closing (as this post is getting fairly long):

1. It really is facilitating the moment of disruption and reflection that I am interested in. What happens in that moment is likely to be highly individual, and the moment may not be the same for everyone. I’m tangentially interested in what impact the moment of disruption has on the player, however… First, I want to learn to master the creation of that disruptive, reflective space.

2. For some games, the whole game might be a “moment” of disruption — creating a different headspace to think about a topic can be disruptive in ways that permits reflection (such as In Tune, which asks people to reconsider their received notions of consent). Similarly, games like …&maybetheywontkillyou and Papers, Please don’t get more or less unfair, their systems are engineered to show you their procedural rhetoric from the start, and the player can take however long is needed to reach the conclusions that the rhetoric is pointing them towards. It’s not necessarily about one moment in time.

3. I understand that these first two statements point towards very, very broad research possibilities — all of Reflective Games, in fact. My next steps may in fact have something to do with picking a specific theme and exploring “moments of disruption” in relation to that topic or theme.

That’s all for now, folks!

Reflective Games: Bodies in Pain

Process Writing, reflective games, research

[Content Warning: Chronic pain, bodies, bodily fluids, personal information related to said topics]

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about instructions, deictics [1] and grammar related to situating the person receiving the instructions in the present. Using Alison Gibbons’ work as a starting point, I’m interested in the topic because of how it might help players identify with a character. In Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant, this type of language brings the player closer to the identity of one of two terrorists, either Ulrike Meinhof or Eamon Collins.

I was planning to prototype an exploration of the subject matter this week, but became ill, which has led me to thinking through a much more personal subject than I had originally anticipated: pain, illness, and embodiment. As I write this I have a low fever and the flu. In this post, I’m going to position my own experiences with the aforementioned subjects, which means I’ll be talking a fair bit about my personal experiences with chronic pain and illness.

Nothing brings the notion of embodiment crashing back into view like a body that is ill or injured. In Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, the author elucidates how our own pain is immediate but the pain of others is almost impossible to relate to. “Pain separates us,” Scarry notes. Even though we might be just a few inches away from someone who is in pain, their pain is remote. We “invoke analogies to remote cosmologies.” Scarry discusses how pain can rob a person of their speech and how others, even though they do not have direct access to a person’s pain, may explain or attempt to metaphorize their pain to bridge that gap. Direct descriptions of pain are passed through very quickly and instead we get “as if” and “as though” descriptions. These descriptions picture an external agent to pain, and bodily damage to accompany the pain. How these metaphors work is problematic because they do not adequately describe pain as divorced from violent actions, or from the act that may or may not have actually caused the pain — for example, “it feels as though a hammer is coming down on my spine.” As Scarry tells us, “Physical pain is not identical with (and often exists without) either agency or damage, but these things are referential. Consequently, we often call on them to convey the experience of the pain itself.”

Perhaps the fact that I live with a fair bit of chronic pain and illness is one of the reasons why I am so interested as a designer in the subject of embodiment. So rarely am I able to forget my own body completely and become “involved” (in Calleja’s sense of the word) that I rarely, if ever, forget the player’s body in my design work.

Just so that there are no surprises, and in case you’d like to skip over these sections, I am going to tell you about my experiences with chronic pain and other chronic conditions, starting with the back and leg pain that I live with.

From a young age, I had a tendency to hyperextend my knees when told to stand up straight. When I was fourteen years old, I wanted to join karate because I had a crush on a boy. As it turned out, there was no room in the junior class that he attended, but I joined anyway. I always have been into team sports, playing football from ages 7-12, and being on my school’s swim team. My brother soon joined me as well, and I attended karate for eight years, earning my blue belt, and stopping while training for my brown belt. It is through karate that I found out that I have an abnormally high pain tolerance. Karate, despite the kindness of my teachers, was occasionally a problematic, male-oriented space. Advanced belts were encouraged to join the advanced class, which I did, where I was generally the only non-dude. There was subtle encouragement to work and train through the various kinds of pain we encountered. We were barefoot at all times in the dojo, and began each class running around in circles on the hardwood floor. I made a habit of running on the balls of my feet (which is not good). I also had a wicked front and side kick (which put strain on my feet).

During the time that I was in karate I also worked for a number of years at a sushi shop. Once a week I would complete one twelve hour shift spent entirely on my feet. During this shift, and in other contexts, my feet were constantly sore. I used to tell myself that I must get sore feet from working that twelve hour shift, and since I only did it once a week my body could not get used to it. Eventually, I mentioned it to my doctor who sent me for X-rays. My doctor was astounded to find that I had multiple microfractures in my feet, which had healed poorly, and were leading to pain. I had basically broken my feet multiple times without noticing. This was the beginning of an ongoing saga involving my lower back, legs, knees, ankles, and feet. I somehow gave myself a stress fracture in my right arch, and for half a year could not do high impact sports. I saw a physiotherapist for both my knees and my ankles, which would give out on me painfully. I discovered that my tendency to hyper-extend my knees, as well as the microfractures in my feet, led to a number of other problems and alignment issues. My leg muscles are extremely tight. There is a nerve that runs from my lower back, to the outside of my thigh, into my knee, down the front of my shin, and into my ankle, in both of my legs, that is constantly being trapped by my tightened muscles. I have a number of stretches that help alleviate the pain, but when the pain is tolerable it can be hard to prioritize an hour’s worth of physiotherapy stretches in my everyday schedule. I also roll out my muscles every night with the help of my spouse, and I wear orthopedic insoles in my shoes. Truthfully, the pain never really goes away for long, and I have to be constantly vigilant for signs that it is worsening.

