CGSA 2017: Queering Game Controls Slides and Talk

critical making, Process Writing, talks

[I’m pleased to share that an article based on the research originally presented at CGSA 2017 has been published in a special issue of Game Studies about queer game studies. You can find the special issue here. You can find my article, entitled “Queering Control(lers) Through Reflective Game Design Practices” here. The research has developed quite a lot since this initial talk on the subject, so I highly recommend the Game Studies article rather than this post.

Should you need access to the slides and talk as they appeared on this blog, please find the original post below:]

[This year, at CGSA 2017 in Toronto, I showcased The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, gave a talk called “Queering Game Controls” and chaired a panel. I thought I’d share my slides along with the rough-not-quite-what-I-presented version of my talk, along with a few notes about the kind of discussion that took place afterwards. I’ve kept the slide-change cues in the talk in case anyone wants to follow along. My travel to CGSA this year was funded by the Concordia Faculty of Fine Arts.]

Slides on Google Docs:]

“It is not simply that queer has yet to solidify and take on a more consistent profile, but rather that its definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics.” (Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction)

When I was conceptualizing this talk, I was thinking about the topic of queerness and game controls through the lens of visibility, through hypervisibility, through invisibility. I am a queer nonbinary person married to a cis man who came out in 2016, after first realizing that there was language that existed that described my experience, and then deciding that I wanted to use that language for myself. Being assigned female at birth, my marriage and relationship to a cis man has at times erased other aspects of my identity, since people make a lot of assumptions from that. So, all this to say that my experiences with queerness are reflected in my work as a designer, and the concept of visibility is something that I think a lot about. I come to this talk as a queer game designer and doctoral student. [slide]

Words like queer and genderqueer allow me to express my experience as part of a multidimensional spectrum rather than a binary, and the flexibility of their definitions is something that I value. That “definitional indeterminacy” extends to the concept of queering game controls (ibid.). For the purpose of this talk, game controls refers to both the physical and digital aspects of control that allow players to interact with a game. I’ll be talking about control literacy, game feel, flow, procedural rhetoric embedded into controls, player agency, materiality and embodiment, subsequently queering each concept using examples from my own work and the work of others. Afterwards, we’ll open up into a roundtable discussion. I’ll try to leave about half our time for discussion. [slide]

Actually, as part of our discussion, I’d like for you to do something as you listen to my talk. Don’t worry — hopefully it won’t be too distracting: I’d like for you to think of a game, a mechanic or a control that you think would benefit from queering, and think of some ways that it could be queered. At the end, I’ll ask for some folk to volunteer to talk about what they came up with. [slide]

Control literacy refers to the ability to pick up and play with a given controller, whether it’s a mouse, a joystick, the standard gamepad, a touchscreen or a touchpad, the frequently standardized keyboard key-controls , or any other set of learned conventions that are often assumed when it comes to game controls. Many of you will, for example, know exactly what I mean if I say something like, “the controls are just WASD (‘WHAZ-DEE’)”. This literacy quickly becomes invisible for those who have it, and is a part of what we mean when we say that someone is “good” at games or technology. For a detailed analysis of some standard game inputs, see Chapter 6 of Steve Swink’s Game Feel.

Of course, literacy is a learned skill. Talking about the Xbox 360 controller, Anna Anthropy points out to us: “The amount of both manual dexterity and game-playing experience required […] makes play inaccessible to those who aren’t already grounded in the technique of playing games.” (Anna Anthropy 2012). Designers and those who are inculcated with this literacy make a lot of assumptions about these standard control schemes. When we think are dealing with the default, we forget to ask ourselves about it at all. As Shinkle points out: “Rather than reducing the need for skillful engagement and the potential for error, such control systems demand their own highly-specific skillset.” [slide]

This brings me to the next term that we might want to be familiar with to facilitate this discussion: Game Feel. Swink defines Game Feel thus:
“Game feel is the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object. It’s the sensation of control in a game.” Game feel is easy to bring to mind, but difficult to understand and define. Game feel is about “moment-to-moment interaction.” Swink takes the normative best-practice stance that game feel that feels “intuitive” and that encourages the “flow state” is to be sought after. [slide]

Flow, a term popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, refers to a mental state supposedly achieved when performing a task wherein the level of challenge is commensurate with the player’s skill. Gameplay must walk the line between boredom and frustration to fall within the flow channel. This is the Goldilocks approach to game design: not too hot, and not too cold. When players are in the flow state, we are told that they forget what’s around them and are totally involved, totally absorbed. Control literacy and “good” game feel, or at least, not distractingly bad, are prerequisites for reaching the flow state. [slide]

Next, I want to talk about what game controls tell us through their procedural rhetoric. At a very basic level, most games give their players a great deal of power through their controls. The average game tells us we can run without getting tired (unless we have a stamina bar), that we can leap high into the air, executing perfect, identical jumps each time, and that we’ll have no trouble activating complex machines at the push of a button or two. Finally, most games tell us, through the control that they give us that we will only get stronger over time. To quote Mattie Brice, “gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world.” Players are used to having maximum agency and power within the rules of most games. [slide]

I want to introduce the concept of materiality as it relates to the status quo of games and game development. Standard, mass-produced game controls are objects of plastic, rubber and metal, with electronic guts inside. On rare occasions, the industry might produce something like this: [slide]

But that raises a whole other discussion about heteronormative design, and I don’t think that we can yet call this particularly subversive, unless, for example, we were to repurpose it to play a different game.

The most common game controls have yet to move beyond plastic. That isn’t to say that there aren’t material differences among plastics. As Swink points out in Game Feel:

“The materials used to construct the device has an impact on the way the user feels about the controller, and therefore, the game. The white plastic that houses my Xbox 360 controller has a smooth, pleasingly porous feel. It’s almost like skin. My Wiimote and Playstation controllers feel like plastic. It’s a subtle difference and measuring its impact on game feel is extremely difficult.”

I’ve yet to see a commonly-accepted mass-produced game controller that isn’t largely plastic. It occurs to me that designers of another kind of toy have learned to make incredible things with silicone — maybe the game industry can follow suit. The controllers could even be waterproof. [slide]

OK, so how are game creators, queer and otherwise, queering game controls? What are some examples of subversion related to these standards and best practices?

Amongst alternative game creators and artists, hacking or repurposing of industry-produced controllers is common, especially with the Kinect and PlayStation Moves. Other creators are changing the relationship of the player to the controller and controls, forcing a new paradigm. Yet other projects create custom controllers, tying the game mechanics and the game intimately to the means of controlling it. As Annamarie Jagose tells us, queer is definitionally flexible, and so is, I think, the act of queering. That’s why I think it’s most useful to point to specific examples at this point from my own practice and from some others, rather than trying to form a general theory of how to queer game controls. [slide]

Before proceeding, I want to take the time to problematize “flow” as a desired state. Brian Schrank points out in Avant-garde Videogames that “Games or cultures that foster flow allow people to be perfectly subjugated within their systems. When a system is designed with optimal flow, people forget that they are being subjugated: their doubts and distractions are kept to a minimum, and all human labor is positively absorbed into the system.”

In their 2016 GDC talk, Designing Discomfort, Dietrich Squinkifer suggests that there is “untapped potential in using gameplay itself to take the player out of flow and instead deliberately invoke uncomfortable emotions,” and that furthermore, this is necessary for the maturation of games. [slide]

Before it was even a conscious part of my game design practice, I have been making games that take what is invisible and make it visible again, often making the invisible hypervisible. Leveraging awkwardness, discomfort, imbalance and other queerable concepts is one of my core design approaches, creating indeterminacy and unsettledness. In my games, I create spaces for critical reflection and conversations, a practice perhaps best explained by Rilla Khaled in Reflective Game Design, which she outlines as privileging questions over answers, clarity over stealth, disruption over comfort, and reflection over immersion. [slide]

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam suggests, “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” Queering design provides non-standard ways of creating as an alternative to the hegemonic best practices that govern the game industry. Queering can serve as both design philosophy and desired outcome for player experience.

With all of this in mind, I propose that we can and should create gameplay experiences by taking players out of the flow state: let the game be slow, let players be bored, or frustrated, or any number of the other emotions that are part of the spectrum of human experience beyond the limited set that flow and industry best practices encourage. Let them remember that they have bodies, and encourage them to think about that embodiment. Let them interact with
something other than plastic. [slide]

I’m going to talk about some games that I think demonstrate some strategies for queering games — not all the games are by queer designers, but they all subvert expectations around controls in ways that are useful touchstones for our discussion. Given time constraints, I’ve prioritized examples from my own practice and games by teams with queer creators.

The games that I propose fall under four “ways of queering” controls, although they may fit under multiple categories at once, which are:

Queering Common Control Schemes
(Un)common Technologies
Living Entities Touching Each Other
Controls as Theatre

As you might be able to tell, these categories are far from exhaustive — I have included them to suggest some of the ways that I think might be generative for pursuing future queering of game controls. [slide]

A common problem that I encounter in my work is, oddly enough, for a queer games talk, reproduction. I often work with custom controllers — a category that we will talk about — but that means that it is difficult for me to digitally share my work. Games in this category subvert commonly-found game controls in satisfying ways. [slide]

A Series of Gunshots (2015)
by Pippin Barr and Rilla Khaled
A Series of Gunshots is a game by Pippin Barr in collaboration with Rilla Khaled that wrestles with player agency. In a blog post about the game, Barr had this to say about the controls:

Why just any key? And what about the mouse? I had a build that included a mouse click to trigger the shots as well, but it quickly became obvious that that has too much implied directed agency (you click somewhere specific) which messes with the ‘involved and not involved’ feeling I want the game to have. The fact it’s any keypress (again, not, like the spacebar only to avoid the sense of having a specific agency, a trigger) makes your involvement both critical (it’s the only thing that makes the gun go off) and abstracted/distant.

Why can’t you see the shooting? Well, you can – you see a flash in a window (or conceivably in an alley or a car, say), but you can’t see the people or the gun or ragdoll physics or any other details. That’s for two main reasons. The big one is I’m aiming for player interpretation and imagination within this highly constrained and minimalist interaction, so the less seen the better. The other one is that to the extent this game is ‘about’ shooting in games (and in life) I want to avoid any sense of ‘rewarding’ the action with visuals, physics, etc.

In Barr and Khaled’s game, you can chose to shoot or not shoot, but you don’t know who is shooting who, or why. Shooting is divorced from the usual narrative justifications for it, although of course the buildings and architecture do suggest a setting. [slide]

Seventy-Eight (2014)
by Allison Cole, Jess Marcotte and Myriam Obin
In 2014, I made a short platformer game called “Seventy-Eight” with Allison Cole and Myriam Obin. The title is a reference to the difference (at the time, and not accounting for intersectional identities) in pay between men and women — for every dollar a man made, a woman could expect to make seventy-eight cents. In this game, you play a woman who can’t seem to please the system. Made in a weekend at the GAMERella game jam, the game features audio recordings of gendered insults that we asked other jammers to record, based on what they might expect to hear aimed at a woman who was considered to be underperforming, a woman who was considered to be performing at a normal level, and a woman who was thought to be overperforming. The appropriate audio plays when the character is at the bottom of the screen (underperforming), the center (performing adequately), and at the top of the screen (overperforming). The character is damaged if they are either too much to the bottom of the screen or too high up.

In programming this game, I created phantom key presses and invisible changes to the platforms that would cause the avatar to jump or walk without player input, as well as making platforms lose their collision detection boxes at random, causing the avatar to fall through. These were deliberate choices that were meant to make the game feel systemically unfair, but they read so subtly that they felt like glitches or mistakes. These were meant to procedurally represent the invisible forces of systemic oppression that might trip people up in the workplace.