This next example deals with a normalized disability that plenty of people in the world have, and I want to contrast that experience with another chronic health issue that I have. From the time that I was thirteen until January 2017, I wore a combination of glasses and contact lenses for a fairly strong prescription. Since I needed them to do most sports that I was involved with, including scuba diving, swimming, and karate, I had a number of learned behaviours and rituals around my contact lenses. For example, when working at the Sushi Shop, I used to put in my lenses when I got to work. I had to wash my hands very carefully, and dry my hands with paper towels. These had to be the white paper towels, which we used for food preparation, and not the brown paper towels that we were supposed to use to dry hands, because the brown paper towels were much more likely to leave dust and filaments on my hands. Even with all this careful preparation I still often felt a foreign object sensation in my eyes after putting in my contact lenses. (I later discovered that I have dryer than usual eyes, a symptom of which is a foreign object sensation). Another learned behaviour that I have is never opening my eyes underwater as long as I wasn’t wearing a mask. I’ve also changed into my lenses in all sorts of contexts and locations, from the middle of forests, to outhouses, to truck stops, and gas stations. I always had to carry my glasses, a bottle of saline solution, my contact lenses, and a set of back-up lenses. I thought for sure that one day I was going to give myself pink-eye, or some other eye infection. Since glasses and minor sight problems are a totally normalized disability, I never thought twice about all of the preparation and ritual involved with my sight. Having laser eye surgery, although there were hassles in the short term, has been life changing in terms of how I travel and how I participate in sports. I’m only now learning to open my eyes again underwater, which I now realize was a constant low-level stressor throughout my scuba diving career. That is to say, the thought that I might lose my mask and be blind underwater was a constant stressful possibility.

At this very moment, I have the flu, and I may have in fact ignored the symptoms for a few days because of another chronic condition that I live with. This one is a good deal less easy for people to understand compared to glasses. I have a postnasal drip, which basically means that thicker than normal secretions run from my nasal passage down my throat. To be clear, the secretions part is normal, but they are usually thin enough that the average person just swallows them without noticing. My postnasal drip is constantly filling my throat with thick spit, which obstructs the passage and occasionally, when it is very bad, makes me feel like I am choking. I constantly have to clear my throat and spit, or deal with the feeling that I am choking. So, occasionally, when there are no other options, I have to spit outside in public, or have to use a napkin or other receptacle to clear my throat (and some people are less than understanding about this). Accompanying this is a constantly runny nose, most of it water. As a result, I carry a handkerchief everyday (the alternative being a large box of tissues), and blow my nose frequently. There is a corticosteroidal nasal spray that helps to alleviate the problem somewhat, although when my seasonal allergies are at their worst, it can have little effect. At night, I use a humidifier and an air purifier to help with allergy symptoms and prevent my mouth from drying out too badly, and I drink a lot of water.

Still, occasionally, my postnasal drip acts up and causes me to cough up a lot of spit, and since I had let my prescription for the nasal spray lapse of late (switching between Montreal and Fort McMurray has its challenges in terms of keeping prescriptions active), I thought that my coughing in the past few days was simply the aggravated drip. Today, I was running a fever, had the chills, and was coughing up phlegm that was decidely not mostly water, which brings us up to date.

My body, and I imagine the bodies of others, has grown accustomed to pain and to ignoring it, especially if new and exciting pain is drawing my attention. Still, pain is a constant presence in my life, especially in my back and legs. It affects what I am able to do, and it never completely fades from view.

Deictic language was useful in Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant because it continuously pulled the player’s attention back and involved them in their immediate surroundings. Coupled with the use of “you” to address the player, and the simple actions that the player was called upon to perform while being addressed as either Eamon or Ulrike, deictic language helped players become involved and identify with the stories of a type of person that we would rarely want to be seen as identifying with — a terrorist.

Thinking through how this might connect up with embodiment and pain or illness, there are a number of practices from psychology that operate by creating a focus and awareness of the subject’s body. Many forms of meditation, relaxation, and hypnosis ask participants to focus on their breathing, for example, and taking slow deep breaths. Similar methods exist for controlling pain, such as the Lamaze method for childbirth.

My Master’s thesis, which attempted to translate the technical aspects of scuba diving into a readable dimension of a collection of short stories, often dealt with breathing, as this is core to the experience of scuba diving. Awareness of one’s own breath can make the difference between a long or a short dive, but also the difference between life and death. I found that, by mentioning breathing in these stories and making readers aware of their own breathing, these sections often had a dramatic effect. Readers reported feeling unsettled, claustrophobic, and in some cases, close to panic. This makes me wonder about the use of bodily awareness in player instructions for creating experiences in the vein of Ulrike and Eamon Compliant.

In my personal life, I constantly have to read the needs of my body, and am also quite bad about ignoring symptoms that I shouldn’t, due to my experiences with chronic pain. If I could see into another person’s experience with their body, since humans experience embodiment every day, I wonder how similar our experiences would be. Scarry’s work suggests that we cannot know another’s pain, even in relation to our own, and that furthermore, even our own recent pain quickly becomes inaccessible to us. Now, I’m not suggesting that I want to create a series of malevolent instructions that would cause players pain, but I wonder how creating bodily awareness and thinking through rituals related to caring for our bodies might be used in embodied game experiences.

[1] From ThoughtCo: “A deictic expression (or deixis) is a word or phrase (such as this, that, these, those, now, then) that points to the time, place, or situation in which a speaker is speaking.”


Blast Theory Theatre Company. (2009). Ulrike & Eamon Compliant. [Performance] Venice,
Italy: Venice Biennale.

Calleja, G. (2011). In-game. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gibbons, A. (2014). Fictionality and Ontology. In Stockwell, P. and Whiteley, S., eds., The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.410-425.

Scarry, E. (1987). The body in pain. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

ThoughtCo. (2017). Deictic Expression (Deixis). Website.