The intent was to create a feeling of paranoia in the players causing them to wonder whether or not the system was against them or if their own performance was inadequate. Such feelings of not knowing are common to the experience of marginalized people. But ultimately, despite the careful theming, there was no way for players to know about these programmatically enforced rules related to the controls without being told. The result was that players expressed frustration because they didn’t know that this was happening.

Ultimately, I don’t think this experiment was successful, but I still think it is instructive for thinking about how we might use the queering of game controls to develop games in the future. [slide]

Now I’d like to talk about games that use (un)common technologies, by which I mean technologies that are mass-produced and readily available for purchase, as opposed to custom controllers, but that might not be in every home with a console or computer. [slide]

Hurt Me Plenty (2014)
by Robert Yang
In Robert Yang’s “Hurt Me Plenty,” the player takes on the role of a Dominant negotiating boundaries with a partner who they are about to spank. The player negotiates how hard they will spank their partner, what clothes the submissive will wear for the spanking, and a safeword. The game randomizes the title that the player’s partner uses for them.

If the player violates their partner’s boundaries in the game, the game can lock the player out for hours at a time, potentially days, depending how seriously boundaries have been violated. This means that if the game is being showcased at a festival, and one player violates these boundaries, all the festival-goers can be locked out for hours. As Yang notes “Your trust, safety and politics affects the entire community” (Indie Tech Talk #23 Cheeky Design, NYU Game Innovation Lab 2014). This denial is powerful because players are used to being catered to and to being in control.

Although players can buy the game to play at home, the festival version of “Hurt Me Plenty” makes use of the Leap Motion controller, a control that can register the speed and movement of a person’s hand in the air. The problem is that this controller doesn’t actually always work that well, and can be finicky, which means that potentially, players may not have quite the right technique with the leap motion, and might accidentally flick their wrists too hard, or become frustrated with the control and overdo their next motions. The possibility of mistakes in this scenario seems like it might be quite generative. [slide]

I want to recall Swink’s earlier words about the porous plastic material of his Xbox 360 Controller. He said, “It’s almost like skin.” Well, these games are about touching the skin of a living other, whether human or otherwise. [slide]

In Tune (2014)
by Allison Cole, Jess Marcotte and Zachary Miller
“In Tune is a game that deals with bodies, their interactions, and giving/withholding consent. Players are asked to negotiate and communicate their own physical boundaries with a partner using skin-to-skin contact as the main controller of the game.”
(Cole, Marcotte and Miller 2014)

The controllers for this game are comprised of PlayStation Move controllers, a Makey-Makey, and a pair of hand-sewn conductive sleeves.

In Tune uses consensual touch as one of the main mechanics of the game. With a partner, players are asked to examine a physical pose modeled on a screen by two artist’s mannequins. Players then discuss whether they wish to complete the pose, and if they do, how they will do so. The game is focused on negotiation of boundaries, and as such, it is possible to decide to modify a pose to make it more comfortable for those playing. This is one reason why during the development we thought about and discarded the idea of using something like the Kinect. The accuracy of the poses isn’t as important to us as the negotiation.

Should players decide not to complete a particular pose, they simply skip it, and are presented with a new one. If they decide to complete the pose, they hold it for 13.5 seconds, enabling them to consider the experience without turning the game into a problematic version of “chicken.” If players interact while one player is not consenting (a state that they signal through a button on the PlayStation Move), the game provides audio feedback in the form of radio static, vibrating controllers, and bright red lights at the tip of the Move. After a pose is completed, players are presented with a prompt that is intended to help them to reflect on the experience or deepen their relationship with their partner. Such a prompt might, for example, ask players to recommend media to one another, do their best chicken impersonation, or name something that the other player has done well during the last interaction. The poses are not ranked in any way, and the same pose can appear twice. This allows for people’s different personal histories with intimacy, and also allows for people to reconsider the same pose. They might have said yes to a pose, and decide the next time that this wasn’t a comfortable experience for them, and so say no this time. On the other hand, they may not have felt comfortable with a pose when it was first presented and skipped it, but after getting to know the game and their partner, they may wish to say yes the next time they see it. Some poses are also deliberately challenging for a number of logistical reasons, encouraging players to say no for reasons other than just the relative intimacy of the pose. Power dynamics are also included as a factor, with some poses mimicking power exchanges.

Returning to this idea of visibility, In Tune makes visible consenting bodies. In our day to day existence, or when we grow familiar with people, we may neglect to ask them whether it’s okay, to, say, give them a kiss or a hug. As one of the designers of the game, who has also played it a great deal, this game reminds me that there is pleasure in the asking. [slide]

We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine (2015)
by Raoul Olou, Hope Erin Phillips and Nicole Pacampara
“We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine” by Raoul Olou, Hope Erin Phillips, and Nicole Pacampara, was initially developed at Critical Hit 2015. This game, which features a beautiful wooden game board, is set up like a ritual or seance. It leverages social contract and social behavioural rules to be able to keep players playing once they’ve started, since the game requires three players. When players connect to each other in different configurations by touching each other’s hands while also touching designated spots on the game board, audio clips play. The audio is made up of interviews with marginalized people who tell stories about their experience with marginalization. The players only have the option to listen and to hold on to each other. The game resists the temptation of giving players more agency than activating the game board, holding each other’s hands, and listening. Players can’t try and fix the situations and they don’t add to the archive of sounds. [slide]

rustle your leaves to me softly (2017)
by Jess Marcotte and Dietrich Squinkifer
The full title of this game is “rustle your leaves to me softly: an ASMR plant dating simulator,” and in it, players form a relationship with one or more plants. This screenless game, made by myself and Dietrich Squinkifer, uses touch as the main interaction of the game, with sound as feedback. From my end, the game was inspired by discussions with Ida Toft around designing for an other that we can’t necessarily know the mind of. The controllers are made up of ceramic cups, copper tape, and wire, with one wire wrapped around a screw that is then stuck into the moist dirt that fills the cup. These are hooked up to an arduino board with a very powerful resistor. The entire setup is hooked up to a computer reading a web-based javascript program. This setup facilitates an interaction between a plant and a human. There are a number of factors in productive tension here.

As the human touches the cup and the plant’s surface, a soundscape begins to play, layering itself and fading in and out according to the conductance between the plant and the human. The relationship that is built by this experience is partially fictionalized: the instructions for the game have dating profiles for each plant, suggesting what kinds of touches and other interactions the plant partner might enjoy, and the instruction manual also contains a section explaining that the plant is playing an ASMR soundscape back to the human in the hopes that it is something that they will enjoy. The Plant ASMR that results was written and performed by Dietrich Squinkifer and myself, designers trying to think like plants trying to appeal to humans.

Fictionally, the plants also enjoy this relationship — we can’t access the consciousness of these plants to determine whether or not they enjoy being touched, although there are number of articles that have come out recently talking about plants and their sensory organs, such as a BBC Earth article that came out just before this game was made entitled, “Plants Can See, Hear, Smell and Respond.” Still other research by Dr. James Cahill (University of Alberta) talks about how some plants may benefit from or “enjoy” being touched, while others are harmed by it. So, we can’t know for sure about these particular plants. This is part of the fiction of the game.

On the other hand, the conductance, and therefore each plant’s personality, is based on the plant’s physical properties as well as the physical properties of the human player. Touching the plant in different places, with different degrees of pressure or different types of touches varies the soundscape, and humans themselves offer different skin conductance based on the dryness of their skin. These properties are not engineered, and the feeling of the human touching the plant’s skin is not made up. These physical properties form the unique character of the relationship between each plant and human, and I think the feeling of being connected to another living creature, even if it is mediated, is sincere.

The relationship formed, in the sense that is non-reproductive, is queer. There is also a sense of transgressive intimacy that comes from the fact that the game is generally played in front of a public audience, but that the plants come off as well…uh…quite thirsty. Plant metaphors – root, stem, bud, flower, etcetera are deeply embedded into romantic poetry traditions, meaning that words that are perhaps innocent when they refer to plants become sensual, even erotic, when contextualized in the game’s whispered ASMR soundscape. [slide]

It is possible to critique some custom controllers by saying that all that they do is reproduce extant control schemes without adding anything meaningful to the experience. Just because a button isn’t on a standard controller, that doesn’t mean it will create more meaningful interactions, or serve to make a better game. Under this category, I have included one of my latest collaborations with Dietrich Squinkifer, The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter, as an example of a physical-digital hybrid game that brings the fictional setting of its game world into the spaces that it visits. [slide]

The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter (2017)
by Jess Marcotte and Dietrich Squinkifer

You may have had the chance to play this game yesterday at lunch. The Truly Terrific Traveling Troubleshooter is a radically-soft game about emotional labour and otherness that fits entirely inside of a carry-on suitcase. One player takes on the role of the Troubleshooter and the other is a Customer with a trouble. Assisted by the Troubleshooter’s toolkit, the SUITCASE (Suitcase Unit Intended to Cure All Sorts of Emotions), the players work together to find a solution to this problem by following a series of steps. At the end of the encounter, the Customer decides whether or not the terms of their agreement with the Troubleshooter have been fulfilled, and whether the Troubleshooter has earned their payment — a coupon upon which a method of payment is represented.

There is a lot to say about emotional labour, radical softness and otherness, but I’ll focus on materiality and controls for the sake of this talk. First of all, all the “buttons” in this game are handcrafted objects which were crocheted or sewn by Dietrich Squinkifer and myself. I then embroidered the objects with conductive thread. There are nine objects: a fish, a beaker, a scroll, a lizard, an eyeball, an ear, a heart, teeth and a plant. When “consulted,” the objects play different statements which are then meant to be interpreted and serve as inspiration to working on a solution for the Customer’s trouble. The objects are meant to be interpreted in multiple ways by Troubleshooters and Customers alike, without a perfectly defined meaning. So, touching the teeth, for example, is as likely to yield “take a bite out of your enemies” as it is to say something like “talk it over.”

The soft, yielding tactility of the objects was similarly important to our design, suggesting a vulnerability and an openness that contrasts with the hard shell of the suitcase that houses them. Inasmuch as possible, everything that comes out of the suitcase (except for packaging materials that protect the objects inside) is diegetic to the universe of the game, including the Troubleshooter’s certificate from the Institute of Emotional Labour, which serves as a character sheet, the headphones, which are painted an antique gold, and the Troubleshooter’s manual, which is a hand-bound set of gameplay instructions. Embroidered upon the tablecloth are the game’s grounds, which are both functional and decorative.These are the ways in which the objects help to set a stage and assist players in getting into character. The physical objects in the game are also meant to serve as inspiration for improvisation, as well as to give the Troubleshooter something to fiddle with as they think. [slide]

*The status quo quickly becomes invisible or normalized.
*Game controls require a literacy that not everyone may have.
*We can create controls that destabilize standard control literacies.
*There are other interesting states and effects that game designers can aim for besides the flow state.
*Players are used to being powerful in mainstream games, but playing with that agency and that power can be generative.
*Making the invisible visible again, or even hypervisible, can be a generative design exercise.
*Alternative controllers can leverage materiality and embodiedness in ways that support queering, so long as they create interactions that are meaningful to the game. [slide]

[I’ve done my best to remember as many of the topics and themes of discussion that took place in the second half of the session, but wasn’t able to take notes. Apologies!]


* One audience member talked about a friend who loved the idea of LARPing intimacy, but because of experiences in their background, was not down with the physicality involved. We briefly discussed ways of including intimate content/intimacy related content in LARPs without players having to act out these sequences, such as the fade-to-black technique, Ars Amandi, and countless others.
* One audience member brought up the innovative ways that Board Games are already leveraging controls and embodiment, such as by modifying the way that people make use of their bodies (specifically, the example of a game that uses a dental dam to alter the shape of a person’s mouth, distorting their speech). A fellow audience member noted that such uses of the body can be uncomfortable for some folks or even ableist, given that they often mimic disabilities (such as having a speech impediment), and we discussed how players, at the end of the day, can simply take off the controller or decide to stop playing when it ceased to be “fun.”
* This led to a discussion of some creators’ frustration with the notion of “empathy games,” which are sometimes assumed to be created for people who do not have that marginalization to “learn what it’s like” to be marginalized in that way, but a short experience like a game cannot stand in for years of life experience. And, furthermore, marginalized creators are unlikely to be creating their games for the sole sake of educating someone else.
* Another audience member brought up the importance of documentation for alternative game controllers such as video, since the controllers themselves are so often hard to access.
* In response to the design exercise I introduced at the beginning of the talk, an audience member brought up the idea of trying to make a game that, the better you did by standard metrics, the worse you would do in the game. This also brought the idea of doing well at doing objectionable things, like in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, or like in Brenda Romero’s Train.

Anthropy, A. (2012). Rise of the Video Game Zinesters. 1st ed. Seven Stories Press.
Barr, P. and Khaled, R. (2015a). A series of gunshots [game]., Pippin Barr, Montreal, Canada.
Barr, P. (2015). A series of shots in the dark. Pippin Barr, Available at
series-of- shots-in- the-dark/
Brice, M. (2016), Death of the Player. Mattie Brice, Available at
Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press.
Khaled, R. (forthcoming). ‘Questions over Answers: Reflective Game Design’, in D. Cermak-Sassenrath, C. Walker & T. T. Chek (eds) Playful Subversions of Technoculture: New Directions in Creative, Interactive and Entertainment Technologies, Springer, Berlin, Germany.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
Olou, R., Pacampara, N. & Phillips, H. (2015). We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine. Critical Hit Montreal, Montreal, Canada.
Schrank, B. and Bolter, J. (2014). Avant-garde videogames. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Shinkle, E. (2008). Video games, emotion and the six senses. Media, Culture & Society, 30(6), pp.907-915.
Swink, S. (2009). Game feel. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers/Elsevier.
Yang, R. (2014). Hurt Me Plenty [game]., Robert Yang, NYC, USA.

GDC 2016: TAG visits San Francisco

critical hit, Process Writing, talks


Last week I attended my first ever Game Developer’s Conference alongside what occasionally felt like at least half of the Montreal games people I know. It is a strange and wonderful feeling to run into folks from your city in one that is completely new to you. During GDC, this seemed to happen all the time.

I went a little early and stayed a little late, so while I was in San Francisco I also got to see a sea lion giving birth, go to a mirror maze, visit the Musee Mecanique and try all of its fortune telling cabinets, and go to the lovely San Francisco botanical gardens where a squirrel climbed up my leg (given today’s weather, I’m especially missing how GREEN San Francisco was).

For most of my time in San Francisco, I stayed with veteran GDC goer Squinky (who will soon be starting their PhD at TAG — and we’re lucky to have them around the lab with us already). This was Squinky’s eighth GDC, and they were kind enough to both find me a place to stay with a friend of theirs and to help me through what would no doubt otherwise have been a completely different experience.

The talks were excellent – as Gina has already mentioned, the TAG twitter feed is full of live-tweetin’s and retweets from the panels that we attended. Some of my favourites were Renee Nejo’s talk called “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” which candidly explored her experience as a First Nation’s woman who has often felt “not native enough” in the estimation of others. No summary can do this particular talk justice, so I’ll point you towards the talk information, and hopefully you’ll be able to check it out on the vault:

It was really heartening for me to be able to watch Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Stephanie Fisher, Sagen Yee, Zoe Quinn and Gemma Thomson deliver “Ripple Effect: How Women-in-Games Initiatives Make a Difference” — the Pixelles program is the reason that I made my first solo game and how I discovered that making games of my own was a viable possibility. The program was life-changing for me! This talk explored how such programs can ripple out, starting from the Difference Engine Initiative, where many of the speakers made their first games.

Our own Ida Toft delivered what I (perhaps biasedly, as one of this summer’s co-directors) thought was an excellent talk about Critical Hit 2015 and our experiences trying to build a safer space within the program. After Ida spoke about their take on the issues that made this very challenging, Ida invited Gina and I up, and the three of us took questions for the remaining half hour. We also invited some of the Critical Hit participants from this past year who attended the talk to give us their input as well. I was reminded that Safer Space isn’t a perfect solution, but that we have to keep trying and working towards something.

Speaking of this year’s Critical Hit participants, quite a few of them made it to GDC this year. They’re sharing their work and doing well – last fall we also saw quite a few of them at IndieCade! We managed to meet up for dinner with Kailin, Amanda, Hope, Nicole and Owen. A few of them will also be at the upcoming Different Games, so if you’re headed there, you should say hi to them!

Attending my first ever Lost Levels was also an oasis in the desert — it had a very different feel than the rest of the bustling conference, and I was able to relax for the first time that afternoon since the beginning of the conference. I listened to people talk about AI, led by the amazing Kate Compton (creator of the Tracery library, which I’m about to learn), was serenaded by impromptu music, including a live Gameboy chiptunes performance, and listened to an indie rant or two. All the while, I also ran the first ever Lost Levels Nap Summit, discussing important nap-related issues — did you know, for example, that casual naps are still naps? The Mild Rumpus, a carpeted “quieter” space within GDC with bean bags, pillows, trees, and experimental indie games, wasn’t quite mild enough for such discussions, as it turns out.

Squinky’s talk on Friday, “Designing Discomfort,” was brilliant – suggesting that maybe the flow state isn’t always ideal because it limits the kinds of stories we can tell. We should break out and explore possibilities outside of it, including more mature subject matter and more kinds of stories.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while I enjoyed many excellent talks, some of my most worthwhile interactions at GDC happened at the peripheries of the event, because of the fact that for this week, thousands of game developers are sharing the same location. It was during lunch and dinner meetups and coffee breaks, during accidental meetings in the city or in hallways. I met a lot of lovely people, many of whom were introduced to me by Squinky.

You should also check out Gina’s excellent summary of the microtalks, which I also attended and appreciated.


adventures in gaming, Process Writing, talks


[Cross-posted here:]

Last week was IndieCade 2015, a festival celebrating indie games in all their forms, and, thanks to TAG and many other folks, I was there with In Tune as an official Night Games selection. It has been one year and one month between the creation of the first prototype of the game and showcasing it at IndieCade as an official selection. In between, there have been many adventures.


In Tune was created at last year’s mLab-hosted satelite location of boobjam 2014, which happened at the end of September. Boobjam is a game jam that encourages creators to think about breasts in ways that they aren’t normally considered in games – as something other than objects for the straight cis-male gaze. Inspired by the theme of the jam, In Tune came about as we thought about bodies and their interactions. It is fair to say that we were also inspired by the awkwardness of bodies. Most importantly, it is concerned with the navigation of consent – firstly around those bodies and the negotiation of physical contact, and then, using that physical negotiation to extend the thinking into other areas.



By now, In Tune has showed in many places, both locally and internationally. For each venue that we have shown it at, we have had to track down the safer space/inclusivity/anti-harassment or similar policy. We do not show the game in spaces which don’t have one, and always have a printed copy of the policy on-hand. This serves to raise awareness for the existence of such policies and makes sure that we are knowledgeable about available resources in case any concerns should arise when people play our game.


In Tune works with a Mac Computer (with an OS older than El Capitan), PlayStation Moves, a Makey-Makey, some wires, and handmade conductive sleeves that slip over the PlayStation moves. Our game has also been through many phases: first with tinfoil and PlayStation 3 Controllers, then with a variety of custom controllers (held together by solder, hot glue, and a prayer) and finally PlayStation Moves. This makes it a difficult game to judge for showcases like IndieCade. We have been lucky enough to have had judges that either heard about the game and believed in it based on the strength of the trailer and other documentation, or they got the chance to play it at other events (which the game was at because somebody either believed in it on the strengths of the trailer and surrounding documentation or got to play it at another event).

Due to changes in the way that bluetooth works on the latest releases of Mac OS (El Capitan), the API that we use to pair our PlayStation Moves to the computer no longer works, not to mention that getting PlayStation Moves to pair with PC has pretty much always been a difficult prospect (even the Copenhagen Game Collective wouldn’t touch it, in the end). So, we either have to keep a computer with an older OS (thus breaking many Apps on it) or continually be able to wipe a computer to bring it back to a version of the OS that works for us.

So, as you might be able to tell, the tech alone puts some restrictions on our ability to distribute In Tune as anything other than an installation piece, which is why it is so important for us that we get to take it around and show it. We are currently working on low-cost and low-time-cost ways to distribute the game. With the Makey-Makey Go coming out (hopefully this December), we think that we might be able to help people put together kits for under fifty or sixty dollars (used PS moves at 15USD per controller, the Makey-Makey Go for around 20USD, and then some conductive thread, wires and fabric).

However, even if it weren’t for the tech requirements of the game, this is a game with potentially sensitive content that has to be framed a certain way, and, perhaps most importantly, where the rules have to be carefully introduced. So, in considering how we share the game, we will potentially have to provide documentation and long-distance volunteer training in the future for the many people who have requested copies of the game for educational and workshop purposes. We trained a volunteer this weekend for the Green Mountain Game festival, and that went pretty well. Something to consider…


You can read some of the articles that have been written about In Tune here:

It’s been getting quite a warm reception, and we have had a dozen requests from people who would like to show the game for workshops and other educational contexts.


Taking In Tune to IndieCade was a fascinating experience, both during our actual game showcase and for me as a “young game maker and scholar.” I was surrounded by and got to discuss with people who I have been reading about (Celia Pearce, Brenda Laurel) or playing games by, and it really helped my studies come alive for me. Perhaps especially because in English Literature, my focus was on Middle English studies when it wasn’t on Creative Writing, which means that many of the writers I was engaging with have been dead for many hundreds of years. That makes being a part of a relatively young medium like games and games studies very interesting.

The /Gaming for Everyone/ pavilion was my favourite spot throughout the festival, because so many excellent games that might not fit the traditional mold of the festival, or were late entries for newly made games, were able to showcase there as well as community organizations that are responsible for helping to get new and different people making games. I was so happy to see “We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine” ( there along with Nicole and Hope, and to see a few folks from Pixelles Montreal there as well, along with similar initiatives from around the continent, including Dames Making Games and Different Games.

I also got to spend time with the incomparable Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky for short) who may be joining us again in Montreal soon and the transplanted Allison Cole (former mLab coordinator currently doing her thing at the NYU Game Center). Squinky is much more familiar with the folks from the IndieCade community and was kind enough to let me tag along as their entourage and introduced me to many cool people.

Another highlight of the festival for me was Pillowtalk: A Keynote Conversation, which featured discussions of intimacy and consent with designers who I am personally very interested in, including Naomi Clark (Consentacle — always great to see another game concerned with consent!), Nina Freeman (who just released Cibelle today), and Robert Yang (Hurt Me Plenty).

Overall, I think that I could have had a very different experience of IndieCade just depending on which events I chose to go to and which tents that I entered, but that I had the options that I did is a good thing, even as IndieCade grows larger and larger… I imagine that sustaining the event’s character with all of that growth is a challenge. I’ll be keeping an eye on how the IndieCade organizers handle it all.

My Take on Gaming Beyond Screens

indie, playthroughs, Process Writing, research, talks

So, I didn’t take place in the two-day workshop before the Gaming Beyond Screens symposium and arcade, but I was privileged to hear four great gamemakers talk about motion gaming and then had the chance to play their games. Here are some thoughts.

(If you missed the Symposium, there is a video here – if you missed the arcade, I can’t think of any other time that these four games will be presented together in the near future – sorry! Lucky for you, I took pictures, and there’s also this great video of some of the gameplay, but as we’ll see, it’s the opinion of at least one motion game creator that you can’t judge a motion game by watching somebody else play it.)


Jim Toepel

First up was Jim Toepel, one of the lead developers of Dance Central 3, and also actually an ex-rocket scientist. I thought that was pretty cool. Jim’s talk focused primarily on the actual development of motion gaming: common pitfalls, misconceptions, what makes a motion game fun, and quite a few tips on how to develop one that won’t drive the creators crazy while they do it.

Jim emphasized the challenges that motion gaming controls present, because the kind of input that players are, well, putting in, is much more complex than it ever has been before. While many people complain about the input devices themselves, the truth is that the range of movement and possibility attached to a human body is about a thousand times more complicated than pressing buttons with your fingers and thumbs. This problem is compounded when we consider that, while mostly you can expect everyone to be able to press those buttons with their hands, there are a lot of different levels of ability just when it comes to moving our bodies.

Jim’s point about the difference between playing a motion game for yourself and watching someone else play was also extremely well-taken. It is almost literally the difference between being out on the field yourself in a team sport versus sitting the bench and watching other people play. We enjoy movement – and we also enjoy learning. Those are two things that motion gaming combines very well – learning how to play is part of the pleasure of motion gaming – and of course there’s no such thing as motion gaming without movement.

The other points that I took away from Jim Toepel’s talk were about avatars and voice commands. Not to be oversimplistic, but avatars can make people uncomfortable as there’s a kind of uncanny valley feeling to watching an avatar move with you on-screen. Also, Jim says that people who play motion games like the idea of being themselves, so avatars may not be working to a game’s advantage – there’s the risk of alienating your players. And lastly, on voice commands: the Dance Central team found out fairly quickly that if they told people what to do via voice commands, they were a lot more likely to correct the aspects of their play that the voice commands told them to correct. And so, Boomie the anthropomorphic boombox was born, voice-acted by an in-house artist from Harmonix.

Kaho Abe

Next up was Kaho Abe, creator of Hit Me (amongst a slew of other amazing games including Ninja Shadow Warrior, where you get to hide behind things and your score is posted to a tumblr, and one called Mary Mack 5000 where you get to play patty-cake games to rock versions of the songs that go along with them). Kaho’s topic was Costumes as Game Controllers.

To start off, Kaho discussed how she built Hit Me out of hacked doorbells and cameras, and her interest in face-to-face games such as Hit Me.

Kaho talked about where her inspiration for her games comes from, especially for her upcoming game about lightning bugs. There’s a Japanese children song about lightning bugs that was the genesis for the initial idea. She talked about the gesture of handholding that persists throughout a game like ICO, an art installation about becoming a bird, cosplay/LARP, and also about shows like Kamen Rider, where putting on a costume, coupled with acrobatic feats, signals transformation. Kaho discussed how when people put on costumes, they become powerful – as in the case of Wonder Woman or Iron Man.

She also discussed her prototyping process for the glove from her upcoming game. She showed off the prototype at different stages – and it was really, really neat-looking. Kaho also talked about her interest in cooperative gameplay between people wearing different costume parts. The example that she gave was one player wearing a backpack that acted as a powersource, and the other player carrying a gun that is powered by that backpack. The players would have to collaborate to be able to shoot.

Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik and one of the creators of J. S. Joust. Doug talked a lot about folk games, the playground, and subversion of the intended use of games technology. In an auspicious start, Doug talked to us about Dark Room Sex Game, which was a game that he and a team created for a game jam a few years ago. He told us that one of the greatest successes of the game was the awkwardness that it created without the release of catharsis. Dark Room Sex Game is a game that has basically no graphics – and Doug says that that helped increase the awkwardness. Since there was no cheesy animation to laugh at, catharsis was blocked by the fact that the action of the game took place within the mind’s eye, making it all the more effective.

One of the highlights of Doug’s talk was when he discussed new folk games that are coming out of Denmark, such as “Sneaky Lance” – a game where two blindfolded players move in super-slow motion until one of them is able to whack the other with a wooden spoon. You can bet that I’m going to give that one a try.

On the subject of subversion, Doug talked about the rhetoric of progress: how technology (such as motion gaming technology) is often marketed as making things (especially games) ever-better. Doug seems to think that technology is maybe taking itself a little too seriously. He prefers to think of motion gaming as slapstick comedy. The thought is appreciated – it’s true that motion gaming can put us in awkward positions, and that’s part of the fun.

For Doug, part of the fun of creating games is subverting technologies and their intended use. For example, in his game, B.U.T.T.O.N, he has turned a non-motion gaming Xbox controller into a motion gaming controller just by telling people to leave the controller and walk around doing what the game tells them to – eventually, they are all called back to the controller and the first person to press their button wins the game. Naturally, this creates a mad dash to the controller where people might bodily throw each other around or get into a fight in their attempts to reach their button. Lately, he’s been working on a trampoline game – which he says is cheating at game design because trampolines are already so much fun on their own.

Bart Simon

Bart Simon is one of the developpers of Propinquity and of course the current director of TAG, as well as an associate professor at Concordia. Bart’s talk was about his impulses as a game creator concerning the kinds of games that he would like to create, and how he thinks about motion gaming in particular.

Bart began his presentation with this quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is, by and large, one of my favourite plays, and also a really excellent tea from DavidsTea):

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

By framing his talk with this image of “the bodying forth” of imagination, Bart reminded us of the visceral qualities that motion gameplay, in his opinion, could possibly have. For Bart, this “bodying forth” makes imagination seem like something that the body does as a kind of reaction or mechanism. The kinds of games, then, that Bart would like to produce, are those that would allow players to appropriate the game as a bodying forth of imagination.

Bart, like Jim Toepel, is interested in the learning curve behind motion gaming. Rather than the expert motions of someone like John Cleese performing a silly walk for a Monty Python Sketch, Bart is interested in the joyful motions of say, teenagers mimicking John Cleese doing a silly walk. Bart thinks that the second movements are much more fun, and much more interesting. Case in point: the Star Wars Kid, and the playground antics of basically every child who has ever seen a playground (or a Star Wars movie) and wanted to pretend to be a Jedi. It all comes back to the fun of joy in the accidental, and pushing the limits of our coordination and our daring.

I am really, really sad to have missed getting a shot of Bart playing with the retractable lightsaber that he brought along for the occasion.


Talking about these games is not the same as playing them, so I don’t know how much I can say that’ll be all that interesting to anyone who wasn’t at the arcade. I brought along my tallest friend (6’5″) to play Hit Me with, and he basically proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Hit Me is the tallest player’s game. I also finally got to try Propinquity, which I have been wanting to do since I heard that it existed, and I really wish that I could own my own copy of the game. I had so much fun – and I would love to develop some alternate play conditions – or really just get the chance to play around with it again. Dance Central was excellent – it was a lot of fun to play as part of a crowd instead of just with a crowd watching. The same is true of Joust – I didn’t get to stay until the Joust-in-the-Dark part of the arcade, but I had a blast in the round that I did play.

In case you missed it, here’s a link to a video of the arcade. If you’re curious about the kind of live-tweeting that I did for the event, you can visit @jekagames.

Without further ado, here’s the gallery of pictures that I took during the arcade.


Henry Jenkins At Concordia

Process Writing, research, talks

Last night, Concordia welcomed media studies researcher and author Henry Jenkins to a room that was soon filled to capacity. In his opening remarks, Charles Acland (of the Screen Culture Research Group) listed some of Henry Jenkins’ (impressive) accomplishments, finishing off by reminding the crowd that Jenkins was, first and foremost, “a writer, looking to expand the vocabulary we use to describe media.”

Indeed, much of the introduction to Mr. Jenkins’ new book, Spreadable Media, is concerned with vocabulary, and these concerns were also addressed at his talk yesterday, as well as at the more intimate discussion period that he hosted today. Jenkins emphasizes that the vocabulary that we start with necessarily frames further discourse, and often determines not only how we talk about certain subjects, but even how we implement policy and make other important decisions.

A favourite example both in the talks and in the introduction is the concept of something “going viral” and the problem with the vocabulary of infection and inoculation, especially as it regards personal agency. A virus, Jenkins argues, is something that is beyond our control, whereas this is not the case with media. While it may be beyond the control of the original creator, it is the individual decision to share or not share that determines how far something like a video or an article will spread. Jenkins’ answer to this problem of a language of infection is the term Spreadable Media, which he coined while giving another talk a few years ago.

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” said Jenkins. “I thought that was kind of catchy.”

Over the next hour and during the question period, Jenkins dealt primarily with questions of spreadability on the internet and the public’s ability to shape media. Participatory culture, which is one way of describing this phenomena, is what happens as the public gains more and more access to the means of production, enabled by tools that may not always be used in the ways that they were originally intended. As Jenkins was quick to point out, “YouTube functions in participatory culture but isn’t itself a participatory culture” and the same is true of other platforms. The Occupy Movement, for example, could use YouTube to political effect, but that doesn’t mean YouTube is in the business of promoting democracy.

Given the nature of the internet, the topics of the talk were equally broad-reaching, from the Occupy Movement to Invisible Children and Kony 2012, to Mitt Romney’s Binders Full of Women, to the Harry Potter Alliance, to education and media literacy. Another quality of Jenkins’ seems to be a good deal of optimism about the future of bottom-up spreadability and what enough people getting together on the internet and offline have the power to do. About the Harry Potter Alliance, for example: Henry Jenkins’ predicts that we will be hearing more soon about Warner Bros. and the chocolate that they use for Harry Potter products, which the HPA claims is not fair-trade.

During the question period, Jenkins addressed a variety of topics, including:

Whether fans in the Harry Potter Alliance are being manipulated by “big name fan” Andrew Slack, or if he is a genuine Harry Potter fan. (The answer, by the way, is that Henry Jenkins is reasonably sure that Andrew Slack is a sincere fan).

Whether participatory culture dumbs down issues. (We tend to dig deeper about the things that we care about, but really it’s a matter of opening up discussion and raising awareness.)

How Piracy can create value for the original product (as in the case of fansubbed anime, which some might say paved the way for the Western anime market).

How games can be mobilized for social change. (Jenkins thinks that games absolutely can be tools for social change, but is wary of gamification – assigning points’ scales in order to alter people’s thinking.)

This morning, a smaller group of people who had been given the opportunity to read the introduction to Spreadable Media gathered to discuss it at the Loyola Campus. Jenkins welcomed questions and potential criticisms for about an hour and a half. Since Jenkins demonstrates such a concern about language and vocabulary, it was unsurprising to see his readers take up those concerns. Jenkins was asked about the cultural economy of neologisms and whether there is a danger of neologisms simply becoming a way of branding ideas. Jenkins admitted that the term transmedia had taken off this way, and that many places now offer job positions with “transmedia” in the title, but with a lack of clarity about what the term originally meant. When asked about his apparent avoidance of the term “ideology” in a discussion that seemed to call for it, Jenkins said that one of the goals of Spreadable Media was to reach beyond an academic audience and open up a dialogue with industries. This may account for the overall positive outlook of the book as well. He didn’t want the word ideology to “be a buzzkill.”

Amongst other topics, Jenkins discussed the potential future of print as a medium. He pointed out that the time between writing a book and having it published can be quite long: “print’s sluggishness is enormously frustrating” because certain references that were current at the time have already become obsolete, “but there’s an advantage there to the permanence of print.” Print also makes, he admitted, for slow conversation between academics. His previous book, Convergence Culture, was written in 2004 and published in 2006. There are responses to that book coming out now which were probably written in 2008 or 2009, which he may be able to respond to by 2015. However, he expects that copies of his books will be kicking around university libraries long after the associated articles have disappeared from the internet. Another problem with the digital is that it can be edited. People tend to remove things that make them look bad, as in the case brought up by TAG’s own Kalervo Sinervo about an old flame war between Penny Arcade creators and Scott McLeod.

There is a collection of free articles about spreadable media originally commissioned for the book which are now available on Henry Jenkins’ blog.